Autism and Emotional Labour

This is a thing I’ve been thinking about for a while, and it’s going to be a Very Long Post.

I keep seeing discussions of emotional labour, and I keep seeing them not mention autism.

  • Sometimes they don’t mention disability at all.
  • Sometimes they mention disability on a list of marginalizations: “Women are expected to do emotional labour, and so are queer femmes, women of colour, disabled women, etc.” But they don’t really unpack that, except in terms of the amount.
  • Sometimes they mention disability in terms of spoons – as in, whether or not you have the spoons to do emotional labour today, or whether or not you have the spoons to reciprocate when someone does emotional labour for you.

So I want to talk in a more specific way about the relationship between autism and emotional labour. A lot of this will mean connecting some dots that have been talked about elsewhere, but that I haven’t seen put together in this particular way.

What is emotional labour?

Emotional labour is the mental and emotional work we do to maintain relationships with other people, whether that relationship is an intimate one, or simply coexisting with strangers in a public place.

A lot of people don’t realize that emotional labour is work. It takes time, effort, and spoons from the person doing it. Women and other marginalized groups are often expected to do more emotional labour than others, and that’s not fair.

If you’re nodding impatiently because this is super 101 and you knew it already, you can skip ahead to the next section. Otherwise, you might want to take a break to educate yourself.

This MetaFilter thread is often used as a good introduction to emotional labour. It’s also REALLY LONG, and can be a little overwhelming, so bear that in mind.

I also like this pair of articles, both of which start to describe how I think emotional labour SHOULD work, in a fair society:

A couple of things to remember here

Not everyone, or even every feminist, will agree with these things, but they’re central to how I think about emotional labour right now, and to the attitudes I am bringing into this post.

1: Emotional labour is not bad. We are not trying to eradicate emotional labour from society; it is the glue that holds society together! We are trying to handle it in a more ethical way, which might include things like “make sure it’s consensual” and “make sure everybody does their fair share.”

2: Emotional labour is not capitalist. An ethical attitude towards emotional labour is not capitalist. It’s not “fuck you, pay me” (although there are circumstances where you CAN pay people for it, and that’s okay!) It’s not, “you don’t deserve to be listened to, because you haven’t listened to X number of people today and your balance is overdrawn.” Keeping score too closely harms relationships. Ethical emotional labour practices are more about making sure that everybody is okay with what they’re doing and nobody is exploited. We do want reciprocity, but healthy reciprocity is often long-term and approximate, and sometimes disability or other factors make it difficult to achieve.

3: Emotional labour is a lot of things.

This is the thing that took me the longest to wrap my head around after reading the MetaFilter thread. People would make sweeping statements about what emotional labour was like, but they all seemed to be talking about different things.

For instance, the following things are all forms of emotional labour:

  • Being friendly to customers while working in customer service, even if you don’t feel like it.
  • Lending a listening ear to a friend.
  • Mentally keeping track of what needs to be done around the house and paying attention to the house’s current state, so that you can notice chores that need to be done without needing to be reminded.
  • Educating people about a topic (I am doing emotional labour by writing this post right now! 😀 )
  • Keeping in touch with people by checking in, sending Christmas cards, making dates to get together, and other forms of relationship organization.

These are five completely different things and there are MANY MORE!

We don’t call all of these things “emotional labour” because we believe that they are all the same thing. We call them emotional labour because we believe that they all are forms of mental work that are often not recognized as work, and that are often done by women and other marginalized groups because no one else will do them.

Because they all share this problem, they can be treated in similar ways.

So what does this have to do with autism?

If you read my short list of different kinds of emotional labour – or if you read the MetaFilter thread just now – then you probably have some idea of where this is going.

Autism makes many forms of emotional labour difficult!

Many of the complaints that NTs have about autistic people boil down to the fact that autistic people are not doing enough emotional labour for them. Whether it’s little things like not making the right facial expressions to put people at ease, or big and intimate things like not knowing how to express affection the right way in a relationship.

As autistic (or autistic-friendly) feminists, how can we ask for reciprocal emotional labour in a way that doesn’t toss autistic people to the curb?

The answer, I think, has a lot of parts. “Cut autistic people some slack” might be one part of the answer – but it can’t be the whole one.

I’m going to talk about forms of emotional labour that are more difficult for many autistic people, but also about forms that many of us are good at – and I’m also going to talk about special forms of emotional labour that are only ever asked of disabled people.

Then I’m going to talk about some ways we might fix some of this.

When Emotional Labour Is Hard

If you read the MetaFilter thread, you’ve probably already pictured this scenario. Let’s imagine an autistic man married to an NT woman. (Possibly a stereotype, but also the situation of many people IRL, including people I know, so let’s just run with it for now.)

The NT woman says, “My husband isn’t doing any emotional labour for me. He never knows what I’m thinking or feeling unless I tell him. If I tell him what to do, he’ll do it, but that doesn’t feel like enough. Just once, I want someone to notice I’ve had a bad day and know how to comfort me, without my having to say anything. When my husband doesn’t do that, I feel so invisible and lonely.”

The autistic man says, “I don’t understand how to make my wife happy. She wants me to guess what she is feeling, but I can’t read her facial expressions or body language, so I can’t guess! Why can’t she just tell me what she wants? I always do whatever she asks of me, and it kills me that this isn’t enough.

