Episode 23! Conversation with Lyn Miller-Lachmann
Welcome to episode 23 of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Every week this podcast will feature an essay about an issue in the children's literature community (Monday) and a discussion about the essay (Wednesday).
In this episode, Lyn Miller-Lachmann discusses her essay "Going It Alone as an Autistic Woman Writer" (which can be heard HERE) with Karen Blumenthal. Lyn and Karen discuss the difficulties that face neurodiverse authors.
On today's Podcast you will hear:
Lyn Miller-Lachmann, author of the 2009 novel Gringolandia, is a graduate of the MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts . It was there she gained the confidence to write the story of growing up with Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism that made it so hard for her to make and keep friends. Lyn’s 2013 novel, Rogue, is based on two incidents that happened to her as a teenager. Learn more about Lyn at her website www.lynmillerlachmann.com
Karen Blumenthal, a long-time journalist, writes nonfiction for young people with the belief that nonfiction brings context to a complicated world. She is particularly fascinated by social change, how it happens and why. Her books include the Siebert Honor Book Six Days in October: The Stock Crash of 1929 and Let me Play: The Story of Title IX: The Law That Changed the Future of Girls in America. Her new book Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend is out now Learn more about Karen at her website: www.karenblumenthal.com.
Karen: Hi. I'm Karen Blumenthal, and I'm talking with Lyn Miller-Lachmann about her essay, which is in front of me, Going It Alone as an Autistic Woman Writer. Lyn, it's great to talk to you.
Lyn: Thank you for having me.
Karen: Just a simple question to get us started, why did you choose to write this essay?
LYN: Well, one of the reasons was that I wanted to … I had already written a piece for an essay on translation because I do a lot of translation of children's books from Portuguese to English, but the reason that I wanted to write this essay was to present my experience as an autistic writer. I was diagnosed as an adult but before my books were published. I just felt that this perspective is an important one.
I wrote an Own Voices novel, and I faced a lot of challenges in the publishing industry, both because of my communication style and also the emphasis upon self-promotion. I wanted to make sure that people understood what some of these challenges are and to prevent some of the problems that I faced from happening in the future. Also, to show people why it's important to have an own voice’s perspective because it's just too easy to say with disabled writers, “Well, we'll just get somebody to write about it because they can't speak for themselves or it’s too much trouble.” That is not true at all.
Karen: Right. There's no reason why you can't speak for yourself, right?
LYN: No, but there's just way too much. I want to be the voice of the voiceless, and disabled people are considered to be voiceless and invisible.
Karen: I think we maybe had a bit of a thread on the Kidlit Women's site at one point, talking about people wanting to see people with disabilities just be regular people as opposed to heroes or something else. There was an implication that they had to be something else. Have you run into that or is that something that you have encountered?
LYN: Yes. I think that the other thing that I'd like to see is disabled people who screw up and aren't left in the dust that we had the same chances as everyone else does because I've seen it said that one of the things that defines privilege is making a mistake and getting a second chance.
Karen: Very interesting. The assumption is different, you think, for disabled people?
LYN: I think it is, and I think that there's a lot more scrutiny of, are they going to be able to fit in? Are they going to be able to keep up? The first evidence that somebody can't keep up, it's like goodbye.
Karen: Yeah, that seems so unfair. You also do some sensitivity reading on this issue.
LYN: Yes, I do.
Karen: We've discussed a lot about other kinds of diversity and people writing outside their experience. Do you see common mistakes or common things that people do when they try to imagine what it's like to be neurodiverse or to have a different kind of a disability?
LYN: Yes. There are certain tropes out there. Obviously, one of the ones is the brainy, obsessed with trains-type that was popularized in that book by Mark Haddon in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. There's the trope of autistic people lack empathy. There's the trope of the martyred parent and the martyred sibling, and that has I think become recently, there's been a lot of discussion of that topic of particularly some of the parents who are writing about how their lives are so difficult having to deal with an autistic child, or the sibling, the story that centers the sibling and how hard it is to be the sibling when your autistic sibling is the one getting all the attention or the one getting everyone kicked out of some place.
Karen: Wow. Because we're Kidlit Women, is there a gender issue there too? Do you see girls with this disability handled differently or just ignored? Because I think we tend to think of the guy computer geek. Right?
LYN: Right. Yes. Autism in particular is underdiagnosed in women, and I think that was the reason why when I was growing up, I struggled so much. Being a girl, I didn't fit into a lot of the patterns that the boys did. I went undiagnosed, and I went undiagnosed through my early adulthood as well. I think that had I been diagnosed, I would have been able to develop a lot more social skills and worked on social scripts that would have allowed me to pursue some dreams that I wanted to pursue. I think that's something that's rather common with women who are on the autism spectrum that autistic women go through a lot of life being bullied or being excluded and not really knowing why.
Karen: Interesting. You wrote something in your essay that struck a nerve with me about the communication styles and publishing and how people are less than direct. It made me think of this, maybe that's a stereotype too, that the author or the artist has a fragile ego and will crumble at the idea of too direct of criticism or being told this sucks. In your case, you were saying you need somebody to be specific and not so vague about that. Have you seen any changes or have you tried to address that and gotten any kind of response?
LYN: Well, I'm not really working with an editor right now, so I haven't really seen any changes. Personally, I hope that other autistic writers have. I also have heard, in people responding to my essay, that these are best practices for anybody that what works in terms of communication style for an autistic writer is something that really would work well for anyone because it isn't a question of saying … We're not saying we don't want you to say this sucks. We want you to say this is the problem and this is why it's the problem.
