The Right Way to Write an Autistic Character
Madeleine Ryan on writing a narrator who, like her, is autistic but also much more
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“I decided to wear a kimono and high heels to the party because I wanted people to see me in a kimono and high heels at the party,” the unnamed narrator of A Room Called Earth reasons in the novel’s opening line. And, just like that, readers are immersed in her mind, her world, and her movements over the course of one night. As she prepares for, attends, and, with varying degrees of success, attempts to engage with people at a house party, we are treated to her wide-ranging but methodical reflections on everything from sartorial choices to the devastating legacy of colonialism in Australia. We see—and feel—how she senses herself and her surroundings, how she processes all of this information, and how she responds to it.
A Room Called Earth is the first novel by Madeleine Ryan, an Australian writer who is autistic. Although her character’s neurology remains as unspecified as her name throughout the book, there were many aspects of her thought process, her interests, the way that she experiences the world, and the way she expresses herself that struck me as familiar as an autistic reader. I felt like I was reading a stream-of-conscious narrative for a type of consciousness that is still painfully misunderstood and misrepresented.
Through Skype, I talked to Ryan about autism in writing, her feelings about the label itself, and the extent to which she identified with her character.
Sarah Kurchak: Your character, this voice, never uses the word “autism,” or “autistic.” Do you think of her as autistic, or is that an outside assumption that has been placed on her?
Madeleine Ryan: I do see her as autistic, but I’m conscious that the label brings with it all of this stuff that I wish it didn’t. That, I think, is changing and opening up, and becoming more diverse, which is more representative of what it actually means. And more magical, which is what I see it as. I don’t see it as a disability. I don’t see autism as something that’s disabled, or defunct, or a burden in any way, or as something that’s really defined by the scientific and medical establishment. I know that it is, but I don’t live by their definition. It doesn’t sort of define my life. So it doesn’t define her for me.
So yes. I absolutely see her as autistic. I mean, there are lots of things I see her as that I haven’t labeled. And that I see the book as exploring, like feminism, veganism, mysticism, sexism, environmentalism. There are so many -isms.
As I was writing it, I became conscious she was autistic, and I knew that. By putting it on her, I was conscious of the cultural and social ramifications that that might have. But I was also aware that, to be able to create the change and open up, she needed to live with the label. If the word is going to expand, and represent what I see as something that’s sacred and just wonderful and an amazing addition to humanity, then she needed to be there. It was definitely a difficult choice, but I think it was the right one.
SK: I’m suspicious of non-autistic writers who create autistic-seeming characters without ever using the word. I feel like they’re dodging any responsibility they might have to real-life autistic people. If anyone takes issue with the portrayal, they can say, “Oh, we didn’t really mean to say so-and-so was autistic.” It’s really interesting to see an actual autistic writer deal with an autistic character without the label for entirely different and more admirable purposes.
MR: I’m so glad. I think that labels—not just the autism label but labels in general—have their place, but they can become lazy and heavy. And I think that avoiding that as much as I could in the book, in every sense, stays true to what it’s like in our own minds, to some extent. I’m not calling myself a feminist all the time, or identifying with labels when I think about myself. I only [use] a label when I think about how I’m interacting with other people, or the wider world, or when I’m going on long political rants in my mind, or trying to work through things. And even then I don’t know if labels come into it.
It’s much more of a social global sort of need, I think, in terms of categorizing people, and schools of thought. Stuff that, you know, has its place, but I think that it can become constrictive and limited and I didn’t want A Room Called Earth to be a world that was categorized in that way. I wanted those transient experiences and thoughts to be the defining feature. Which I think is the most sacred part of life. The labels are these kind of secondary things that we use to try to sort of navigate one and other, or society, but ultimately it’s that sort of transience and moment-to-moment quality that’s kind of uncontainable by anything that’s more interesting to me.
SK: At the risk of making you deal with yet another label, do you think that, beyond the character herself, there is anything inherently autistic about your prose, about the way you’ve approached this book, and the very concept of it?
MR: Well, yeah. I mean, it’s how my brain’s wired. I guess it makes perfect sense to me, the structure and the logic of it, and the blow-by-blow nature of it. And, in my mind, it’s very methodical. Absolutely. I have no doubt.
