Marie Kondo and Neurodivergent Space

I’ve been meaning to write more about animism, and I’ve been wanting to write about Marie Kondo. It’s tricky because many miles of ink have already been spilled about Kondo. A subtle animism is central to the KonMari method – holding objects, thanking them, feeling their energy. This should be no surprise since Kondo herself is formerly a Shinto shrine maiden. But I’m not Japanese and there’s a limited amount I can intelligently say about that.

What I do want to talk about is how the KonMari method appeals to a subset of neurodivergent people, specifically.

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Autistic Book Party, Episode 69: From a Shadow Grave

Today’s review is a guest post by Richard Ford Burley! Richard Ford Burley (he/they) is a queer neurodivergent writer and recovering academic. They’re the author of two novels and a handful of stories and poems, most of which incorporate queerness and/or neurodivergence in one way or another. They blog (infrequently) at richardfordburley.com and tweet (far too much) at @arreffbee.

Today’s Book: “From a Shadow Grave,” by Andi C. Buchanan

The Plot: A girl falls for the wrong man in 1932, dies, becomes a ghost, then doesn’t—and all of it has to do with a young woman named Aroha Brooke.

Autistic Character(s): The author, plus potentially the main character. Although it’s never explicitly stated, Phyllis is clearly neurodivergent, but living in a historical period (~1930s Wellington, New Zealand) that precludes diagnosis.

Back when I was a kid—let’s not talk about just how far back that is, exactly—there was a book series called “choose your own adventure.” Told in the second person, it guided you, the reader, through an adventure or a mystery, a plot that branched off in any number of ways. Usually, you kept a finger tucked in the last choice you doubted, so you could go back and try again if you met a bad end. Usually, you’d read it several ways, so that you could see all the endings. “From a Shadow Grave” saves you the trouble: it takes the reader through all of the endings without needing to choose, because all of the endings are true. And it starts with the bad end.

Set in the 1930s in Wellington, New Zealand, you are Phyllis Avis Symons, a girl with an unspecified learning disability whose parents never really thought would amount to much. You drop out of school, try to get work cleaning houses—which doesn’t work out too well since the Depression is in full swing—and you meet a nice man who takes you to the pictures. Things go well right up until you get pregnant, and after that, they go south in a hurry. And they do so in a way that leads to you haunting a freeway underpass for the next ninety years or so.

But also, that doesn’t happen.

And also it does happen, but it happens differently—and in all of the versions, the action comes back to a woman named Aroha Brooke, who’s variously the hero and sometime love interest of three of the four stories.

“From a Shadow Grave” tells its story (or stories) with multiple overlapping and interacting endings. In some versions it’s a ghost story, in others, it’s tale about trying to avoid becoming a ghost story. Coming in at just 98 pages, its form is experimental, almost poetic, and while that may pose a challenge for some readers, I found it drew me in. There were a couple of hiccups—moments where the dialogue felt a little more modern than I would have expected from a character from the 1930s, or where the flow of time caught me off guard, as though I hadn’t been able to keep up with the character development that had happened in the intervening years—but overall it was an enjoyable read, and a new experience for me.

Overall: I know that for some people, the form of the writing—the second-person, present-tense narrative, the deliberate fragmentation of the story—is going to be a dealbreaker. But if it isn’t a dealbreaker for you, I think you’ll enjoy it, and find yourself wanting more.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

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

Manipulation

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is the role of manipulation in autistic fiction – villains who are manipulative, autistic characters who are prone to manipulation, and so on. Not every autistic person is easily taken advantage of, but for many this is our experience, especially when we’re younger. Taking what people say at face value, and being taught from an early age to ignore our gut responses, can produce unique vulnerabilities.

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Autistic Book Party, Episode 68: The Unbalancing

[Note: This review contains ending spoilers.]

Today’s Book: “The Unbalancing” by RB Lemberg

The Plot: The Star of the Tides by the island of Gelle-Geu is restless, and the earth is becoming unstable. The impatient, decisive starkeeper Ranra Kekeri and the shy, reclusive poet Erígra Lilún come together in an attempt to heal the star and save their island before it’s too late.

Autistic Character(s): Erígra (and the author)

We’ve been reviewing Birdverse books here at Autistic Book Party for quite some time, but “The Unbalancing” is the first full-length Birdverse novel (and I’ve been very excited for it). It tells the story of a disaster that took place centuries before many other stories, and it should be accessible to a newcomer who hasn’t read any Birdverse before.

