I hope you enjoy!
Disability and Literature
6 May 2021
The Offerings of An Unkindness of Ghosts
What does the future hold? Not many of any of us know the answer to that. Sci-Fi authors have been trying to imagine what the future will hold for us for centuries. Most people think quite a bit of our technology we have has been based on these written ideas of what could be in the future. From the “pocket telephone” which comes from “Space Cadet” by Robert Heinlein, which is what we now refer to as smartphones. To flying cars in writing and in filmography has been highly characterized. My first encounter of the flying car was Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The use of a traditional model vehicle with merely the ability to fly. In comparison to others that barely look like a vehicle at all.
In a large majority of Sci-Fi material, you do not often see race or social class-based discrimination as a main plot point, but rather a side story or a filler for background. That is a past and current issue not fitting in a futuristic idea of space travel. This piece of written work, An Unkindness of Ghosts, that takes a spin on a racial disparities, all the while being staged on the spacecraft that has been traveling from Earth for 300 years. This concept is almost unrealistic as the reader. That an advanced intellectual crew of humans can be ignorant or intolerant of others upon their very ship.
However, race is not the only factor in the case of Aster. Race can bind the group of people that have it in common together and also the discrimination that they face as a whole. Yet Aster still feels ostracized from those around her. We quickly learn that Aster is neuro-divergent from the first little bit of the book, “Aster was always memorizing new ways of being with people” (Solomon 9), then again from being called a name by a fellow lower decker, “Insiwa. Inside one. It means you live inside your head and to step out of it hurts like a caning.” (Solomon 12). Finally, it is pointed out by someone close to her, “It was like what Aint Melusine was always saying, that Aster was one who looked sideways, or one who saw through the corner of her eyes. When you saw the world sideways, you couldn’t always get a proper handle on things.” (Solomon 62). This reminds me of another piece we read in this class Preface: Autistics of Color: We Exist… We Matter. By Morenike Giwa Onaiwa. In this piece Giwa Onaiwa talks also about being black and being neuro-divergent or autistic and says this, “even those who accepted, cared for me, loved me still did not understand me”(Onaiwu, XV). Giwa Onaiwa also goes makes a statement that Aster most likely understands as well with, I “looked the part” I was supposed to automatically understand and be fluent in all these random aspects of life attributed to black American culture.” (Onaiwa XIV). Onaiwa notes that since it is not something that they do not just do something is wrong with them. For Aster she only felt at peace in her botanarium, “There, at least, there was some kind of quiet” (Solomon 12).
Asher was different in the eyes of everyone on the ship from the guards to her fellow lower deckers. However, the abuse of the guards was known by Asher and her fellow lower deckers. “….the morale of the Guard, and the details of previous abuses: strength, force, duration” (Solomon 25). Again, Onaiwa is able to relate to this with race-based discrimination along with being disabled, when they say, “We are painted as defective, flawed, undesirable, different. To be pitied. Not only are we non-white, but we are also disabled too?”(Onaiwu, XI). Which takes me back to the part of this still being a problem of the present and hard to grasp the thought of it still being a vast issue for the future. Yet thinking about where we have been in the past and where we should be today and yet we are not. I perhaps should not be as shocked and quite frankly appalled. More so disappointed that someone could envision these races, merely skin pigment issues never being eliminating from our apparent mind. “Giselle knew as well as Theo how Lieutenant singled Aster out for a startling array of abuses.” Then a little later it says, “He had given her name to several guards, so though she rarely faced him in person, she frequently experienced his wrath by proxy.” (Solomon 18).
It is so easy for Lieutenant to do this because Aster is a lower decker. The only reason, she is around Theo is because she’s different because her mind works different. In another piece, we read for this class they describe this as, “assuming that one person can serve as the voice or face of an entire community is an assumption that has jumped straight from the hotbed of microaggressions” (Ashkenazy, XXIX). Then they define what microaggression is, “meaning of everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership”(Ashkenazy, XXVII)
On the ship of Matilda, an everyday exchange for a lower decker is to do as you are told or be punished. Aster’s gift of Flicks foots from hypotherma to the Lieutanant as a reminder of the cold in the lower decks to him was a normal day’s punishment. However, I saw it as microaggression because of being not only aimed at the lower deckers but also at Aster personally. As Aster meets with him, she says, “Any leniency he gave was so he would have something to take away later. She didn’t know what her punishment would be, but it was certainly coming” (Solomon 82). Then Aster sees that come to fruition when “The person Lieutenant led out in chains to be executed was Flick.” (Solomon 84).
Through everything Aster faced, losing loved ones, her place of peace, she still started a revolution in part with the bravery of Theo. Not necessarily getting past the difference of being neuro-divergent but using it as a way to process things at different angles, seeing races as one people, seeing this ship as one society that needs to work together to survive successfully. Truly, I believe if the world had more Aster’s, that we would be in a much better place.
Word Count 1135
Ashkenazy, E. Forward: On Autism and Race, All the Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism, DragonBee Press, 2017, xxiii-xxxix
Giwa Onaiwa, Morenike. Autistics of Color: We Exist… We Mater, All the Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism, DragonBee Press, 2017, x-xxii
Solomon, River. An Unkindness of Ghosts. Akashic Books, 2017.