But at the same time, I was doing that thing of, “Well, this makes sense to me. If it resonates with others on the spectrum, or off the spectrum, fabulous. That’s lovely. If not, OK. But this inherent emotional and narrative structure feels right, and I’m just going to trust it.” And if that’s autistic or if it’s… Someone called it a circadian novel, so even that has a label, too. It fits in this category of books that [takes place] over 24 hours. And it goes here, and here, and here.
But yes, I think it could be described as that. Because it’s inside her mind. And if her mind is autistic, then, you know…
SK: As an autistic reader, one of the things that struck me about this book was that it seemed to contain none of the stuff that people always told me was necessary for a narrative, but that I always thought was just nonsense. Like the literary equivalent of small talk is not in your book.
MR: Ahh. What’s literary small talk to you?
SK: Having to establish a scene in a particular way. You introduce a character’s name at a certain point. You should say this, this, and this about their physical description instead of what impression just hits you at that moment.
MR: Got ya. I double majored in literature and creative writing at Melbourne Uni so many years ago now, and I think I had to spend so many years probably undoing all of that. I did not enjoy that at all. As you’re speaking, I’m going, “Oh yeah… all that stuff. Oh God. I’d forgotten!” I’ve spent so many years having to undo that, to find and hear something that felt like a story that was genuinely coming through me. Not my idea of a story, or how to tell a story.
God, all of those rules. All of those ideas about how to share an idea.
SK: Books have always struck me as a medium that can be particularly effective for introducing non-autistic people to an autistic thought process, because it draws readers sort of inside a person or character’s mind, instead of the outside-looking-in perspective that so many stories about autism have. And I thought this book was an excellent example of what I believed was possible.
MR: Wonderful. That makes complete sense to me. And I think that, as I was writing it and becoming aware of her being autistic, I was aware of the power of, like, “Yeah, well you’re in her mind. So… welcome.” It felt a lot more direct and intimate than experiences that I’ve had of watching stories about autistic people. I think every good story has its place, but I certainly haven’t watched—or read—anything that’s been that inside. There’s no escape from her world and how she thinks and processes, so there’s not that sense of safe distance or detachment. I think that that is powerful. And I hope that it can invite people in in a more profound and intimate way, for sure.
SK: Have books been a window for you into things you maybe didn’t otherwise understand?
MR: Yeah. Self-help books mainly! If you saw my book shelves, they’re predominantly self-help. And spirituality and psychology and mysticism. Those have absolutely been my life raft through the world in lots of ways. Both in terms of my person-to-person interactions, but also just a sense of being a part of something bigger than me and my mind, and the one-ness of everything. Those books have been a huge factor in navigating my way.
But prior to that, I grew up in a house of writers. My parents are both journalists. They had lots of fiction, lots of classic literature around the house. I did grow up around that, so I don’t doubt that is operating very heavily in my conscious and unconscious mind. But in terms of the last sort of 15 years or so of my life, it’s been self-help.
It’s funny, too, because my parents, they’re critics, and they were always like, “We don’t write in the ‘I’! You write in the most objective way possible.” And then here I am devouring self-help and everything I write is in the “I” and I’m autistic and it’s just so “ME! ME! ME!” I’m like the antithesis of everything that they are and believe in and what I grew up around. But I’m sure my work is probably a marriage of both worlds.
SK: Any time a woman writes fiction, there is a tendency for people to want to conflate her with her characters. Especially, I think, when a character shares any sort of identity with an author. Is that a problem you’ve faced? Do you have concerns that you will face it as you talk about this book and begin to promote it more?
MR: I can imagine that happening, but I don’t know if it bothers me. People are going to think what they’re going to think. The only person so far who has directly said to me, “Is this you?” was my dad. So I think we’re doing OK so far. I was like, “Dad, I don’t have a kimono. Calm down.” He was like “Oh, I thought you did.” And I was like, “No. I have a lot of silk dressing gowns, but I don’t have a kimono.”
If people do that, they do that… it’s that classic thing, isn’t it? A part of you is always in it. In everything we create, a part of us is in it, but it’s also not us. So she’s me and she’s not me. She’s her own living, breathing thing that I gave birth to. So in as much as a parent is their child, I’m her, is how I see it.