Real People, Real Stories: An interview with Ada Hoffman, author and professor

Ada Hoffman, author, professor, and reviewer

Ada wears a lot of hats! As an author, she creates stories and has them published into books. As a professor, she teaches undergraduate computing students about cognitive science. She’s an adjunct, not a full professor, which means she is hired to teach a course at a time. As a reviewer, she has a very specific focus: she reads science fiction and fantasy books that have autistic characters in them, or were written by autistic authors. She uses the books as a springboard to talk about representations of autism in fiction, what’s good to see and what’s not so good, and to boost other autistic authors who are writing things she loves in the same genres as her.

In your essay, “Everything Is True: A Non-Neurotypical Experience with Fiction,” you write “In my story, I am always reading. I teach myself at three, out of sheer book-hunger. Books are real to me, as a child. I am hyper-empathic to them.” When and how did this connection to books become an interest in writing?

Really I got interested in writing as soon as I could write. I loved stories, and once I could scrawl out letters clumsily with a pencil or peck at the keys on a computer keyboard, I naturally wanted to create stories of my own. I think I wrote my first story when I was five – I wrote it in a program called “Word Processing For Kids,” which displayed very large letters on the screen (they were white on a blue background). It was a lightly fictionalized account of how my family had adopted a pair of kittens. It was probably only about a paragraph long.

In your review of Failure to Communicate by Kaia Sønderby, you write, “It’s hard to write a story about ableism with this kind of nuance and individuality; even #ownvoices stories often have a slightly cartoonish feel in their more ableist characters. But the variety of attitudes taken by different characters in “Failure to Communicate” really helps the setting feel real and lived-in.” Can you share a bit more about your thoughts on this?

Oh boy. I wrote that review several years ago; I’m not sure if I still completely stand by that part. I’ve had a lot of people point out to me, in the wake of the politics of the last few years, that sometimes the real world can be so cartoonishly evil that people would call it call it unbelievable and one-dimensional if you put it in a story. I’m more cautious about calling villains one-dimensional these days than I used to be.

But I do think that a lot of the ableism we experience in our everyday lives doesn’t come directly from one-dimensionally evil people. A lot of it comes from very ordinary, human people with very little, if any, malicious intent. The thing they’re doing wrong might be as simple as being reluctant to deviate from the way they’ve been taught how to do things, or getting uncomfortable or impatient around something they don’t understand. We’ve all done things like that! But these very little, very human, very forgivable wrongs can hurt us in ways that are very out of proportion to the intent. That’s why we talk about ableism being structural – when a society is set up in an ableist or inaccessible way, ordinary people or even good people get put in a position where they perpetuate harm without thinking about it much.

And so what I liked about this aspect of Sønderby’s book is that even the people who were ableist or unlikable felt like people I’d met before, just humans having normal human reactions, and they also weren’t all the same as each other. There’s more than one kind of normal human reaction, and more than one way to be callously or accidentally hurtful. They didn’t feel like straw men, is I guess what I’m saying. They felt real.

In, “Towards a Neurodiverse Future: Writing an Autistic Heroine” you write about incorporating your own experiences into your writing. How do you think about when to “write what you know” and when to write about what is different from your experiences?

I mean, there are a lot of proposed rules and guidelines about this, and all of them are worth considering. But in the end, as an author, you have to follow your heart. You can follow it carefully and respectfully but if your heart isn’t there, the work isn’t there. Unless you’re writing an actual autobiography, your heart will probably draw you to a combination of things, some of which are drawn from your own experiences, some of which are drawn from things you know or have heard about secondhand, and some of which are flights of imagination. And you won’t always know which is which at the time. Things from your own experience can sneak into the work in ways that aren’t obvious until later. And so can things you’ve heard, or unexamined assumptions you’ve made about yourself or other people. It’s complicated.

It does pay to be careful when writing outside your own experience, and we talk a lot in the writing community about what can go wrong when a writer tries to write other people’s identities and gets it wrong. But something we don’t talk about often enough is that both modes of writing are risky. Everything worth writing is risky. When you write outside your experience, the risks are to other people and aren’t always as visible to you, which is why it pays to do your research, get sensitivity readers, be willing to revise. When you write from your own experience, most of the risk is directly to you. And that risk has to be balanced against the need to write what you deeply feel. Because without that feeling, without your heart in it, what’s the point?

