Unicorns

I have a new poem up in Liminality, Issue #12, called “Unicorns”. Check it out here.

I wrote the first, short draft of “Unicorns” several years ago, in the middle of an attempt at National Poetry Writing Month, most of which was garbage. It felt like something that I wanted to expand, and I spent a long time bashing away at different parts and stanzas, trying to explain the thing I was trying to say, trying to give graphic examples of all its different facets.

In the end, I had to leave the whole mess for a while, and when I came back to it, I realized that the thing I had originally written was already a complete scene which perfectly encapsulated itself. The tiny published version you can see up now is extremely close to the tiny original version.

Just an example, I suppose, of how a shorter poem isn’t always easier to do. 😀

Autistic Book Party, Episode 34: Iwunen Interstellar Investigations (Prologue Season)

Today’s Book: “Iwunen Interstellar Investigations (Prologue Season)”, a web serial by Bogi Takács

The Plot: A magic teacher from a planet of autistic people is shocked out of their routine by the arrival of a mysterious, injured stranger – and of some interplanetary intrigue.

Autistic Character(s): Almost everyone, including the protagonist!

Iwunen Interstellar Investigations is set on Eren, the aforementioned planet of autistic people, and so the first thing I want to talk about here is PLANET OF AUTISTIC PEOPLE.

We’ve seen disability-centric societies in previous Book Party episodes. “Kea’s Flight” is set in a society of developmentally disabled teenagers on a spaceship, but the teenagers are supervised by NT caregivers and robots. “This Alien Shore” gives us Guera, a planet where everyone, including the leadership, is disabled or mentally ill. But while there is a major character who comes from Guera, and some interesting scenes of intrigue between Gueran leadership, we saw very little of what Gueran life was like on the ground.

Iwunen Interstellar Investigations starts us off right at the beginning with scenes of relatively normal life on Eren. So right away this is EXCELLENT. Ranai ta-n Iwunen, a magic teacher, is depressed, and is hoping that a new student, Wuda-reyun, will give them something to do – but Wuda-reyun, who is from another planet, is presumptuous and seems ill at ease with Ereni culture.

By the way, Eren is not just a planet of autistic people. It’s a MAGICAL planet of autistic people, in which magic (called “māwal”) is interconnected with high SFnal technology. This is exactly my jam. Unfortunately, once we have gotten to know Ranai and Wuda-reyun, the plot begins to move at such a fantastically fast clip that we only see Ereni society in glimpses. There are some really delightful details woven in – people are formal about power relations so that they are easier to remember! The word for “rules lawyering” is monomorphemic! – but in general, the story is not interested in explaining a lot about Eren. The story is interested in ADVENTURE! Pretty soon, Ranai et al are in a different part of the galaxy entirely, investigating something involving interplanetary politics and weapons deals.

The plot in general goes by quickly enough that readers not familiar with Bogi’s work might get confused at some points. The “Concepts” section on the website does a good job filling in basic background about the universe, and I would recommend it during the early stages of reading.

As to the characters themselves, they are just fine. Almost everyone on Eren shares the “Ereni cognotype” (their word for autism), but characters have their own diverse personalities, from the cautious and authoritative Ranai to the naive and principled Abinayun to Mirun, the stranger from another world, who literally crashlands in the story with great eagerness and little control. We also see glimpses of Ranai’s daughter, Birayu, a creative child with atypical language skills who adores food. Birayu’s presence is important from a representation perspective, as it shows that not everyone on Eren is “high-functioning”, and that a range of abilities are accepted. Ranai is a single parent who employs someone to assist in raising Birayu, which seems to be an arrangement that is working out, although I would have liked to see them and Birayu interact more in early chapters.

There is also a hint of a budding romantic attraction between Ranai and Mirun, both of whom are nonbinary. Since Ranai is demisexual, this part of the story occurs gently and gradually and is still far from being resolved at the end of the season. (Mirun’s origins, by the way, are among the things that aren’t explained in this story. But if you are up for some darker fare, you can find them in “Toward the Luminous Towers“.)