Professor Christopher Foss
6 May 2021
“Apologies to my OB-GYN:” The Value of Disabled Lives
In her essay “The Case for Conserving Disability,” Rosemarie Garland-Thomson argues that disability is an integral part of human society and a source of connection and social change. Some of the earliest pieces of evidence of hominins with advanced intelligence and social structures (in other words, more human-like hominins) come in the form of remains with healed injuries that would have been debilitating before modern medicine. The fact that these early human relatives were able to heal and continue living shows that their community felt empathy and compassion. They tended to their sick peer, even when it was costly and had no benefits besides a life saved. This has always been one of the strongest defining characteristics of our incredibly unique species: our desire and capability to care for those who cannot care for themselves. This aspect of humanity is explored in Rebecca Foust’s poem “Apologies to my OB-GYN,” which is about her experience having a child who was premature and autistic. In her derisive and ironic apology, she brings attention to the way this age-old practice of caring for other humans has been corrupted by modern medicalization and finances, while also highlighting the beauty of life she sees in her son.
The first two stanzas of Foust’s poem describe the circumstances of her son’s birth through an apology, the sincerity of which is not immediately clear.
“Sorry that my boy birthed himself
too early, took up so much room
in your prenatal nursery
with his two pounds, two ounces
and did not oblige your nurses
with easy veins.” (1-6)
The very first word of the poem is “sorry,” setting the apologetic tone that pervades the entire work. It is initially impossible to tell how genuine the apology is, and it seems to convey conflicting senses of true contrition and biting sarcasm. She apologizes that her son “birthed himself / too early,” framing it as a conscious act by giving the infant agency in the sentence. The line break, which causes the first line to end at “birthed himself,” seems to be a brief appreciation of the ways in which disabled people, especially those with autism, may act in ways that defy social norms. This defiance is not rebellion, as Foust sarcastically writes it here, but simply the way disabled and autistic people meet their needs, which differ from an abled, neurotypical person. However, these expectation-defying behaviors are often perceived as something to be apologized for. Foust juxtaposes her apologetic tone with twisted descriptions of the burden her son caused the medical staff, apologizing for taking up too much space despite his tiny size and for her son’s failure to “oblige the nurses / with easy veins.” Her phrasing makes the apology seem unnecessary at the very least, and by the end of the stanza, her apology is more clearly insincere.
“Sorry we were such pains in your ass
asking you to answer our night calls like that,
and that he did everything so backwards:
lost weight, gained fluid
blew up like a human balloon
then shriveled.” (7-12)
By the beginning of the second stanza, Foust’s frustration becomes more apparent as she moves to more aggressive language, calling her and her family “pains in [their] ass” for requesting simple medical services. She continues to emphasize the unrealistic nature of her guilt through the way she phrases her supposed offenses. Foust then apologizes again for her son’s deviation from standard practice, saying that “he did everything so backwards” and then describing serious medical conditions. She uses nearly comical language like “human balloon” in a faux attempt to validate her apology, but it serves a similar purpose. The comedic language seems nearly grotesque next to the medical descriptions of the premature child.
“Sorry about how he defied your prognoses,
skyrocketed premiums, weighted the costs,
in your cost-benefit analyses,
skewed bell-curve predictions,
into one long, straight line;
sorry he took so much of your time” (13-18)
In this stanza, Foust moves from the guilt she felt during her time at the hospital to a more general trend in which disabled and autistic people, as well as their caretakers, are held socially responsible for the perceived cost of caring for them. Foust uses specific financial and analytical language in her apology, listing terms such as “premiums,” “cost-benefit analyses,” and “bell-curve predictions” that sound clinical and impersonal in the context of a child’s life. Again, she uses her imitation apology to point out the questionable priorities of the people who place guilt on her and her child. She ends the stanza with a cut-off line, “sorry he took so much of your time,” which, separated from the rest of the sentence, seems to hold less sarcastic intent than the rest of the poem thus far. However, the line is continued into the final stanza:
“being so determined to live. He spent
today saving hopeless-case nymph moths
trapped in the porchlight, one matrix-dot
at a time, and now he’s asleep; blue wingbeat
pulse fluttering his left temple—there,
there again. Just like it did then.” (19-24)
When the line is brought together, it becomes “sorry he took so much of your time being determined to live.” This line is a striking summary of much of the sentiment in the poem, but it is fragmented and interrupted by arbitrary divisions. Just like line breaks in a free verse poem, social constructs can be helpful but are not always necessary nor appropriate, and can in fact be harmful when they are applied to circumstances that require unconventional attention. For the rest of the stanza, as she describes the beauty of watching her child grow and learn to care for others, the lines are divided no longer divided by clause. Instead, they flow as feels natural, as she wishes for her son to do. This is the only stanza that doesn’t contain the word “sorry,” leaving a clear message: by breaking free from the need to adhere to detrimental social constrictions, one can alleviate the guilt autistic people often feel for simply existing.
