Around this time last year, We Need Diverse Books™ blasted into being: first as a Twitter campaign, later as an organization, now as a registered non-profit. Although our groups are entirely independent, we’re friendly and supportive of one another, and so we’re happy to talk to Marieke Nijkamp—WNDB™ VP of finance, autistic author, and previous Disability in Kidlit contributor—about her work and autism in literature.
Corinne Duyvis: How do you think your autism informs—or even helps—you as an author?
Marieke Nijkamp: I started building worlds and writing stories to make sense of this world. To explore characters, social situations, real world events. To understand people. From that point of view, my autism and my writing are intrinsically linked. My autism necessitates my writing.
But it goes the other way around too. My autism allows me to keep entire worlds in my head. My writing gives me an outlet for hyperfocus and questions and wonderings. One of my very favorite things about writing stories is playing with balance and details and those scenes that make you so very happy. I love losing myself and finding myself in stories.
Marieke: It helps in the sense that it gives me hyperfocus. It helps because I want to understand issues from all sides, because I want to know ALL THE THINGS.
But my autism especially informs me as an activist, because I know what it is to be marginalized. I know what it is to be denied agency because my voice is seen as less important than that of a neurotypical person. I know what it’s like to fight for the right to be as well as the right to be myself. And I strongly believe that with empathy and understanding we can build better worlds.
Corinne: Autism seems to be a relatively common disability to write about. Why do you think that is? What kinds of trends are you seeing?
Marieke: One explanation might be that autism is becoming more visible. More people are being diagnosed with autism (because of better diagnostics, not because of some imagined epidemic) which leads to more exposure, which means more people want to write about it.
But I don’t think it’s exposure alone, because if that were the case, our books would better reflect our societies. Rather, and I can obviously only observe this from a neuroatypical point of view, I think that neurodiversity, especially in these portrayals, is also seen as a curious and especially educational difference. Autistics are often portrayed as innocent. As almost but not quite human. And as such are a great example to teach lessons about humanity. (See, for example, Teaching Empathy in Mockingbird.)
We can all agree that’s fairly problematic, yes? Not only does it perpetuate harmful stereotypes, but it also so happens that most of these books are written by people not on the spectrum. In some cases, they do so spectacularly well (See, for example, Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy.) But in others, less so. And when those portrayals speak over actually autistic voices, that is all the more reason to take a step back and evaluate what is happening.
And I would love to see more good representation. I actually appreciate it when it’s not just us who write autistic characters, as long as the research is good. But we need to move away from the trend where we generalize second-hand experiences as being the norm – they are valid experiences in their own right – and de-legitimize first-hand experiences.
Corinne: Disability is often neglected in discussions of diversity. How does autism—and disability in general—fit into the We Need Diverse Books™ mission? What kind of outreach are you doing?
Marieke: From the very start, we wanted the WNDB™ mission to be inclusive. That’s why, in our mission statement, we recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.
*We subscribe to a broad definition of disability, which includes but is not limited to physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities, chronic conditions, and mental illnesses (this may also include addiction). Furthermore, we subscribe to a social model of disability, which presents disability as created by barriers in the social environment, due to lack of equal access, stereotyping, and other forms of marginalization.
With everything we do, that mission statement is our starting point. Our target audience is inclusive, we aim for full representation in our programs, in our recommendations, and in our events. And we adhere to the disability community motto: nothing about us, without us; we have disabled team and board members, we have autistic team and board members. So we fully recognize and advocate the importance for good disability representation.
Of course, there is still a world to be won. So as an organization too, we have to continuously challenge ourselves to do good and do better.