Bogi objected when I filed this story, on Patreon, under “cheerful books”: some bad things are certainly implied, both in Mirun’s vaguely-hinted-at backstory and in the political intrigue. It’s just that, as a dedicated reviewer of books about autistic people, a disproportionate amount of my reading deals with ableism, abuse, and other Bad Things. There are some really well-done, really important books that talk about Bad Things, and Bad Things are pervasive in real life. But I cannot describe how refreshing it is to read an adventure with a happy ending in which autistic people run around without being constantly oppressed for being autistic. That’s what I mean when I call this one “cheerful”. I don’t want there to be fewer books about Bad Things, but I do want there to be MORE books like this one!

This is overall a sprightly, enjoyable read with many twists, and with a gaggle of interesting autistic characters whose personhood is never in question. I’m looking forward to further installments in the series, and I’m hoping that they will take us in even greater depth into the world of Eren.

The Verdict: Recommended

Ethics Statement: Bogi Takács is someone I would consider a personal friend. I read eir web serial by waiting for the chapters to be posted for free on eir website. All opinions expressed here are my own.

This book was not chosen by my Patreon backers; I read it because I was excited enough about it to read it on my own time. Reviews chosen by my backers are still in the pipeline, and you can become a backer for as little as $1 if you’d like to help choose the next autistic book.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 33 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord, Rhysling edition!

I’m at a conference this week, so I’m going to be scarce, but not too scarce to point you in the direction of some great poetry by autistic authors. Here’s what I found in my 2017 Rhysling anthology that wasn’t already freely available elsewhere.

*

Sara Backer, “The Genius” (Mithila Review 3)

I have never interacted with this author, but I suspect that this poem is a case of accidental representation. I suspect she wasn’t thinking of autism when she wrote it, but just happened to write a fairly accurate description of some autistic people’s experience: seemingly unoccupied, while intensely engaged in sensory processing, pattern recognition, and reflection. The unintended irony with this one is how it describes the titular character interrupted by “people who want to pay her / to achieve something”. I only wish real autistic people, who face one of the highest unemployment rates of any disabled group, were deluged by such offers. [YMMV]

*

Rose Lemberg, “The Journeymaker to Keddar (II)” (Marginalia to Stone Bird collection)

[Autistic author] This is a part of the Journeymaker Cycle which I previously reviewed, as a whole, in my review of Rose’s collection. In fact, it’s the concluding installment. So I was quite surprised to find that it also stands well on its own. It is an emotional mythic poem about separation and personal growth, on a very large scale. [Recommended-2]

*

AJ Odasso, “Sargasso Sea” (Remixt magazine 1.1)

[Autistic author] An intensely personal poem about intersex experience. The narrator struggles with feelings of monstrousness as lovers, doctors, and others deal with their body very poorly. Like one of Merc Rustad’s protagonists, they ultimately find the idea of monstrousness freeing. Fans of poems about difficult sexual and bodily experiences will enjoy this one. [Recommended-2]

*

AJ Odasso, “Widening Gyre” (Not A Drop anthology)

[Autistic author] A poignant poem about things lost at sea, which may be irrecoverable despite rituals intending otherwise. [Recommended-2]

Autism News, 2017/06/11

Because I have been remiss in making these news posts promptly, we’ll start off with some of the tail end of Autism Month:

Jobs:

Politics:

Science:

  • John Elder Robison explains why so much autism research studies things that seem obvious
  • Nicholette Zeliadt on the role of motor difficulties in autism
  • Shannon des Roches Rosa on the shift towards neurodiversity at the autism research conference IMFAR

Writing and media:

Misc:

Sad Things:

  • Clare Hughes on what happens to autistic people in prison
  • Lydia Z.X. Brown on a recent case of education discrimination, plus other ableist things
  • A new study in the UK says that people with autism or learning disabilities experience more hate crimes than any other disabled group
  • A group of care homes in the UK were shut down because of widespread abuse involving isolation rooms

 

 

Cool stories from March and April

I’m ridiculously late, but here are my favorite non-autism-related stories and poems from the early spring. (Stories I read in May and June are being collected separately.)