The final stanza is centered around the very thing Foust found lacking in the hospital, the place where it should be most plentiful: access to guilt-free care. When freed from expectations that do not apply to him, her son attempts to save “hopeless-case nymph moths trapped in the porchlight,” engaging in the selfless acts of care for others described in the introduction of this essay. The juxtaposition of this stanza with the first three, which are guilt-ridden and full of clinical terms, makes the disconnect clear. Although medical care should ideally be based on compassion and humanity, the emphasis on finances and cost in the medical industry has created an environment in which the non-monetary value of things, such as the life of a little boy, is overshadowed. This is caused by and leads to the stigmatization of disabled and autistic people as a drain on resources, rather than a valuable and necessary aspect of humanity.
Word Count: 1170
I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work. -Elena Marshel
When the villagers told me of the madman raving around the headlands, I made it my purpose to see this poor soul. I make my living as a traveling physician, you see. It isn’t anything like the luxury I enjoyed when I lived in the city. It took me ten years into running my own practice to realize that I was utterly miserable. I had long since sworn my oath to do no harm, but it became evident to me that their issues were rarely real. At least, not in the way they were out here. “In the wilds” my mother called it. Away from civilization, law and order, effectively breaking bread with barbarians and heathens. In villages like this one, their children rarely had enough food, and not from lack of fasting from their parents. They died of common colds the poor things. After my first week abroad, I knew that this was the right choice. The city-folk would find another doctor.
It was only a month passed since I had visited the village of Darington and their lunatic. Much like it typically is when I come upon a new people, they were hesitant at my intentions there. It only took me producing my medical bag and stethoscope and their apprehension turned into intense interest. They set me up in a house that was much more solid than it appeared from the outside. The exterior looked built mostly from dirt or clay, supported with logs and wooden planks. It always impresses me, the machineless carpentry that they can produce, perhaps from a previous underestimation of their abilities, of humanity’s abilities. I stayed with a single man who was called Ferron. He was incredibly thin, far too thin. The skin stuck to his bones. Fats and proteins, I told him as best I could. They spoke little English, enough for basic communication with signing weaved in. They understood even less which made conversation quite hard. I told Ferron that he needed to eat more, or he would go mad during his work in the fields. He asked if I meant like Ravi and I asked him who he was referring to.
Ferron and I stayed up past dark talking of Ravi. He was Ferron’s age, around his thirties it seemed. Ferron called him crazy, a lunatic, not right in the head. Ravi did not talk until he was a decade old. Any attempts his parents made to “pull him out of himself,” as Ferron put it, before that time were fruitless. Ravi was never all there, Ferron said. Even when he did speak it was babble, words that didn’t belong together. He would rarely even allow his parents to touch him much less hug him. Often, he would devolve into fits upon physical contact. It made the Ferron, along with the other children at the time, not want to be around him. They teased him some, mostly to get a reaction out of him. Ferron used many different words for dunce describing Ravi. When I asked him where this Ravi was, Ferron released a chuckle, his dry throat sounding off like a cymbal. He told me that Ravi left the village a decade ago. He no longer lived there, but he saw him from time to time. He would wander into the village, fidgeting furiously and raving in his usual manner. Most of the villagers gave him a wide berth when he came into town. His parents were no longer around, but another woman, an elder of the village took to feeding him whenever he made his way back. She was the only one that could get close to him, calm him, and get him to eat peacefully. I asked him about this woman, and he told me her name, Helga. I slept that night on a straw mattress, earnestly beckoning the day forth.
In the morning, I found Helga preparing to leave by the entrance to the woods surrounding the village. She was covered all around with silk-like fabrics, dull blues and greens. She carried a basket woven from reeds and wore a shawl over her head. A kind, wrinkled face poked out of it. I questioned her about Ravi and she smiled, laughing a bit. She was his mother’s sister, his last relative, and the only one that truly cared for him. When I asked about his whereabouts, she delightfully agreed to walk me there. He lived in a cave near the headland, away from the village and she liked to check in on him sometimes.
On our way, I asked more questions about him. Was he dangerous? Ferron had told me was mad. No, she chuckled again. Ravi was not crazy, or mad, or dangerous. He was just, she waved her hand in the air, looking for a word, perceptive. So much so that it hurt. She told me that after Ravi was old enough to take care of himself, his parents had abandoned him. They left the village. He’s dealing with it in his own way, she said. As we walked through the tree, my nose caught the subtle scent of salt water. Helga picked ingredients as we hiked. She would stop and bend down when she saw something she needed, a groan rattling in the back of her throat. When she stood, she would say the plant’s name before placing it in her basket. The wind was picking up and, on some drafts,, I could hear a voice, soft and distant. Helga told me that Ravi took in too much of the world, that he just saw things differently. She grimaced at the word saw. It wasn’t to her liking. The world is different for Ravi. You and I, we speak different, she said to me, but Ravi, he is unique. Untranslatable, I said. No, she said, just difficult. She told me that Ravi was very good with plants. For her medicine, the wrong plant could kill someone, but Ravi could tell two apart that looked identical as if they were so obviously dissimilar. Soon we cleared the trees and a clear field that ended in cliffs stretched out before us. The smell of the sea was stronger here. It didn’t come and go; it stood its ground. We were in its territory and would have to adapt.