Neither partner in this scenario is wrong. Both are suffering because of unmet needs. The NT woman needs to feel that her partner sees her and is paying attention to her. The autistic man needs instructions that he can understand.

(Note that I’ve assumed that both partners are acting in good faith. That is to say, I am assuming that neither partner is abusive or lying about their needs, that the autistic man does in fact follow verbal instructions, etc. I am assuming that the problem they are actually having matches the problem that they both describe. I know that this is not an assumption that can be made about every couple, but it’s an assumption that is true for some, and I’m not interested in talking about couples for whom it is not true.)

In a sense, both of these partners need emotional labour that their partner cannot do for them. Paying attention to a partner’s moods and needs, without being explicitly told, is emotional labour. So is communicating your needs to a partner in a way that they will understand. The autistic man can’t seem to do his share at all. The NT woman can do hers, in theory – but it may always be exhausting and upsetting for her, and her corresponding need may never be met.

Is there a way to solve this problem? Maybe. We’ll come back to it later in the post.

Types of emotional labour that are hard

Every autistic person is different, but here are some types of emotional labour that will be hard for many autistic people to do:

  • Noticing how people are feeling based on their facial expressions, body language, and other nonverbal cues. Some of us can learn this with time and practice; some of us cannot learn it at all. (And some of us are hyper-empathic, but might struggle with other skills, such as figuring out what an NT person actually wants you to do about their feelings.)
  • Noticing anything about what people expect us to do, if they haven’t explicitly said it to us.
  • Making small talk, being friendly, and otherwise putting people at ease.
  • Anything that involves initiating a social interaction – including all of those pesky “keep in touch” tasks that I listed above.
  • Many of us struggle with executive dysfunction, which means every task related to organization or life skills is a struggle – including keeping track of what housework needs to be done, or keeping track of anything much, really. Or remembering to do a thing that another person needs you to, even if you KNOW they need it.

But emotional labour isn’t just one thing. And there are some forms of emotional labour that many autistic people might be especially good at.

Types of emotional labour that might not be so hard

  • Remember when I said that educating people is emotional labour? Autistic people are GREAT at that. An autistic person who is hyperfocused on a social justice topic will educate you about it for DAYS.
  • Many autistic people are great listeners. Some are great listeners for other autistic people; some are great listeners for people of many neurotypes. Some of the best listeners I know are autistic, and I have to actively check myself to make sure I’m not leaning on their skills in a way that’s not consensual or reciprocal enough.
  • Those of us who have good executive function are often excellent organizers, and will be great at keeping track of schedules and to-do lists without reminders, especially if the schedule involves a strong routine.
  • Many autistic people are very rules-oriented, and will faithfully research and follow the rules of any situation that they’re in, even when most NTs wouldn’t bother.
  • Many autistic people have a strong need to be orderly and tidy, and will VERY quickly notice anything around the house that needs to be picked back up. (Having the executive function to do it correctly is another matter…)

Maybe the autistic man in our example is good at some kinds of emotional labour, and maybe he and his wife can use those strengths to negotiate. Maybe he can’t read faces, but is a great listener; maybe his wife can accept that she’ll need to tell him explicitly how she feels, if she knows that he’ll patiently listen to her talk about it for as long as she needs. Or maybe he can’t read faces, but can pay attention to the state of the house; maybe it will be easier for her to deal with having to tell him explicitly how she feels, if she knows that she won’t also have to remind him explicitly about every other little thing.

Depending on his specific strengths and weaknesses, the autistic man might also be able to create a workaround. Maybe he’s not good at reading faces, but he’s great at recognizing patterns, so he can learn over time that, when his wife sits a certain way or responds in a certain way to polite questions, it means she needs a certain kind of attention. Maybe she can, in return, be patient and provide feedback as he works on developing this skill over time.

All of this really depends on the people involved and their specific needs, and on some really personal stuff about where those needs come from. But before we do that, there’s one other thing that we need to remember.

Autistic people are actually doing emotional labour all the time

Any autistic person who “passes”, or tries to pass, is doing a ton of invisible emotional labour by definition. Even people who don’t pass usually do some of this labour so that they will bother people less.

Most of the material in social skills classes for autistic people is geared towards teaching us to do even more of this emotional labour in even more circumstances.

Stuff like the MetaFilter thread doesn’t mention this very much, because it’s written by allistic people.

But the following things are all ALSO forms of emotional labour:

  • Trying desparately to figure out people’s facial expressions, when reading faces doesn’t come naturally to you. (This and other items on the list are still emotional labour, even when they are unsuccessful. Building a bridge is still labour, even if the bridge falls down.)
  • Trying to figure out how to respond appropriately to a social situation, when actually you are baffled or just want to go away.
  • Trying REALLY HARD to organize your shit even though you have executive function problems.
  • Enduring sensory discomfort, like lights and noise and other people, so that you can do an important thing that unavoidably involves them (and everything does).
  • Suppressing types of stims that you know will bother people around you or otherwise draw unwanted attention.
  • Trying to figure out the appropriate way to say a potentially hurtful thing instead of just blurting it out.
  • Asking people explicitly how they are feeling or what they need, because you know it’s important and you know you won’t figure it out on your own. Working up your courage and asking even though you know some people are offended by being asked.
  • Asking for accommodations, especially in an environment that you’re not sure will take you seriously.
  • Working up the courage to do social interactions that you know will be exhausting but necessary.
  • Trying to figure out ways to do basic things like make friends or express your emotions safely, when the NT way of doing them makes no sense to you.
  • Dealing with the ableist things people do and say all day.
  • Dealing with anxiety, depression, trauma, OCD, and the MANY OTHER very common comorbid conditions of autism.

