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Neurodiversified: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao
After the past few years, I'm ready to take a break from the word "unprecedented" and find a little comfort in the familiar. My Goodreads list is now populated with more romance novels and nonfiction. I'm happy to tread the well worn storylines. Bring on the forbidden love or the meet cute: that moment two characters meet for the very first time.

Audiobook Narration 1
"I'm an actor," I say, "and I'm working on a new movie." Her mouth curls into a little smile. "Um, what?" I asked self-consciously. Her smile widens, "You're just so LA."

Anita Rao
And yes, I'll keep reading for the happily ever after.

Audiobook Narration 2
Josh pulled Cole into his side with a loving little squeeze, and then put one arm around Melanie. "When it feels like everything, literally everything, is going wrong, sometimes, without our knowledge, it's actually going very, very right."

Anita Rao
When reading a romance novel, you can rest assured that the characters will get a happy ending, even if it takes until the last chapter. But what constitutes a happy ending, and what it looks like to find one in the context of a romantic relationship isn't the same for everyone.

This is Embodied. I'm Anita Rao.

There's a growing cohort of authors writing romance novels that feature perspectives long absent in the genre. Like stories of characters whose brains work differently from what's considered neurotypical, whether they're autistic, or have ADHD, or anxiety.

Stacia Brown
Imagine trying to achieve a more intimate connection with someone without knowing which touches, sounds or movements are difficult for them. Imagine the vulnerability of disclosing that you have such triggers and trusting someone enough to navigate them without trying to fix or change or even ignore them.

E.S. Yu
A happy ending, to me, means that they find a partner who loves them and supports them as they are, doesn't think they need to be cure or could only love them if their depression goes away. But, you know, is willing to support them, even when they're struggling and having difficult days.

Anita Rao
You just heard from Stacia Brown, an avid reader and writer, and E.S. Yu, writer of queer romance, including the 2019 novel, "Human Enough." As a reader, E.S. noticed early on that romance by big name authors and publishers rarely featured characters who were neurodivergent or held any marginalized identity. Where they did find that representation was in fanfiction, which ultimately led them to the world of indie or independently-published romance.

E.S. Yu
That was the first time I really encountered romance with marginalized leads. Because before then, in traditional publishing, I thought romance was only made up of straight white abled neurotypical main characters. But, when I started reading indie romances, I really fell in love with the genre, and then started to write it myself. I noticed it was a lot more common to find romances with characters who had mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. Some more — I discovered some romances with characters who were autistic or had ADHD definitely, because in traditionally published romances, I hadn't encountered it at all. So, starting to see it in the indie space made it feel very welcoming for me as a reader and a writer.

Anita Rao
Another avid reader turned writer, Ceillie Simkiss, felt similarly let down by traditional romance. Ceillie is the author of the novella series, "Learning Curves," which traces the queer love story of fictional characters Elena and Cora. Like E.S., Ceillie turned to the indie romance community to find more diverse representation.

Ceillie Simkiss
I wanted to see more people that looked and acted like my friends and my loved ones in romance. You know — I have a lot of trans friends, I have a lot of otherwise queer friends, I'm queer myself. And finding that, especially in North Carolina, in the 90s and early 2000s was harder to do than it is now. And I didn't find things that worked for me. But, my friend, Corey — who was a fellow reviewer at the time and then transitioned into doing quite a few stories as Xan West — they slid into my DMs and they were like, "Hey, I've got some recs for you." And then I started to find, you know, more people that were doing the things that I was looking for, and doing the work to make romance more diverse in just every single way.

Anita Rao
No matter how or where it's published, stories in the romance genre tend to have a few plot elements in common. The characters meet in a scene that's sometimes referred to as a meet cute. They fall in love, and after navigating the various challenges that keep them apart, they end up together for that happily ever after. But, beyond those guideposts, there's lots of room for variation. How the characters meet and have similar their world is to our own is up to the author.

