Autism and International Literacy Day

I have two children. They both have Autism Spectrum Disorder. My oldest child is fully verbal. It wasn't clear until she was around first grade that non-echolalic, voluntary speech would be something she could be capable of. She is now a reader, and reading is one of her joys, and a preferred activity. My youngest child is mostly non-verbal, and his communication is echolalic. Reading is something we are developing with him.

Functional, basic literacy is a dream I have for my son. When I watch my daughter reading while she is walking, just like I walked and read growing up, it makes me inexpressibly proud. It'd be good seeing more people talk about having universal literacy as a goal with results. Let's talk about it, in as much detail and with as many facts as we can. Getting together and chatting is where everything starts. 

Literacy Day

Baldwin, Sexual Assault and Sonny's Blues

"...I use Grammarly's online proofreader because I am entirely original.

Last year I was sexually assaulted. It isn't an easy thing to say, or to write, but the more I say it or write about it the easier it gets. When it happened I was in the middle of writing a story, and whenever I write a story it's always a different story, but it's always me writing it. Whenever I write I always talk to the same person, the difference is that I'm using the keys on my laptop instead of my breath vibrating against my vocal chords to talk. Everyone writes to someone. Some people write to everyone. Me, I write to the one person I know will understand what I'm trying to say. See, when you're writing about something as hard to talk about as violence-not general violence, but violence that you, personally, were the victim of-you can't start out by standing in the middle of an auditorium and telling it to a thousand people in your formal speaking voice. You have to start small, one breath, and then another one. One word, and then another one. And one person. After one person understands, you have a hope that the next person will understand, and then the next person after that.

Writing-good writing-is telling a story. Sometimes the story is told in a fictional format, sometimes it's nonfiction. All good stories tell personal truth, and personal truth is something that has to be experienced. It cannot come from the crowd; the vast numbers of potential readers out there can't take their own personal experiences and dictate them to you in the hope that a good, amalgamated story will emerge. Such a process may reveal truth, but it is not personal truth. The biggest problem with crowd-sourcing a truth is that it generalizes it, turning it into an impersonal thing that needs to be reshaped and reintroduced as real events experienced by real individuals. Politicians accomplish this reshaping by drawing from the personal experiences of real people in policy speeches. Nonfiction writers take aggregate statistics and highlight them with a series of anecdotes about Bob and Sally as a way of letting you see the importance of the charts and tables they're citing. Fiction writers write stories. It's an indirect proof because you start with character. You begin with motivations, and consistent motivations lead to understandable actions, and those understandable actions shape the narrative you eventually create.

Love is as vital as good food and air, whereas violence is inherently illogical. Violence is also explainable. For instance, you can use direct proof, i.e., poverty leads to lack of education and opportunity, which can lead to violent acts-and you will present a general truth. You will not, however, be able to explain why one specific human being chooses to inflict violence upon himself or upon others. The most you can do is present general trends, explain general conditions. General explanations are unimportant to me. I don't care about the underlying conditions and trend lines that led to the abuse I suffered. A part of me doesn't even care about why the man who assaulted me did what he did. I want to tell one person what happened to me because it's better if one person knows. It's also easier to explain all of it in a story.

Something else needs to be said about the personal experience of trauma when you're writing. Writing through trauma is writing through overwhelming fear. Every day after I was assaulted I would write, desperately, for hours on end. When I looked back at it later I saw the signs of trauma transcribed over what I was writing: long, run on sentences; punctuation out of place, mis-capitalized letters. You can still see some of the examples of the effect trauma had my writing in some my older blog posts. Some of this I've corrected. Some of it I've left there as a sign of what trauma did to me as a writer. Being a writer, I've heard all of the fanciful tales of writers "bleeding on the page," all of the take-a-stiff-drink-and-buck-up-this-is-what-Fitzgerald-would-have-done bravado in all of the genteel, storied literary magazines that specialize in distinguishing good writers from better ones. Speaking from experience, this is not needed to write. "Let it bleed" is not required. Glorious isolation is not necessary. In fact, quite the opposite. In order to heal as a writer recovering from trauma you need to do more than write through it. You need to be able to share what you've written with the one person you trust. You need to be able to talk-beyond the written text-directly to the one person you trust about what happened. And you need to know that you can do that more than once. Lack of personal security is almost indescribable if you haven't experienced it. In my case, it is fear. It is looking at every man over a certain age as a potential threat, simply because of his gender. It is looking at every offer to talk about what happened from anyone other than the one person you trust as something to be lived through as quickly as possible. It is rolling your eyes at every suggestion to go to therapy after the therapist herself tells you that therapy is something that you determine whether or not you need, and how often you need it (Kafka's never ending halls of bureaucracy leap into my mind every time I try to see a therapist). It is wincing at any touch except from the one person you trust enough to allow it. When you're recovering from sexual assault the amount of people you trust approaches the number three, if you're lucky.