To get it out of the way – this is a disaster book, perhaps even a tragedy. The disaster eventually happens despite everyone’s best efforts. (The parallels to real-world climate change are obvious, though Lemberg doesn’t belabor them.) Nevertheless it’s a story told with tenderness and respect for the character’s efforts, and even with hope.

The tenderness and respect come through most strongly in how Lemberg writes Erígra Lilún. Erígra is autistic and easily overwhelmed, needing a lot of time and space to process what they experience. The poems they write are popular, and their magical power is significant, but at the beginning of the story these things barely register with Erígra; they’re not strongly embedded in the social groups that would give context and meaning to that kind of power, preferring instead to spend time on their own, write, and tend to growing things. The word “autism” isn’t used, but the concept comes across clearly:

I had always known I was different from others, and people had known this, too. As a child, I would curl upon myself sometimes, and rock on the floor until the buzzing grew softer. The healer-keepers came, and told my fathers not to worry so much. “They just need the world to be quieter, and less bright. Can you make them a comfortable place to relax?” What I wanted was a pool, so dads Veseli and Meron had labored for weeks to create my quiet place, and dad Genet planted the first vines, and taught me how to tend them.

 

Gelle-Geu culture is in many ways very accepting – as you can see in the excerpt above. This is also true when it comes to relationships. Queer and polyamorous relationships are the norm on Gelle-Geu, and nonbinary people – called “ichidi” – are firmly embedded in the culture, with their own traditional styles of hair and dress and with five recognized variations. The islands also seem to be a place where everyone is cared for, where social supports are robust, and where the populace is generally very happy.

But no culture is perfect, and Lemberg is careful to show us these nuances too. Asexual characters are recognized – the word for them is “adar” – but some of them feel alienated by the sensual and permissive way the people around them live. Abuse exists, and while there are healer-keepers who can intervene, it doesn’t fully heal or resolve the damage done. Erígra certainly feels alienated – the bustle and crowds of normal people’s activities are not comfortable for them, and they don’t seem to have found a community of others like them, or even to imagine that such a thing might exist.

But Erígra’s slowness and caution is also their strength. It makes them tender and caring and a good keeper of growing things. Their ancestor, the ancient starkeeper Semberí, wants them and not Ranra to be the starkeeper. Semberí senses that Erígra’s gentle patience is exactly what the Star of the Tides needs. But Erígra has no interest in such things. They don’t want the meetings and crowds that come with the job of starkeeper, since Gelle-Geu’s starkeeper is also essentially the head of government; and they have serious concerns about whether the star consents to being kept in the first place.

Semberí’s urgings, lead Erígra into the path of Ranra, who was only recently chosen to be starkeeper. Ranra is in many ways Erígra’s opposite – a determined, impatient, ambitious woman with a chip on her shoulder the size of a mountain. She, too, is aware of a problem with the Star of the Tides, and is determined to use her magical power to fix it. But, as Erígra cautions her, the star is a person – and people are not objects to be fixed.

Despite their differences there is a spark between Erígra and Ranra, a mutual fascination which blossoms into romance. Their first meeting starts off on the wrong foot – with Ranra initially suspicious of Erígra’s motives, then abruptly making a pass at them, which Erígra is too startled to accept. Nevertheless something draws both of them together again and again. There is a magical connection between them as well as a romantic one, with both of them easily combining their deepnames to create powerful effects. And the relationship is at its strongest when they learn to make space for each other’s different needs.

One of the best things about this book is how it honors Erígra’s need for space and slowness. This is a need which is subtler to grasp than “no loud noises” or “no sarcasm,” but for many of us it’s very real. After a challenging event, good or bad, Erígra needs time and space to process – and as the situation with the Star of the Tides worsens, there are many challenging events to choose from. In one memorable scene, both characters survive an earthquake. Ranra is galvanized by the experience and wants to swoop back to the starkeeper’s building to organize things, but Erígra badly needs to stop and sit. Ranra is confused, but slows and lets them sit. Eventually, Erígra is able to explain their needs:

I tucked the stone into my pocket and stood up, not looking at Ranra. “I will follow you, but I cannot look or touch right now.”
“Yes,” she said. “Are you all right?”
I shrugged. “I need to ruminate on things. When something happens, I go home to think about it. I write a poem. I go out to a gathering place to read the poem. People tell me what they think. I come back home and ruminate on that. I write some more, change things. In the mornings, I go to the grove, I tend to the quince trees, who don’t talk to me or tug at me.”

 

Ranra and Erígra’s relationship is strongest when they are able to make space for each other like this. But the worsening situation with the star is going to push both of them to their limit. Ranra isn’t always able to be patient with Erígra under the stress of the islands falling apart, and Erígra isn’t always able to follow where Ranra leads.