E.S. Yu
I'm especially drawn to romance with speculative elements, like paranormal romance — which I wrote for "Human Enough" — or fantasy, or sci fi romance, I guess, because I really grew up as a fantasy — or fantasy and sci fi reader. So, I like seeing the blending of romance with that. So that's definitely what I'm drawn to, but I have also written contemporary romance as well. My latest book on submission is a contemporary romance.

Anita Rao
So when you talk about speculative and working within the paranormal, there's a lot of world building that's happening, obviously, and creation of norms and new norms. Tell me about some of the things that you are able to upend by working in that genre.

E.S. Yu
That's an interesting question. Um, I guess, just as one example, in "Human Enough" I — you know, it's a vampire romance. So they're vampires, but I wanted to have a slightly different take on it. So I wanted to explore society where vampires are very commonly known, and, kind of, think about how they would be integrated into society. What are the conversations that are happening in society around them, and then, kind of, treating vampire hunters as this kind of bureaucracy of sorts.

Anita Rao
Love stories with vampires or other elements of fantasy are considered speculative or paranormal romance. But there are so many other romance sub genres, like seriously way more than I ever realized existed. And within these, there are often worlds that more closely resemble our own. One thing about romance novels that really gets me is the common scenarios that lead characters to get together. When enemies become lovers, when a happenstance power outage is the backdrop for budding love. As many tropes as there are ways to fall in love in real life, neurodivergent characters can be featured in any of these sub genres or tropes. But according to Ceillie, some scenarios make it easier to explore neurodiversity when it comes to love and relationships.

Ceillie Simkiss
I really love playing with friends to lovers, because you get to kind of start out with what you would see with an established relationship, but you also see how that relationship kind of shifts to be more romantic, rather than a strictly platonic one. So you get to see them saying, "Oh, well, we've always done this together, we've always held hands. It's just a comfort thing." Especially for, you know, autistic and ADHD main characters, but then you also realize that it's not just platonic. It has other meanings to it that you didn't see before, or that you didn't feel before. And it's just really fun to put on the page. I also really love forced proximity, where they're stuck at a conference together, or, you know, they're snowed in, there's only one bed, etc. things like that. I really love playing with that, because being in close quarters is something you really can't — you can't escape from it, which is the point. So you have to deal with a lot of the things that you've been hiding from.

Anita Rao
I didn't really start exploring the romance genre until the last decade or so. And I'm kind of bummed about it. Because I feel like younger versions of me could have used more exposure to the many ways to find connection and access pleasure in partnership. What I love about reading YA romance now is that it normalizes the range of sexual experiences young people have and gives them some language to think about articulating what they're feeling. YA Anita was 100% more bashful with 50% fewer words for talking about any of this stuff. To write good YA romance means capturing the experiences and perspectives of younger characters, while also considering some important questions about the impact these stories might have on younger, less experienced readers. One YA a writer who's thought a lot about these questions is Emery Lee, author of the YA romance "Meet Cute Diary." Since we spoke with Emery back in 2021, e has published another YA romance novel called "Cafe Con Lychee."

Emery Lee
I think a lot of people have this idea of, you know, young adult books as being distinctly different from, you know, regular adult books. And I think a lot of ways, they're, kind of, really similar. Especially when it comes to the contemporary romance category, because essentially, you're still trying to meet all of those genre expectations: the happily ever after, the two characters coming together. But I think the biggest difference is — is just being prepared for an audience that may not be as experienced, both in terms of what to expect in in tropes, but also, in terms of life lessons. Like, you have to be a little more careful and making sure that you're not normalizing or enforcing, you know, harmful relationship images and, basically, make sure that what you're presenting to teenagers is something that if they take away from it, it won't cause them harm in their daily lives.

Anita Rao
I love that, because it makes me think back to those super formative memories I have of my first encounters of relationships in novels, like, it's a very — it's a very formative thing. As a young reader, you're excited, you're thinking about love and attraction, and so it really, like, holds on to you and in a significant way. Can you give me some examples of things that you've thought about when you're writing? Of, I really want to set this up, or show this example, maybe because I needed it myself.