Part of recovery is moving your mind. After I finished writing my story (and I was well enough to be able to correct the idiosyncrasies that trauma had inscribed upon it so it was good and readable), I eased up and rested. My entire existence-mental and physical-was on overdrive. My senses were vigilant and aware of everything and everyone: what the nature of their conversations were, the color of their clothes, the way they were sitting, their expressions when they glanced at me. You do this as a natural defense mechanism. Your body and your senses are naturally hard-wired to perceive threats, and when you're the victim of violence that natural response escalates. Very few things can slow it down. Meditation helps, as do memory and logic puzzles. Physical exercise is necessary. Reading, especially if you're a writer recovering from trauma, helps restore some of what was damaged. I found myself gravitating toward books that made me feel safe. Rainbow Six by Tom Clancy was really a godsend. Ernest Hemingway's large voice addressed the level of violence I had experienced in a way that wasn't threatening, simply because of its volume. Edith Wharton's strong, logical, feminine style and her stories that focused on male-female relationships helped me feel hope (even when I wanted to re-write her endings).

Out of all of the writers I read after I was assaulted, the one who really seemed to be able to speak as a writer about trauma itself was James Baldwin. Baldwin writes about trauma after experiencing jim-crow in Notes of a Native Son. He compares trauma to contracting "some dread, chronic disease, the unfailing symptom of which is a kind of blind fever, a pounding in the skull and a fire in the bowels." Baldwin states, "Once this disease is contracted, one can never really be carefree again, for the fever, without an instant's warning, can recur at any moment." This disease, the blind fever, the hopeless feeling that you can never really be carefree again, this was the trauma I experienced (and am still recovering from).

Notes of a Native Son was helpful to me as a diagnosis of my condition, but what really spoke to me as an artist were some of Baldwin's other short stories, specifically Sonny's Blues. Reading Sonny's Blues took me out of my own head and put me into someone else's. I was still feeling all of the trauma I was feeling. But I was feeling that personal trauma while hearing Baldwin's character describe what he saw in his brother, Sonny. In the story, Sonny is a jazz musician, an ex-convict and a recovering drug addict. Sonny's brother, the narrator, watches his own daughter succumb to polio. He writes to Sonny the next day, explaining, "My trouble made his real." Sonny's trouble is his addiction to drugs, and this starts when he says he wants to become a serious pianist. Sexual assault and a serious addiction to drugs are not the same thing, however, Baldwin's description of the effect Sonny's self-inflicted trauma had on his music, how he would isolate himself in his room and "play one record over and over again, all day long sometimes, and he'd improvise along" was something I had experienced writing after I was assaulted. Sonny's feeling that music was "life or death to him" was something I felt. Baldwin describes living with Sonny, saying that it "wasn't like living with a person at all, it was like living with sound." I believe it.

