When Every Culture Is a Foreign Culture: Writing on the Autism Spectrum

We welcome Lyn Miller-Lachmann today to share about her writing journey both as an insider and an outsider. Lyn is the author of Gringolandia, published in 2009, and Rogue published in May of this year. I was lucky enough to read Gringolandia earlier this week and am looking forward to sitting down with Rogue soon.


Miller-Lachmann

Before I became a published author of fiction for teens, I compiled multicultural bibliographies and edited the journal MultiCultural Review. Except for two years teaching high school social studies and English in Brooklyn, New York, and several more years teaching English as a Second Language in Madison, Wisconsin to refugees and students from Latin America, I had no special multicultural credentials to do this work—or so I thought at the time.

However, I did know what it was like not to fit in—and what it was like to leave home and family for places unknown.

I left at the age of 18. It was a moment I had looked forward to for a long time, because my childhood community was a place where I had been misunderstood, bullied, and excluded. But moving brought its own challenges—meeting new people, learning new ways of doing things, and trying to find a place for myself where everyone already seemed to know the way. My own struggles helped me to understand my immigrant students in Brooklyn and Madison, and I learned a lot from their experiences of adjusting to a new land.

Some of the stories I heard from friends and colleagues became the basis for my YA novel Gringolandia, the story of a Chilean exile teenager trying to reconnect with his father, a former political prisoner and torture survivor. At the time, I questioned my right to write about a culture to which I did not belong. My Chilean friends encouraged me to go for it; they knew I’d done my research. The people I interviewed in Chile in 1990, during the transition to democracy, wanted me to tell people in my country of their suffering as a result of the CIA-sponsored military coup in 1973 that led to the 17-year dictatorship. The novel took me 22 years to write and get published. My fiction-writing career during that time was one of close calls, heartbreak, and misunderstandings. I also found out that, even though I had escaped the place where I didn’t fit in, I could not escape the problems that made it so difficult for me to fit in.

In 2008 I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. The diagnosis answered a lot of questions about why I had so much trouble making and keeping friends, fitting in socially, understanding non-verbal communication and “hidden meanings”, and recognizing faces (because I’m not actually looking at people or making eye contact when I talk to them). With Gringolandia already in production, I questioned my ability to write fiction—which requires so much in terms of portraying emotion and social relationships, conveying the meaning of language and gesture, and forging connections with readers. These are all the things I struggle with in daily life.

I then remembered my Chilean friends’ advice. They said I’d done my homework. I had studied a culture that was not my own, thoroughly enough that I could write authentically about it. Perhaps that meant I could study all my characters’ cultures thoroughly enough to write about them. I could approach any culture as if it were a foreign culture—because to me as a person on the autism spectrum, every culture is a foreign culture. I also thought about the people I interviewed in Chile, survivors of a brutal dictatorship. They wanted their stories told so people would understand what they went through.

I had long avoided telling my own story of bullying and exclusion for a variety of reasons: I didn’t want to remember the pain. On some level, I felt I deserved it. I had internalized the dislike others felt for me and thus didn’t believe I could create a likable character similar to the younger me. But after my diagnosis, I realized that my story could help others in my situation, and create greater understanding of people on the autism spectrum, how we think, and the challenges that we face.

For inspiration, I turned to the X-Men. When I was a teenager, I was fascinated by the character of Professor Xavier, who used a wheelchair and gathered around him a group of misunderstood and rejected young people who nonetheless had special powers that they could use either to destroy society or to save society. He wanted these outsiders to use their powers for good, and by doing good, create understanding of mutants.

In this way Rogue was born. By setting the novel in the present, I was able to use the newer X-Men character of Rogue as protagonist Kiara’s hero. Rogue is the perfect role model for a teenage girl on the autism spectrum, as she cannot touch or be touched, and she has to steal the memories and emotions of others because her emotions did not fully develop.

Above all, I transferred to Kiara my strongest desire when I was growing up—to have a friend. Like Kiara, I would do anything for a friend—clueless things that got me laughed at (like thinking I could become popular by sitting at the popular girls’ table), naïve things that led other people to take advantage of me, and dangerous things to prove my loyalty. Rogue is the first novel I have written as an insider, and I have sought to present my character honestly and in a multidimensional way. Yes, she’s a young teen on the autism spectrum, but she’s also an avid bike rider who repairs her own bike, a lover of music, and a budding filmmaker. She has a life and interests that are independent of her neurological difference. She also has a lot in common with everyone else in her desire to be connected to other people, to be loved, and to contribute to her community. I’m not sure I’ll write a sequel or another novel with a protagonist on the autism spectrum—a lot depends on how many “friends” Kiara makes—but I am fortunate to have had the chance to write my own story and make something positive of it.


