Interview with Ralph James Savarese
Ralph James Savarese, author of See It Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor, was interviewed by Michael Northen.The book will be published by Duke University Press on October 12, 2018.
MN: See it Feelingly is a remarkable book and one I think will be seen by many people as revelatory. One of the things that strikes me about the book right from the introduction is how readable it is. You seem to have made a decision to avoid scholarly jargon and the kind of in-group referencing that so often characterizes work in disabilities. As you were writing the book, who did you imagine your readers to be?
RS: Thank you for asking this question. It's very important to me that the book have as wide an audience as possible. The reason is two-fold. 1) I really want to change how people think about autistic talent. It needn't be understood as restricted to the domains of math, science, engineering and computers— tp something narrowly logical, without emotion. There are many terrific autistic writers and readers of literature. Parents, teachers, scientists, autism professionals, and the culture at large need to hear this message. And so I had to write the book in an engaging and accessible way, with as little jargon and in-group referencing as possible. 2) I also wanted to capture not only my own love of reading but also the transformative power of books—what they do to us. In addition to a PhD in American literature, I have an MFA in creative writing, and while I believe in the importance of critique, it's a largely disenchanting enterprise. Sometimes, I think it's a bit like trying to sail a boat while dispelling the myth of wind. I want to sail… In the end, See it Feelingly is about the joy of discussing literature with equally invested readers, readers who are different from myself. It's for everyone, whether they have an interest in autism or not. It just so happens that my autistic collaborators—their passion—helped me to remember why I wanted to be a writer and English professor in the first place.
MN: Obviously, good rapport is important in any teaching situation, but how important do you feel it is for an educator or mentor who is working with an autistic reader to have established a positive relationship with them prior to selecting a particular literary work? You obviously knew a good deal not only about DJ but about Tito and Temple Grandin prior to choosing texts, but not all educators are in your position. Perhaps a related question would be, how important do you think the narrative structure of a text is to a specific autistic reader?
RS: As you say, I obviously knew my son quite well before talking about books with him. Over the last decade of doing this with Tito, the subject of Chapter 1, I've come to know him quite well. Yet I didn't know him at all when we began in 2008, though I had read his published work. The same is true for Temple, the subject of Chapter 5. While I knew Jamie, the subject of Chapter 2, I had no experience reading with him. And I didn't know Dora (Chapter 3) or Eugenie (Chapter 4) in the slightest. What I had going for me was my lived experience with autism, my commitment to neurodiversity, and years of teaching in a small liberal arts college setting, where classes are primarily discussion-based.
Two things were key: believing, from the outset, that autistic readers have much to contribute to discussions of literature and, as important, never losing sight of my own shortcomings as a neurotypical writer or ethnographer. I had no interest in testing anyone or revealing readerly inadequacy. In fact, my goal was to compensate for assumed incompetence. As Tito, who never enjoyed an inclusive education, says at one point in a piece of writing I quote, "Then there was opportunity. Professor Savarese saw me differently and agreed to accept me as his student." I did indeed see him differently, but I also recognized that even with my commitment to neurodiversity and my experience parenting a child with autism, I was still an outsider whose brain worked differently from my collaborators. I was still in a position of interpreting and translating autism, and, despite my best intentions, I sometimes got things wrong. Humility is the friend of the true teacher and ethnographer. In the book, I refuse to conceal my mistakes.
Most teachers, I would say, don't know their students when things get going at the beginning of a term. What the latter expect is a commitment to their growth as thinkers and writers and a willingness to look beyond stereotypes of race, class, gender, sexuality, and neurology in order to see them as individuals with potential. Autistics, like other historically marginalized groups, may be primed for disappointment and hopelessness, and so teachers may have to work that much harder to convince them to invest in the enterprise. It's amazing what a little belief can accomplish. A little belief and a little knowledge of autism: the kind that autistics themselves can dispense now that there exists a rich autobiographical literature. The last thing I want people to think is that my book is the product of exceptional circumstances. All any educator needs to do is to abandon an attachment to norms—of learning and comportment—and be ready to grow her or himself.