Emery Lee
Yeah, definitely. So it's hard, I think, talking about YA because it's a relatively young genre or demographic — not that there were never books for teens before, but as far as the robustness of the category. Now it's something that really took off, you know, around the early 2000s, especially with "Twilight." And so I think, for those of us who kind of got into books around that time, a lot of what was being put out in YA was not being written intentionally to be YA-exclusive. It was written with the expectation that it would kind of be marketed more broadly, because at the time, YA wasn't as big of a category as it is now. And so there were a lot of elements that were put into those stories that, as an adult, you could potentially parse as being not good for replication in real life. But I think before you can put some of those parameters in place, sometimes you start to normalize these things. The way that a lot of relationships, in YA especially around that time, were very possessive. There was a lot of, like, overbearance, and, like, this expectation that, like, everything — everything in your life should revolve around this new significant other and, like, it's earth shattering, and everything is about this. And I think as I was writing my book, it was kind of important to me to make sure that I put into perspective that, like, romance is one element of the teenage puzzle. And so, you know, it was important to acknowledge, like, your character should still have friends, they should still have family. And that ultimately, like, romance is never going to be as, you know, cookie-cutter as it can be in fiction, and that real life often deviates from that a lot.

Anita Rao
I love that nuance. And honestly, I wish there were a tad more of that in "Twilight." But even if the stories don't have everything, they'll grab you if they convincingly take you inside the head and heart of someone with a different perspective than your own. For E.S. Yu, getting inside the head of a character is an opportunity to represent neurodiversity on the page. Their book, "Human Enough," stars an autistic Chinese American vampire with a complex and well-developed internal monologue.

E.S. Yu
It was really important to me, when writing his character, to get very deeply into his head and his thought process and to, kind of, explain, you know — to make sure that when, for example, he has trouble perceiving sarcasm or something like that, to portray it as not just, like, something very funny, something played for laughs, or something that's very hard to understand for a neurotypical audience, but something that makes sense from his point of view. And, you know, I've definitely had that experience myself of the, sort of, difference between what you think in your head versus what you actually say out loud because you're, kind of, second-guessing yourself. And so that also kind of came through.

Anita Rao
I love that, and that reminds me of Helen Hoang — who's become a really prominent voice in the neurodiverse writer community — in an interview, was talking about how writing neurodiverse characters, she said, helps her better understand herself and her process of what she's been through. Ceillie, I'm curious about whether that resonates with you. Has there been anything about writing these characters that has helped you understand yourself better?

Ceillie Simkiss
Oh, absolutely. I wrote "Learning Curves" in 2017 and early 2018, and I knew that I was ADHD. But my brother was diagnosed as autistic when he was, I think, 3 — might have been earlier than that — but we've he's known he's autistic his entire life. But when I went to get tested, doctors told me that there was no way I was also autistic. It's, you know, "girls don't get autism," which was a pretty common thought in the early 90s. But I started doing more research on different aspects of neurodiversity, and I started reading "NeuroTribes" by Steve Silberman, and that is a — it's a nonfiction book that's, kind of, a history of autism. And I realized while reading that, that, yeah, a lot of these behaviors are also autism. And I talked to my mom about it, she was like, "Yeah, we knew, we just didn't think it was — we knew, we didn't even think it bothered you, so we didn't say anything. But, you know, we knew." So, I started, kind of, reexamining my relationship with my characters and, kind of, digging deeper into the characters and their representation and making sure that I, you know, do it as well as I possibly could, because it was actually really formative for me as well.

Anita Rao
The more space there is in the genre for neurodiverse narratives, the more likely a neurodiverse reader could find something that reflects their experience. But we've still got a ways to go. In writing neurodiverse romance novels, Emery has found that what might seem like an obvious representation of ADHD or anxiety to one reader, might be less true to another reader's experience.

