Friday, April 3, 2015

Why #Fiction? (#Autism #Book Club Questions)

The Autism Book Club, run by TAG, selected Nothing is Right to be its April book club reading. The club, which is based out of Malaprop's Bookstore in Asheville, NC, is a neurodiversity-positive group that tries to read and critique from a neurodiversity-positive perspective. I'm honored and very pleased to have been featured in their selections, and doubly so for being the April selection, since this month is so often given over to false "awareness" events that are mostly designed to drain donations and resources from the community proper by placing them in the hands of professional fund raisers.

As part of their discussion, the Autism Book Club sent me a list of questions to answer about the book. Since I was unable to travel down to meet with them at their gathering, I agreed to answer these questions on the blog, in the same way that I would answer them at a Q & A after a reading or during a class visit to discuss my books.

Today, I'm going to answer their first question. They sent me several, though, and I will be grouping them into groups of 1-3 questions and answering them as I am able. Once I've finished with their questions, Imaginary Friends will resume.

Q1: There are so many Autistic memoirs, but relatively few Autistic-written Autistic fictional characters. You've said that your writing is semi-autobiographical. We'd like to know why you chose to write NIR in fiction, rather than memoir?

There are a lot of answers to that one. The simplest one that I did not want to be constrained by the factual events of my life. My goal in writing Clay was to delve into the phenomenology of my own experience, and to write about the way the perceptions I have work. I felt like that goal made it important to delve into creativity more when I constructed the scenes, to put aside some of what happened in a literal way in order to create situations that would better illustrate something like, say, audiotactile synesthesia or fully immersive visualization.

I did try hard to remain true to that sense of what it is like to think beyond words, though, which is part of why it was so important to me to keep an authorial control over the actual physical action of the scenes. Trying to decode my own past and decide what I was able to remember in context and what I was not proved to be very difficult, so I took a different approach. Instead of doing that, I used the knowledge I have about when I did misunderstand things happening around me, and I measured the distance between what I knew at the time and what I know now. Then, using that pool of examples, I created fictionalized versions of other misunderstandings and I extrapolated what an autistic child would be likely to misunderstand, based on my experiences and my research.

Another reason why I chose to present my work as fiction was to gain more control over the escalation of events. The major themes in Clay's life--early literacy, lack of guidance, his sensory field, emotional processing, queerness, etc.--they are my identity. By and large, each thing that makes him up also makes me up. At the same time, though, Clay's traumas are spaced and punctuated to create and effect and to teach the reader something about the world he lives in. Mine were not. If anything, working in fiction is less about making things up than it is about slowing them down, making sure the reader's attention is focused where I want it to be, and then folding in those clues about the culture, the family's socioeconomic background, and Clay's exposure to American culture at large through his socialization and his exposure to the entertainment media of his time. I felt like a memoir that attempted all of those things would no longer be a memoir, because it would involve too much artifice to be able to say that it was really narrating nonfiction.

I was also deliberate about wanting to be an Autistic writer who wrote fiction. As you pointed out, there are a large number of Autistic memoirs out there, a good number of life stories being told. At the same time, though, when we are included in literature, we are not in charge of our own stories. I wanted to change that balance, to show that we do indeed engage deeply with metaphor, and to take charge of the way people like me are depicted in books and on television. That was another reason for making Clay a character that shared my experiences and not a direct expression of those experiences. To show what someone who resonates with me, but who is distinctly not-me would look like as envisioned by an actual Autistic. And also because if I can write one character (or several, if you're reading Imaginary Friends) who has a rounded, credible worldview but who is distinctly inhabiting an epistemological space not identical to my own, then I've falsified the pseudoscience around theory of mind just by showing up for the game.

I'm not the only Autistic out there writing fiction, either. There are tons of us participating in shared worlds by writing fanfic, which not only allows us to write ourselves into our fandoms to a degree, or else to participate in wielding a kind of editorial control over a section of it, it also serves as a way for us to socialize. It is indirect, and the socialization comes from the reader/writer relationship, or even a cyclical one in which the more prolific authors in a discussion group or network will read each other and sort of respond through their own stories. In those spaces, there are some authors who also participate in other literary cultures, including spoken word events, literary fiction and poetry, genre fiction of various kinds, drama... and there are Autistic writers performing professionally in those genres, often without disclosing or without writing named-as-Autistic characters into their books, and people theorize about who they are when they encounter these characters. There are also indie writers of various stripes who do not necessarily engage in fanfic cultures and who write for various literary markets who are openly Autistic. There are not many, but if you look for them, you will find them.