What is it that’s unbalanced in the Unbalancing? It’s the physical form and magical ecosystem of the island, and in certain senses it’s Ranra’s mind, but it’s also the tenuous, frequently disrupted connection between the two protagonists and their different approaches. They are at their strongest and healthiest by far when they both work together as two contrasting parts of the same system. They both fail a great deal, but they still come together when it is needed most.

Of course the disaster still does happen and the characters are forced to switch their efforts to surviving, to evacuating and saving as many people as they can. Lemberg handles this ending powerfully and carefully. It would be easy for a more careless author to blame the disaster on Erígra and their unwillingness to act when first asked – or on Ranra and her recklessness and callousness. Or, perhaps, on the ways they fail to work together fully. Throughout the book we see glimpses of what could be – if Erígra’s care and respect joined forces, for a longer time and more completely, with Ranra’s courage and vision. But if there is any single reason why their efforts fail, it’s something older and sadder than what either of them can control. The Star of the Tides carries traumas a thousand years in the making. It could have been saved, but that work would have had to start before either Erígra or Ranra were ever alive. All they can do is their imperfect best, with the imperfect power and information that remain to them. And that work, in the end, is not meaningless. It saves more, salvages more, than if everyone had continued not to try.

The Unbalancing is a heartrending book about power and responsiblity, the courage to act and the wisdom to think before acting; about relationships and collaborations that cross differences; about traumas and attempted healings, large and small; about what we can do and what we can save when it’s too late to avert the worst. It’s beautiful and queer and challenging and tender. And it’s a story that could not have been told without Erígra’s autistic point of view, without a deep respect for needs like Erígra’s, which comes from lived, thoughtful experience. I love all of RB Lemberg’s work, but I might love this book most out of any of them.

The Verdict: Highly Recommended

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

Neurodivergent Communities in THE FALLEN

Much of the action in THE FALLEN centers around a group of characters – Yasira, Tiv, and seven others – who share certain things in common. They’re all (except Tiv) former students of Evianna Talirr’s, who have been touched in some way by Outside. They’re all former prisoners of Akavi. They’re all some form of neurodivergent and/or mentally ill, either because of Outside and trauma or in pre-existing ways. (Tiv is less so, but even Tiv, to some extent, has trauma.) They’re also running a planetary resistance movement! And what I’ve heard from disabled readers who liked THE FALLEN- is that they really like how this group of people is portrayed, as a mutually supportive neurodivergent community.

Neurodivergent people often band together in real life, of course (minus the planetary resistance). We’re more likely to feel close and supportive with people similar to us than we are with neurotypicals. It doesn’t always work out, but when neurodivergent communities work well and last for a significant time, I’ve found they have particular traits which the Seven, in THE FALLEN, also have.

(Read the full post on Substack)

Ways of Escaping

A reader asked me to share my thoughts about “escapism” – the idea that we use fiction to escape or avoid the problems of real life. Escapism can be thought of as a good thing, a bad thing, or various things in between. But my main thought about escapism is that it consists of more than one thing. Each one can be good and healthy, though I suppose it isn’t necessarily always so; and many of them are not only about escaping something.

(Read the full post on Substack)

Autism Acceptance: Words Are Not Enough

As Autism Whatevers Month (awareness, acceptance, activism…) fast approaches, I am thinking of the state of the world for autistic people.

In my corner of the publishing world, the past ten years have shown exciting strides. We have way more openly autistic authors than we used to and they are creating all sorts of different kinds of work in all sorts of genres. We have openly autistic authors publishing with the Big 5 now! Autistic people and our experiences are increasingly the topic of media attention, and while much of this is profoundly imperfect, we’re starting to see more diversity and more awareness of the need to involve autistic actors in the process.

HOWEVER.

(Read the full post on Substack)

Autistic Book Party, Episode 67 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord

A.C. Buchanan, “Below Salt-Heavy Tides” (Mermaids Monthly, July 2021)

[Autistic author] The story of a selkie who gave up both their skin and their access to the Earth’s dying oceans in exchange for the chance to join a colony in space. When they unexpectedly encounter magic and life on this supposedly-barren new world, it leads to an outcome for both species that no one could have predicted. I think autistic readers will find a lot to relate to in this one – both the seal-out-of-water feeling of being a type of being who doesn’t quite fit where they are, and the strange recognition and not-quite-kinship that emerges at the end. [Recommended-2]

*

Jennifer Lee Rossman, “Spider” (Unfading Daydream, Issue #5; I read it reprinted on Rossman’s blog)

