Today on the site I’m thrilled to introduce two brilliant authors in conversation: Ada Hoffmann, author of The Outside and The Fallen (the latter of which just released last month from Angry Robot), and RB Lemberg, author of the Birdverse series. They’re here to chat about their work and the worldbuiliding, representation, and themes within it, so pull up a chair and listen in!
RB: I love how in the world of your novels The Outside and The Fallen, issues of faith and ethics take central place. One of the things that made me root for Yasira is seeing her grapple with ethical issues at every step. She constantly makes calculations related to fairness and right and wrong as she perceives them; I found this very relatable, and I think this is relatable to other autistic people as well. I would love to hear how you went about creating this aspect of Yasira’s character, and how this may connect to your larger worldbuilding around issues of divinity, godhood, and justice.
Ada: Thank you, RB! Ruminating and calculating about what’s right or wrong is relatable to me, too. It’s something I can paralyze myself with if I’m not careful. I wouldn’t say that autistic people are any more moral than others, overall, but I do think that this specific kind of rumination is something I see a lot.
I created Yasira some time after creating my main villains, so from the get-go I knew she needed to be someone who’d be caught between them in their machinations and would eventually need to decide for herself what side she was on. (And whenever there’s a plot dilemma like that, I almost always root for the character to come up with their own, third option!) It takes a lot of thinking things over in order to be able to make a decision like that. It was almost a plot requirement more than a character requirement, but I think it fits Yasira’s other traits well and formed a substantial part of who she is.
The worldbuilding of the Outside series is very much one that presents two bad options. I had some fun with the idea of religion being presented mechanistically, as a set of rules to follow that will have a set of well-defined spiritual outcomes–this is highlighted by the Gods of Yasira’s galaxy literally being machines. Someone like Yasira has a desire to be good and follow rules–when she accuses Tiv of doing things just to be good, and not because she really means them, it’s almost a bit of projection. It takes her time and some bad experiences before she really understands that the rules she’s been raised to follow are not just and that she cannot continue to follow them. But on the other side of the equation, the polar opposite of a mechanistic religion is Outside, which is just this wild, utterly unknowable mystical force with no regard for human lives or suffering whatsoever, and that doesn’t seem to be a good option either.
I talk about Yasira finding a third option, but in the end I suppose it’s not fully a third option–she doesn’t go off on her own and create a completely different, third religion. Instead she really does come to revere Outside in some ways, but she has to reconcile that with her own very human belief in justice and human dignity and that it’s worth saving as many human lives as she possibly can. A lot of Yasira’s heroism lies in the ability to do that reconciliation, at great cost to herself. Meanwhile Dr. Talirr is a villain because she discards that belief – her own very human tendency is to sacrifice other people, mostly people she doesn’t know, to advance her own aims.
Or at least that’s my own moral take on what’s going on in this series –I do find it rewarding when readers come up with their own nuanced interpretations that are a bit different from mine. That tells me that I’ve given them enough to chew on, philosophically, that they’re really thinking about it and concluding things on their own, and I like when that happens.
RB, you write a lot about divinity and mysticism as well in your Birdverse series, which I love. In The Four Profound Weaves, I was really struck by the depth of meaning in the four weaves of the title, with characters who can weave carpets out of substances as abstract as songs, bones, sand, and wind. They are a counter-intuitive set of things to build carpets out of at first glance, but each one has a very particular emotional meaning, and the end of the novella combines these meanings and shows them as being intertwined, in a kind of cycle or a weave consisting of all four threads. What led you to choose these four particular substances, these four particular meanings? Did you consider many possible ones, or did you always know deep down it would be these four?
RB: Thank you so much for those thoughtful answers, Ada, lots to chew on! I want to talk more about Dr. Talirr, if that’s OK–I loved seeing two autistic women in a mentoring relationship. I rarely see women mentors and mentees, and I rarely see an autistic mentor/autistic mentee relationship, even though I feel this happens frequently in life, so the complicated relationship between Dr. Talirr and Yasira felt exciting to me. I love how central this relationship is to the world of the Outside, and how deep their conflict is. I think that from a normative human perspective, the value of human lives outweighs most other concerns, but that, too, can be broken – if the fundamental relationship to reality itself is altered, ethics are altered as well, and with them the value of human lives; that is, perhaps, what makes Dr. Talirr a heretic rather than straightforwardly a villain. I guess that’s those other interpretations you mentioned 🙂
As for the four weaves, I was always deeply interested in the relationship between hope and death. Years before I was a published writer, I envisioned hope and death as sibling birds, circling around each other as they descend towards a person on the ground. The imagery of hope and death as birds appears in print for the first time in one of my early poems, “Twin-Born,” in Goblin Fruit.