I slow myself down when I write. Purposefully. It's hard to explain to anyone who isn't an artist and who hasn't experienced this level of personal violence why that is. It was likely this difficulty that prompted Baldwin to write Sonny's Blues in the style he did, in a fictional format observing Sonny from a distance, containing the overwhelming presence of this character by writing in the voice of a man observing him. Baldwin's writing here is sparse; he uses little in terms of action or plot. It is a deep, long breath of character exhaled in a sustained note. Sometimes it wails. Sometimes it raises itself up to a question before quieting down again. As the story progresses it builds in volume, culminating at the moment when Sonny's brother watches him perform at a nightclub. It is there that he is able to see Sonny as a fully developed artist for the first time. "All I know about music," Baldwin's narrator tells us before Sonny starts to play, "is that not many people ever really hear it." He then focuses all of his attention on Sonny, watching his face, seeing him struggle with the rhythm and the cues and his band mates until, finally, the rest of the musicians step back and let Sonny make these blues his own. "It was very beautiful because it wasn't hurried and it was no longer a lament," Sonny's brother explains. "Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did." He watches Sonny take a sip of his drink before placing it back on the piano, the liquid glowing and shaking "above my brother's head like the very cup of trembling" as Sonny begins the next song. It is an ending that doesn't end, because songs like this don't. Memory is always there, it always builds upon itself with each encounter, violent, loving or compassionate. In that there is hope, and it is the one hope that a victim of trauma can hold onto: that any song, no matter how it starts, creates its own arc to happiness. 

Recovery starts with personal trust. I am still recovering. I don't know that I have an arc of happiness, yet. Sometimes I feel the panic stalk me again and I try to conceal it. Sometimes I can't. Sometimes I scream. Most of my Sunday afternoons are spent with my daughter. We go to a cafe, we order dessert, and I tell her stories that last for hours. Seeing how excited she is to hear the next part of the story I'm telling her about April Christmases with fireworks and leaping cakes does make me happy. She loses herself in my stories, and I get to lose myself in her enthusiasm. It isn't a full health regime in-and-of itself, but it's happy. Right now, being happy is the best medicine. 

Grammar Or Invention: Notable Vernacular

My daughter, when I ask her to read a few pages of an age-appropriate story I'm writing, has an interesting habit for a ten-year-old: she proofreads as she follows along. For a neurotypical child this is understandable; for my daughter, who is on the autism spectrum, it is something approaching a lifestyle. Rules and their consistency have been a vital part of her development from the time she was born. Without the safety and security of consistent rules, her early life would have been an incoherent chaos of indecipherable stress. Rules have provided her with the definitions she needs to understand the world around her, so it is hardly surprising that when she is confronted with a text she approaches it from the mindset of rules, and whether or not the text correctly follows the rules that she has learned at school.

For a writer like myself, who loves to use creative language like "un-trapezed" in a sentence just because it sounds right, this establishes an interesting dynamic. She right-clicks my unfindable word, I explain that the computer doesn't recognize the word because Mommy just made it up, and she starts suggesting ways of saying the same thing that won't conflict with the computer's word recognition software and spell check. I have learned a couple of things from this experience. First, writing for young readers on the autism spectrum is a challenging - and sometimes hilarious - experience. Second, there are times as an artist when you need to just listen to the story and not worry about what people might think, especially when the story is telling you to break the rules.

Accurate representations of reality and rule-breaking go hand-in-hand for any artist, but especially for writers. Writing is the act of portraying people and their motivations in as realistic a manner as possible. It does not matter whether the work is fiction or non-fiction, if the people described in it are not real and understandable the work will be vulnerable to cliches, stereotypes and gimmicks. Such illnesses in a creative work are cured with deep and rich characters, sense of place, and above all, vernacular. 

Vernacular is the ultimate rule-breaker. Teachers have wagged their fingers against it from time immemorial. We have been told as children that "ain't ain't a word," and as adults we have been subjected to "debates" over the teaching of the Black vernacular in schools. We are constantly being presented the image of proper grammar as synonymous with the clean, white shirt and freshly polished shoes you wear to a job interview, whereas vernacular is the unwashed cousin in hand-me-downs. Vernacular is both blunt and hidden, risky and standard. If you want to write compelling narratives it is a must.