One final point: I also had time on my side. Weekly meetings by Skype over months and months allowed me to see my own misperceptions and to foster trust and even affection. I wasn't a researcher who popped in for a week and then declared my "results." The project was more respectful, organic.
As for narrative structure, I didn't pay attention to that at all when picking which book to read with which autistic reader. Rather, I thought about content and its potential appeal. Again, I resist the idea that what I present in the book has somehow been artificially or anomalously engineered, that the results can't be reproduced with other teachers and readers. (I know you're not suggesting this, but I want to be clear.) In the case of Jamie, with whom I read Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony, I overtly became the student and he, the teacher. His intensely visuospatial mind illuminated the peculiar mix of realistic narrative and native spirit world. The latter, in the form of legends and poems, exists alongside of, and sometimes interrupts, the story. Jamie helped me to see the novel's spiritual geography, its commitment to many dimensions as reflected in the structure. I hadn't anticipated that. Then again, each of my collaborators surprised me.
MN: I'm wondering if you felt any tension between your role as an ethnographer and your commitment to let autistic readers "speak for themselves" rather than speaking for them. I am thinking of Gelya Frank's work with Diane DeVries about her life as a woman without arms or legs in Venus on Wheels. Though they collaborated for years, in the end DeVries told Frank, "That's your story, it isn't mine." How difficult was it to try to feel comfortable conveying in your own words, how the readers you worked with responded to the book?
RS: Great question, Michael, and I hint at a response in my previous reply. To some, the old disability rights adage "Nothing about us without us" has become, firmly and unreservedly, "Nothing about us." Nothing about us at all. Self-representation should indeed be the law of the land. I generally agree with this principal, but I don't think it applies here. Or at least not entirely. I am an English professor who sought to undo a very pernicious stereotype about imaginative and linguistic impairment in autism. I used my professional expertise as a literary critic not to tell readers about the so-called disorder, not to insist on my view of neurological difference. Rather, I used it to promote readerly inclusion, to showcase the remarkable insights of my autistic collaborators. In doing so, I served the literary texts we discussed by revealing them to be even more capacious and resonant than people thought. I served, that is, the glorious activity of reading books.
See it Feelingly is, of course, my story. How could it not be? The problem of representation never goes away. But it can be acknowledged and made part of the drama. And safeguards can be employed. For example, all of the contributors but for Grandin (who was too busy) read their respective chapters before publication. I honored every request for changes or deletions. As important, I built into the narrative what might be called the ethnographer's dilemma. I not only refused to clean up my mistakes, but I also explicitly called attention to them. (Hence, the book's subtitle: "…and the schooling of a no-good English professor.") I wanted to foreground the human, which is to say terribly imperfect, process of getting to know someone who is different from yourself. At one point in Chapter 3, I write,
What [the poet] Chris Martin has said of the poet Brandon Brown comes close to capturing my aim: "He is constantly (and humorously) articulating his own lapses in judgement, intelligence, foresight, etc., if only to end up demonstrating how much more labor and care we need to fully realize ourselves as ethical thinkers/writers. In that way, the lapses are what finally fill out the sketch of an ethical future and direct the reader toward it.
That ethical future, if we're honest about it, requires the messiness of representing each other—of getting it wrong, of trying again. The extreme version of identity politics risks a deleterious silence, in which we all secretly misrepresent each other but never, have to own up to it. With the recent Peabody Award winning documentary, Deej, my son, DJ, who was both filmic subject and co-producer, had to fight to get to include words and footage about the difficulty of coming to an agreement on what the film should be. He had to fight to include the resentment and frustration that he, the much more vulnerable of the two, felt. The liberal trope of perfect, sympathetic understanding is often nothing but narcissistic self-congratulation.