Hope and death are intertwined in paradoxical yet intuitively familiar ways. I see both hope and death as properties of humanity as a whole, its defining characteristics, if you will. As for change and wanderlust, I envisioned those as properties of individuals, and both are very important to me. In The Four Profound Weaves and elsewhere, I interpreted change as it relates to transness, to coming out; change is both frightening and necessary in order to embrace one’s fullest self. As for wanderlust, it is also a property of an individual, and specifically my own need as an autistic person–to roam both physically and intellectually, to explore and wander. I often think about the absence of wanderlust as stagnation, being stuck in one place that neither hope nor death can reach. Change and wanderlust are weaves that represent the protagonists nen-sasaïr and Uiziya, both of whom are trans, both of whom have been feeling stuck in their lives for a very long time. Embracing both change and wanderlust leads them to the two other, more collective, weaves of hope and death. Readers sometimes ask me which is my favorite weave. Right now I will have say wanderlust; the best ending for me always leads to new adventures. The thing I desire most in my own life right now is to be free to wander, as a person who exists in a physical world, as a writer, as a scholar. I think that in 2021, many people would agree with me. As for how I chose these particular weaves: my process is always organic and almost dreamlike. I endlessly ruminate on imagery, turn things this way and that in my mind, and write poems until the structure solidifies.
Speaking about divinity and worldbuilding process, would you mind talking about how you came up with the individual AI gods in the world of The Outside? Is there any god or gods that you wanted to explore more, but did not have a chance yet?
ADA: I did love writing the complicated relationship between Yasira and Dr. Talirr, so I’m glad that comes off compellingly. They share a neurotype and a kind of mystical experience that almost no one else does, but they’re so different in the ways they’ve been brought up and rewarded or punished for their neurotype, and in the attitudes they take. It leads to a kind of intense ambivalence that was really rewarding to explore. We definitely haven’t seen the last of Dr. Talirr.
For the AI Gods, I knew immediately that I wanted each of them to represent a human tendency, something that’s present in everyone, but drives some people more than others. And from very early on I knew a few of the Gods that I wanted to include–Nemesis, of course, and a God of creativity (who eventually became Techne), and Gods of the pursuit of knowledge (Aletheia) and of love (Philophrosyne), as well as a fallen, demonized figure to play the role of the Keres. But the full list of Gods wasn’t finalized right away. Eventually, an early collaborator suggested that I should name the Gods after ancient Greek personifications of concepts, because my initial attempts at naming Them did not sound God-like enough. So I actually found a list of these and went through them one name at a time, jotting down the ones that seemed compelling to me and sufficiently different from the others to play a role in this cosmology. Not all of the concepts are very flattering – there is a God of conformity, for instance, and a God of laziness! But these are human tendencies that play an important role. Without something that could be labeled as laziness, for instance, we would never know when we need to take a break and rest. I wasn’t dead set on having a specific number of Gods, but the number that I eventually settled on (eleven “proper” gods, with the Keres making a ghostly and implicit twelfth) felt good.
We definitely don’t get a lot of time on the page, in these books, exploring other Gods besides Nemesis, but I would love to do that exploration some day, maybe in side stories. Nemesis is pretty unambiguously terrible, but there are Gods who play much more joyful, gentler roles and I have headcanons about several of Them. I think Philophrosyne’s priests do beautiful wedding ceremonies as well as having ways of honoring other, non-romantic forms of love. I think Gelos, the God of pleasure, has angels who are elusive but who suddenly pop up on a planet every once in a while with some fascinating God-built art installation or theme park-like attraction that’s like nothing the local mortals have ever seen.
The Fallen does contain hints of the complex relationship between Nemesis and Arete, the God of heroism. The two of Them often find themselves working together for the same goals but with very different methods, which leads to Nemesis’ harsh methods being softened a bit, but also Arete’s helpful intentions getting very morally compromised.
Let’s talk more about those trans themes in The Four Profound Weaves. It’s not the first time you’ve written trans characters, but I was struck by the complexity of nen-sasaïr’s arc, with regards to gender. We so often think of physical transition as an endpoint, an end goal, especially in a medical system that often reserves affirming medical care for people who can prove they have already socially transitioned. But nen-sasaïr’s story is almost the opposite of that. He has fully transitioned and is living his life as a man, but he is not in his home culture, and he experiences intense ambivalence as to whether he can ever return to that culture, whether the men of his culture would ever accept him as one of them, whether or not that’s even what he wants. Can you say more about this kind of ambivalence?