Elaine Atwell, “Finity” (GigaNotoSaurus, February). This story is frickin’ amazing. It’s like a tragic lesbian story in reverse – starting with grief, and moving from there to love and wellness and hope, showing how difficult and uncertain and delicate that movement is and how it happens anyway. (I think it’s also a deliberate homage to “Passengers”, but one that fixes all the things that made “Passengers” awful.) I need more stories that value human life the way this one does. I need more stories that value queer relationships the way this one does. Also: it has the cutest AI since “Cat Pictures Please”.

Karen Bovenmyer, “Syncing Minefields” (Strange Horizons, February 20). A bleak, beautiful poem about love and mistakes and, well, minefields.

Amal El-Mohtar, “Anabasis” (Tor.com, March 8). The entire “Nevertheless, She Persisted” flash series on Tor.com is worth reading, but Amal’s story stands out from the pack. It’s the grittiest, the most immediate, the most heartrending.

S. Qiouyi Lu, “A Complex Filament of Light” (Anathema, Issue 1, April). A beautiful story about mental health, grief, culture, and connection (and also ANTARCTIC AURORAS).

Holly Lyn Walrath, “Pine Song, Robin Song, Star Song” (Liminality, Issue #11, March). A love poem between a tree and a bird. I like love poems, but few poems can have both love and death in them and yet still make me feel so light and contented.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 33: A Different Witch

Today’s Book: “A Different Witch” by Debora Geary

The Plot: An autistic witch named Beth travels to Witch Central in California in order to learn more powerful magic than what is practiced by her circle at home.

Autistic Character(s): Beth, as well as a small boy who shows up in one or two scenes.

This was a bit of a frustrating book for me. There was a lot I wanted to like. Witches! Witches with Asperger syndrome! NT witches learning how to accept and accommodate autistic witches!

Years ago, members of the Witch Central circle abruptly showed up in Beth’s circle, told them they were doing everything wrong, and left. Since then, Beth has always intended to find Witch Central and learn more. The main arc of the book revolves around her learning the ropes from Witch Central’s witches, and the other characters learning to adjust what they’re doing to make it easier for Beth.

This is a perfectly good main arc for the book, and its basic information about autism is pretty accurate, though sometimes oversimplified. But I found it irritating to read more often than not, for two basic reasons.

First, the book is all about learning to make accommodations for an autistic person. In the absence of another major conflict, the plot is constructed around Witch Central’s witches trying really hard to teach Beth, succeeding a little, failing a little, going into a knot of angst about why they failed, learning a valuable lesson, and trying again. This might not be a bad thing, except that a lot of the try/fail/angst/learn cycles didn’t really make sense to me. Take this scene, for example, when a witch named Nell watches her three daughters unexpectedly accost Beth:

Beth’s brain was practically shaking. Nell felt her temper firing up. Easy welcome streamed from her girls-and Beth was reacting like she was under machine-gun fire. She touched Ginia’s shoulder, trying to get mama bear back on the leash. “Those are all good ideas. Why don’t you go grab some cookies?” She added a gentle mental shove behind the words, and this time her triplets caught the unsaid message. Three subdued girls made their way into the house. Nell tried to resist the urge to kick at the woman who had deflated their everyday joy. “They’re excited about the party. Sorry if they were a bit overwhelming.” Her next sentence steamed out of its own accord. “Most people who come here for training want to be included in our lives.”

It’s not clear to me why Nell is even angry here, since no one told Beth that she was supposed to be friends with the other witches’ families. It’s not clear to Nell either, and she spends a lot of time soul-searching to find out why she reacted that way. The trouble is that a lot of the scenes in the book fail to make sense in this way. Beth gets overloaded by something, and the other witches freak out, because OMG, what does it mean if their normal practices are overloading to someone? Have they failed at training Beth?? Is it impossible for Beth to be a witch here??? Then I get annoyed at the characters and want to tell them to take a chill pill because sometimes overload just happens and is not meant as a judgment on anyone.

A lot of the solutions to the problems also fail to make sense to me. As another example, Beth is reluctant to go to a big family get-together and decorate for Solstice, because it’s too many people. But the witches agree to keep all the people from getting too noisy (by whatever neurotypical definition of “too noisy” they are using), and then everything works out fine and Beth is touched by their efforts to adjust things for her. Based on my own experiences around people and noise, I would say that while this strategy might work, it comes off as far too easy on the page.