We reached Ravi’s cave after about half an hour. It had a great view of the sea and the gulls’ screech was more relaxing combined with it. As we approached, I could hear a man grunting, he had heard us approach. He appeared at the mouth of the cave, a rather tall young man. He looked normal; some might even call him handsome if it weren’t for his dishevelment. His hair was relatively straight, just long and uncut, a good face, no obvious impairment. When he saw Helga, his arms flapped like the gulls circling around us, but they ceased, wrapping around his own body in a self-embrace, when he saw me. Protests shot forward like a departing locomotive, increasing in speed and intensity. Until the birds scattered. Helga managed to calm him down but in a manner I wasn’t expecting.
From Ferron’s accounts, I assumed this man to be volatile. I expected Helga to be somewhat gentle, but as soon as his grunting in protest grew too loud Helga shushed him, assertively, but friendly. Oh hush, she said, you have a visitor. Say hello. Ravi’s armed clenched. He did not look at me, but his arms relaxed after more coaxing from Helga, and then he smirked and said the seagulls like fish before walking into his home.
The interior was well furnished, relatively. There were furs and a place to sleep and a fire. Next to said fire were two fish, skinned and ready to be cooked. Helga dropped her basket and got to work silently. She washed her hands in a stone bowl then washed the fish. She dug into her basket for the plants she picked on our journey. She placed two of the same plant in front of Ravi. He now sat across from her, mesmerized by her workflow. Which is seasoning, she asked, which is medicine? Ravi smirked again, pointing at the plant to his right without a moment’s hesitation. Are you sure, Helga asked? Ravi nodded enthusiastically. She picked up the plant. Hmm she said. She looked at me, quietly observing this strange routine. He sees things clearly, she said. Better than you and me sometimes. Helga focused on cooking the fish for the next few minutes.
From what I could see of Ravi, he was not the raving madman of the headland I had imagine in my head. Nor did he appear to be mentally deficient. It even brought me joy to see his enthusiasm for company grow as the day went on.
Helga and I stayed there until the Sun began to set. The walk felt shorter on the way back and I passed out from exhaustion at the moment I lay my head down to rest. The next day, I decided that I had spent enough time here and packed my things. The people of the village were taken care of and a traveling physician can’t be so if they stay in one place for too long. I said my farewells to Helga and Ferron and the many children I had treated during my time there. During my trek through along the dirt road along the headland, I could see Ravi there standing at the edge of the cliff, his back to me, watching the seagulls circle around him. He joined in earnest.
The term nuero-queer was first used by disability activists Nick Walker and Athena Lynn Michaels-Dillon, to identify and explain the crossroads between nuerological difference, queer identity, and cultural conditioning. From our reading, neuroqueer can be a verb, noun, adjective, and it overall refers to a way of being, that contradicts societal expectations and celebrates difference. This essay will focus on neuro-queerness in An Unkindness of Ghosts, by River Solomon; specifically, I wish to analyze the relationships between Aster, Giselle and Theo, aboard the Matilda, and how their neuro-queerness allows them to impact their culture and society in a way that their neurotypical cisgender and heterosexual predecessors were incapable of.
First, I would like to discuss the complexities of Aster and Giselle’s relationship. The pair are clearly fast friends, and see the other as one of the few people they can completely trust. When Giselle disappears, it’s only Aster that she reveals herself to, only Aster who can convince her to come home for sustenance. When Giselle injures herself, she only complies with medical attention from Aster, even as she sasses and complains. But the same cannot be said for Aster entirely. Aster often relies on Theo, the Surgeon, during the course of the novel, calling upon him when she is in a pinch or severely injured herself. The novel takes time to have each woman recall an event from their adolescence, in which Aster played Husband and Giselle played Wife. Aster recounts this event another of Giselle’s antics and fancies, and when she leaves the play, it is to further educate herself under Theo’s direction. Giselle’s recalling is much more intimate, including details that may indicate a precocious sexual arousal, such as Aster’s appearance, warmth, the closeness of the encounter.
In chapter 26, narrated by Giselle, she remembers when Aster found a book of Giselle’s mother tongue. The language Ifrek emphasizes unity, speaking of ‘we’ ‘us’ but never ‘I’. This tidbit of information serves to illustrate just how dependent Giselle truly is. Her lifelong affection and attachment toward Aster is one she cannot escape, cannot control. So she dives head in;
“But it feels so much more satisfying to say the cruelest thing, to hurt, to harm. I wish I was better, but I’m not, and so there’s nothing to do but love who I am. “
Giselle is a true foil to Theo. Theo who is Heaven’s hands, Theo who hesitates and is consumed by anxiety, Theo who cannot tell Aster the depth of his love for her. Giselle represents the aversion to queer love, the attraction that Aster cannot put into words beyond what other people dictate. Giselle’s discovery of a love note between Theo and Aster is what triggers her to burn down the botanarium, symbolizing her rejection of what she can never have. She accepts that she cannot have Aster, and so makes her final act of defiance against her, telling Aster that for all the love she gives, it is not enough and so Giselle wants nothing at all. She begs Aster to be miserable in her dying breaths, resisting to the absolute last.