Karen: Yeah. I find that sometimes, but then I sometimes think, well, maybe, they don't know what the problem is either. That's why they're so vague. They just want me to fix it.
LYN: That could be.
Karen: They want me to do the hard work and figure it out.
LYN: You can say that. You can say, “Look, I know this isn't working for me, but I don't really know why.”
Karen: Right. Push them more to be more specific.
LYN: Right. One of the things I'm doing now is I'm following, on Twitter, I'm following people talking about codes. I'm very interested in these codes for rejection letters. If it's a question of I couldn't connect to the character, maybe your character's desire line isn't strong enough. I love the concept, but I didn't like the execution. Could this be a question pace? I've been learning a lot from reading that and keeping this mental file of if I ever get any one of those rejections versus you don't fit in. It seems to be what I get a lot of. Then, I'll know what I need to do to fix.
Karen: That's frustrating. Are there ways that you hope the world of children's publishing will change relative to these issues in the future?
LYN: I really hope that people see the relevance of the kinds of things I'm pointing to because they could look at it and say, “Oh, this is just an autistic person who's making a whole lot of demands and making a whole lot of trouble just for one person. There aren't that many autistic people, and not all of them write, so we don't see any reason why we have to make any changes.” The truth is I'm a canary in a coal mine. I'm also really good at observing because I've always been an observer. I've never really … Growing up, I was always the one on the outside looking in and trying to figure out how social networks worked. I'm really good at figuring those out even though maybe I'm not really good at fitting in when I'm actually in a situation, but I can diagnose something without necessarily being able to personally treat it.
I think that a lot of the things I'm pointing to are things that can improve communication styles for everyone, and particularly for anybody who's working with someone whose background is different from theirs. Just making people aware that there are different cultural styles of communication.
Karen: There certainly are, even being somebody from the south or southwestern part of the country as opposed to people from the east.
LYN: That’s right. You wrote me today. I said I was walking my dog, and you said, “You can't walk your dog. It’s 160 degrees outside.”
Karen: Right. People here are sometimes are more direct than they are sometimes in the Midwest, or they may use a euphemism that would be different or interpreted differently. I guess we all have some of that.
LYN: That is correct. When you're also writing about diverse cultures, and most of my writing consists of books set in other countries, and as well I address this when I'm a translator trying to bring a story written in another country to readers in the United States. You're addressing a lot of cultural differences, including the ways that children relate to their parents and to their grandparents, the presence of multiple generations in a household. These are all cultural differences that should be embraced and valued and understood.
Karen: I think your translation work is so interesting. Have you encountered any gender issues in that relative to authors or publishing, the kinds that we were talking about on Kidlit Women?
LYN: Yes. We're making a big push as translators now to recognize not only the role of women translators, but who are the authors who get translated? Because traditionally, it's the male authors. We're trying to recognize and honor and translate women authors. The other Kidlit Women essay that I contributed to was one on translating women authors for children.
Karen: Wow. This is so interesting. We're almost out of time, but I have a couple of questions I want to ask that we're asking everybody. The first one is if you could give us just a brief summary or tell us just a little bit about what you're working on right now.
LYN: Wow. I'm working on a lot of things now. I'm revising a young adult novel, and I also started a new one. Both of them are historical novels that present or portray young people living under dictatorships.
LYN: I spend a lot of time in Portugal. One of the things I've done a lot of writing, both on my blog and in my fiction, about the long time Salazar dictatorship. It was a very right-wing Christian dictatorship. In fact, I've heard that Mike Pence is in fact an admirer of Salazar. That dictatorship ended. He died in 1970, but the dictatorship did not end until 1974 with the Carnation Revolution, a nonviolent revolution that brought democracy to Portugal for the first time in three generations.
LYN: It has been a longstanding democracy because until 1974, the country had not really experienced democracy for more than 15, 20 years.
Karen: Wow. That sounds fun.
LYN: It's a very positive sign for countries. We're now seeing a lot of countries that go from democracy to despotism, but there are examples of ones where the people have managed to win and then establish a functioning democracy, and Portugal is one of those. That's mainly what I'm working on. I also have a couple of Own Voices stories that I'm working on.
Karen: Well, it sounds like you're busy.
Karen: Our last question, this question we're asking everyone is, what is your biggest publishing dream? Really big, because as women, we often are encouraged to be ambitious or we’re sometimes shamed for that. What is your biggest publishing dream?
LYN: I want to be part of the revolution. In reality, I want to be the comeback kid. I want to show that second chances are possible if you keep working and growing, and that what you know can matter more than who you know. I dream about this not only for myself but for every marginalized writer who has been denied a second chance or who is struggling just to get the first chance and doesn't know where to begin because you're not plugged into those networks or you don't have the skills to relate to other people. You have the skills to write. You're a great writer, but you maybe don't know how to get an agent or you don't know how to appeal to an agent or you don't know how to dress for a party or loud parties make you want to run out screaming.
I think we really need to look at being a lot more inclusive in terms of the people that we bring in and how we allow … Making sure that everybody has the same chance to succeed on their own terms. It's not just me. It goes way beyond me.
Karen: Well, I sincerely hope you get there. I hope you do it as part of the revolution.
LYN: Absolutely. Well, thank you very much.
Karen: Thank you so much for joining us.