My six-year old son Keats who has Autism Spectrum Disorder asks me slight variations on the following three questions constantly: How do you think so-and-so feels? What would so-and-so say if X happened? What would so-and-so do if X happened? Occasionally Keats poses these questions about conventional interactions, say at the grocery store or with neighbors, but he mostly interrogates me about the narratives he himself creates inspired by a motley crew of stuffed toys, including a pumpkin woman named Choady who loves going out; another of Keats’s characters I have a deep affection for is a unicorn named Maurice who is an expert on space shuttle bathrooms. Though Keats is an ace at imagining characters, it is hard for him to intimate what his characters and people writ large are feeling, and more challenging for him than it is for many of us to predict what other people might say even in mundane situations. This difficulty with reading a room, as it were, is called mind-blindness, and it’s a common feature of autism. As much as I try to help my son intimate the internal lives of others, Keats’s questions drive me crazy, in part, because trying to answer them feels like writing, like work.
I draw expansive blanks during our conversations. I struggle not to be redundant and use highfalutin language. I try to describe what I see in my mind but the words don’t quite match my internal picture. And this particular aspect of parenting my particular child mirrors my take on writing fiction generally: In order to communicate my deepest beliefs, in the most meaningful way I am capable of, I have to pretend.
While working on the Zora & Me Trilogy, the middle-grade mystery series that I co-created with T.R. Simon, I researched the life and times of the novel’s protagonist, the celebrated writer and anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston. After that, the largest piece of creating this series was developing the voice of Zora’s devoted best friend, Carrie, the trilogy’s narrator. During the summer of 2019, while editing The Summoner, the last installment in the series, my son’s trinity of questions about feelings/words/actions played on a loop in my head, and I began to realize then how over the course of my work on the book a kind of mind-blindness impeded me.
In The Summoner there is a lynching, a grave robbery, and an election. In earlier drafts, I focused on the events, and less on the feelings and responses of the characters. While creating his own stories, my son gets stuck and so do his narratives when he can’t imagine the motivations of one of his characters, their internal life. I think part of why the novel took me five years to write is because I really didn’t get, until the end of the process, that events alone couldn’t move the story. Rather it’s the motivations and responses of the characters to the events that push and create narrative. A scene in the book that I found particularly challenging for this reason was the discovery of the grave robbery.
In The Summoner, when it is discovered that the body of recently dead town eccentric, Chester Cools, has been robbed, I had to weigh the explosive grief and horror from my three kid characters, Zora, Carrie, and Teddy, against the understated reaction of Joe Clarke, the canny, ambitious Black mayor of Eatonville, Florida, one of the first all-Black incorporated municipalities in the nation. Joe Clarke has seen his share of racism-fueled horrors across the Jim Crow south, including body snatching. The kids have not and are flabbergasted by the sacrilege. For Joe Clarke, the grave robbery, and the postmortem racism it illustrates, is merely a part of life. His familiarity with the practice demystifies the motives behind it. For the kids, the grave robbery is an aberration, a living nightmare, which either demands justice or a supernatural explanation. Was it a grave robbery? Zora ponders. Or was the dead man really a zombie?
Thinking back on this section of the novel and the difficulty I had with it deepens my understanding of the mind-blindness my son experiences. It’s crazy-obvious to say, but to make certain scenes work, I had to be conscious of the fact that I was pretending to be all the characters simultaneously. Otherwise I couldn’t effectively jump back and forth between their perspectives. Otherwise I couldn’t create the kind of tension that really motors a story. In order to be there for my son and help him author his life, I also have to inhabit his perspective before I can help him to recognize the subjectivity of others. As a writer, I have a lot of practice with this. As a writer, I am also exquisitely aware of how hard recognizing, let alone tenanting specific viewpoints can sometimes be.
Victoria Bond is the co-author, with T.R. Simon, of the John Steptoe/Coretta Scott King New Talent Author Award winner Zora and Me. A Lecturer in the English Department at John Jay College, City University of New York, Victoria has been published by outlets including The New Republic, The Guardian and The New Ohio Review. Victoria lives in her home state, New Jersey, with her family. You can find her online at victoriabondauthor.com and on Instagram at @waytogovickybond.
This giveaway is for a copy of Zora and Me: The Summoner. Many thanks to Candlewick for donating a copy for one reader. For a chance to win this copy of Zora and Me: The Summoner, please leave a comment about this post by Friday, May 28th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. Stacey Shubitz will use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose name Stacey will announce at the bottom of this post, by Friday, June 4th. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway. If you are the winner of the book, Stacey will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – BOND. Please respond to Stacey’s e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.
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