Another thing: my method, as in my first book Reasonable people: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption, involved massive amounts of quotation. The primary advantage of recording conversations was that it allowed me to use my collaborators' exact words. Lots and lots and lots of them. Yes, the narrative structure was mine, but so much of the individual chapters is theirs. In the end, you'll have to ask my collaborators what they think of the final product.
MN: The process of letting participants in a piece read what is being published ahead of time is one that we try to employ in Wordgathering as well, so without intruding on any privacy of the writers you discussed, would you be willing to mention a couple examples of changes that the readers requested you to make?
RS: I corrected all sorts of factual errors. For example, I slightly scrambled the timeline of Jamie's acquisition of speech. I misremembered what the sign said on the strip club near Dora's house in Portland. I got a bunch of things wrong about ballet in the Eugenie chapter. But I also made more substantive changes. In the prologue I owned up to my own anxiety while reading Into Thin Air with my son, DJ. In the first chapter, I came up with a better description of the Rapid Prompting Method (RPM), which is the technique that Tito used to learn how to communicate independently. The book explores the emerging sensorimotor understanding of autism. So, getting that description right—capturing what RPM does—was crucial. In the third chapter, I more aggressively exposed the gap between a compelling account (namely, mine!) of Dora's identification with nonhuman characters and her own insider view of that propensity. With Eugenie, I had to change what I thought was a neutral description of her as "looking predominantly black and Asian." She pointed out a hard truth: Damage is done to complex multiracial subjects when we view them both reductively and gradably. At Eugenie's request, I also deleted some personal details about her parents' marriage—her father is likely on the spectrum. These sorts of revisions prepared me to write the chapter about Temple--prepared me, that is, for the rather large mistake I made there (which, I assume, you'll ask me about later in the interview). I didn't have her feedback, so previously engaging in this process with DJ, Tito, Jamie, Dora and Eugenie (and conversing with another neurodiversity scholar) allowed me to recognize the error without it.
MN: I want to jump on your reference to the "rather large mistake" that you made in your discussions with Temple Grandin. To me the Grandin section of the book seems to serve as a bit of a cautionary tale to researchers, particularly those with strong convictions as many in the disabilities studies community have.
You write, "I must admit that I was so intent on proving literature could move Temple that I lost sight of the spectacle I was precipitating: a disability studies scholar and proponent of neurodiversity straining to recover a norm—a norm of neurology and reading!" While I think that this section of the book is invaluable for researchers and it really needs to be read in its entirety, I wonder if you would mind giving prospective readers a brief description of the situation you were facing you're your discussion with Grandin.
RS: Michael, I'm happy to jump ahead to the Grandin chapter, but I need to say that it comes last in the book for a reason. Temple, who presents herself as an overly logical animal scientist who struggles with feelings, may not be the best representative of the condition. After all, the book's other contributors have no problem with emotion. I want readers to encounter their stories before encountering what has become a stereotype. I want to prime them, you might say, for the diversity in neurodiversity. A recent study distinguished between autism and alexithymia (or difficulties experiencing, recognizing and identifying emotion). While there is overlap with the two conditions, they are not the same. Indeed, alexithymia and not autism is associated with a lack of empathy. I say this not to demonize those who experience the former—indeed, I'm quite skeptical of any and all "lacking empathy" claims--but, rather, to debunk the prevailing view of autism.
So, my first point is that an art form asking readers to "See it Feelingly," to visualize with emotion what is found on the page, is by no means beyond the reach of autistics. My second is that even the subset of autistics with alexithymia may be, to use the title of a study of emotionally distant and unattached people, "defenseless against art." The authors found that literary fiction can "subvert habitual emotional disengagement of avoidantly attached individuals." Temple would seem to fit that description to a T. Interestingly, many of the aforementioned study's participants provided "a subjective self-report of reduced emotionality accompanied by physiological measures that imply increased emotionality." Were they, in other words, emotionally overwhelmed or alexithymic or both? The chapter explores in Temple the relationship between purposeful avoidance of emotion, diminution of emotional response as a side effect of anxiety medication, and actual alexithymia.