RB: I come to my stories from an international perspective, as a migrant and a person who has lived in different parts of the world, so the social norms around transitioning in the US are not where my worldbuilding originates. I always assume that trans and queer identities differ between various cultures and time periods. We can find a variety of attitudes even within a single culture – this is true for our world, and for Birdverse. As a migrant, I am always interested in exploring how trans and queer people navigate intersections of cultures, with all the different cultural norms and expectations. Throughout his life, nen-sasaïr experienced his society as trans-rejecting even as it embraces queerness. There are a lot of what we would call TERFy attitudes among his loved ones and in his home culture. In his twenties, nen-sasaïr accompanies his lover Bashri-nai-Leylit on a trading venture to the great Burri desert. Their journey is motivated by desperation – they are trying to acquire the greatest treasure ever woven, to buy back the life of their third lover, Bashri-nai-Divrah.
In the desert, among the snake-Surun’ people, nen-sasaïr witnesses a very different reality–trans people are affirmed, transition is a communal event; everyone who loves a trans person are invited to assist their transition through the act of weaving. This is shocking to nen-sasaïr. Among the snake-Surun’ he meets Benesret, a famous weaver who is ready to assist him with his physical transition. But he feels that transitioning will take him away from his home culture, and from his lover Bashri-nai-Leylit, who is not accepting of his transness; that would also mean giving up on rescuing Bashri-nai-Divrah. He cannot go through with his transition then, but he always wants to come back, and it takes him forty years to do so. His story cannot end with finally transitioning in his sixties; in fact, it barely begins there. Once he physically transitions, he is still left with those same old traumas and dilemmas – Bashri-nai-Leylit died without affirming him, his culture is still rejecting, the story of Bashri-nai-Divrah is unfinished, and he feels that while he is a man, he has no place among Khana men. His eventual journey does not end on a single triumphant note – he cannot completely change his society, and he is also not willing to leave his friends behind to join the world of the Khana men. But he is able to become more deeply and truly himself without erasing any part of his journey.
This is a story of older people, and older, complex lives in which transness is a huge part of the story, but not the totality of the story. My hope for him is that in his travels, he will find a different pocket of the Khana culture which is more affirming. The Khana people are diasporic, and there are other groups scattered around the landmass. Most are quite similar culturally to nen-sasaïr’s home in Iyar, but a few are a bit different. A certain bird whispered in my ear that he might just be headed that way.
So let’s talk about transness a bit, and villains, although I am honestly reluctant to use this word with many of the Outside villains. I am fascinated by Akavi, who is a shape-shifter and a (eventually, fallen) angel of Nemesis in the world of The Outside. He is a shape-changer who enjoys taking a female form from time to time, and he also assumes female pronouns when he does so – I would love to hear more about how this character came about, whether or not you view him as trans (he seems to identify as a man?), and I would also love to hear you talk about the relationship between shapechange and transness in your work and in general. While we are talking about Akavi, I would also love to hear more about the relationship between Akavi and Elu. Elu is obviously in love with Akavi and he comes across as a gentle, caring person – how come he is an angel of Nemesis? Without spoilers, what does the future hold for these two?
ADA: Oh my goodness, transness and shapeshifting and villains, yes! The first thing I want to say about Akavi and gender is that he’s a character I started wanting to write about long before I realized that I might be genderfluid myself. When I look at him from a queer perspective I see a lot about my early self kind of hesitantly poking my toe into questions and fantasies about gender, about what gender means and what form it can take, but without quite admitting to myself that I was doing it, or that it had anything to do with being trans. There’s an additional layer here in that the person who first came up with Akavi, as a D&D character, is not me – I write the science fiction version of Akavi with that person’s enthusiastic consent, and he is also not completely binary gendered himself. So when I look at Akavi he’s not necessarily the kind of character I would create if I were starting from scratch, trying to write a story about gender today, but he’s still a character who is very important to me.
I think that Akavi does identify as male, but with some caveats. I think that the Vaurian idea of gender is a bit more fluid and flexible than we are used to (and as you point out, I am being a bit North America-centric here). I think it would be relatively uncommon, though certainly not unknown, for a Vaurian to be so attached to a single gender that they won’t want to present as another one sometimes when it fits the situation. Vaurians are not exactly a culture – they are an engineered human variant that has spread through several mortal cultures – but what they have in the way of culture places a high value on blending in and committing to a role. And that includes using pronouns that fit the presentation they are using at the time. So Akavi thinks of himself as a man, but he has a very expansive idea of what it means to be a man, which includes presenting as or referring to himself as though he’s a woman at times. My friend who created the character referred to it as magical cross-dressing, which I think is still accurate.