It’s not about reducing the risk to zero – that can’t be done, even in the lightest and most anodyne kinds of art. Instead it’s about naming the risk, managing it as respectfully as you can, taking responsibility for it, finding how to create the things you crave to create anyway.

How do you feel your connection to books and writing has changed over time?

I write a little bit about this in my essay “Everything Is True: A Non-Neurotypical Experience With Fiction.” Fiction was extremely real to me when I was a child – I really didn’t have much of a filter with which to emotionally separate it from reality, even though I knew intellectually which was which. That lessened over time. With writing, I’ve gone through periods where I was very prolific (the sheer number of short stories I published in 2013, my goodness!) and times when I was much less so.

In 2014 I had a mental breakdown that included psychosis, and in 2018 I went into burnout – a very common and unpleasant autistic experience – after finishing both my first novel and my PhD. A lot of the time I feel like I’m still recovering from both of those experiences. I am living an interesting life but I am simply not the same person or the same writer who I was in 2013. It’s been a process not only of finding the creative energy at times when I feel unhappy, but at figuring out what role this energy needs to play in my life now that everything’s different. The pandemic hasn’t helped, of course! One thing I know is that following my heart, writing in ways that express deep and scary feelings and not just what I think would be well-received, is even more important to me than it was before.

Do you feel that being autistic affects your writing, teaching, and reviewing? How do you feel your background in computer science affects your writing, teaching, and reviewing?

Being autistic affects everything in my life to some degree, but it’s not always a strong or very noticeable effect, and it’s not always the most important one. With my reviewing, being autistic is incredibly important because that’s what I write about in my reviews. Even though I’m talking about other people’s books and not my own life, I’m talking about it from a perspective that would be enormously difficult, maybe even impossible to cultivate if I didn’t have such a personal connection to the topic. People value my perspective specifically because of that personal connection.

With my writing, it’s subtler – not everything I write is “about” autism, or even mentions it directly. But I find my autistic experience crops up in a lot of what I write, whether I meant to put it there or not. Everything from the way I experience the world on a sensory level, to the way I interpret other people’s actions, to the way I think about right and wrong, is a thing I do autistically, and when I imagine how characters would do these things, that’s the experience I have to draw on. It’s not that all my characters turn out to be autistic – many of them don’t. It’s subtler than that. It’s that I write them in a way that resonates for me as an autistic person.

I think it affects my teaching the least, because my teaching isn’t very personal, or at least not personal in the same ways. I’ve been told that I’m very fair, that my excitement about the topic I’m teaching shines through, and that I respond to questions quickly.

Without a background in computer science, I obviously couldn’t teach a computer science topic. With my writing and reviewing the connection to computer science is more tenuous, if it exists at all. Some people find that their interest in science sparks interesting, crunchy science fiction story ideas. I’m really not like that – my story ideas come from somewhere more squishy and emotional; they’re rarely if ever about my colleagues’ research.

In particular, the AI Gods in the Outside series are not meant as a commentary on real-world AI; they grew out of tropes that were already fictional and out of some thoughts about how organized religion works. At the same time, I do find myself sneaking in little details from computer science here and there. Especially when the characters are dealing with user interfaces of one kind or another, I find myself thinking about how those things work and how challenging it would be to deal with the sheer amount of information that entities like the Gods would have access to. So that’s influenced the books, but only in fairly small ways.

How would you define accessibility? And how does accessibility, or the lack of it, affect your daily life?

You are professional accessibility consultants, so I’m sure you have a better definition than I do already! I think of accessibility as a way of making things as easy for disabled people to use or experience as they are for abled people. It may never be possible to do this perfectly, because access needs can conflict with each other, even within a single disability (like autism – some people need quiet, and some people need auditory stimulation or the ability to make noise at will). But it’s something a lot of people could be putting a lot more thought and effort into than they do.

