A Talk with Ada Hoffmann About “Monsters in My Mind”
Welcome to the first Canadian SF/F author interview of 2018! We’re off to a great start by chatting with Ada Hoffmann.
Hoffmann released her debut collection, Monsters in My Mind, last year. I was at her book launch party, where she gave away prizes, unspooled some humour, and read selected pieces from her collection.
When she said that we was going to be doing additional work to promote her book, I jumped on the opportunity, and read her collection over the Christmas break. It’s a great read, with a combination of short stories, longer stories (in the novelette range), poetry, both original work and reprints.
Hoffmann is well known online for both her fiction and for her “Autistic Book Party” series of reviews, where she reads fiction that features autistic characters and analyzes of how accurate/respectful their portrayals of autistic experience are.
This snippet from her site’s bio page provides more context about the value of these reviews, and the perspective from which she approaches these works:
Ada was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at the age of 13, and is passionate about autistic self-advocacy. Her Autistic Book Party review series is devoted to in-depth discussions of autism representation in speculative fiction. Several of her own stories and poems also feature autistic characters.
I was conscious of this aspect of her experience while reading Monsters in My Mind, but there were several other themes that kept popping up throughout the pieces in her collection. So here’s a look at them. I conducted the following interview with her via email.
Me: Many of the stories in your collection deal with motherhood or with mother/daughter relationships, especially those at the beginning of the collection. For example, there are mothers who don’t understand their daughters’ cognitive needs, daughters dealing with grief over the deaths of their mothers, and mothers trying to protect their children from malevolent forces. Can you talk about what particular resonance the mother/daughter relationship brings to your work?
Ada Hoffmann: Mother/daughter relationships can be so intense and complex, and we don’t see them explored in fiction as often as fathers and sons. People in Western culture often take mothers, and the astonishingly intense maternal protective instinct, and the grinding physical and emotional labor of motherhood, for granted. I’m not a parent myself, but motherhood is freakin’ hard stuff. Yet, from a child’s perspective, mothers are also complicated. We grow up dependent on them and can be hurt deeply by things that may not even register for them, or things that they view as necessary for us.
The result is that there can be tension between mothers and daughters, and affection and loyalty at the same time, and that contradiction is a fruitful creative place. It’s an especially complicated thing for disabled people, whose care is often disproportionately foisted on their mothers, and whose mothers are often ableist, misled by ableist doctors, or simply at a loss for what to do with them.
Me: Many of the prizes at your book launch at Can-Con were related to creatures that show up in your stories and that people often fear or are disgusted by in real life: squid, centipedes, lampreys, etc. Can you elaborate on how these sorts of “monstrous” creatures capture your attention?
AH: You know, I was going to say “I think they are cool!”, but it varies. Like, I’m not actually that fond of centipedes? I wrote “Centipede Girl” because I was afraid of centipedes and had had a close encounter with one, and I needed to somehow write those feelings out. Squid, on the other hand, are just awesome. I think culturally we project our dark sides onto strange, non-human creatures, but different creatures get different parts of the dark side, and we relate to them accordingly. I think what binds them together is that they all have striking and memorable appearances, and they can hold webs of negative or intense association that would be too much for realistic humans.
Me: How did the title Monsters in My Mind come about?
AH: The title came about very late in the process; I sold the collection to NeuroQueer Books without a title. (For a while, thanks to Krista D. Ball, I was calling it “the Ad-ology”.) “Monsters In My Mind” was a title that just popped into my head one day. I like it because it alludes to some of the dark content of the collection as well as the neurodiverse content. I’m not the first person to have used the phrase or something like it. I suspect that I was experiencing a bit of cryptamnesia, because a few weeks later I remembered that the same phrase pops up in a song that I like, “Happy Hurts” by Icon For Hire.
Me: Your works contain an interesting blend of respect for technology for how it can be used to unite people (for example, in the poem “Evianna Talirr Builds a Portal on Commission”) and skepticism towards how it can be used to divide them (for example, in the story “How My Best Friend Rania Crashed a Party and Saved the World”). What is your own personal relationship to technology like?
AH: It’s really interesting that you should use those two specific stories as positive and negative examples, because I think of them both as deeply ambivalent. I mean, sure, Ev is using technology to unite people, but she also spends the entire poem luring someone into a scary portal to another dimension that will literally tear apart their consistuent molecules and kill them. (Or at least, that’s my interpretation of the poem; perhaps there are others.)
In “How My Best Friend Rania Crashed a Party and Saved the World” I was deliberately trying to avoid certain dystopian tropes. I came up with the story because I was annoyed by the polarized way people talk about social media; either “it will destroy human relationships and society” or “it’s great, everything about everyone should be public, there is no downside.” In my experience, technology never destroys the fabric of society (nuclear weapons may be a possible exception to this rule) and it never creates a utopia, either. It just makes things different, and people adapt to that difference in varying ways.
