In Other Words

By Mainspring Arts

A remarkable anthology of short stories by eight autistic writers, with forewords by David Mitchell and Joanne Limburg


Let’s say I presented you with two words – ‘autism’ and ‘fiction’ – and asked you what came to mind. Most probably you would mention The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time; a few of you might recall another novel, The Rosie Project, or TV dramas like The Bridge or The ‘A’ Word. These are all works of fiction, and they all feature central characters who are described as autistic. They are about autistic people, in other words, but, like the vast majority of texts with autism as their subject, they are not written by us.

In recent years, autistic people have begun to address this gap in our representation. We have started to write about ourselves, and about the world as we experience it. There are tweets, blogs, newspaper and magazine articles, poems and a growing number of books – ‘autiebiographies’, as they are sometimes called. But if you have come across any of the fictional autistic characters I’ve mentioned, you might expect this, since fictional autistic characters, among other things, are identified as such by their habit of blurting out the truth in great detail. And what’s autobiography, if it isn’t that?

One possible answer is that autobiography is a narrative version of the self, constructed out of a complex negotiation between lived experience and the conventions of medium and genre. In other words, it’s rarely as naïve a form of writing as it first appears, and, by extension, autobiographers are not necessarily naïve writers. Autiebiographers are not necessarily naïve. They employ their knowledge of craft as any other writer would. They construct things: sentences, paragraphs, scenes, stories.

All the writers – the autistic writers – whose work is presented in this anthology have chosen to deploy these craft elements to write fiction. Taken all together, their short stories show just how broad a category this can be. Luke Matthews’s The Beach House, Jon Adams’s A Conversation of Sparrows and Damian Sawyer’s Standard Candles employ social realism and invite us to empathise with their central characters as they go through traumatic experiences. All three shift back and forth in time, with Adams and Sawyer also moving between the viewpoints of different characters, and between different points in human history. Esther Lowery’s The Clockmaker, meanwhile, is set entirely in the Victorian era, and is a thoroughly satisfying piece of historical fiction.

Standard Candles also possesses supernatural elements, linking it with a second group of stories which take place in imagined worlds. In Kate Roy’s The Crows, we follow her protagonist on an unsettling, sometimes terrifying journey through alternative dimensions. Joshua Wiskey’s Light Revolution imagines the dawning of a new, messianic age, heralded by a piece of toilet graffiti, which is discovered by a scientist struggling to come to terms with her somewhat unusual marriage. In The Last Tree, Sarah Davis takes the reader to a bleak future, poignantly observed by its non-human narrator. Richard Baskett also extends this imaginative sympathy for the non-human in Winona the Angelic Wizard, a fairy story for grown-ups which features a cast of eccentric talking animals.

As a tutor on the Square Peg Stories writing course, I was privileged to work with the writers of these stories, and to witness the work developing from initial ideas, through successive drafts, to the finished versions in this anthology. I’ve found so much to appreciate, admire and enjoy in them. So will you.

Joanne Limburg, October 2017


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