It's true that many of these areas do not encompass writing that presents itself as professionally groomed, but I feel that that is a matter of time. I see more and more neurodiversity-themed and autistic-themed NaNoWriMo events (and NaPoWriMo events) each year. In the Neuroqueer discussion spaces, there are often several writers seeking (and pretty much always gaining) support for their attempt to climb that mountain. It's true that we are not well-represented in MFA culture or in commercial literature outside of memoir, but I am hoping to change that. Part of the deal with my book contract with Defiant was to bring my writing out of the indie subculture by getting onboard with a scholarly and literary press--not only as part of their pool of writers providing manuscripts, but also as an editor, so that I could put my education and experience to work helping writers access publication as an editor. Autonomous is interested in actively developing writers, helping them to realize their book in the editing stages and providing some education about the publishing process that is designed to help writers appreciate the business of bringing a book to market, and to help them professionalize into the publishing industry. 

Publishing others has always been part of the mission for me, too. I put a lot of effort into making my fiction realize my ethics, my aesthetics, and my sensory and cognitive perspectives in a critical way, to try to provide the most accessible language I can to a majority-neurotypical readership without losing the essence of my actual perceptions, which are typically nonverbal. The perspective on Clay that I attempt to offer is a commentary on not only his perceptions, but the ways that the behavior those perceptions causes are then misinterpreted on the other side, by his parents. And I also try to present those perceptions as perceptions, to dissociate the reader somewhat from Clay, in order to keep them focused on the fact that they are witnessing this action, not taking the perspective of the child as their own. This is a technique that is very much driven by the work of Bertolt Brecht, and it is designed to use the story as a vehicle, rhetorically, to bring the spiritual and social aspect of human compassion, the visceral sensation of bodies working through conflict, to our attention as spectacle. Brecht believed that by forcing the audience to separate their empathy from their point of view, and to consider the character in his context, that we could then sort ourselves morally and socially according to our reasoning about the work. And he certainly also saw the writer as a teacher, showing the past, in the form of traditions enacted in the circumstances of a changing world, and sorting causes and effects of various worldviews.

For Brecht, the technique was almost the antidote to propaganda if it was used correctly, because it was designed to make people critical of the action and the motives of the characters, to transform the entertainment into a more interactive event. Brecht often envisioned this as being like viewing a boxing match. For my own metaphor, I like to think of it as being exactly like professional wrestling, which also creates these overly rhetorical, larger-than-life soap opera theatrics that are very conspicuously dramatized and yet, never questioned. Looking at wrestling, with its history of having a code governing the identities assumed (called kayfabe), and at the level of commitment in that, and the partisanship of its fans, I sort of started to grasp the way that Brecht's sense of the rhetorical possibility of drama worked for people living in the cultural and artistic reality of 21st-century America. That's not to say that I think there is no art in this country--on the contrary, I think it's flourishing--but it is also very easy for us to fall into these cultures with performance codes that do not line up with reality. And I see, in this phenomenon, the necessity for creating the firm division, first between myself and my characters, and then between my characters and the reader.

For that, I needed to abandon the subjectivity and imprecise vocabulary of reality, and to delve into the multidimensional references that I could construct in narrative. By creating a world and also all of the perceptions in it, I am free to communicate my aesthetic philosophy in a showing-mode rhetoric that identifies a complex series of relationships between various works of scripture, literature, art, television, music, and other cultural artifacts from the late 20th century. In both their arrangement and the characters' various perceptions of them (and reactions to them), I can create a kind of rhetorically dramatic version of Finneganswakeanism that stays out of the way of a reader's comprehension of the linear plot, but that reveals the novel's entire sociopolitical argument when mined deeply enough and with enough respect to the author's ability to manipulate your attention and use sleight-of-hand to make you question which criticisms are you judging the writer and which are impressions the writer intended for you to take away.

And when that level of understanding comes, I think, the reality of Clay's situation rushes in. It collapses the narrative dissociation that held the reader's empathy at bay, and lets it come in to be processed through a different channel, as a more longitudinal relationship to another person that has developed, instead of a kind of self-identification. I don't know if I've accomplished that, and Nothing is Right is only sort of a starting point for the way this works--I intentionally pared back the elements I was working with to a few references like Calvin and Hobbes, LEGO, the specific Nickelodeon programs, and so forth. But in Defiant I tie in a few more items, only a few, and then in Imaginary Friends the symbology becomes integral to the action of the book. So I do not know if this will take off, as something people like to read or not, but it is very deliberate, and I won't know if I'm successful until I'm significantly further in than I currently am. But it is a kind of scholarship and a kind of criticism that I don't think you can do without the narrative prose form, and a way of playing with the semiotics that I actually use to comprehend my way through the day. And I don't think I can present my literary scholarship in expository writing. And even this is, to a degree, a translation. But it is the closest I could get to the top of the mountain.

Nothing is Right is available from and other online retailers.