Shapeshifting is an extremely common trans fantasy but I’ve also seen a lot of non-binary readers complaining that they are tired of shapeshifting characters, especially when that is so often the only trans or non-binary representation that a work will offer. In The Outside the only characters that really invite a trans or non-binary reading are Akavi and his supervisor Irimiru, who is also a Vaurian, and who uses a mix of pronouns including they/them. Needless to say it’s not ideal for the only non-binary characters in a work to be manipulative, untrustworthy shapeshifters! When I wrote The Outside I wasn’t really thinking very hard about this, but by the time I came to The Fallen I was more aware of it. I’m still attached to the Vaurians and I don’t think there is anything wrong with having written them, but there was room in the plot for several new characters, so I have added various characters who are also somewhere on the trans spectrum, and who are not shapeshifters, or manipulative or untrustworthy at all. I hope that goes some ways towards balancing it out.
And then, Elu. Elu! Elu is a character very dear to my heart, and I would also call him a problematic character – not in the sense of being offensive or bad, but in the sense of calling attention to problems and inviting difficult questions. Elu talks about his backstory a little bit in The Outside, and this is expanded on a little more in The Fallen. Nemesis presents Herself as someone who uses ruthless methods in order to protect humanity, to save them from even worse things. Elu had an intense experience as a child where Nemesis’ forces saved his planet from a violent attack by the Keres. He is idealistic, and he grew up wanting to help save other people in that same way. But when he became an angel in order to do this, he discovered that it was not really what he thought, and it was also too late to take it back. Elu’s attachment to Akavi – to an individual in the system who is important to him, rather than necessarily the system itself – is one of his ways of coping with this reality, I think.
I have to say I have a lot of feelings about Akavi and Elu’s relationship. I’m someone who is very attracted to villains, which is not at all uncommon – you can look into any given fandom and see it happening. I have also had, shall we say, not the easiest romantic history ever, and when a person behaves abusively it is very easy to turn it back on myself and imagine I must have invited that behavior somehow; maybe if I am drawn to bad people, even if I don’t fully realize they are bad, then whatever happens next is my own fault for being drawn to them. That feeling is bullshit and victim-blaming but it can feel very emotionally true, and frankly I feel complicit in a lot of the worst things that have happened to me in relationships. So, I often catch myself projecting those feelings onto Elu, too. He is kind and gentle, but he is still a cog in a very harmful machine and he became that way because of his own choices. He is not free from responsibility, and deep down he knows that, and while he is on the run from the Gods with Akavi he continues to be complicit in what Akavi is doing.
It’s very easy to construct an arc for Elu that is all about punishing him for the choices he’s made, either out of naive, misplaced idealism or in a bid to survive. But I hope that the arc I have actually constructed for him in The Fallen manages to avoid this. It’s not an easy arc for him, because he is, after all, on the run with Akavi, and Akavi is not a person who is very interested or capable of maintaining a healthy relationship. But I also found that in the process of writing the book, as I wrote how Elu adapts and survives in a situation that’s increasingly unpleasant for him, I was able to find a lot more compassion for him than when I started.
RB, I find myself thinking of what you said about wanderlust as I look at the impressive variety of things you’ve done in your creative life. You have the Birdverse fantasy setting, which is sprawling and complex enough to include many kinds of stories in many cultures, but you also have other settings, and you write poetry, and you have been a poetry editor putting many projects together; you have written essays and are writing a scholarly volume about Ursula K. LeGuin, and now your memoir, Everything Thaws, is coming out in 2022! I want to know, what challenges have you encountered in a creative life that includes so many diverse things? Do you find that writing in a certain genre helps enrich the writing you do in another?
RB: Thanks for this question! My biggest challenges involve juggling my overwhelming day job in academia, my family obligations, and the fact that I am on the spectrum, and overwhelm and burnout are never far from me. I have diverse interests, and my creativity takes different forms – I write fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and I do scholarship of different kinds; I do art, and I love editing. This diversity can be viewed as a strength, but it can also easily be spun as a weakness. I often think that under capitalism, we tend to view anything which is not “one brand, one push” as a detriment, and it’s certainly much less easy to monetize a creative career which takes so many forms, but that’s me, and I do not want to undo myself. I keep reminding myself that Ursula K. Le Guin, who is in many ways my lodestar, also worked across many genres. She wrote poetry and prose, she edited, she translated, she wrote endless incredible pieces of creative nonfiction, she published with a variety of presses big and small – and can I just say, her doodles are phenomenal! There is more than one way to be a creator in this world. All of my pieces work together – my scholarship enriches my fiction and vice versa, and the art I do comes from my worlds as well; everything is interconnected.