[Autistic author] Rossman, who is both autistic and physically disabled, writes a heartwarming story of a disabled teenager who cobbles together a mech for herself to win a robot fighting competition. I’m not sure how I feel about the teenagers wanting to stay unhoused and live in a junkyard, but the playful approach to assistive technology in the story is just really fun, and so are the supportive, mutually helpful relationships between the teenage characters, disabled and not. [YMMV, but I liked it]

*

Bogi Takács, “The Prophet, to His Angel” (Fantasy, Issue 76, February 2022)

[Autistic author] A compelling poem about the strange, intense, erotically charged relationship between a Jewish prophet and the angel who brings messages to him. [Recommended-2]

*

Luke Sekiguichi, “What To Expect When Your Daughter Returns From Neverland” (February 7, 2022)

[Autistic author] A heartrending story, in list form, about the parent of the protagonist in a portal fantasy, the fear and ambivalence they feel about what’s happening to their child. While this is a good portrayal of a parent’s worry for their child’s safety, it also goes further and is more complicated than that in ways I won’t spoil. [Recommended-2]

*

Yoon Ha Lee, “Bonsai Starships” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February 10, 2022)

[Autistic author] A child named Kei grows up in a temple that grows starship engines in the form of bonsai trees. When she learns that the purpose of these engines is more sinister than she supposed, she takes matters into her own hands. I found the way Kei is portrayed, the way she subtly and gently begins to question her beliefs, to be especially poignant. [Recommended-2]

Autistic Book Party, Episode 67: The Book Eaters

Cover of "The Book Eaters" by Sunyi Dean. The cover includes a silhouette of a woman, child, and house, all made of paper with indistinct lines of writing.

Today’s Book: “The Book Eaters” by Sunyi Dean

The Plot: Devon Fairweather is a book eater – part of a secretive family of magical creatures who take their sustenance from books. After being forced into marriage twice, Devon goes on the run with her young son, Cai – who eats, not books, but human minds.

Autistic Character(s): The author!

“The Book Eaters” is a grim, suspenseful thriller. To be honest, I don’t think its early marketing is doing it any favors. The idea of a book eater at first appears nostalgic – (“You and I know the distinct joy of devouring an incredible read,” says the back cover copy on my ARC) – but the picture that Dean paints is anything but. Like some other familiar families of magical creatures from urban fantasy, the book eaters live separately from human society, on large estates controlled by patriarchs. There are few women, and the patriarchs are very concerned with how to continue their line without inbreeding. As a result, book eater women like Devon are kept under strict control: cosseted, fed a diet of fairy tales, and given no choice at all in their marriages, childbearing, or even their ability to stay with their children after birth.

Naturally, the plot revolves around Devon’s attempts to escape her family, but these attempts are complicated – especially by Cai, whose abilities are genuinely horrific. He can’t survive without either eating human minds – essentially destroying the humans in the process – or taking a drug called Redemption that only certain book eater families possess. Devon and Cai are in dire straits. Dean uses those straits to create a twisty thriller in which more layers of trickery are revealed at every step, as conflict erupts between the book eater families and Devon attempts to play every side to survive. Like many survivors, she is resourceful and ruthless – and devoted, on a level that surpasses rationality or morality, to her son.

There’s a point to why most of the book eaters are sustained by books, specifically. As Devon complains to another character at one point:

“We lack imagination,” Devon said, relentless. “Even if we used Dictaphones and scribes, we’d never be able to write books the way humans can. We struggle to innovate, are barely able to adapt, and end up stuck in our traditions. Just eating the same books generation after generation, thinking along the same rigid lines… Our childhood books always ended in marriage and children. Women are taught not to envision life beyond those bounds, and men are taught to enforce those bounds… I could not imagine a better or different future, Hes, and because I could not imagine it, I assumed it didn’t exist.”

This isn’t a book about the joy of reading. It’s a book about the way what we read can limit us, the potential that books possess both to expand the mind and to constrain it. It’s also a meditation on motherhood and monstrousness. If you want a sharply intelligent, unflinching, at times horrifying tale of what a mother will do for her survival and that of her dangerous child, this one’s for you.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

The House and the Body

I’ve been trying to talk more about the idea of a house being alive in its own right, but what I’ve actually been thinking about lately is a house as a metaphor for the body. This is something more than one person has mentioned to me when I talk about my feelings about the house. I get territorial about who goes in the house the way I get territorial about who gets close to my body. I feel ashamed of problems or messes in the house the way I feel ashamed if something in my body doesn’t match what I think it should be (and this is not to say that body shame is okay, just that I’m still at a stage of development where I feel it a lot).

(Read the full post on Substack)