Aster exhibits her neuro-queerness in a much more self-reliant way. Walker includes the occupation as a site that can be neuro-queered; Aster’s meticulous systems, of notes, schedules, rules, are what enable her to provide outstanding medical attention to her lowdeck patients. Her expansive knowledge of plants, chemicals, anatomy, all of which she has acquired and maintained through her innate fascination with simply knowing as much as possible, set her apart from mere apothecaries like Jane, as well as professionals like Theo. Where Aint Melusine may criticize Aster’s ways, her chasing of Lune’s ghost, her foolhardiness in fighting guards, these are all things that lead to Aster finding the truth. She refuses to accept the first narrative, of Lune’s suicide, of unending violence, and instead finds her own way. Through the ventilation ducts, through stolen books, forged passes. She often makes it out of these situations because of her vast knowledge and perceptiveness. What Aint Melusive called ‘insideness’ in a young Aster, is actually crucial to Aster’s survival aboard Matilda. Aster never gives up her botanarium, even though it’s discovery would likely have her killed. She may not be as headstrong as Giselle every time, but rather plays the long game. Waiting and watching, recording and knowing, ignoring the dehumanization, and sometimes, playing into it. Her insideness, her Austim is what builds her up, empowers her, saves her.
Theo’s neuroqueerness is not as explicit, and could be argued as non-existent. I would say that Theo’s constant anxiety, around his appearance, his religious devotion, and Aster and all that she means, is quite enough to qualify as disabling. These great bouts of silence, or self-flagellation are just as harsh as Giselle’s extreme outburst; they’re simply opposite ends of the spectrum. His queer identity is certain; he rejects the label of man both in his own internal dialogue and to Aster. His attraction to Aster, from himself as a genderqueer person and toward Aster as another gender non-conformant person, is absolutely queer. It could be said that he is attracted to her insideness, her great intelligence and manner, so this would be a neuroqueering as well. Theo never seems to criticize Aster’s methods or processing, but in fact often extends her reach above the lowdecks. For Aster’s response to this neuroqueer attraction: sfantasizes of Aston the astomic physiomatician and Theo the aviotologist as lovers, as belonging in the spotlight, together. This is absolutely neuroqueer, in that Aster recognizes her greatly scientific mind as a positive, and her attraction toward Theo of masculinity to masculinity, as a positive. She does not wish to conform in this space as Aster, but to take up even more space as Aston.
For all three of these characters, their motivation for revolution is not just to save their society, but to save themselves. Giselle, who cannot breathe in every social constraint and expectation. Aster, who cannot know all that she desires for fear of punishment. Theo, who cannot love Aster openly or express his true identity. Yes, they recognize the intense, barbaric violence for what it is. But who was motivated more than these three to fight back? Would they have been motivated at all, without their neuroqueerness?
Rivers Solomon’s debut novel An Unkindness of Ghosts is the story of the HSS Matilda, a generation ship socially structured like the antebellum United States. For her whole life, the protagonist, Aster, has been berated and abused because of her stature and manner of speaking. An Unkindness of Ghosts’ characters are an expression of neuroqueer and poses a potential revolution for neuroqueer. In this paper, I will focus on the three main characters Aster, Theo, and Giselle and how their actions represent a neuroqueer revolution.
A revolution requires something to revolt against and the Matilda is ripe for change. It functions mainly around class and gender. While there is no reference to why it was setup this way, there is somewhat of a rationalization. The Matilda is run under a sort of Mandate of Heaven with the Sovereign and everything extending outwards from him having divine right. There are heavy references to Christianity’s influence on Matildan culture. Their destination, while unknown, is called the Promised Land, the upper deckers feel that the lower deckers lack spiritual purity and must be where they are as a result of said impurity. To the guards that police the lower decks, the people there are lower than dogs. When Lieutenant becomes Sovereign, he calls, “a four-legged beast with a snout for a nose, that doesn’t bathe itself” more beautiful than the people of the lower decks (Solomon 242). Their distaste and dehumanization of the lowdeckers, specifically lowdeck women, result in frequent sexual assault at the hand of the guards as a form of punishment. The Matilda shares many similarities with our history, and arguably the world we live in today and these make it a perfect launching point for a revolution.