Speaking of which, you too have produced work in different genres and areas! I love your poetry, and I would love to hear more about your recent poetry book Million-Year Elegies. Do you see these poems connected – thematically, philosophically – to the ideas and inspirations of the Outside books? I would also love to talk to you about The Autistic Book Party, your long-running review column highlighting works with autistic characters and/or works by autistic
creators. How does your reviewing inspire or support your fiction?
ADA: I hadn’t thought about connections between Million-Year Elegies and the Outside series until you asked! They’re two very different things, but now that I think of it, they do have several big themes in common – trauma, subjectivity, and upheaval. Both works contain characters dealing with the effects of both personal and collective trauma. Million-Year Elegies really ruminates on the topic of trauma – it writes from the perspective of ancient creatures who have survived (or failed to survive) mass extinctions, as well as creatures dealing with predators and injuries and other shattering events on a more personal level. It talks about loss and grief and how cycles of abuse replicate themselves, and it also talks about growth and flourishing and rebirth and how life springs up again in a new form after devastation.
The Outside series has a lot of individually traumatized characters, and The Fallen in particular does a lot to show how they are coping with trauma and what the longer-term effects are. Maybe it does too much with that; my writing is a little too introspective for some readers’ tastes, even when there are things blowing up, cosmic horrors stalking the earth, and cool cyborg angels swooping around in big spaceships. But that’s just me and how I think. And it deals with massive changes to a particular planet that fundamentally and traumatically alter what life is like there, and how the whole society of that world has adjusted in a bid to survive.
We are, of course, in the middle of a mass extinction right now, as well as a pandemic, a resurgence of fascism, and various other global emergencies, and I think that’s beginning to bubble up through everyone’s creative work in more and more obvious ways. And I’ve never really been interested in writing calls to action about these things – I sort of think that everyone in my reach who can act, already knows they should act, and is probably beating themselves up for not doing more! But I suppose what does interest me as a writer is understanding what these crises do to people’s minds and to the ways they connect or fail to connect with one another. So that shows up in a big way in both works.
The other theme I mentioned is subjectivity. Dr. Talirr likes to say that reality is a lie – that there’s something about our perception that inherently fails to grasp some of the deepest truths. Million-Year Elegies plays with that idea in its own way; there are a lot of poems about humans finding dinosaur bones and inherently interpreting them in a human, culturally specific way, failing to grasp something about them. Filling in the gaps in what’s known with their own human concerns, I suppose, as one would with frog DNA. And my own take on what dinosaurs mean to me or what I imagine them saying and experiencing, in the poems, is just as human and just as subjective. A human point of view is something you can’t ever really escape from, and I’m not even sure the effects would be desirable if we did, but I think about it a lot.
Autistic Book Party is something I started over a decade ago, when I was much less established as a writer than I am now, and the publishing landscape for autistic people was also a bit different. It’s definitely been a project I’ve learned a lot from as a writer – I had to teach myself wider knowledge about autistic community and self-advocacy as I went, and I started noticing all sorts of patterns I hadn’t noticed before. I’ve learned a lot about autism representation, what’s out there, what the common problems are, where the gaps are, and also about the good work that many autistic authors are already doing. It’s enriched how I write about autism but it’s also been something that I feel a need to step away from at times. When you think so intensely about representing a particular thing it gets easy to overthink it, and to stop writing projects before they begin because you’re so worried about getting it wrong. When you see the viciousness on social media towards authors who do get it wrong – which doesn’t just mean writing something bigoted by accident, or phrasing something carelessly but also just writing representation in a way that isn’t what some portion of the audience was hoping for – it’s easy for this worry to be magnified. Sometimes I have to step out of my critical reviewer’s mind and just shamelessly follow some other creative impulse and see what happens, because otherwise I just won’t write anything at all. And sometimes that conflict makes me angst about whether this kind of reviewing is even a good idea. But the reviews series is so important to so many autistic readers, I always end up resolving to keep it going in some form.
Tell me more about Everything Thaws, your upcoming poetry memoir. In this memoir you’ve promised to cover a wide range of topics – Soviet Jews, climate change, queerness, multigenerational trauma. It sounds like heavy and fascinating work. What can Birdverse readers expect from you when they come to this book?