Emery Lee
I did have some feedback that were kind of like, "Can we make this portrayal of anxiety more obvious, so that, like, readers can pick up on the anxiety?" Meanwhile, all of my beta readers and friends and stuff — who had read the book who had anxiety — were like, "This is so realistic, like, it's so obvious." And so I do think to a certain extent, there's that difference between what people perceive as the way a disorder works and the way it actually works. But I've also found things, like — because I have ADHD, and I've spoken a lot about that, especially in the past year, and about how that informs the way that I speak, the way that I make friends, the way that I interact with, you know, the world at large, there were elements of that that did seep into my narration through Noah. And I had a lot of people kind of say things like, "His motivations don't make sense, like, why would he do this without better justification," or like, you know, "these things that he's saying and doing are unrealistic, or like, the way he's reacting to this is too over the top." And I think, with "Meet Cute Diary" especially, I was a little less prepared to justify any of those choices and those elements that were in the book, because at the time, I didn't understand the full extent of how far my ADHD impacts the way that I do pretty much everything. And so, that's something I actually learned a lot more of throughout the past year interacting with the ADHD community on Twitter. But now I can look back on a lot of feedback that I've gotten, as far as, you know, "Why does Noah care so much about this blog?" And it's like, you know, at the time, I was like, "Well, it's his blog, like, why wouldn't you care?" And it's just, like, that disconnect between the way my brain automatically, you know, filters these things that are important to me versus the way that somebody who thinks differently might see it as something that's super unimportant.

Sonali Dev
I think it's important to include neurodiverse characters in all genres in all media, but it's just a natural fit for the romance genre, because romance is, basically, journeys of personal healing and personal growth. And neurodiversity is very much part of that journey.

Lars
They model the language of how to talk about autism, how to be respectful and accommodating of a neurodivergent person's preferences and needs. And in the long term, all of the exposure to neurodiversity — yes, even in the steamy romances we consume — are all going to move us in the direction of increased autism acceptance.

Anita Rao
You just heard Sonali Dev, an award-winning writer of contemporary romance including "The Emma Project" and "The Wedding Setup." And Lars, a listener who spoke to us about romances by author Chloe Liese. Regardless of the genre or communities you seek to represent, putting a book out into the world is a long and painstaking process. And while the publishing industry is having more conversations about diverse representation, the majority of what's being published today still centers characters who are white, cisgender, straight and neurotypical. Writers who don't center these normative identities are disproportionately asked to justify the need for their story. And that's if they aren't passed over for publication in the first place. So, if and when you move through all those hurdles, and you put a book out there for folks to read, it's kind of just the beginning of the next phase, which for many newer authors is marked by a lot of vulnerability. The #OwnVoices movement seeks to celebrate works by writers who share the marginalized identity of their characters. And while this movement in many ways represents a step in the right direction, it also requires that authors disclose aspects of their own identity.

E.S. Yu
There is that fundamental tension in the Own Voices concept, because, yes, we should be really promoting authors who are writing about marginalized identities from their own experiences. But on the other hand, with respect to invisible marginalization like neurodiversity, you know, some authors might not want to publicly disclose because it's something very personal, or it's just something that they might not want certain people to be able to find about themselves. And so, navigating that is — it is very difficult. And I think another piece of it, as well, is that traditional publishing has leaned a little bit towards wanting to use the Own Voices tag as a way to, kind of just, uncritically promote a book, I guess, and shield themselves from any criticism by being like, "Oh, this book is Own Voices." And then so, traditional publishing has also, kind of, pushed for authors to disclose that information about themselves, and that's also very problematic. So yeah, it is very complicated. And, you know, I think people are still having discussions about how to navigate that tension about promoting books by marginalized authors while recognizing that authors may have good reasons for not wanting to disclose that kind of information about themselves.

Anita Rao
Ceillie, I know that you have been more in the self-publishing realm so far. Does that give you freedom to figure out how you want to promote yourself? Or do you come across some of these similar tensions?