Aster represents the neuroqueer’s struggle in assimilating to neurotypical standards. Her amputation of Flick’s foot shows us her trouble with social queues and a matter-of-fact way of speaking. Flick’s great-grandmother calls her Insiwa or Inside one saying, “you live inside your head and to step out of it hurts like a caning” (Solomon 23). Similar to how, in Amanda Baggs’s “Up in the Clouds” her “ability to fit words into familiar patterns outstrips [her] ability to understand the words themselves” (Baggs). Many times within the book, we’re shown Aster cataloguing words. While her lexicon is vast from spending so much time reading Ainy’s dictionaries, she lacks the context to use them in and so must add and relearn it each time. When it comes to speaking Aster, “always thought thrice before talking, having said the wrong thing too many times” (Solomon 189). We’re shown throughout the book that Aster, just from her bulkier physique and oddness has been treated as lesser, not there, too dumb to understand what was said to her, even though she understood clearly. Her struggles match Baggs’s and many other autists’ experience when it comes to communicating. Like Baggs, “typical language takes place in the clouds” coming effortlessly to the people around her, neurotypicals, but for Aster, it is a constant struggle to decode what people mean. Because of this degrading of her value as a person, Aster just wishes to have the dignity of a living being. This comes to a climax in the Bowels with Ty and Seamus. The adrenaline wears off from the confrontation, Aster had to fight like many times in her life and she bursts out saying, “Nobody’s allowed to call me names. I’m alive…I’m alive” (Solomon 276). It is her desire to be entitle to basic human decency, the benefit of being alive. Her sister, Giselle, however, performs in a different way.
Giselle performs her neurodivergence in a different way than Aster. It follows more with Dr. Walker’s fifth “definition” of the term. “Being neurodivergent and actively choosing to embody and express one’s neurodivergence (or refusing to suppress one’s embodiment and expression of neurodivergence) in ways that “queer” one’s performance of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, occupation, and/or other aspects of one’s identity” (Walker). She is much more brash and unfettered by others’ perceptions of her. We are told that “Aster’s mind wasn’t as cursed by voices and visions as Giselle’s, but she knew madness well” (Solomon 63). From this frame, we could interpret any of Giselle’s actions as a reflection of her “madness,” but I would argue it is more an expression of her own neurodivergence as well as an extension of her trauma from the guards. Her actions, like burning down Aster’s botanarium are not involuntary to her. In the midst of doing so, she wonders that “Sometimes it’s like I can’t help it, then I think, no, I could help it, I could hold it back, like a sneeze” (Solomon 319). Her lashing out is a response to, from her perspective, being abandoned by her closest friend and sister, Aster. Because of this, Giselle is put up for execution, the second within several days under Lieutenant’s rule as Sovereign. But the system of the Matilda will not be her death. She takes it into her own hands, denying them of further control over her life by taking her own life. Her death, while not the cause of the lowdeckers’ resentment for the Sovereign and the upper decks, certainly serves to ignite the flames of rebellion within the entire lower deck of the Matilda.
Theo performs Walker’s ninth definition of neuroqueer. He as Heaven’s Hands made Flesh is the one binding agent between the decks. Matildans respect and revere the Surgeon and because of this, he is especially suited to affect change throughout the ship. Walker’s ninth example explains one practice of neuroqueer as follows, “Working to transform social and cultural environments in order to create spaces and communities – and ultimately a society – in which engagement in any or all of the above practices is permitted, accepted, supported, and encouraged” (Walker). His less masculine presentation when it comes to Matildan upper decker standards makes him the target of ridicule and even sexual advances from his uncle. From his high station and the circumstances of his birth, Theo is particularly posed to set the Matilda and by extension humanity, on a better path as it returns to Earth.
An Unkindness of Ghosts uses its characters as a means of initiating a neuroqueer revolution aboard the Matilda. Their experience on the Matilda has only been defined by the qualities that they lacked. Their journey and the obstacles they encountered brought them to a sense of self-actualization, realizing that there is no absence, only a different kind of richness unique to them.
Color in Autism Literature
Without color, the world would be dull, however, color is often taken for granted. Colors can symbolize, contrast, draw attention, and alter perceptions, especially in literature. While reading Jim Sinclair’s “Don’t Mourn for Us,” I was reminded of how much color influences a piece of literature. This gave me reason to explore how color has impacted the literary works during the autism unit. Jim Sinclair’s “Don’t Mourn for Us,” Amanda Baggs’s “Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours,” and Rebecca Foust’s “Apologies to my OBGYN” all are examples of how literature is enhanced by color.
Perhaps the most obvious example of color in “Don’t Mourn for Us” is the entire background of the article. The screen is completely made up of rainbow colors, spanning from the left to the right of the screen. At first, I wasn’t sure if the background would relate to the article, but with more analysis, it becomes a strong amplification of Sinclair’s messages. The contrast, joyful symbolization, and constant reminder of color in the background initiate deeper thoughts on its meaning. In the beginning, Sinclair’s article discusses the grief that a parent bears when learning that their child has autism; this grief is described as “the loss of the normal child the parents had hoped and expected to have” (Sinclair). With the content being upsetting and dull, it creates a large contrast between the darker tones in the article and the bright colors in the background; this gives an unconscious sense of hope to parents reading this, who intend to grow past their grieving. A sense that although the parents lost a child that they had expected, the child with autism will still bring light and joy into their lives, even if it’s different than what they had prepared for. Later in his article, Sinclair explains that when parents say they wish their child didn’t have autism, it is the same as saying “I wish the autistic child I have did not exist, and I had a different (non-autistic) child instead” (Sinclair). These few sentences in his article stand out tremendously and contain one of the most strong and meaningful messages in the piece. This idea carries on throughout the rest of the article, reiterating the idea that “autism is a way of being” rather than being an outer shell to be broken through or something that can be taken away. This point that autism is a way of being is shown by the blending of the colors in the background, symbolizing the blending of autism in a person, and how someone with autism cannot be separated from what makes them who they are. At the end of Sinclair’s article, the bright background is then brought full circle with a more upbeat, hopeful ending. After discussing the darkness of grief and loss of the expected, Sinclair wraps up by saying to the parents of autistic children, “come join us, in strength and determination, in hope and joy…the adventure of a lifetime is ahead of you” (Sinclair). This joyful ending creates a parallel with the bright background that has been contrasting the article up until that point and finally gives hope and light at the end. Therefore, the color in this article creates a sense of hope at the end of a tunnel in the way that a parent has to learn to overcome the loss of what was expected and learn to find joy for the child they have.