I could go on and on; there are many things that should be on a list like this.

Here is how I know that these things are emotional labour. They are work. They take time, effort, and spoons. They are important work – sometimes the situation that makes them necessary is unfair, but you can’t solve them by saying “well, if it takes so many spoons, just don’t do that thing anymore.” (I have deliberately left out several obvious items, like “making eye contact even when it’s painful and overwhelming and leaves you unable to process what the person is actually saying”, because I really DO think that autistic people shouldn’t do that thing anymore. 😛 )

And they’re work that NTs don’t recognize as work. Even when NTs explicitly teach us to do these things,  it’s hard for NTs to think about them as effortful. If an autistic person successfully does all of these things, it means they are doing a lot of work. But if an NT person sees an autistic person successfully doing all of these things, they all too often think, “Well, I guess that person isn’t very autistic anymore.” NTs expect us to do all this work, and they expect it not to cost anything – which is the exact thing that happens with emotional labour between women and men.

As you might have guessed, autistic people who are socialized female end up doing more of this emotional labour than autistic men. Sometimes this work is referred to as “masking” or “disguising” autistic traits. It leads to fewer girls than boys being diagnosed with autism. It also leads to autistic girls being measurably worse at many basic tasks – possibly because so much more of their attention is taken up by the emotional labour of trying not to bother NTs.

So if you are autistic, and your heart sinks when you read about emotional labour – if you think, “God, they’re saying I’m terrible and broken, because I know I can never do half of these things” – keep this in mind. Some types of emotional labour are hard because you’re impaired at them. But sometimes it’s hard because you’ve already been doing it all day – in ways that NT feminists may not ever understand.

Giving autistic people a break

So let’s return to our example with that autistic-NT couple. Depending on the people, it might help for the NT woman to explicitly recognize that her husband is having trouble with this because he is disabled. He’s not being lazy and he isn’t intentionally ignoring her. He literally can’t see the things that she needs him to see.

He can, in turn, recognize that the NT woman isn’t making ridiculous and impossible demands. She isn’t asking him to “magically read her mind.” She’s asking him to do a thing that she and her NT friends probably do for each other all the time. It just happens that it’s a thing he cannot do.

This may not fix everything, but it would foster a spirit of forgiveness and acceptance, and a non-judgmental curiosity about alternative solutions to the problem.

…But not too much of a break

At the same time as all this, we have to acknowledge that there are forms of emotional labour that you just can’t get out of.

Things like respecting people’s boundaries (including sexual boundaries). Things like dealing with frustration in non-violent ways. Things like choosing words carefully enough that you don’t end up verbally abusing people. If you want to not literally be a criminal, these things are NOT NEGOTIABLE. If you don’t currently have the skills for them, you have to commit yourself to learning. No excuses. No “but I’m disabled and it’s hard”. Yes, it may be hard, but you still have to do it.

In the long run, relationships – even with other autistic people! – won’t work out unless you learn a few other emotional labour skills, too. I don’t want to harp too much on these, because I feel like I’m still figuring them out myself. But if a friend or partner doesn’t feel respected and appreciated, they probably won’t stick around.

The emotional labour that you do to help and support your friends might not look the same as someone else’s. It might not look the way NTs say it should look. There might not be much to it, if you don’t have many spoons to do it with. But it’s gotta be there, in some form that works for both you and the friends in question. Or you won’t have friends. Not even other autistic friends. That’s the ugly truth.

This stuff can be really, genuinely hard for us, and I’m struggling with how to phrase it here. I know autistic people, maybe including myself, who beat themselves up way too much about this stuff. People who’ve already been told over and over that if they don’t do [whatever totally arbitrary thing NTs came up with that hurts them and is really hard], they’ll never be worthy of love. These people are probably reading the above paragraph and cringing. I’m sorry. You know who you are, and I don’t mean you. I’m just saying this part because I don’t want MRAs coming into my mentions, basically. For every one of us who agonizes over whether they’re doing enough for their friends, there’s someone else out there who’s going, “Fuck you, I’m autistic. I don’t have to do emotional labour.” And that’s not the correct response.

If that “fuck you” response sounds totally alien to you, if you’re one of the people who instinctively agonizes over this and are feeling a little triggered by this part of the article, then I also have this to say: Hi. I see you. Yes, this is fucking hard. I actually think that’s one of the worst things about autism and emotional labour. We grow up being told awful, abusive things about what we NEED TO DO in order to be ACCEPTABLE and RESPECT PEOPLE. And some of it is wrong, or even actively harmful to us – but other parts are things that we genuinely need to do if we’re going to be safe people. It can be triggery and feel horrible to even try to sort through these things as an adult, and figure out which ones are ableist bullshit, and which ones are real. And maybe it’s not a process that is ever over. But sorting through it is work that is necessary and good and brave. And thank you for reading this far.