Lyn
Lyn Miller-Lachman authored Gringolandia – published by Curbstone Press/Northwestern University Press and Rogue – published by Nancy Paulson Books/Penguin. She is also a reviewer for The Pirate Tree, a blog devoted to social justice and children’s literature.

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Review: A Moment Comes

moment
Title: A Moment Comes
Author: Jennifer Bradbury
Genres: Historical
Pages: 288
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: Edelweiss
Availability: June 25, 2013

Summary: As the partition of India nears in 1947 bringing violence even to Jalandhar, Tariq, a Muslim, finds himself caught between his forbidden interest in Anupreet, a Sikh girl, and Margaret, a British girl whose affection for him might help with his dream of studying at Oxford. [cover image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: The beautiful and colorful cover caught my eye immediately though it seemed to be trying to go for the exotic look with the peacock feather. Anupreet is beautiful, but of the three main characters, Tariq was actually the one whose story stood out to me. It might have been nice to have him on the cover.

Writing a book with three distinct points of view and sharing them equally is a challenge and I felt that Tariq stole the show. He is the one who seemed to go through the most inner turmoil and he grew and changed more than the others throughout the novel. All this is in addition to the fact that he is quite the attractive young man. Margaret was more of a bored white rich girl “type” and Anu hung back so much, it was hard to get to know them.

The story itself happens during the partitioning of India. This was a tumultuous and dangerous time. There is upheaval, fear, anger, and resentment from all sides. Readers without much background knowledge will still understand the story, but after finishing the book, they will probably be happy to read the author’s note at the end filling in some of the history surrounding the book.

There are many racial and religious tensions in the book as the British are backing away from this piece of their empire. It is interesting to see the reasons behind the slicing up of the county and the forced migration that occurs as a result. Having privileged one group over the other, the British had complicated the relationship between the Sikh and Muslim people.

In addition to the prescribed roles designated by race and religion, gender roles are another notable aspect of the story. Regardless of culture, the women have very specific roles and must not deviate or face serious consequences. Anu must be hidden away because of her beauty and is always protected. Elizabeth is allowed to be out and about, but in a very restricted manner and has very little choice in what she wears and does outside of her home though she gets away with things inside. She rails against her mother’s rules though by smoking, buying Indian clothing, and flirting with men she knows would not have her mother’s approval. She’s a bit of a rebel, but doesn’t stray too far. This all seems normal for the 1940s though.

I found the events and issues of the time pretty fascinating and wanted to know more, but wished that the story could have been in two voices in stead of three so I could get to know the characters a little better.

Recommendation: If you love historical fiction or are interested in India, you will want to get this soon, but otherwise, borrow it someday.

 

 

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The Worry-Free Vacation

Books are the perfect vehicle for travel. They can take you to your destination in the blink of an eye. You won’t experience  turbulence and they never cause seasickness. Books also deliver you to countries all over the world with no risk of misplacing your passport or getting jet-lag. The best part is that you get to meet characters from many different places and see life from a different perspective.

I had a fun time looking through book lists (mine and those of many others) to find a wide variety of places to visit during my vacation. I have read many of the titles, but was excited to find some new ones too.

I will make my summer reading plan with many of these destinations in mind. I invite you to start planning your trip any time.