Going into my discussions with Temple, I was convinced that fiction could work its magic on her. After all, I believe in literature's power. I'd seen its effect on other autistic people. I'd devoted my adult life to debunking damaging ideas about autism. I had committed myself to the principle of "presuming competence." Yet there I was insisting on a norm of neurology and reading. And when Grandin evinced no emotion (until the very end of our second discussion), I inadvertently reproduced the idea of deficit. A proponent of neurological difference, I should have understood with her what I understand generally: that there are many ways of responding to a story or novel. One isn't necessarily better than another.
Why did I make this mistake? Two reasons, I think. The stereotype of the unfeeling autist has caused tremendous damage. If I could help Grandin to overturn it, much would be achieved. Second, a new version of neurodiversity had begun to rear its head in parent circles, one that I believed to be quite cynical. Its message: accept autistic people exactly as they are. Don't accommodate; don't attempt to discover hidden ability. Mark Osteen, father of a nonspeaking son with autism, recalls in a roundtable discussion that "presuming competence was often exactly what hindered us all the most." "Learn to see and accept your loved one as he or she is," he recommends, "rather than trying to normalize or change the person." People like me, in other words, who have worked to include my son, who have worked to enable him to communicate,to write poetry, to make a film, are simply obsessed with normalcy. We may use the word "neurodiversity," but we don't really mean it. As I ask in the book, "Can we presume competence without striving for normalcy? I think so, but in my quest to uncover emotion in Temple, I was certainly muddying the waters."
Ironically, Temple did evince emotion, strong emotion, toward the end of our discussion of the second story. But I'll leave that moment alone for readers of the book.
MN: Perhaps it is because I have always been fascinated by the kinds of questions Philip Dick's work raises, but I found your discussion with Dora Raymaker about Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? particularly exiciting and it is pretty clear why, as you mentioned, you would want to have this discussion precede the one with Grandin.
At one point you write, "By this point, she [Dora] was really enjoying the novel: �It's gotten horrible and clever. Everything is so ugly and at the same time so sad. I love that duality. I want it to be ugly and petty, but it's so sad.'" Granted that this confirms the kinds of emotional responses to literature that you were trying to demonstrate, were you surprised by her answer?
RS: I wasn't at all surprised by the fact that Dora evinced a range of complex emotions and could talk about them eloquently. As I said, I'd seen my son do it and lots of other autistics, too. To me, it was natural. Now, it may be that by some odd fluke I've strictly encountered autistics who do not experience alexithymia—in one study, 50% of the autism group did—but I doubt it. More to the point, I think, is an ability to recognize complex feeling in another form and, just as important, to wait patiently for someone to process it. An addiction to the normative and the speedy will allow you to conclude all sorts of damaging things about autism.
I was surprised—surprised and relieved—that Dora began to like the novel. At the beginning she hated it! About halfway through the chapter, I reference William Gibson's critique of much science fiction. "I can't do fiction unless I visualize what's going on," he said. "When I began to write science fiction, one of the things I found lacking in it was visual specificity. It seemed there was a lot of lazy imagining, a lot of shorthand." Visual specificity isn't Dick's strength. There is indeed a lot of shorthand i nhis novels. Dora, you might say, was having a hard time seeing it feelingly! Visual specificity is everything for her—as a reader and author (she just published her first sci-fi/fantasy novel which you can read about here: https://www.amazon.com/Hoshi-City-Circuit-Dora-Raymaker/dp/1945955120) and as an autistic person. Nor did she appreciate his sentences, which she found not only clunky but also strangely organized.