Reciprocity

I mentioned, way up there somewhere, that score-keeping too closely is bad for relationships. This isn’t just my opinion, it is a documented finding in social psychology. People can play silly games keeping score around chores like housework – “Well, I cleaned the sink, and you didn’t INSTANTLY do an equivalent chore, so I am better than you and I win the game.” These games are really toxic and I don’t recommend them.

People can play silly games like this with emotional labour, too. We don’t need to play those games.

Instead of score-keeping, reciprocity in relationships needs to take a longer view. Both partners need to be able to trust that their needs will be met and that their partner won’t take advantage of their good will. Both will be doing work at times. Both will be resting, or receiving the other person’s labour, at times. Sometimes things will be harder for one of them, and the other will need to pick up the slack; sometimes, it may be the reverse.

Both partners also need to trust that their partner will honour their consent and ability to make choices about the labour that they do, and that their labour will be acknowledged and appreciated.

This stuff gets really tricky when one partner is disabled or in crisis in a way that makes it hard for them to reciprocate emotional labour. Maybe they can do a little, but the amount that they can do is much smaller than the amount that they need.

If we want our emotional labour economy not to be ableist, then we need not to leave these people behind.

Sometimes a patient friend can stick with you, if you’re in this situation. (You are not horrible or taking advantage of them. You are disabled, and they are choosing to do work to help you.) Sometimes they can’t. Sometimes friends will be able to stick with you in some ways, but will need to draw boundaries around others. Sometimes we as a society don’t really have a good solution for this kind of problem at all. It doesn’t mean anyone is evil – and it doesn’t mean anyone is undeserving.

If you are ever in this situation, it helps to keep in mind the other ethical principles of emotional labour. To thank the people who are helping you for their work, to ask after them or do something else small – even if it’s a tiny token compared to what they are doing for you – and to make sure that their consent to this labour is ongoing and unpressured.

Incompatibility

I have one more thing to say about this imaginary example we’ve been working through, with the autistic-NT couple.

Maybe, this couple ends up acknowledging that the autistic man’s face-blindness is not his fault. Maybe they’ve non-judgmentally talked through lots of possible solutions, and tried some, and nothing works. Either the autistic man can’t do it, or the NT woman can’t be happy with what he can do.

Maybe they just learn to live with the fact that there’s a need in their relationship that won’t be met. No relationship is perfect. Maybe they’re both happy enough with the rest of the relationship that they can accept this part, and live with it together without both blaming each other. That’s a valid choice. In a lot of autistic-NT relationships, it may be the best choice.

Or maybe this is a deal-breaker for both of them, and maybe they part ways.

If this happens, it doesn’t mean that the autistic man has Failed At Emotional Labour Forever. It also doesn’t mean that the NT woman has Failed At Disability Acceptance Forever.

What it means is that, like in so many other relationships, they had incompatible needs.

Emotional labour is a need. We need to feel that the people who love us are there for us. That need may look like different things to different people, but it’s a need that is real. Both the autistic man and the NT woman, in this scenario, deserve to have their needs met.

Sometimes, the solution to stuff like this is that the autistic man should date another autistic person – or, at least, a person who is comfortable with needing to explicitly verbalize things. (That person will still have emotional labour needs – everyone does, and I’m not cool with using autistic women as sops to throw to disgruntled autistic men – but maybe they will have different ones that are more possible for him to meet.) And the NT woman should date someone who is good at picking up on what she nonverbally communicates. I don’t want to segregate people by neurotype, but sometimes, when we form relationships with people who are more like us – people who don’t instinctively expect us to be something we’re not – our relationships improve.

Summing up

Emotional labour is important. It’s real work, it takes real spoons, and everyone needs to do their share.

Some types of emotional labour are harder for autistic people. Some aren’t. And many autistic people are already doing a lot of emotional labour just to survive in an NT world.

Doing your share of emotional labour around NTs is really hard. You might need to experiment to find ways of doing it that work for you. You might find that you are already doing more emotional labour than they are, but in ways that are invisible to them. You might not be able to do it at all. You might be incompatible with some people, because they want forms of emotional labour that you can’t do. It’s still worth looking at what you can do, and making sure that you are treating friends appropriately.

MONSTERS IN MY MIND: Story notes, parts 29 and 31

29. Nightmare I

the night becomes a game of not looking

This is what it says on the can – a poem about a nightmare. It’s meant to be the first in a series. Fortunately, the occasions on which I have a nightmare so weird and surreal that I need to write it down upon waking are quite rare, so I don’t know that the series will ever be finished. 😀

31. Blue Fever

She always worried that one day she would have nothing new to say about the single word, glass, no remaining way to satisfy the court’s morbid tastes. But that day had not yet come.

This was written for (and published in) Ryan North’s “This Is How You Die: Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable Machine of Death”. The “Machine of Death” premise, for those who don’t know, is that there’s a sort of vending machine that can give you an accurate prediction of how you will die, but the prediction is always some really vague word (the ones in Blue Fever include “GLASS” and “GRAPES”, as well as the disease in the title).

I wondered how to write an original story about a Machine of Death given that there had already been a whole other anthology written about it. (I was a younger writer then.) The guidelines said to bring something into the story that you had a personal experience with. I picked singing; I used to be a semi-professional, classically trained soprano. And by “semi-professional” I mean “I made a couple hundred dollars a month singing lead in a church choir while I was an undergrad” but that TOTALLY COUNTS, right?