RB: Awesome! I felt there was a connection to be made between Million-Year Elegies and The Outside, and I love how you articulated it. As for being “too introspective”, that’s what I especially love about your writing. I think introspection is necessary with the themes you are dealing with – examining the very nature of reality demands a fair amount of introspection, I think! Of course, this reflects my own preferences – I am always on the lookout for stories that deal with the impact of action – all too often fast-paced books do not stop to consider the impact of these fast-paced, often traumatic experiences on the protagonists, and I find this difficult to relate to. The attention to trauma and neurodiversity is something I really appreciate about your fiction, in-between the cool cosmic horror!
Everything Thaws is about multigenerational trauma and memory, it is a very migrant, diasporic text. It’s my first fully-fledged foray into non-speculative writing, and it’s something I felt compelled to write and worked on for three years after my father passed away. I am glad this book found a good home, and I’m looking forward to what people think about it – people beyond the speculative realm, actually. I have no idea what Birdverse readers might get from this – beyond that it is something I wrote and it deals with my usual themes – identity, migration, queerness, history, art, materiality – in a realistic setting that includes an ice dragon. The dragon existed.
Reading The Outside, I couldn’t stop thinking about the punitive “corrective” treatments Dr. Talirr underwent as a child. The treatments were designed to wean her off the Outside heresy, but given that Dr. Talirr is also autistic, I felt that this evoked a discussion of ABA and similar terrible treatments so often inflicted upon autistic children. This treatment has a traumatizing impact upon Dr. Talirr as a child, and her parents decide to pull her out of treatment despite the wishes of the agents of Nemesis. I would love to hear your thoughts about the “cure” narratives we encounter so often in stories with neurodiverse and/or disabled protagonists – as a field, we have been pushing against these narratives for quite some time, but I feel that we still have quite a ways to go, both as a society and in publishing. Do you intend to continueexploring these themes in the future?
ADA: Thank you for this question! I think we see this less often nowadays in speculative fiction than we did even ten years ago, the idea that a happy ending for an autistic character is to cure their autism and make them neurotypical. People are becoming more aware that this isn’t what an autistic person would consider a happy ending, that it involves essentially destroying the person the character was until that point, and remaking them into a new shape, and autistic people generally do not want to go through that process. Even from the people providing ABA-like therapies, I see slightly more awareness these days. Ivor Lovaas, who invented this therapy, famously said that the autistic child was not a person and that the person needed to be built through conditioning. Nowadays we do not see providers using this language – they talk more about building skills and getting the child to be ready to face the world.
Yet, the therapies are still abusive. The Judge Rotenberg Center is still using electric shocks as an aversive! Even the softest, most outwardly positive, punishment-free versions of ABA are coercive in nature. The child’s expressions of distress or attempts to withdraw consent are ignored. And the aim of the therapy, the skills being built, are skills of conformity and acting as a neurotypical adult expects, even if it compounds the autistic person’s distress. There is an assumption that if the autistic person is outwardly remade and begins to look neurotypical, from the outside, then this will make it easier for them to live a fulfilling life in neurotypical society. When, actually, the opposite is true – the skill of masking, looking neurotypical, has significant negative effects on mental health and even on life skills. This is borne out by the data, when people bother to collect the data on autistic adults. It’s a constant, exhausting, dehumanizing effort. And the impulse to teach autistic people this skill, I think, comes from the same place as the impulse to cure them. The underlying aim is not to make the autistic person happy, but to free neurotypical people from having to think about autism.
I should note that when I talk about this, I am not speaking from lived experience – I am not an ABA survivor myself. ABA is generally done to young children and I was not diagnosed until my teens. But I am speaking based on what I have consistently heard from many different ABA survivors in the autistic community. And I think that even for autistic people who did not go through therapy, we are taught through more informal means that we need to mask in order to survive or be worthy of existing among other people. And at some point in our lives we have to actively unlearn that, often in the wake of burnout when it becomes impossible to do anymore.
As for returning to these themes, it’s really hard to say. My writing process is that I start with a character or scene idea that seems very shiny and exciting to me, and I construct the scaffolding of a plot around that; many of the deeper themes of the work don’t become apparent until later, when I’ve worked on it more and seen the shape it takes on the page. I didn’t know that Dr. Talirr was going to have something ABA-like in her backstory until I was midway through the draft. So, I have no specific plans, but that doesn’t mean I won’t return to it at some point!
Definitely the theme of masking, if not of therapy or cures exactly, is one that I have been thinking about almost obsessively for the past couple of years. Not just in terms of autism, but also in terms of how queer people mask some part of themselves in order to pass or stay closeted, how all sorts of marginalized people have to mask as a part of respectability politics – even if their marginalization as such, in terms of what label applies to them, is not kept secret. It is a survival strategy; I do not want to call it morally wrong. But it takes such a toll on us as humans and on our relationships with each other as humans. I feel like I am actively searching for ways to unmask more, and I am also wrestling with how to balance that need with the need for privacy and safety. So I would be shocked if that search isn’t reflected in my future fiction at some point, but I don’t know yet exactly where it will be, or what it will look like. It will find a place to situate itself, I am sure.