As I say in the book, Dick's strengths as a writer are "ambiguity and irony—wildly proliferating ambiguity and irony. He sows a kind of manic doubt, whose tonal strangeness flowers…only in winter—nuclear winter." Dora came to appreciate that perverse flowering, that incommensurate bundle of the "ugly" and the "sad." She also came to admire the android Rachael Rosen's wit, which I compare to a "piece of malicious Halloween candy, but with the razor on the outside and a vulnerable, pining sweetness within." Readers familiar with the novel will recall the scene in which Rachael and the bounty hunter Rick Deckard have sex. Rachael is trying to save her fellow androids and she sardonically adopts the prevailing view of androids as mere replicants, hopelessly lacking in humanity. "I understand …it's convincing if you don't think too much about it," she says. "But if you think too much, if you reflect on what you're doing—then you can't go on. For ahem physiological reasons." Dora's response was absolutely splendid: "Ooo I love how Rachael has played Deckard, how she has turned the knife of the sex-object the other way and landed it in his gut instead of her own. For a supposed not-alive, unempathic, intellectual android, and an exhausted stone-cold bounty hunter, the scene with Deckard and Rachael is on freakin' fire."
MN: I loved that reaction as well. In addition to hearing Dora's comments on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? , one of the nice surprises was to learn about her novel Hoshi and the Red City Circuit. The description of her novel definitely made me want to check it out and I hope other readers of See it Feelingly will have the same reaction.
One of the things that I admire about See it Feelingly is that each chapter, i.e. each encounter with a different student, tends to force the reader of your book into a sort of paradigm shift about reading itself. It's really a house with many rooms. Your prior acquaintance with Jamie Burke moved you to select Lesllie Marmon's Silko's Ceremony for his reading and his reaction to the book was fascinating. It seemed almost Pythagorean yet he emphasized the centrality of detail for him. As I read his comments, it made me mentally page through many of the theories of reading comprehension that prospective teachers are taught in college education class and I wonder to what extent you have thought about how future teachers of reading might benefit from the insights that Jamie and the other readers in this book are offering.
RS: I appreciate your comment about "a house with many rooms." In the book, I tried very hard to balance observations about autism generally with observations about specific autistic individuals. There exists as much diversity in the neuroatypical population as there exists in the neurotypical population—maybe more—and that diversity cannot simply be correlated to distinct points on the spectrum. And just as each person is unique, so is each reader and each novel, too. In the end, if we could reliably generalize about people or literature, neither would be very interesting.
In choosing Silko's Ceremony for Jamie, I had no idea that he would end up illuminating the novel for me—or, perhaps I should say, visualizing it for me. I had no idea how inadequate my own visualizing skills were and how crucial such skills would turn out to be for appreciating the novel's spiritual logic and structure.
When we talk about reading comprehension, we certainly don't mean this. Autism can affect every element of reading comprehension, though not always in a negative way. But there can be challenges. Take, for example, the basic process of decoding. Some studies have suggested that literate autistics reveal a "greater reliance on visual feature analysis" when encountering printed text. In other words, they don't initially engage with the letters as letters, as immediately recognizable symbols. They engage with them as shapes. As I write in the book, "From the point of view of most experts, there is too much seeing in autistic reading, just as there is too much hearing in autistic listening to speech: the medium of communication refuses to disappear. The graphic or sonic properties of the words direct attention away from their ordinary function as signifiers. As a result, language behaves less like a mule than a rearing circus horse: something to behold as much as to unpack (or decode)." For this reason, Tito prefers to have a book read aloud to him; the page is too alive with the movement born of constellated squiggles. It becomes distracting. It's a bit like going to an art gallery when all you really want to do is read. The same was true for Jamie until he learned to speak at age 13, when the printed text began to settle down.
To bring this back to Silko, the habit of intense visualization seems strangely appropriate for a novel in which the protagonist must learn to see differently and in which the novel's words actually stop for a moment and a picture appears of a constellation in the night sky. This constellation will guide Tayo on his journey toward wholeness. Having to hear Ceremony read aloud seems fitting as well, as it mirrors Silko's own attempt to bridge the divide between Native storytelling, which is oral, and Western narrative, which is a print phenomenon.