I ended up with a story about a decadent noble court in which singers are commissioned to sing about various people’s predicted deaths. It’s one of the few outright fantasy stories in “This Is How You Die” and I’m still very fond of it.

Song Pairing: You will have to use your imagination here. “Blue Fever” happens to have the partial lyrics of several deathsongs already contained inside it, and I couldn’t possibly choose a real-life song that will compare. 😀

MONSTERS IN MY MIND is available for purchase on AmazonKobo, Indigo,  Barnes and Noble, and in Autonomous Press’s Shopify store.

Autism News, 2018/01/27

More from Rose Lemberg’s “Writing While Autistic” series:

Media and Reviews:

Posts about treatments (and “treatments”):

Pan-disability stuff:

Science:

MONSTERS IN MY MIND: Story notes, part 26 and 27

26. The Parable of the Supervillain

At four in the morning with the baby biting me,
I watched you call the President of Australia
from his velvet bed
and feed him to the army ants.

This poem appeared in Apex Magazine, in March 2014. Its inspiration was a moment I had with a then-close friend who was visiting me. I had a meltdown triggered by something, and yelled in awful ways – I very rarely yell during meltdowns, I’m usually more inclined to just freeze up and cry, but this one was really bad. Afterwards I was full of shame. I’ve had people who always yelled that way when I was growing up, I know how damaging it is, and I felt like a monster because I couldn’t stop myself. And my friend just came to me where I was sitting there crying and wordlessly put her arms around me.

I don’t want this post to turn into some kind of weird, “and therefore it’s okay to yell at people” apologia. Obviously, it’s not okay to yell, and it is damaging, and I’ve been actively working on training myself into alternate strategies so that I don’t damage the people on whom I rely for support. But in the moment, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for my friend’s forgiveness, and I decided to write about that feeling.

Back when I was more conventionally religious, the Parable of the Prodigal Son was a story that had immense meaning for me. It still kind of does. And you don’t have to know me all that well to know that I appreciate fabulous villains. Once those two elements were in place, with the emotional core to back them up, the rest of it was easy.

27. The Company of Heaven

She couldn’t say why the angels frightened her. They swelled with too much light, but so did the sun, and she didn’t cower away from that. Maybe it was the way they said her name. Like another thing that knew her. Another that wouldn’t leave her alone.

“The Company of Heaven” is an older piece that never quite found a home before MONSTERS IN MY MIND. It’s named after a little-known work by Benjamin Britten, which I chanced to see performed live back in, oh, it must have been 2010 or even earlier. I was struck by this particular part of the text, a quote from John Ruskin, which is spoken aloud during the sixth movement:

…suppose that over Ludgate Hill the sky had indeed suddenly become blue instead of black; and that a flight of twelve angels, ‘covered with silver wings, and their feathers with gold,’ had alighted on the cornice of the railroad bridge, as the doves alight on the cornices of St. Mark’s at Venice; and had invited the eager men of business below, in the centre of a city confessedly the most prosperous in the world, to join them for five minutes in singing the first five verses of such a psalm as the 103rd – ‘Bless the Lord, oh my soul, and all that is with me,’ (the opportunity now being given for the expression of their most hidden feelings) ‘all that is within me, bless his holy name, and forget not all His benefits.’ Do you not even thus, in mere suggestion, feel shocked at the thought, and as if my now reading the words were profane? And cannot you fancy that the sensation of the crowd at so violent and strange an interruption of traffic, might be somewhat akin to… the feeling attributed by Goethe to Mephistopheles at the song of the angels: ‘Discord I hear, and intolerable jingling?’

I knew immediately that I wanted to write about this scenario, about someone being directly confronted by Actual Angels – angels who didn’t appear to want anything of them, except that they consider joining in a song – and being completely unable to appreciate or accept the experience.

At first – being much more conventionally religious, back in 2010, than I am now – my view of what such a person would be like was very negative, and the story was going to be one of these unpleasant, self-critical, character study kinds of stories. But that version of the story never quite gelled, and I could never quite bring myself to write it down. Eventually I realized that Cassie, the story’s protagonist, needed to be much more sympathetic. She needed to have reasons for being uneasy around angels that parallelled my own – she is busy, yes, but she’s also queer and traumatized, acutely afraid of being called crazy, and suspicious that the social value systems that go along with believing in angels will also harm her in multiple ways. I needed to own those things as valid and relatable feelings, and write them accordingly. And I needed to give her, not a judgmental, downer ending, but a hopeful one.

So the story eventually happened that way, and was finished in 2012. It never sold, and I wonder if that’s due to the weird combination of both being queer and having heavy Christian overtones – who would buy that? I don’t know. I probably wouldn’t even buy that. It could also be that this is an earlier work, and maybe my craft just wasn’t quite there. But it’s a story I love, so I put it into MONSTERS IN MY MIND, and now you can read it, too.

By the way, all the words sung by the angels in this story are actual hymns, except for “Heaven is here, and the angels of heav’n,” which is from the Britten piece.

Song Pairing: Britten’s “The Company of Heaven” is difficult to track down in recorded form, but if you’d like to hear it for yourself, there appear to be several versions on YouTube.

MONSTERS IN MY MIND is available for purchase on AmazonKobo, Indigo,  Barnes and Noble, and in Autonomous Press’s Shopify store.

A blog tour roundup!