You mentioned that you see Ursula K. Le Guin as your lodestar. You edited a poetry collection, Climbing Lightly Through Forests, in honor of Le Guin, which included your own literary overview of Le Guin’s poetry. (Spoiler alert: a poem of mine appears in Climbing Lightly Through Forests as well.) I heard you have now received a grant to produce an academic book about this topic. Can you tell me more about this project? What draws you to Le Guin’s poetry in particular? What have you learned so far by looking at it, and what are you hoping to learn in the archives?
RB: I’m very excited about any future work you might do that explores masking, both as a survival strategy and something that can be toxic and erasing – it’s something I struggle with in my own life, and I am sure anything you write about it will be meaningful.
As for Climbing Lightly Through Forests, I co-edited this collection with Lisa M.Bradley, whose work in both prose and poetry should definitely be more widely known! When I originally pitched the book to Aqueduct, I promised to write a Le Guin poetry retrospective to round out the volume of poetic tributes. I knew Ursula’s poetry well and read many of her collections, but I did not realize just how much poetry she’s written, and how deeply she cared about her poetry throughout her life – the first thing she’s written, at age five, was a poem, and she worked on her poetry until the very last. The vast majority of her poetry is not speculative, but it reflects her inner rich life, her recurrent and evolving perspectives on dying, and on the nature of the Pacific Northwest. Early in 2020, I was named the 2020 Le Guin Feminist Fellow by the University of Oregon Libraries, but the library closed to outside researchers during the pandemic, and I could not do my archival research. I am finally getting my chance to go this August. I am hoping to find correspondence, any journal entries, and other archival material that could shed light on her process as a poet. I’m also hoping to find unpublished poems! I am tentatively calling my academic manuscript in process My Old Tongue Breaks in Two: The Poetry of Ursula K. Le Guin. I hope to report more on my findings later this summer, mostly on Patreon – this is where I’m mostly at, these days.
What’s next for you as an author? What are you working on right now?
ADA: Right now I am working on Book Three in the Outside series (which has yet to be named, although in my notes I am calling it simply, Nemesis.) I am really struggling with this one and I’m not quite sure yet what form it will take by the time it has been finished and revised and sent to readers, but it is going to happen! My hope for it is that it goes even further – in one direction or another! to be determined! – than the books before it.
And to wrap up, I will ask the same question back to you – what are you working on now? What future project, or projects, are you most excited about?
RB: I am finishing the big revision on my new Birdverse novel The Unbalancing, which is a book about a group of queer and nonbinary magic keepers who are trying to prevent an environmental and magical disaster. The book started out as a novella, but it has been expanded into a short(ish) novel now, and I am looking forward to share these people, and these themes, with my readers. After that, I’ll go back to work on my big Birdverse novel Bridgers, which I keep talking about. It’s about revolution and linguistics and deeply explored Jewish themes, and I need to get this right.
Thank you for a chance to ask and answer these questions! I am very excited for the launch of The Fallen – looking forward to finishing the book, it’s great so far!! I hope more and more people will find your work.
ADA: You’re very welcome, RB, and thank you too for these wonderful questions and answers! It’s been a pleasure and I hope your future projects go very well.
Ada Hoffmann is the author of the space opera novel THE OUTSIDE, its sequel THE FALLEN, the collection MONSTERS IN MY MIND, and dozens of speculative short stories and poems. Ada’s work has been a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award (2020, THE OUTSIDE), the Compton Crook Award (2020, THE OUTSIDE), and the WSFA Small Press Award (2020, “Fairest of All”).
Ada was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at the age of 13, and is passionate about autistic self-advocacy. Her Autistic Book Party review series is devoted to in-depth discussions of autism representation in speculative fiction. Much of her own work also features autistic characters.
Ada is an adjunct professor of computer science at a major Canadian university, and she did her PhD thesis (in 2018) on teaching computers to write poetry. She is a former semi-professional soprano, tabletop gaming enthusiast, and LARPer. She lives in eastern Ontario.