The stakes in all of these problem/angst/solution cycles are also vastly unclear. Why is magic so important to Beth that she’ll get on a plane and go far out of her comfort zone, into a nest of strangers, to learn about it? Why is Beth’s magical development so important that the other witches will go so far out of their way to teach her, apparently without pay? Why do all the witches need to be best friends with each other? Why are we having this conflict in the first place?

“A Different Witch” doesn’t have the battle-and-action-y stakes of many urban fantasies. That’s not a bad thing; it’s good to see urban fantasy once in a while that’s quieter and not focused on fighting some bad guy. But apart from a few of the spells, I don’t really have a clear picture of how magic is useful in the witches’ everyday lives. Most of the magic in the book involves trying to make pretty bubbles out of different elements, which is cool, but seems a little bit underwhelming when you consider the big emotions and personal sacrifices that go into it. If magic is spiritually significant to the characters, as it is for many IRL pagans, I don’t have a clear picture of how that works for them, either. It’s possible that the answers to these questions might be clearer if I’d read the previous books in the series. But in the absence of that, I spent a lot of the book confused why everyone is angsting so hard about whether or not an autistic witch can make pretty bubbles the right way.

The second problem with the book is that I don’t have a clear picture of who Beth is beyond being a fire witch with Asperger syndrome. Every single thing she does in the novel seems to revolve around her autistic traits. Even the positive, complimentary things people say about her (she’s a strong person) immediately go back to her autistic traits (it takes strength to live with an autistic brain every day, SIIIGH). We know that she is a health food nut, but only because a sugary diet is hard for her autistic brain to handle. We know that she is a lesbian and manages a store with her NT girlfriend, but even her interactions with her girlfriend seem to revolve around her autistic traits:

It was only two words—but so much more rode in her partner’s eyes. Frustration welled in Beth’s veins. “Come on, Liri. You know I can’t read what you’re thinking. You have to tell me.” It was one of the central tenets of their relationship, and something Beth had learned sprang from love anyhow. You gave what your lover needed.

It’s not that I want there to be scenes in which an autistic person’s autism isn’t there. It’s just that the book seems to spend so much time saying “X and Y are hard for Beth because autism” that the rest of Beth gets lost. Aside from wanting to make pretty magic bubbles, there’s not much sense of what is important to Beth or of what Beth’s desires are. Even her relationship is described as having happened because Liri was patient and helped convince Beth that it was a good idea, not because Beth did any normal human things like having a crush on someone. Perish the thought.

A lack of agency on Beth’s part makes the book’s first problem more problematic. The witches of Witch Central were the ones who decided Beth’s magic isn’t good enough. They decide what Beth needs to do to fit in with them, even when it’s something (like getting along with their children) which logically doesn’t have a lot to do with magic lessons. They find out that, for Beth to do these things, she needs accommodations, so they work on that. But once they have the right accommodations, there is no more problem. Beth does magic their way. Beth gets along with them and their kids, and everybody gets to pat themselves on the back for becoming so understanding of Beth. The book spends a lot of time on making accommodations so an autistic person can do what you want them to, and very little time asking what the autistic person wants.

This is a subtle problem, and the book isn’t all bad. Beth does get to call out the Witch Central witches on things they’ve done wrong, including the arrogance of waltzing in and telling her she was doing magic wrong in the first place. There are some heartwarming scenes, including one late in the book where an older witch visits Beth and Liri’s shop and is genuinely interested and respectful.

Overall I think this is a very well-intentioned book, by an author who wanted to educate readers about autism and inclusion. It gets a lot right, but it has subtle problems with agency and tone which continually frustrated me. Unless you have a great love for cozy urban fantasies, I think most autistic readers would be happier reading something else.

The Verdict: YMMV, but I didn’t like it

Ethics Statement: I have never interacted with Debora Geary. I read her book by buying an electronic copy from Amazon. All opinions expressed here are my own.

This book was chosen by my Patreon backers. If these reviews are valuable to you, consider becoming a backer; for as little as $1, you can help choose the next autistic book.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.