I did a small blog tour for MONSTERS IN MY MIND in December and January, in which I was interviewed or guest blogged in various places. Now the blog tour is complete (I think), so here are all the links gathered up in one place for your perusal:

  • On A.M. Dellamonica’s Heroine Question blog, I talk about Julie Payette (now Canada’s Governor General) and what outer space meant to tiny!Ada.
  • On the Autonomous Press blog, I talk about what speculative fiction means to me and who inspires me.
  • On Elizabeth Bartmess’s blog, I talk about monsters, relationships, and reviewing.
  • On Jill Seidenstein’s Slow Bloom blog, I talk about identity, LARP, life skills, my literary ancestry, and the books I lend out most.
  • On A.C. Wise’s blog, I talk about titles and collection designs, and about poetry written by robots.
  • On Christina Vasilevski’s Books and Tea blog, I talk more about monsters, mother/daughter relationships, how I view technology, and what it means to exclude and be excluded.

MONSTERS IN MY MIND: Story notes, part 24 and 25

24. Synchronicity

I dreamed of a woman made of glass, like this.

A poem that’s barely even speculative – I used to have an RPG/writing partner who could intuit some of my ideas almost this easily. It was my first sale to Through the Gate, in May 2013.

25. How My Best Friend Rania Crashed a Party and Saved the World

Rania snorted and shoved me. “That’s not a date with me. That’s a date with Suman Bachchan’s cheekbones.”

“Rania” is a YA that grew out of a very specific frustration of mine – polarized discussions about social media. Either millennials are using it to ruin the world and destroy everyone’s privacy, or it’s the wonderful wave of the future where everyone should always be connected and you didn’t need that privacy anyway. After walking out of yet another of these discussions, it struck me that neither side seemed to have much nuance – and that both sides seemed to be missing the ways that people actually adapt to social change, whether good, bad, or ambivalent.

So, I decided to write a not!dystopia. A world in which some Internet stuff had been taken to its logical conclusion, and was ridiculous and problematic in certain ways, and people adapted and went on with their lives – subverting what they could, when they needed to, but also using it to their advantage.

“Rania” is only barely science fiction, as it’s barely in the future. Almost all of it is completely doable with current technology, including the central conceit of an Infallible Cloud that sorts people’s personalities into categories. (Marketing companies already do this, just not publicly.) And the Kinect-like video game system, and the robot camel, etc. The only part I’m not sure you could currently do is some window dressing with holograms at a party, and even then, I’m not sure. The story came out in February 2014 in The Journal of Unlikely Cryptography, but a couple of years later, China announced that it would be using machine learning to give its citizens trustworthiness scores similar to a credit rating. So now this story is even less speculative than it was. 😛

Song Pairing: I struggled to pick a song for this one, but given the YA vibe and the focus on surveillance and privacy, I think I’m going to go with Miley Cyrus’s “Fly on the Wall”.

MONSTERS IN MY MIND is available for purchase on AmazonKobo, Indigo,  Barnes and Noble, and in Autonomous Press’s Shopify store.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 42: Ninefox Gambit

Today’s Book: “Ninefox Gambit” by Yoon Ha Lee.

The Plot: Disgraced Captain Kel Cheris is offered a chance to redeem herself by defeating a heretic fortress with the help of the undead General Shuos Jedao. Jedao is a genius who has never lost a battle – but he is also famous for a battle in which he intentionally massacred everyone on both sides. Cheris can’t trust him – but perhaps she can’t trust anyone else here, either.

Autistic Character(s): The author.

Yoon Ha Lee is one of my faves, and I was THRILLED when I found an offhand mention, in his public Dreamwidth journal, that he has an adult diagnosis of autism. (He has other mental health diagnoses, too.) It was such an offhand and ambivalent mention that I contacted him to ask if it was okay with him if I put him on the Autistic Book List. This was very scary since he is a famous author I had never spoken to before. He said yes; information in his public journal is public information. So here we are.

“Ninefox Gambit” is Lee’s debut novel, and is a Hugo, Nebula, and Clarke Award nominee as well as the winner of the Locus Award for Best Novel.

There is no autism in this book. What we do have is an intricate and deeply imaginative dystopian military space opera that I am basically going to spend the rest of this post squeeing about.

The world of “Ninefox Gambit” is impressively weird. Both military strategy and the very structure of this world are based on math. The Hexarchate, an empire that most of the characters belong to, is dependent on what is called a calendrical system. Someone, at some point, calculated that, if society is run in a very specific way – not just the divisions of time and major holidays that the word “calendar” implies, but everything down to the people’s beliefs and social structures – then a new branch of physics opens up. If the Hexarchate keeps control and everything functions according to their calculations, then they are able to use “exotic” technology: weapons that produce powerful, surreal effects.  From a kaleidoscope bomb that instantly multiplies one side’s ships and personnel, to the infamous threshold winnower, which turns every door (and bodily orifice) into a source of deadly radiation.

This gives the Hexarchate a very material interest in hunting down “heretics” – those who observe the calendar differently. Too many heretics in an area can produce calendrical rot, in which exotic effects cease to function – or, worse, function differently.