Amanda Baggs’ “Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours” incorporates color to enhance the message that just because autistics don’t speak the same language as most, they shouldn’t be seen as different or not ‘normal.’ One of Baggs’ main critiques is on non-autistics describing autistics as absent and having a “lack of soul” (Baggs). She builds up this critique with the element of color, by relating it to a mountain analogy where autistics are in seen in a valley while non-autistics are up on the mountain, saying, “they call that valley ‘not mountain’ and proclaim it dry, barren, and colorless because that’s how it looks from a distance” (Baggs). I especially like this analogy because it sets forth the idea that non-autistics rarely try to find different ways to connect with autistics because it is too different or unnatural for them. The way that Baggs incorporates color in this analogy gives it more of a lasting impact because it causes the reader to create a colorless image in their heads, causing a deeper understanding of the dullness in the way non-autistics often see autism. The addition of the word colorless creates that deeper meaning because a colorless world is something that many people don’t like, similar to how most people would choose a colored movie over a black and white one. The word also connects to the other ways that autism has been described as an absence and as a lack of a soul. This provides a plain picture for readers of the unfortunate ways that the world looks at autism. Later in the analogy, Baggs’ further explains how the valley has “all kinds of trees, many of which can’t grow in the mountain” and how “each experience is like a new rainbow for every sense,” she contradicts the colorless life that is assumed by most (Baggs). The contrast between the way people perceive autism compared to how autistic people live is explained in a more meaningful and impactful way by creating the large contrast between colorless life and rainbows.
In Rebecca Foust’s “Apologies to my OB-GYN,” the color that transforms the poem’s influence on readers is blue. From the sad and hopeless tone in the poem to the blue background surrounding the stanzas, the color blue sets the mood for the entire poem. In general, society usually groups words with colors: happiness is more often than not associated with bright yellows, love is represented by pinks and reds, and sadness is matched with blues. With three out of the four stanzas beginning with the word ‘sorry,’ a sad, despairing tone is immediately given off, creating that blue tone. Furthermore, the addition of a dark and dullish-blue background is important in giving off the message that this poem is meant to be hopeless and sad, as it is about parents whose child is having complications in the prenatal nursery. When a parent’s baby is having a difficult time after birth, it is simply sad and blue, just like Foust’s poem. Sometimes the tone of a poem can be hard to read, but the straightforwardness of the blues and sad imagery in “Apologies to my OB-GYN” makes even more of an impact because of its simplicity.
Color in literature is a beautiful and powerful addition to any piece and I am glad that it was added within so many pieces in the autism unit. For someone who didn’t know much about autism before taking this class, I have a much stronger understanding now because of these literary works and the imagery, attention, and contrast that they presented to me with color.
Word Count: 1186
In Autism studies, language is a widely explored topic that carries a variety of speculations with it. Within Autism studies, language has many meanings. Language is not static but is every growing and evolving. Language is not confined to one manner or another, and differences in language methods should be celebrated and acknowledged. Specifically, neurodivergent language, the atypical neurological state that encompasses a wide range of differently abled manner of communicating. In the text “Cultural Commentary: Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours” by Amanda Baggs and the text “Cultural Commentary: Communicate with Me” by DJ Savarese, the diversity of language in the Autistic community is explored and analyzed. The texts present obstacles that come with Autistic language as well as some of the common misconceptions about language that comes with being a part of a neurodiverse community. The texts by Amanda Baggs and DJ Savarese examine and present language in a manner that intersects with Autistic studies, connecting it to real world experiences. The texts by Baggs and Savarese explore how neurodivergent language presents itself, what neurodivergent language is, and why the presence of neurodivergent language is important to modern day Autism studies.