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Japan – Guardian of the Spirit (Moribito #1), Ichiro
China (in the past) – Boxers (it will be released in the fall)
China (in the future) – Cinder (Lunar Chronicles #1)
Nepal – Sold

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India – Sita’s Ramayana, Secret Keeper
Andaman Islands – Islands End
Malaysia – Kampung Boy
Afghanistan – Operation Oleander

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Pakistan – Shabanu
Iran – Persepolis
Cambodia – Never Fall Down
Burma – Bamboo People
Sri Lanka – Swimming in the Monsoon Sea

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Australia – Does My Head Look Big in This?
Palestine – Where the Streets Had a Name
England – Devil’s Kiss
Nigeria – Akata Witch
Sudan – The Milk of Birds

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Ivory Coast – Aya
Egypt – Mara, Daughter of the Nile
South Africa – This Thing Called the Future
Brazil – The Summer Prince
Haiti – In Darkness

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Cuba – The Lightning Dreamer, Guantanamo Boy
Ecuador – The Queen of Water
Mexico – Summer of the Mariposas
Dominican Republic – Before We Were Free

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U.S.A.
Alaska – Blessing’s Bead
New York – No Crystal Stair
Los Angeles – Legend
New Orleans – Orleans
Nevada – Bad Kitty

I was inspired to write this post after seeing Reading Around the World!, written by Sel who blogs at Bookcase to Heaven. Thanks for sharing your idea!

I know there are many excellent titles that I did not have a chance to include. If you think of any that would be a great addition to this list, please let us know in the comment section. Thanks for stopping by and I wish you a pleasant reading journey.

— cover images via Goodreads

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New Releases

We have quite a range of choices this week with a flirtaionship, suicide with a bit of poetry, and the Trail of Tears. We also have one that we missed last week. I know Tim Tingle is a fantastic storyteller, so I am definitely looking forward to reading How I Became a Ghost. Have a great week!

nikkiGet Over It by Nikki Carter
K-Teen/Dafina

Summary: The bigger the dreams, the bigger the drama With major industry success and a year of college under her belt, Sunday Tolliver is ready to take her singer-songwriter talents to the next level. But new opportunities also mean totally unexpected drama. Her flirtationship with hot video star DeShawn is turning into much more but the unfinished business between her and ex-boyfriend Sam won’t go away. An explosive campus hazing scandal puts her friends up against a powerful sorority and Sunday’s skills on the line. And reluctantly helping her jealous cousin Dreya save her record deal is a major diva face-off that could end both their careers. Now Sunday will have to take mad risks and trust everything she’s learned to stay true to her fab life and herself. — image and summary from Goodreads.

death
Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres Sanchez

Running Press Kids

Summary: Frenchie Garcia can’t come to grips with the death of Andy Cooper. Her friends didn’t know she had a crush him. And they don’t know she was the last person with him before he committed suicide. But Frenchie’s biggest concern is how she blindly helped him die that night.

Frenchie’s already insane obsession with death and Emily Dickinson won’t help her understand the role she played during Andy’s “one night of adventure.” But when she meets Colin, she may have found the perfect opportunity to recreate that night. While exploring the emotional depth of loss and transition to adulthood, Sanchez’s sharp humor and clever observations bring forth a richly developed voice. — image and summary fromGoodreads

tim tingleHow I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle
The Road Runner Press

Summary: Told in the words of Isaac, a Choctaw boy who does not survive the Trail of Tears, HOW I BECAME A GHOST is a tale of innocence and resilience in the face of tragedy. From the book’s opening line, “Maybe you have never read a book written by a ghost before,” the reader is put on notice that this is no normal book. Isaac leads a remarkable foursome of Choctaw comrades: a tough-minded teenage girl, a shape-shifting panther boy, a lovable five-year-old ghost who only wants her mom and dad to be happy, and Isaac s talking dog, Jumper. The first in a trilogy, HOW I BECAME A GHOST thinly disguises an important and oft-overlooked piece of history. — image and summary via Amazon

We missed this one last week:
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How to Be a Star (Surviving School #2) by M. Doty

Poppy

Summary: High school is the time to shine.

Tired of playing sidekick to her superstar-athlete best friend, Kimi Chen has decided it’s time to step into the spotlight and snag her own place at the coveted center table of the cafeteria. When her low-budget music video hits the Web and goes viral, forget about being just popular — Kimi is famous! Boys want to date her, girls want to be her, and she is even asked to perform on her favorite TV show. After years of feeling stranded on the bottom rung of the social ladder, Kimi finds that things are finally looking up.

But when fame gets in the way of her friendships, Kimi’s celebrity begins to lose some of its sparkle. Being a star, it turns out, may be more than she bargained for.