Most writers who write about injustice and marginalized people employ vernacular as a way of allowing their characters to fully inhabit who they are. Die Weber (The Weavers) is a 19th century play by German playwright and novelist Gerhart Hauptmann, and it tells the story of the exploitation of the weavers in Silesia, which at that time was a German province. Hauptmann used the Silesian dialect in the play, and because of this the characters are authentic. When the story of their exploitation unfolds, it, too, is authentic and believable.

American literature has a long tradition of the use of vernacular regardless - or perhaps in spite of - the admonitions we received in grade school. It also has the ability to make us confront our collective past in ways that shock us and make us uncomfortable. Mark Twain, the author who is generally credited with popularizing the use of vernacular in American stories and novels, captures the rawness of the experience of being an enslaved person in A True Story, Repeated Word for Word As I Heard ItIn this story, "Aunt Rachel," Twain's domestic servant, recounts to him the horror of watching her children being sold due to her mistress's lack of funds: "An' when de las' one was gone but my little Henry, I grab him clost up to my breast so, an I ris up and says, 'You shan't take him away,' I says...But dey got him-dey got him, de men did; but I took and tear de clo'es mos' off of 'em, an beat 'em over de head wid my chain; an' day give it to me, too, but I did n't mine dat." Extant historical documents reveal that the use of vernacular was prevalent among both enslaved people and the people who owned them. Harriet Beecher Stowe in A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin cites court documents, testimony and classified ads to bolster her argument against the brutality of the Southern slave system. Stowe had been criticized for her portrayal of slavery in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Southern critics called it unrealistically violent, and the book itself was so controversial that it spurred the creation of several "counter-novels" written by Southern authors sympathetic to the slave holding system. A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin is Stowe's nonfiction defense of her work. The following example from A Key is plain in its brutality: "RANAWAY from the subscriber, a negro man named SAMPSON. Fifty dollars reward will be given for the delivery of him to me, or his confinement in any jail, so that I get him; and should he resist in being taken, so that violence is necessary to arrest him, I will not hold any person liable for damages should the slave be KILLED." An additional advertisement for the sale of "A LIKELY GIRL...a good Nurse and House Servant, can wash and iron," illustrates the use of written non-standard English among slaveholders. Such examples are not only notable for giving us hints about the everyday spoken language of the Southern slave holding class, but they show the absurd lengths that those who upheld the slave system would go to in putting a genteel linguistic veneer over abuse, rape, torture and forced labor. Indeed, after reading these first hand accounts it is perfectly clear that no re-enactment of slavery is necessary to understand the centuries of systemic evil enslaved people endured. No movie is needed to translate the tragedy of these human rights abuses to today's youth. The words, themselves, stand on their own.    

African American writers-and other writers who are dedicated to realistic portrayals of African American characters-have unique challenges addressing vernacular given this history. Many examples of great use of vernacular abound, from Maya Angelou's "Whoppa, Whoppa" in Workers Song to Victor LaValle's "Negro, sit down!...Sit down and hear some truth" in Big Machine. James Baldwin, in his review of Carmen Jones, called out the superficial veneer of using vernacular to try to add authenticity to black characters who weren't authentically black: "..these are exceptional Negroes, as American, that is, as you and me, interpreting lower-class Negroes of whom they, also, are very fond, an affection which is proven perhaps by the fact that everyone appears to undergo a tiny, strangling death before resolutely substituting "de" for "the." Such criticism is necessary when addressing the use of vernacular in character. Vernacular is not a substitute for underlying truth - if underlying truth is not present, vernacular is so precise in its own critique that it will call out superficiality with its own bluntness. 

Renowned author Zora Neale Hurston is one of my favorite authors who successfully uses vernacular, and her Story in Harlem Slang is a particularly fun example of her mastery of this linguistic style. She begins by asking the reader to "Wait till I light up my coal-pot and I'll tell you about this Zigaboo called Jelly." Hurston tells us, "His mama named him Marvel, but after a month on Lenox Avenue, he changed all that to Jelly," explaining "It must be Jelly, cause jam don't shake." Jelly exists off of the support of various women, and right now he is hungry (we are led to believe that Jelly is generally hungry). This motivates him to get out of bed: "You got to get out on the beat and collar yourself a hot." Outside a cafe Jelly sees "one of his colleagues" and figures "if he bull-skated just right, he might confidence Sweet Back out of a thousand on a plate." Jelly and Sweet Back exchange digs about the relative quality of the women they attract until they see a girl. Because this is Wednesday afternoon and because they both know that domestics get Wednesday afternoons off with pay they assume that she has money. Indeed, as Jelly says, "I'd walk clear to Diddy-Wah-Diddy to get a chance to speak to a pretty lil' ground-angel like that." The woman, predictably, turns them both down. In spite of his cocky behavior we end up rooting for Jelly, in no small part due to the largeness of his voice.