MN: I want to move into one of those other rooms right now. As you know, one of the charges generally laid against disability studies is that it is a white enclave, a point made recently by Lydia X. Z. Brown's recent anthology All the Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism, so it seems particularly important that your discussions with Eugenie Belkin were included in this volume. What I found particularly compelling, though, was that despite the fact that The Heart is the Lonely Hunter has been criticized by the Deaf community, Eugenie seemed to strongly identify with the deaf characters even saying "It's like I can become these characters and people." In fact, at one point she tells you. "This is where I struggled with you at times with Heart. I just wanted to feel it, but you wanted more dissection and opinion."
How did you feel about her response? Do you think she has a valid point in terms of her own purposes for reading?
RS: The chapter about Eugenie, who is not only autistic but also deaf, black, Jewish, and Native American (among other things), takes up the important concept of intersectionality—how autism intersects with other forms of difference and identity. Before I talk about Eugenie, however, let me note that she isn't the only person of color in the book. Tito is South Asian. He came to the United States as a teenager and found himself excluded from regular education; a disabled immigrant, he lacked the necessary economic and social capital to make the system work for him. He was also the son of a single mother. And while the book's other subjects are white, they are diversely so: they are of different ages, genders, economic backgrounds, professions, etc.
Why am I stressing this kind of diversity? Because Eugenie helped me to see a link between the pre-categorical proclivities of autism and the anti-categorical proclivities of multiraciality. Both side with the particular, the irreducibly particular, over and against generalizations. No matter how progressive and politically essential, identity politics represent, in part, a betrayal of an autistic way of encountering the world, which is bottom-up as opposed to top-down, slow and meticulous as opposed to quick and sloppy. Autism, you might say, is a kind of pre-, rather than post-, structuralism: there's no need to deconstruct anything since the world hasn't yet fully congealed into categories. Put simply, no white person is white, generally white, just as no black person is black, generally black. They are unique, and that uniqueness so overwhelms the label as to render it largely meaningless.
As I write in the book, "A dip into the neuroscientific research revealed an uncanny parallel: just as autistics, with their detail-oriented sensing, put pressure on the generally labeled thing, so multiracial people, with their complex genetic and cultural inheritances, put pressure on the generally labeled person. While the terms we deploy can't possibly accommodate the fullness of the individual example, the minds we have—we neurotypicals, that is—aren't inclined to see it anyway. 'Due to the widely recognized limits and biases in our perceptual systems,' argues one diversity scientist, 'going beyond simple categorization may be relatively rare because it can be quite effortful.'"
This sort of "simple categorization" causes harm—what sociologists call "identity constraint." Think of it as a form of perceptual violence. As Eugenie makes clear in her comments about The Heart is the Lonely Hunter, she had great difficulty putting together the many different pieces of herself. Deaf people didn't want her to be autistic; black people didn't want her to be white or Jewish; and white people responded with their customary racism. How to combat what appears to be a built-in problem with non-autistic brains? Well, Eugenie has given up on identity politics altogether. She just doesn't fit within its framework. Other people have tried to complicate the very business of categorical analysis. Hence, the turn to fluid intersectionality.
Before answering (at last!) your question, let me say that the critique of disability studies as a "white enclave" is entirely legitimate. Until recently, the field has largely been comprised of white writers and scholars talking about white disabled subjects. This is especially true of autism. The anthology that Lydia coedited beautifully corrects for this damaging habit. To think of autism as a Caucasian disorder has very real repercussions. Consider the fact that in 2014, a white child was 30 percent more likely to receive an autism diagnosis than a black child and 50% more likely than a Latino one, and when the latter groups did receive a diagnosis it came much later than it did for the former group. With a diagnosis come services, of course, and legally entitled accommodations.
