Autistic Character: An Unkindness of Ghosts4 min read

I was assigned An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon for my sci-fi class last semester. Within a few pages of begin­ning to read, I was scrib­bling notes in the margin.

“Aster? Autistic?”

I fig­ured I was imag­ining things. I do have a ten­dency to diag­nose women in books, espe­cially if they are char­ac­ters to whom I relate. However, after fin­ishing the first chapter of Unkindness of Ghosts, I did a quick Google search, and I quickly dis­cov­ered I was right. The author talks about the labels applied to their char­ac­ters in this inter­view, and they include Aster as autistic.

Here is a pas­sage from early in the book (page 23 in my edi­tion), a pas­sage where another char­acter rec­og­nizes Aster as autistic, though that word doesn’t seem to be a part of their vocab­u­lary:

“You’re a little off, aren’t you?” The woman grabbed Aster’s chin, turning her face so they were forced eye to eye. “You’re one of those who has to tune the world out and focus on one thing at a time. We have a word for that down here, women like you. Insiwa. Inside one. It means you live inside your head and to step out of it hurts like a caning.”

Aster had been called worse.

Insiwa…. yes, I too have def­i­nitely been called worse.

My seeing of myself in Aster came even ear­lier, how­ever, on page 11 of my copy, which is only the third page of the story itself:

“… speaking more harshly than intended. This close to the end of the day, she lost the ability to mod­u­late her nat­u­rally abrupt manner for the com­fort of other.”

In the margin, you will find the first of many inked instances of the phrase “me too.”

“Aster was always mem­o­rizing new ways of being with people.”

“Bouts of mutism. Bouts of the very oppo­site: raving and raving and end­less raving.”

“She’s keen on sched­ules and keen on people sticking to them.”

“Mimicry reminded her how to use words.”

And one last quote before I just post the whole book here:

“It was like what Aint Melusine was always saying, that Aster was one who looked side­ways, or oné who saw through the corner of her eyes. When you saw the world side­ways, you couldn’t always get a proper handle on things.”

Neurodiversity was inten­tion­ally a part of Solomon’s story. They wrote Aster to be exactly as I found Aster to be, Autistic.

Though the label is not applied to the char­ac­ters, there are def­i­nitely two char­ac­ters that exhibit many autistic traits, and their neu­ro­di­ver­sity is not danced around in the story. Aster and Theo (the sur­geon) are clearly dif­ferent, and also clearly not less than those around them.

As a matter of fact, their spe­cial inter­ests and some other neu­ro­di­ver­gent traits are what draw them to one another and to the ulti­mate con­clu­sion of the story, but I will leave that for you to dis­cover.

There is a wide range of diver­sity in An Unkindness of Ghosts, from neu­ro­di­ver­sity, to racial diver­sity, to diver­sity of sex­u­ality and gender iden­tity. There is flu­idity and freedom amid judg­ment and oppres­sion.

It is very def­i­nitely a world filled with the horror of slavery that existed in the American South, along with clas­sism, sexism, and all the other isms. It is a hard book to read, in that the author does not hold back on the truth of their sub­ject matter. And yet…

This book made me so happy.

I looked for­ward to every day of class in which we dis­cussed Unkindness. It opened the door and allowed me to talk about being autistic with an entire room full of people who actu­ally lis­tened.

Another stu­dent approached me one day to tell me about his own Asperger’s diag­nosis, and we shared expe­ri­ences back and forth. I got the chance to feel accepted in that envi­ron­ment, thanks to Aster’s char­acter on the page.

I have tossed some quotes into this post to give you an idea of Aster as an autistic woman, but her neu­ro­di­ver­sity is not lim­ited to these sound bite pieces of per­son­ality. As I read, I found her to be a whole person, not someone’s idea of what an autistic woman must be like.

On top of this, Aster is a woman of color. I am going to leave this part of her iden­tity to blog­gers more qual­i­fied to write about the expe­ri­ences of autistic women of color, but I didn’t want to go without men­tioning it. Aster offers rep­re­sen­ta­tion for a variety of iden­ti­ties.

With this single book, the simple and yet com­pli­cated art of cre­ating a char­acter so real I feel like I could be her, Rivers has won me over. I will read every book they write from now until eter­nity.

Editor’s note: If you wish to pur­chase this book, help out The Aspergian by using our affliate link below.

Heather Truett

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