I really wanted to write a social media story in which people were adapting and surviving… kind of neutrally. They weren’t really questioning the fact that technology was being used to categorize them, even though that’s the part of the story that looks exotic and ominous to a reader. They weren’t trying to take down the evil technology empire. They were just regular people who were trying to get along within it, and who were questioning aspects of how it was used, and trying to subvert the parts that didn’t serve them.
I was raised by computer science professors. I was taught not to be an early adopter (wait a few years until they’ve got the bugs worked out and the price down) and not to be especially fazed by the way things change. I think there are dangers on the Internet; I think they’re not fundamentally very different from the dangers we encounter in other parts of our social lives. I think there is a lot to critique about the way that governments and large corporations use our information, but I don’t think that this is entirely a new thing, either.
It is worth thinking critically about how our thinking and living habits accommodate technology and are, in turn, changed by it, but I find that most critiques in this vein are oversimplified. Many are ableist (online things can be vastly more accessible to me than their real-life versions), ageist (“Millennials are killing face-to-face interaction!”) or just plain entitled (“how dare you talk to your friends on your phone instead of paying attention to me, a stranger”). I basically don’t like absolutism, in technology or otherwise.
Me: One of the stories I find most interesting is the one you wrote with Jacqueline Flay, “The Screech Owl Also Shall Rest There.” In it, a vampire named Ishka has to face the prospect of sustained human settlement in a world where there wasn’t any before. Near the end, she thinks that what the humans have done is awful, because homes and cities are markers of Inside and Outside. However, it’s also easy to understand the attraction that such a life would have to the humans themselves, especially those who abandon her.
It’s a really well-balanced story where you fear Ishka and see her point of view, yet also completely sympathize with the people who want stable, settled lives. Was achieving this balance hard?
AH: I don’t remember that aspect of the story being hard. It’s a thing that happens all the time in different contexts; a state of affairs can be genuinely good for many people while excluding others, and everyone in that scenario is going to do what they feel is best for them. “The Screech Owl Also Shall Rest There” deals very intensely with the idea of what to do and where you fit if you are inherently a monster, and a lot of that aspect of it came from Jacqueline, although it fits in the collection really well. I don’t know that there’s a good solution. I don’t know if there’s any state of affairs, on the scale of a human society, that doesn’t cause someone to acutely feel the pain of being excluded.
Me: I find the story’s focus on Inside/Outside, Self/Other interesting in light of your own efforts to analyze how neurodiverse people have also been traditionally Othered. Is that something you can elaborate on?
AH: I mean, this is something I think about on a lot of levels, who we exclude and who we don’t, and how we decide that, and if inclusion is always to some extent an illusion. People talk about oxytocin, for example, as a potential treatment for autism, because it makes people more social and trusting. But actually, oxytocin is more of an in-group neurotransmitter. It tells you who’s in and who’s out. With more oxytocin, you trust your in-group more, but you pull further away from people you see as outsiders. So oxytocin’s not necessarily a cure for exclusion. And, of course, it’s usually neurotypicals who are excluding autistic people, not autistic people excluding neurotypicals. Teaching autistic people to view neurotypicals as their in-group won’t solve that.
I think anyone on the autism spectrum can tell you about the pain of being excluded. Extreme forms of exclusion, like “shunning”, are incredibly traumatic; extended solitary confinement is literally considered torture. Even garden variety loneliness can cause trauma. On the other hand, exclusion isn’t always a bad thing. “Never exclude anyone” is one of the Geek Social Fallacies, and it leads to bullies and harassers being tolerated in the group at the expense of the people who feel most unsafe around them. (And autistic people are often bullied, harassed, and abused, too; we’re often not taught how to set healthy boundaries or protect ourselves from these situations.)
For our own safety, humans need the right to set boundaries and exclude people. Yet excluding people genuinely hurts them, and people who have been excluded their whole lives know that best. Talking about who “deserves it”, and what kinds of crimes against the group do and don’t justify exclusion, can be useful. But it doesn’t resolve everything, because people will always disagree, and even people who very heinously and obviously deserve it are still people with emotions. So we need to hurt other people to protect ourselves. It’s a paradox and I think about it too much.
Me: In your story “The Mother of All Squid Builds a Library”, the title character says the following line when she’s told that her project sounds impossible: “Do you think that I cannot build a thing in my own way?”
I like to think of this piece of dialogue as a mission statement, both for Monsters in My Mind as a whole and for the inherent value of neurodiverse experience. Is this a line that had any particular resonance for you when you wrote it?
AH: Not at all. It’s simply the most logical response to the whales’ naysaying at that point. But I love your take on it. I’m going to think of that when I read that line now. 😀