Ceillie Simkiss
There are definitely similar tensions in self-publishing, because no matter what identity you are representing and you're claiming that it's Own Voices, it is only your experience. It may be similar to someone else's, it may feel familiar to others, but it is still only your experience. So, when I say that my characters are Own Voices for ADHD and anxiety, that, kind of, shows how I have interacted with the world with those — with those diagnoses. But, you know, a lot of authors of color, and people who are more visibly disabled than I am have completely different experiences with even getting those diagnoses. But we also, when we have the Own Voices label, it can be used by other readers or other authors to, kind of, rubber stamp of work and say, "Oh, you can't criticize this because it's Own Voices." And being Own Voices — being from your own experience does not mean what you've put on the page is not and cannot be harmful. That's something that a lot of us need to be aware of when we're writing.

Anita Rao
Receiving critiques from readers and reviewers alike is an expected part of the publication process. And when your work explores narratives and identities that have been historically overlooked, readers who share these identities might be more likely to speak up about how these characterizations relate to or fall short of their own experiences. But you only have to spend a hot second looking through them to notice how brutal people can sometimes be. For Emery, the trick is learning how to distinguish rants from thoughts from feedback that's actually constructive.

Emery Lee
I've been tagged in some thoughts that were kind of negative. And, then I was like, you know, people who will say things like, "What was the point of this book, like, there's nothing special about it." And, you know, obviously, I disagree. I wouldn't have written a book if I didn't think there was anything about it that, you know, wasn't contributing anything. But at the same time, like, I mean, if you don't feel like there's anything special about this book, like, I mean, that's fine. Like, there's a trillion and a half other books you can pick up that'll be special for you. And so like, in that case, where it's kind of, like, someone's thoughts, like, you know, if I — if I'm really, if I'm really hurt by it, I might go vent to a friend about it in private, but for the most part, you know, I just kind of, you know, keep scrolling when people give me thoughts that I feel like I just can't really respond positively to. But it's different, I think, when I get feedback. And feedback is when people try to give you critique meant to "improve," — quote, unquote — something that you've written. And, I think that's — I think, in that case, it tends to be a little more grating, because not only is there that layer of, "I disagree with your comment," but it also has that layer of, like, I did what I did intentionally.

Anita Rao
Anyone who creates work for public consumption knows it's a long road to building resilience and finding peace and knowing you certainly will never please everyone. But writers like E.S., Emery and Ceillie are working toward a world in which more neurodivergent readers are able to see their experiences reflected somewhere in a literary landscape — even if it's in a story they didn't write themselves.

E.S. Yu
Part of the reason why I started writing romance was because I was looking for, kind of, a specific type of representation and a hopeful ending, and I wasn't finding too much of it. For example, you know, a romance where a depressed character isn't magically cured of their depression at the end by the power of love, but just finds someone who will support them anyways. And so I really wrote that because that was what I needed at a certain point in my life. And I was also, you know, thinking if anybody else is in the same situation as I was at that point in my life, you know, I really hope that would resonate for them as well.

Emery Lee
At the end of the day, like, you know, I'm trying to tell a story, and it's one of a trillion different stories that could feature those same intersectional identities. And it's just a matter of essentially making sure that there are enough stories like this being put out into the world that, you know, anyone who doesn't like this one can find something else that actually satisfies what they need.

Anita Rao
Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio WUNC, a listener-supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast or any of our other shows on demand, consider a contribution at wunc.org now. Incredible storytelling like you hear on Embodied is only possible because of listeners like you.

This episode was produced by Audrey Smith and Kaia Findlay. Amanda Magnus is our editor, Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer and Quilla wrote our theme music. If you enjoyed the show, we have a little assignment for you, and it's just going to take two minutes. Text this episode to five friends who you think will like it. You spreading the word about Embodied is what helps new folks find our show, and it means so much.

Until next time, I'm Anita Rao, taking on the taboo with you.

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