OK. Your question. Eugenie had all sort of issues with The Heart is the Lonely Hunter. She didn't like the representations of deafness and blackness at all. In fact, she found them both offensive. What is more, she was baffled by Singer's love for Anton who so mistreats him. McCullers depicts the latter in such a grotesque way that Eugenie felt it rendered deafness itself pathetic. I wouldn't say she identified with these men so much as she was delighted, at least at first, to encounter a novel that made deafness central to the characterization and plot. That delight very quickly waned, however, as she discovered what McCullers was ultimately doing with deafness.
Her comment about "becoming these characters and people" was more of a general statement about how she reads fiction. She responds to feeling, first and foremost—the evocation of feeling. Like a talented surfer, she rides that wave of feeling into shore. Both the novel itself and her professorial interlocutor interfered with her ride, as it were. I kept behaving as if I were teaching a class, asking analytical questions. I can be quite cerebral (as I'm sure this interview suggests)! I think Eugenie's purpose for reading is completely valid. When I listen to music, I don't take it part and figure out how it was constructed. Nor do I subject it to ideological analysis—unless it's a pop song I hate. (I'm happy to critique the truly awful Taylor Swift!) I simply enjoy it. So why should Eugenie be analytical about fiction?
For Eugenie, feeling is critical to everything she does, including dance; she's a ballerina and choreographer for competitive ice skaters. (I almost want to say she read The Heart is the Lonely Hunter as if she were dancing. She was especially responsive to the flowing, musical elements of the novel's structure.) Her challenges with autism involve translating feeling into language, into useable cognitive scripts. In many ways, she's the exact opposite of Temple. As Eugenie puts it, playing off of Temple's famous phrase, she "thinks in feelings."
MN: As the editor of an online journal of disability literature, I have the chance to read and review a good many new books in the field. I have to say that over the past few years I have the growing feeling that "everything that rises must converge." Almost every new book that I come across, whether it belongs to a creative literary genre or is a more scholarly work, inevitably ends up having to address the downward spiraling that is our current political climate. In your "Epilogue" you briefly address this issue as well, even posing the question, "Of what use is literature in the face of such barbarism?" and, to me, your answer is really an apologia for literature, not just in the lives of people with disabilities, but for the value of literature to a society.
Before ending our discussion, I want to reiterate for Wordgathering readers that, despite its readability, trying to capture the capacious nature of See if Feelingly in an interview is a bit like sending Tito out in search of Moby Dick. In that spirit, I'd like to ask if there is anything you want to add to what we have said here that you would like potential readers to know?
RS: First, let me say thank you for doing this interview. And let me affirm your reading of the Epilogue. I do indeed believe that literature offers something crucial to society. And something crucial to marginalized peoples. If my book contributes in a small way to changing public perceptions about autistic talent—it's broad and diverse, not narrow and similar—then I will be satisfied.
The only thing that I'd like to add is this: the book contains a fair amount of neuroscience—presented, I hope, in an appealing and accessible way. (In 2012-2013, I was a neurohumanities fellow at Duke University's Institute for Brain Sciences.) I'm interested in how brains and bodies read literature—different brains and different bodies. Neurodiversity, after all, isn't just a platitude; it's a term reflecting measureable departures from a neurological norm. Thus, as I discuss these literary works with my autistic collaborators, I explore aspects of their difference. And I do so critically, skeptically, putting pressure on received wisdom, which is invariably negative with respect to autism.
The Tito chapter takes up the sensory; the Jamie chapter takes up the new focus on motor impairments; the Dora chapter takes up the purported preference for objects over people in autism; the Eugenie chapter takes up the science of racial and ethnic categorization; and the Temple chapter takes up the ability of literature to evoke emotion. But that makes See It Feelingly sound too academic. Poet Ed Hirsch, who was kind enough to blurb the book, nicely described it as "part memoir, part disability study, part portraiture, part literary criticism." I think of it as nonfiction writing!