The texts “Cultural Commentary: Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours” by Amanda Baggs and “Cultural Commentary: Communicate with Me” by DJ Savarese expand upon how neurodivergent language appears in the modern day. Neurodiversity presents itself within the literary texts to explore the capacity in which the language of the autistic community is represented. Language of the neurodivergent community is often misconstrued when it is first introduced. Baggs discusses how the languages that are used by the Autistic community are inaccurately portrayed, “Like counters, stairs, and drinking fountains, language was built mostly by non-autistic people, with the obvious results, and my biggest frustration is this: the most important things about the way I perceive and interact with the world around me can only be expressed in terms that describe them as the absence of something important” (Baggs). The language that is expressed in any way outside of the standard criteria set by neurotypicals is frequently considered strange and abnormal. As a neurodivergent person herself, Baggs describes how the absence of typical conventional language is often viewed as being improper or wrong is a large part of being neurodivergent. The lack of words or speech does not equal a lack of perception or understanding. Baggs argues that the difference in language conventions equals a richness found only with this variety of representation. This ideal that a verbal or visible language is required for understanding to be acquired is an ableist mindset. Baggs further dispels this concept, “Colors. Sounds. Textures. Flavors. Smells. Shapes. Tones. These are short words, but the meaning of them is long, involved, and complex…It is hard to explain to another person the patterns of perception that come before the ones they themselves have” (Baggs). Baggs’ text expresses how many neurotypicals have a difficult time understanding the processes involved in neurodivergent language because it is likely completely different than their own. According to her article, it is clear that language presents itself in many different forms outside of traditional speech, involving things much more complex than words. The neurodivergent patterns of language are vast and growing and do not conform to any one manner of occurring.
The exploration of what neurodivergent language is continues to be presented in various literary texts and studies. From DJ Savarese’s “Cultural Commentary”, the meaning of language within the Autistic community is further explored and analyzed. As a member of the neurodivergent community as well, Savarese presents commentary on language through his experiences. As opposed to popular belief, language enters and exits the body from all senses. Language is not merely verbal, and in Savarese’s experience, it consists of full body phenomena, “Yes, I can hear, but getting nervous is ultimately deafening to me…At times like these, I cannot make sense of what you say, but most of the time I do hear and understand real voices” (Savarese). As expressed by Savarese, language is not confined to one form or another. All five senses impact how language and communication are displayed. The lack of traditional conventions in language does not equal a lack of understanding, but instead an alternation method of expression. Instead, neurodivergent communication utilizes other aspects of the body to output language. This usage of a variety of methods to communicate enhances the richness in which information is gathered in a controlled manner; Savarese himself suffers from sensation overload, so this widescale usage of language allows him different ways of controlling his intake. The importance of these bodily signals varies, “First, ignore my involuntary gestures, including my signs for “done” and “break”…Remember these gestures are not voluntary. They are just my body’s way of responding to stimuli” (Savarese). Neurodivergent language comes in many forms and is used in many different ways to fit the person. There is no one way to utilize language, as is there only one kind of language. Whether voluntary or involuntary, language presents itself in numerous ways as a method for exploration and communication from members of the neurodivergent community. Savarese’s experience with body language represents the different manners in which language can be utilized aside from these traditional verbal forms.
The presence of neurodivergent languages in the Autistic community is growing in recognition and expression. Writers and activists like Baggs and Savarese are important primary sources to draw information about language from. A direct result of the rising number of neurodivergent community members is an increase in misconceptions. The works of writers like Savarese and Baggs impress upon the education of language and expression within Autism studies. Expanding upon the definition of language and its relation to the Autistic experience is a large part of understanding that language is not a static form of communication that functions the same for everyone. Baggs argues for this concept, “Not all of these things communicate everything that typical languages communicate, but I don’t see any reason they should have to. They are rich and varied forms of communication in their own right, not inadequate substitutes for the more standard forms of communication” (Baggs). Communication, whether verbal or written, has evolved to fit the needs of an individual person. Just as sign language works for those with hearing impairments, body language and sensational language may work for those of neurodiverse minds. Expanding our definition of language can impact how we view neurodiverse minds and enhance the experiences we have with others. Savarese, for example, represents the expanding world of communication and how to approach it, “What can you do to help me? The answer is communicate with me. Boldly reach out to me, and together we will goldenly share our views of the world we long to greet” (Savarese). Many times, adverse reactions to differences drives away any chance at acquiring something new. Exploring the concept of language and neurodiversity through minds like Savarese and Baggs will further enrich the world we live in. The presence of neurodiversity and language is a constant within our communities and acknowledging the role it plays in modern society is the first step towards raising awareness.
In conclusion, language is an everchanging and evolving concept that thrives in our modern society. Within the texts “Cultural Commentary: Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours” by Amanda Baggs and “Cultural Commentary: Communicate with Me” by DJ Savarese, the concept of language and its wide variation is explored. Language comes in many forms aside from the traditional conventions of verbal and written language. Body language using all five of the sense plays an equally important role in communication, especially to neurodivergent minds. Baggs and Savarese explore how neurodivergence impacts language as we know it, as well as expressing why it is important in today’s modern world. There is great richness to be found in a variation of language types, especially when drawing from the experiences of the Autistic community and related neurodivergent minds. Language as we know it is being reassigned meaning before our very eyes, driving home the message that language is meant to be unique to each individual user.
(Word count: 1429)
Baggs, Amanda. “Cultural Commentary: Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours.” Disability Studies Quarterly (2010).
Savarese, DJ. “Cultural Commentary: Communicate With Me.” Disability Studies Quarterly (2010).