R.B. Lemberg is a queer, bigender immigrant from Eastern Europe to the US. R.B.’s novella The Four Profound Weaves (Tachyon, 2020) is a finalist for the Nebula, Ignyte, and Locus awards. R.B.’s novel The Unbalancing is forthcoming from Tachyon in 2022, and their poetry memoir Everything Thaws will be published by Ben Yehuda Press, also in 2022. You can find R.B. on Twitter at @rb_lemberg, on Patreon at http://patreon.com/rblemberg, and at their website rblemberg.net
Please welcome E.M. Ben Shaul to the blog today, to talk about the Orthodox Jewish representation in Flying Without a Net, which releases today! As many of you know, I happen to be Orthodox Jewish, so this book and post are of special interest to me, even though I’m kinda lousy about the prayer part. (Though I’m good about the food blessings! And I definitely got a “halachic prenup.” But I digress. You can add the book to your TBR and/or read the blurb here, and buy links are at the end of the post!)
Think about what you did first thing this morning. You probably got up, used the bathroom, got dressed, maybe grabbed something for breakfast. Perhaps you have a favorite coffee shop where you stopped to pick up your usual morning drink. Did you drive to work? Take public transportation? Or maybe you work from home in your pajamas and bunny slippers. Maybe you’re a student with an 8 AM class. (If so, you have my sympathy.)
For most people, their morning routine is completed without really putting much thought to it. But for Orthodox Jews, many of those regular morning tasks come with an extra level of thought, because they each have a blessing or prayer associated with them. When an Orthodox Jew opens their eyes in the morning, they say “Modeh Ani,” a short prayer thanking God for, basically, returning their soul to them so that they could wake up in the morning. Then they get up and go to the bathroom. There’s a blessing for that, too, in which we thank God for keeping the various systems of our bodies working. For men, when they get dressed, there’s a blessing associated with putting on the tallit katan, a four-cornered garment with ritual fringes.
Eating breakfast involves at least one and possibly as many as five (or six, if wine is part of the meal) blessings over the food. Each blessing takes less than 30 seconds to say, but there’s still an extra moment of thought that is necessary. But breakfast has to wait, anyway — first you have to say Shacharit, the morning prayer service. It is preferable to say the prayers with a minyan, a religious quorum, which Orthodox Jews interpret as ten males thirteen years old or above. So not only do you have to be in a proper mindset for prayer, you also have to build time into your schedule for about 45 minutes of prayer before you go to work.
When you stop for your usual cup of coffee, there’s another food-related blessing to say. Again you thank God for creating everything in the world, including your half-caff soy latte. You say so many food blessings in a day that your co-workers no longer worry that you’re talking to your mid-morning snack.
And that’s just the simple stuff.
What if something in the teachings of those ancient rabbis go against your modern lifestyle? What if your modern brain cannot reconcile the ancient beliefs and your modern sensibilities? For example, a lot of the religious traditions assume a male-dominated culture and lifestyle. In the twenty-first century, Modern Orthodox communities are working to balance the traditions established thousands of years ago with the more modern role that women play in day-to-day life. One example of this is the marriage contract. The traditional wedding contract was originally codified in the first century CE and has not changed significantly. By Jewish law, a man can divorce his wife, but there is no way to force him to give her a get, an official document of divorce. Without a get, a woman is considered an agunah, an anchored or chained woman, as she is still anchored or chained to her ex-husband, even if she has been granted a civil divorce. To give more power to the woman, in the 1990s the Orthodox rabbinate instituted the “halachic prenup,” a religiously and civilly valid contract that allows civil courts to punish the ex-husband financially until he grants his ex-wife a get.
In Flying Without a Net, Avi, an Orthodox Jew, is faced with a dilemma. He has recently come out to himself, and he is now starting to explore the idea of dating men and perhaps starting a relationship with another man. However, everything he has been taught by his religious upbringing tells him that acting on his attraction to men is amongst the biggest violations of Torah law possible. Yet his heart knows that he will never be happy following the community norm of marrying a woman. He struggles to find a path that allows him to be true to both his religious beliefs and his yearning for a relationship with Dani, an Israeli who is not religiously observant and who has been out to himself and to others since high school.
Dani cannot fully understand Avi’s struggle, having never been in his position, but he hopes that he and Avi will be able to find a way to be together while Avi stays true to his beliefs.
When faced with a contradiction between one’s religious beliefs and one’s modern reality, it can be very difficult to stay true to both. Many make the difficult choice to leave the religious life behind, knowing that for them it will be impossible to reconcile the two. Some make the opposite choice and retreat from the modern world. But others find a way to live in both worlds. It requires flexibility, and it’s important for everyone facing such a choice to discover where their flexibility ends and what is too important for them to compromise on. For each person this point is different, and therefore one person’s willingness to compromise may be anathema to someone else. So is there a way to blend the ancient and the modern? Everyone has to figure that out for themselves.