Discover the high price of fame and stardom in this second novel in the Surviving High School series, based on the hit mobile game from Electronic Arts. — image and summary via Goodreads

 

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Review: Beauty

beauty
Title: Beauty
Author: Nancy Ohlin
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 208
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Review Copy: Purchased Kindle version
Availability: May 7, 2013

Summary: Ana is nothing like her glamorous mother, Queen Veda, whose hair is black as ravens and whose lips are red as roses. Alas, Queen Veda loathes anyone whose beauty dares to rival her own—including her daughter. And despite Ana’s attempts to be plain to earn her mother’s affection, she’s sent away to the kingdom’s exclusive boarding school. At the Academy, Ana is devastated when her only friend abandons her for the popular girls. Isolated and alone, Ana resolves to look like a true princess to earn the acceptance she desires. But when she uncovers the dangerous secret that makes all of the girls at the Academy so gorgeous, just how far will Ana go to fit in? — image and summary via Goodreads

Review: What is beauty really? Is it smooth skin, fabulous bone structure, silky hair and bright eyes? Is makeup an essential part of beauty? And above all — what is beauty worth? These are some of the questions that came up for me throughout this fairy tale retelling. Initially when I saw the title, I thought maybe this was a Beauty and the Beast story, but instead, the book is a Snow White story and centers on the importance placed on beauty.

Some of my favorite novels are retellings of fairy tales. Retellings are often excellent because original fairy tales often have very flat characters and are mostly about the plot. Novels allow plenty of time and space for readers to get to know the characters well and see new aspects of the old tales. They feel familiar, but not boring and worn out, since  authors add their own twists to the story or think up unique explanations for events.

In Beauty, Ohlin focuses quite a bit on the glamorous Queen Veda. She doesn’t have a mirror on the wall, but does have a beauty consultant who is an audience for her beauty and acts as a mirror. There are several interesting additions to the story (that I won’t share for fear of spoiling them), but I felt that the characters still were not fully formed and developed. We meet Ana and realize that she doesn’t want to outshine her mother, but other than that and her interest in history, we don’t learn all that much about her. Queen Veda is also very one dimensional. Yes, she is hyper focused on beauty, but that is pretty much all we know about her. It would seem that a fully developed character would also have some positives to note. There are no gray areas here and I found myself looking for them in vain.

I did appreciate the way the book led me to contemplation of beauty and of war. A standout line is “War is what human beings do to each other when their is no morality left.” This was way more of a thinking book than I had anticipated. I just didn’t feel like I got to know the characters all that well.

If fairy tale retellings are your thing, you should borrow it someday, but otherwise, you may want to skip this one. Some other fairy tale retellings I would recommend are Cinder by Marissa Meyer, Ash by Malinda Lo, and Beast by Donna Jo Napoli.

Extras:
Read an excerpt
Blog Tour and Giveaway

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Mini-review: A Match Made in Heaven

cover27644-mediumTitle: A Match Made in Heaven
Author: Trina Robbins
Illustrator: Xian Nu Studio & Yuko Ota
Pages: 128
Genre: fantasy, contemporary, graphic novel, romance
Publisher: Graphic Universe
Review Copy: NetGalley
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Aspiring comic book artist Morning Glory Conroy already has too much to juggle at her San Francisco high school–mean girls, inconsiderate cliques, wannabe gangbangers–without the complication of falling for new student Gabriel. Glory’s best friend, Julia, was interested in him first, and if it weren’t for Julia’s deteriorating home life, Glory wouldn’t have had a chance to get Gabriel to herself. But does he count as a real boyfriend if his overbearing guardian forbids even kissing? Soon Gabriel is pushing Glory to show her work at art events, and the new relationship starts taking Glory away from her bff just when Julia needs her. Glory is in for a startling revelation when she discovers not only Gabriel’s true identity, but also that of his mischievous cousin Luci, who trails their every move just to cause trouble. Can Glory and Gabriel keep their relationship aloft when the heavens themselves seem to be against it?
image and summary from Goodreads

Review: Glory and her friends kept me giggling and smiling. This was definitely light-hearted with a bit of quirkiness too. In one scene, readers are even treated to a paper doll type of layout with an attractive young man in his boxers. The illustrations were a lot of fun — especially since Glory’s comics are mixed in and they are a different style than the main storyline. Several startling action scenes are scattered about to keep you alert. I loved it. If you need a laugh or a quick read, this would be the perfect fit.

Recommendation: Get it soon. It would be just the thing when you need a bit of relaxation.

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