During February, I attended an illuminating workshop hosted by HighlandLIT about memoir writing. It was presented by Cynthia Rogerson, who spoke about the nature of “truth” when writing autobiography and how it crosses over with writing fiction. She argued that every writer writes from their unique perspective, which is drawn from their real lives and experiences — even when they’re writing historical fiction, or about the fantastical, or science fiction.
The workshop prompted me to think about my forthcoming novel, The Disinformation War, in the context of how my life influenced the story and characters.
In the first instance, it’s not autobiographical. By that I mean I haven’t included any specific episodes from my life and none of the characters are based even lightly on anyone I know. However, I recognise tics in my writing that reflect the way I interpret the world. I also extrapolated ideas from events and behaviours from the news and — broadly — from my lived experience as a civil servant.
That’s the magpie nature of a writer. Keen observation, and describing the elements relevant to bringing a story to life. It’s what engages an audience, or repels them if it’s done wrongly.
I “rage-wrote” the first version of The Disinformation War ten years ago. I was angry at government policies designed to both push more people into poverty and to punish those people for becoming poor. I had one of those rare moments that I can only describe as a waking dream where an insistent character demanded her story be told. That character was Kayla, the main protagonist in The Disinformation War.
Kayla is an undiagnosed autistic adult. She was that from my first sketch of her as a character back in 2013. At the time I didn’t know that I was an undiagnosed autistic adult, but clearly my subconscious brain was working through all that. Anyway, we share a few characteristics but mostly Kayla is different to me. I don’t have touch sensitivity like she does and while I have a strategic understanding of programming and the internet, my brain doesn’t do the practical details like hers does.
Kayla is also aroace, and from a working class background that experienced a brief stint in the upper middle classes. Her maternal grandfather was Black and maternal grandmother was white; I deliberately don’t say anything about her paternal family. I’m white, aromantically gay, and from a solidly middle class background. I’m a migrant to the UK, and Kayla isn’t. What was and is happening to migrants, especially BPOC migrants, worried and angered me, too. Not only in the UK, but everywhere around the world. Still does. All of this is evident should you choose to read my novel.
For several reasons, I put my first draft of the novel to one side. I didn’t pull it out again until I left the civil service and saw the first call by GoldSF for pitches.
During those years when I left the novel alone, I learned a lot about racism and classism. I also learned a lot about “own voices”, and about the responsibilities for all writers and creators to really think about whether they are the best person to tell a particular story in a particular way. Professor Sunny Singh is one who articulated that last question, and similar, which I found invaluable when revising what’s become The Disinformation War.
Which brings me back to what Cynthia Rogerson spoke about at the workshop. Telling stories is about picking and choosing what to share, and how. Those choices are made often with more than one reason in mind, and these can change over time. That’s the nature of creativity. To me, it’s perhaps not so much about “truth” but honesty. One main theme of The Disinformation War is asking the question about what people in all honesty might do when politics turns a particular way.
© 28 February 2023
Being gay has affected my life intrinsically, even if it hasn’t defined it. I realised that truth about myself the year I turned 25, over half my life-time ago.
I was gay before I realised it, of course. When I look back at my teens and early twenties I can see so many clues. I wrote about that journey in my essay published in the wonderful Queers Dig Time Lords.
My gayness intermingled with my mostly subconscious take on gender expression. I’ve never been girly, and because the butch/femme binary dominated the lesbian scene when and where I came out, I took on a vaguely butch aesthetic. It didn’t fit me quite right, which I think was partially to do with me wanting to fit in at work. Or, to be precise, I didn’t want to stand out at work even when I was out as gay.
I was well into my forties when I learned about gender queer ideas, and the concept of being non-binary fits me a lot more comfortably than anything else. For the record, I’m a woman. I’m a lesbian, but I prefer to describe myself as gay. My style, in so far as I have one, is casually masculine. I have no idea what my chromosomes actually are because I’ve not had those tests done. Understanding what they probably are is not the same thing as knowing for sure.
For most of my life, I attributed my awkwardness in social situations to my queerness, with a dash of societal sexism thrown in. For twenty years, I worked in the white cis het male-dominated field of law enforcement. I’m white, and haven’t experienced racism the way my co-workers from the diversity of non-white backgrounds did and do. I am the daughter of a Dutch migrant to Australia, and later became an EU migrant to the UK. I am now a naturalised Brit. I never hid my sexual orientation—why should I?—and in the UK advocated for the full inclusion of LGBTQIA people in workplaces.
Despite my attempts to blend in, I did stand out at work. My work with Stonewall and numerous co-workers gave me the strength to be my authentic self at work. I’ve written about that elsewhere.
I am also autistic. My formal diagnosis came through at the end of 2021. I have loads to unpack and re-assess about my life, and I am glad to have a terrific support network. I’ve debated about ‘coming out’ with my diagnosis, and for a lot of different reasons it feels right for me to do so.
The overlap with queerness is interesting even if not all queers are autistic, and not all autists are queer.
The history of autism and its definitions/diagnostic criteria is fascinating. I reviewed Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes back in June 2021, and found it to be a pretty comprehensive history of autism in the global west from the early 20th century to the time it was published in 2015. I highly recommend it as a good, solid introduction, written in an accessible style. Warning: large parts of the history is appalling—the US psych industry has a lot to answer for—and Silberman does not shy away from detailing it in a factual way. The chapter about early SF fandom in the USA is enlightening through this different lens. Silberman’s empathy and sympathy for autistic people, and their parents/families, shines through and the book ends on a hopeful note.
There are a lot of definitions out there, and one from Dr Nick Walker struck a cord with my experience. While I will link to her website version, written in 2014, I won’t cite it for the reasons given on her website.
The key point I took from Walker’s work, and Silberman’s, among others, is that autism is a neurological variant that begins in utero and influences an individual’s development on multiple levels throughout our life. It’s genetic, and affected by a variety of external influences that are unique to the individual. It manifests in both cognitive and sensory ways, but how much and in what ways depends on each person, even as we share a neurotype. It’s disabling for many people, but not everyone, and that can vary across time. Some of that disability lies in the ways in which societies are set up, but for many people that disability is intrinsic to particular traits. Diagnostic criteria, and the labels, have changed over time and diverge between countries—all of which are debated, even now.
It’s messy and complex, because human beings are messy and complex.
My formal diagnosis came from a clinical psychologist using the DSM-V and ICD 10 criteria, applied in an affirming and queer-friendly way. They also tested me as a 53-year-old adult, rather than a three-year-old child. The fact that such a practice exists is testament to how much progress has been made recently in this field, as uneven as that progress remains. I am immensely grateful to the growing numbers of people who have shared their own experiences and journeys—good, bad, and everything in between. I went for a formal diagnosis for my own reasons, and was able to do so. Not everyone can, but it is possible to work it out if you have access to a range of material available. It’s not easy to navigate the garbage out there, though. It’s painful to read through research material that somehow got ethics approval even as they deny a group of people their humanity.
There is so much more that I could write about all this here, but I’ll stop now. I know I will return to this subject again, with better understanding of it generally and personally. It is who I am and have always been, and since it’s the way my brain’s wired—to use a well-fitting analogy—it affects the way I view the world and write about it.© 21 February 2022