As one might imagine for a society based on math, everything in the Hexarchate is highly formalized. One of the real joys of this book is the level of detail put into the Hexarchate’s cultural rituals and symbols. Multiple related sets of evocative symbols are used in different parts of the characters’ lives, from the banners and emblems announcing the presence of individual generals, to the system of signifiers which classify the personality of each soldier (Cheris is an Ashhawk Sheathed Wings, which means caution and stability), to the Tarot-like system of jeng-zai playing cards. An incredible level of geekery obviously went into the design of this world, and it’s wonderful.

But “Ninefox Gambit” succeeds as a novel because, amid all the wild detail, the book’s central drama is simple and human. Jedao, because of the way his current existence works, is uncomfortably close to Cheris at all times. Cheris is doing an incredibly stressful and difficult job. Although she is a mathematical genius herself, she can’t win this campaign without Jedao’s skill at strategy and trickery. But she has no idea where his true loyalties lie – or whether, and when, she herself is being tricked. At heart, this book is not only about a flashy calendrical system, but about trust, loyalty, sacrifice, and betrayal.

There are a few disability-related notes to make about “Ninefox Gambit,” both good and bad. Jedao is dyscalculic and suicidally depressed, both of which are depicted briskly and well. Being dyscalculic in a regime that runs on math is a significant disability. Jedao deals with it by relying on Cheris for his math, and asking her to display the results graphically, which she does – as she should – without comment or complaint.

On the other hand, this is also a book that throws around words like “crazy” and “sociopath” fairly liberally. I personally didn’t mind the use of “crazy”; I found it realistic for a bunch of characters in a repressive and dystopian society who have genuine concerns both about how their missions will affect their mental health, and about whether the people they’re working with are thinking in ways that are comprehensible and human. But readers who are more sensitive than I am to mental health slurs may take issue with it. As for “sociopath”, readers who object to the “sociopathic villain” trope will have a problem with Lee’s treatment of several minor characters. Thankfully, this isn’t at all the route that is taken with Jedao himself, whose motives turn out to be complex, interesting, and even a little sympathetic – though you’ll be guessing about them for nearly all of the book.

Overall, I just really like this book. It is a fave. It’s also proof that some of the most stunningly imaginative, major-award-nominated science fiction of our time is by autistic people. Haters to the left.

As a side note, I would never have realized that Yoon Ha Lee is on the spectrum if I hadn’t happened to look at his journal on that specific day. And now I’m wondering how many other famous authors are in that boat. Authors who are autistic, and who are happy to say so in public, but who also aren’t making a big deal out of it, so that if you weren’t already closely following that author, you’d never know.

My Autistic Book List is as comprehensive as I can make it, but I’m not omniscient. If a SFF author is autistic and they’re not on that list, it’s not because I’ve somehow judged them unworthy; it’s because I genuinely don’t know. Readers, if you see any other famous authors casually mentioning in public that they’re autistic, you’ll let me know, won’t you? I will be eager and delighted, more than delighted, to add them.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Ethics Statement: The brief interaction that I describe at the beginning of this review is the only time I have ever interacted with Yoon Ha Lee. I read his book by picking up a copy that I already owned off of my bookshelf and re-reading it. All opinions expressed here are my own.

Many of my reviews are chosen by my Patreon backers. This one was not. Reviews chosen by my backers are still in the works. 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.

MONSTERS IN MY MIND: story notes, part 21 and 22

21. Lament for a Faithless Prince

For I know
your inner dark, and you know mine.

This poem came out in Goblin Fruit on Valentine’s Day, 2013, which was timing that caused my aunt to positively DREAD that I had written something TREACLY and COMMERCIALLY ROMANTIC and she would have to pretend to LIKE it. Then she read it and realized that she liked it, after all.

“Lament for a Faithless Prince” is a poem from the point of view of a sentient portal-fantasy world, I guess. I mean, it sounds a lot weirder than it’s supposed to be, when you put it that way. More to the point, it is a bitter, longing call to a grown man who used to visit the world, but who has no time for it anymore.

Obviously, this is not a metaphor for anything at all. Nope.

22. Ekyprotic Theory

A short poem written at a very different time to the previous one, but which makes a companion of sorts for it, as they both deal with romantic loss and longing. This one was published in Lakeside Circus in 2015.

Also, it uses brane cosmology as its governing metaphor, which, if you ask me, is freakin’ badass.

MONSTERS IN MY MIND is available for purchase on AmazonKobo, Indigo,  Barnes and Noble, and in Autonomous Press’s Shopify store.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 41: Nantais

Cover of the book "Nantais" by Verity Reynolds. Contains a spaceship flying over a planet, and the word "Nantais" at the top.

Today’s Book: “Nantais”, by Verity Reynolds

The Plot: A ship’s crew are stranded after a computer virus infects their spaceship, and the more they try to find repairs for their ship and retrieve their missing comrades, the more complex the web of conspiracy around them seems to become.

Autistic Characters: Two crew members, named David and Hayek, and also, the author.

“Nantais” is a space opera in which all the usual fun space opera things come into play – cool aliens, interplanetary governments, space pirates, sentient ship’s computers, and so on. It contains some autistic humans, as well as some cool aliens that autistic readers will be able to relate to.