Vernacular, then, when properly employed creates this magical transformation. It uplifts the downtrodden, it shines a bright light on injustice. It turns the inexplicable into something weirdly believable, and it takes the ne'er-do-well and makes him do better just because the reader wills him so to do. A writer can tell a good, believable story without vernacular - Edith Wharton's characters existed in a quiet rebellion against the rules while following them. Writers who do this run the risk of being their own Newland Archers, sitting on a park bench while staring up at a balcony, unable to formulate the words "coulda shoula woulda" but feeling them all the same. Vernacular lifts you up. It shakes off the straight jacket of constrained emotions and unuttered words, and it enables your writing to flow freely until you touch what's most important: love.  

On Violence and the Nonviolent Artist

Nelson Mandela, like all successful practitioners of nonviolence, was a realist. Like most successful practitioners of nonviolence he used art and sports to find common ground, to establish a floor under the feet of his adversaries to let them know that he was standing on it, too, and that it existed in a room that was intimate, allowing the type of unique comfort that a small, shared space affords. Common values built the room he and his opponents were standing in, and some of the stories of those common values were told by artists. We can point to books like The Help and movies like Cry Freedom and see obvious examples of stories that illustrate the importance of human rights and racial reconciliation. But what of the stories that don't commemorate important historical achievements, that aren't written with the purpose of educating the public on important issues of the day? What about stories that are less a Star Trek inspired jaunt into happy team building exercises in diversity (with cool gadgets and awesome aliens), and more gritty, that concern themselves more with the story itself than with directing the audience toward any particular point about inclusion and justice?

Can a thriller or murder mystery really find itself in the legacy of Mandela or King without drifting into flat banalities and obvious point making?

It's something I've been thinking about today, the day after Mandela's passing. I believe that there is something about violence that acts as its own deterrent when its true nature is exposed. Violence is something that real human beings do to other real human beings for very understandable reasons. If a story about violence strays too far from that path of the understandable it starts to glorify it; however, if it presents the violence as understandable and human it explains the nature of it in a way that a feel-better movie like The Help could never do.

Let's take the Iliad as an example. This is a war story with thousands of lines describing a brutal battle fought with spears and swords instead of drones and smart bombs. There are no bright points on a map or militaristic catch phrases like "target acquired." There are, instead, personal, gruesome depictions of violent wounding and death, like this one: "...the lance of Tlepolemus/Pierced the left thigh of Sarpedon, and the point tore madly/Through, grazing the bone." Unlike its comic-book inspired superheros and supervillians, the Iliad is populated with protagonists who behave as real, flawed people do. Even heroic Hector, the clear military leader of the Trojans, ignores a dying man pleading with him to remove him from the battlefield so he can die in peace: "Since it isn't likely I'll ever return to delight/My dear wife and baby boy in my own native land." Hector's response is to ignore him and rush toward the enemy instead. This one simple act, described in a few sentences, says more about how violence affects the human condition than any amount of knock-offs dressed in fancy costumes.

The Iliad makes no grand statement on the nature of violence. What it does is it shows us our fascination with it. It is as entertaining as it is brutal. It leaves it up to us, the readers, to understand why that is. Ultimately, this is what any good work of art does: it reveals a part of the human condition honestly, without gimmicks or ploys. It is that honesty which is necessary to have any important conversation, especially one involving violence and nonviolence. It is that truth that finds itself in the legacies of leaders like Nelson Mandela, and in the legacies of all of us.