The biggest accessibility issue that affects me in daily life is overload, which can be either sensory or social. A lot of important things – from job duties to meaningful social and recreational events – involve going to a crowded, noisy, chaotic place where it’s hard to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing. It’s very difficult for me to navigate places like this and still get the benefit that I’m supposed to get from these activities. A lot of important things in daily life also involve communicating with a stranger, talking on the phone, figuring out how to ask about something when there are no posted rules for how to ask about it, but there are unspoken rules that will cause people to react negatively if you ask wrong. That’s very stressful to me.

What do you wish everyone knew about autism in general, and your experience in specific?

That autistic people are people! That we do, in fact, have feelings and very complex inner lives, and we can care very much about other people (though the exact nature of these feelings can vary a lot). That most autistic people are a little bit traumatized by being treated as burdens or annoyances for most of our lives. That trying to train us to act more normal and fit into the NT world can actually harm us – it’s much, much better for us to have spaces where we can be who we are and accept ourselves fully.

Your book of poetry, Million Year Elegies, came out this year and it seems to be part of a larger interest in time and memory. What do you find most interesting about time and memory?

I’m very interested in the way memory changes with time. When I was younger a therapist explained to me that when we remember something, we’re not only feeling the way we felt when it happened – we’re also feeling all sorts of other feelings that have been layered and tangled in with that original feeling as we remember it again and again. You might regret something in retrospect that didn’t feel all that bad to you at the time, or you might see how you benefited from something that did feel bad. People are always changing, and the cultures we move through are always changing too, and that makes it impossible to look at the past objectively. When the distance you’re looking at stretches out to millions or billions of years, as it does in paleontology, the problems become even starker. I play a lot in Million-Year elegies with subjectivity, and with the idea that people throughout human history have tried to explain the meaning of fossils in ways that are human and limited, and end up circling back to their own beliefs and concerns.

In your Lightspeed Magazine author spotlight on your short story, “Melting Like Metal,” you wrote, “But I love villains and I wanted to spend more time with them from their own perspective.” Why do you find the antagonist’s perspective interesting?

Villains are endlessly fascinating to me, and I think there are several reasons for that, one of which is that I’m just obsessed with trying to figure out why people act as they do, even if their actions are unpleasant. But another one of them has to do with pressure. I’m very concerned with trying to do the right thing, and sometimes the complexity of what readers want, in a story about a hero who does do the right thing, can be overwhelming. Heroes are supposed to be likeable and relatable; they’re supposed to be flawed, but not too flawed; a lot of readers will assume that you endorse everything a hero does unless you explicitly say otherwise in the story. The rules that govern what heroes are supposed to be like often feel like NT rules that don’t make sense to me – what’s likable to an NT may not even be understandable for an autistic person. With a villain you get to put those things down and just make the character as messy as you want. There are a lot of feelings I have that I just don’t know how I could possibly express with a hero character, but when I write villain characters I feel more free to express those things.

Your short story, “Variations on a Theme from Turandot” (Which was reprinted in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019) is a story about stories. Can you share why you chose to write a story in this way?

Well, much like Abed Nadir from “Community,” I love to be meta! I love to tell stories while thinking about what stories are and how they work and why we’re telling them in this way, and if there’s another way to tell them. When I initially had the idea for “Variations on a Theme from Turandot” it was more straightforward – I wanted to tell an alternate ending to the story of “Turandot” where Liù gets to be a little more powerful and accomplish a little more. But the more I thought about how that would work and what would happen, the more the story resisted a single linear plot, and the more it became a multiplicity of different endings in my head, some of which were about the people performing or composing the opera more than about the opera’s characters themselves. So I had to find a story structure that worked with that multiplicity instead of against it.

What’s one of the best characters with autism you’ve seen in fiction?

My favorite autistic character ever is Xandri Corelel from “Failure to Communicate” and its prequels/sequels. But that’s a bit of a selfish answer because Xandri is incredibly relatable to me, personally. Sønderby writes her with some very nuanced traits – for instance, the way she doubts herself, and the way that doubt opens her up to manipulation – that I recognize from my own life, but that I never see depicted that way by neurotypical authors, and rarely even from autistic authors. It was such a foreign experience to me to read “Failure to Communicate” and see a protagonist who, in almost every situation, reacts to things in a way very close to how I would.

Categories: World of Accessibility

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