I don’t have much to say about the autistic humans, which is unusual for me. “Nantais” is being marketed in a way that makes a lot of noise about how the whole book is “very autistic” without ever mentioning the word “autism”, and how this is a radical authorial choice. I’m not sure I would describe either David or Hayek as “very autistic”. They both have autistic traits, but these traits are described in a very blink-and-you-miss-it way; in fact, I ended the book still unsure if Hayek was meant to be on the autism spectrum or not. Hayek is a fairly standard “go out of the spaceship and shoot guns” character, and the only autistic trait that I noticed from him is the use of a weighted vest.

There is nothing WRONG with having characters like this. Nor in refusing to other them or navel-gaze about their disability. In fact, a character like Hayek is nice to see since we don’t usually picture autistic people in that role. I’m just not convinced it’s an especially radical way of writing, with or without the word “autism”, especially since neither character seems to require the type of accommodations that necessitate societal change.

 

The aliens are good, though. “Nantais” is at its most interesting when Reynolds uses alien forms of communication to lightly upend common wisdom about communication in humans. Different species use different body language, including flapping and otherwise gesturing with the hands. Niralans appear to have no body language at all, and seem eerily emotionless to humans. But their nonverbal communication is actually some of the richest and most intense in the galaxy, for the few who have a sufficiently close physical connection to read it. Autistic readers and others whose emotions are misperceived by those around them will be delighted to spend time with the Niralan characters.

(As a side note, this might be another reason why I wasn’t super impressed with Hayek as an autistic character; he has an initial reaction to the main Niralan character’s lack of body language which more or less exactly mirrors the way NT ableists in real life respond to autistic people whose body language they can’t read. Not only did this make me subjectively annoyed with him, but it seemed like an odd and not-quite-realistic choice if he is meant to be autistic himself.)

Truth be told, I was a little underwhelmed with “Nantais” overall. The pacing is a little jumpy, and the way events progress doesn’t always feel coherent or satisfying. There is a cool subplot with a sentient ship’s computer that is trying to fight off its virus. The computer functions very differently from an Earth computer, in ways that are often interesting, but it irritated me that the term “computational linguistics” in this universe appears to mean something completely divorced from what it means in real life.

I think this is the most “meh” review I’ve ever written. There is nothing really wrong with the representation in “Nantais”; it didn’t click for me on a craft level, but there is nothing truly horrible about the book on that level, either. I did quite like the aliens, but the rest of it didn’t do a lot for me.

The Verdict: YMMV

Ethics Statement: Verity Reynolds and I have had quite a few business interactions; she beta read my still-unpublished novel and was a developmental/acquisitions editor for MONSTERS IN MY MIND. MONSTERS and NANTAIS were both published by the same press. I read her book because she emailed me a copy asking me for a blurb. I did, in fact, provide a blurb, which is an excerpt from this review. All opinions expressed either here or in the shortened blurb are my own.

This book was not chosen by my Patreon backers; I simply reviewed it because I decided that, having already read and blurbed it, a review would not be much extra labor. Reviews chosen by my backers are still in the works. 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.

Autistic Book Party, episode 40 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord

Bogi Takács, “Trans Love Is” (Nerve Endings anthology, 2016; reprinted as a free Patreon reward)

[Autistic author] A poem about the author’s relationships and family. It’s speculative, in my view, because magic and magical folklore are mentioned, but the bulk of the poem is about the quirks, difficulties, and minutiae of a household of non-neurotypical trans people. The picture that emerges is chaotic but enthusiastically loving, and a welcome antidote to stereotypes about what autistic people’s relationships must looks like. Also it comes with a shorter poem, “A Song of Expanses”. [Recommended-1]

*

Andi C. Buchanan, “Syren Song” (Kaleidotrope, summer 2017)

[Autistic author] A story about a teenage runaway siren in space. It’s very brief, but nuanced, and manages to subvert a couple of tropes in its short space. [Recommended-2]

*

Rose Lemberg, “Domovoi” (Uncanny, July 2017)

[Autistic author] A spooky poem which, ironically, is also a complaint against people’s need for spooky stories. When kindness and domesticity are not enough to satisfy the domovoi’s housemates, it turns to other means. [Recommended-2]

*

S.B. Divya, “An Unexpected Boon” (Apex, November 2017)

Kalyani, one of the viewpoint characters in this story, has a both OCD and autistic symptoms – a common combination in real life. I like the plot in which Kalyani meets a magical beetle who helps her interpret emotions, and then develops even stranger abilities. But I wish that more of the story was from Kalyani’s point of view, rather than that of her ableist brother. The narrative clearly shows that her brother is wrong about her, but it still robs us of the opportunity to follow Kalyani as she has some of the most pivotal magical experiences, and to find out how she feels about them and what they meant to her. [YMMV]

*

A. Merc Rustad, “The House at the End of the Lane is Dreaming” (Lightspeed, December 2017)

[Autistic author] A powerful story about video games and free will, and the kinds of agency we do and don’t allow to the people we tell stories about. There’s a really interesting disability thread in here, even though nobody technically identifies as disabled. The protagonist, Alex, is consistently given choices in which they’re punished for trying to help their sister, but their sister is injured when they don’t try to help. The game then pushes them to abandon their injured sister to die. What the game’s writers see as a compelling tragedy is actually an ableist narrative, in which they try to force the protagonist to accept the necessity of sacrificing people who can’t keep up. It’s satisfying that Alex finds another way to survive in the end, and that they get their revenge against their writers – even though, in typical Rustad fashion, that revenge is quite vicious as well. [Recommended-2]