An interview with Ada Hoffmann
by Derek Newman-Stille
Ada Hoffman describes herself as a queer-oriented, autistic author of Canadian Speculative Fiction. She has an interest in portrayals of autism in SF, and does critical readings of these portrayals on her website http://ada-hoffmann.com/autistic-book-party/ .
I am very excited that Ada is willing to do an interview since I am interested in both portrayals of queerness and disability in Canadian SF, and Ada is a wonderful author.
Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Ada Hoffmann: Oh no, the dreaded open-ended question! Well, I’m twenty-six years old, I’m studying for my PhD in computer science, and I live in Ontario. I made my first four professional fiction sales in 2013, though I’ve been writing for pay since 2010 and writing in general since I was five. I love cats, roleplaying games, and music. Most other facts about me are either incredibly boring or classified.
Spec Can: What first inspired your passion for Speculative Fiction?
Ada Hoffmann: I grew up around speculative fiction. My parents were both huge nerds who taught computer science for a living, and the house was full of bookshelves, many of which were solely devoted to science fiction and fantasy. As a child I started with the usual fairy tale picture books and graduated to Narnia, Tolkein, Star Wars, Susan Cooper, Heinlein juveniles, and stealing my dad’s issues of Analog every month (which, in retrospect, were not always appropriate for children). I got into fantasy roleplaying games pretty early in life, too, mostly because my dad had giant boxes of them under his desk and I was curious. (Also, there were So Many Interesting Tables to roll dice on! You can’t go wrong with dice. I got fascinated by using the random tables long before I started to actually play.) When I hit my teens, it was like, “yay, you’re old enough for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Babylon 5 now!” It was how we entertained ourselves and bonded as a family. I hear stories of people who “discovered” speculative fiction and had to hide it from their parents, or got shamed for not reading “real” literature, and I’m just baffled. It was never anything like that for me.
Spec Can: What, if anything, is different about Canadian speculative fiction?
Ada Hoffmann: I don’t think we can really pin down Canada that way. It’s a big place. Lots of room for contradictions. I’ve heard that the Canadian SF community is different from the American one, but I’m too much of a social hermit to really comment on that one way or the other.
Spec Can: You have a strong interest in representations of autism in speculative fiction. What first got you interested in representations of autism in SF?
Ada Hoffmann: Just seeing the same kind of fail repeated multiple times. I didn’t set out to be The Autism Lady, but when I found autism stuff that frustrated me, I blogged about it, because I was frustrated. Then I realized no one else was blogging about it this way. It was a side note in social justice discussions, if it was mentioned at all. Which makes sense – there are fewer of us than there are of, say, women, or POC, plus it’s not always safe to be “out”, so the discussion space is going to be smaller – but it is frustrating. So I kept going. Eventually I had so much to blog about that it had to be organized, and I started doing an official book review feature, etc. I’m not sure if this is an abiding interest, or if I’m just going to keep going until I run out of new things to say and then stop.
Spec Can: What was the first SF work that you encountered that dealt with the topic of autism or featured an autistic character? What was the portrayal like?
Ada Hoffmann: Oh, gee, I can’t even remember. Maybe Robert Charles Wilson’s Blind Lake, which is actually pretty good. It’s hard to say because I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate these problems until a few years ago, when I started publishing short fiction and a social justice-minded editor took me under their wing. I didn’t connect with the autistic self-advocacy community until even more recently, and to some extent I still feel like an outsider to that community. I’m still learning a lot.
The first portrayal that really frustrated me in a way I could articulate was Nancy Fulda’s short story “Movement”, which was nominated for a Nebula Award. And it was so bad on multiple levels. I think what frustrates me most is when an NT (neurotypical) writer produces something which is nothing like autism, or which is insulting, but NTs who don’t know any better think it is a good portrayal and therefore it gets lots of attention and praise – even in the face of actual autistic people trying to point out why there are problems.
Spec Can: What are some common errors or misconceptions that authors make when portraying characters with autism?
Ada Hoffmann: Not doing the research. (You have to look at what’s being said by autistic people, not just our doctors and caregivers; otherwise you’ll miss a lot.) Not giving an autistic character feelings and concerns of their own, or only giving them feelings when it relates to a special interest, cure decision, or other stereotype. Over-focusing on the odd behaviors that are most visible to neurotypical people and under-focusing on cognitive and sensory differences, especially when trying to write from the autistic character’s point of view. Trying to draw some sort of moral conclusion from autism, like by using a character with autistic traits to teach NT characters about the dangers of social withdrawal, and not noticing that this implicitly demonizes the autistic person. Forgetting that most of us work very hard to look “normal”, and that many of us succeed – but at a cost.
Spec Can: What can speculative fiction do to shift the way readers think about the world around them? How can SF encourage readers to question their assumptions?
Ada Hoffmann: I am struggling to come up with a good answer for this question. It seems to me that there are as many answers as there are potential stories. Also, not every shift in thinking or questioned assumption works the same way, nor is every shift in thinking equally valuable, though to some extent the ability to question one’s thinking is always valuable.
It also isn’t as simple as setting out to shift assumptions and thought patterns with a single story. We are made of the stories we tell about ourselves and the world, and the commonalities between stories form larger structures. Tropes, worldviews, cultures, archetypes. A single story might explicitly question or subvert an aspect of a worldview but with enough of these questions and subversions, a new substructure with its own rules and tropes forms. It’s not possible to do away with the structure as a whole, because this would take us to a place with no comprehensible narratives and no thought. We can’t dispense with all assumptions, but we need to replace some of our current ones with broader assumptions which help us understand and care for each other.
Spec Can: What do you hope readers will take away from reading your SF?
Ada Hoffmann: Oh, that depends on the story. It would be super boring if I was trying to make the same point with all of them! My goals are a little bit different every time.
Spec Can: You tend to write a lot of short stories. What are some benefits of the short story medium?
Ada Hoffmann: It’s short! Which makes it a wonderful place to learn and experiment. It’s short to write, which means you can try all sorts of risky things without such a steep penalty for failure. You can switch settings, genres, characters, themes, or anything else about your writing whenever you want to. And it’s short to read, which means it’s easy to get feedback and figure out where your weaknesses lie. Maybe I’m just a really impatient person, though?
There are benefits to longer forms too. With something like a novel (or a long-running RPG campaign), it’s easier for me to really get into the characters’ heads and fall in love with them all. But it’s a different process and a different way of constructing a plot, and I’m still figuring out how to make that work for me.
Spec Can: On your website, you mention that you are both queer and autistic. As a queer, autistic author, what can you suggest to encourage other queer authors or authors with disabilities to write further?
Ada Hoffmann: I’m not sure if this is specific to queerness or disability, but one of the most important things is to find beta readers who “get it”. Not just people who are good at dissecting a story (though these are valuable, and rarer than you would think). But people who understand the way your individual creative mind works, who are excited to see the things that you are excited to create, and who understand your goals well enough to help you figure out what’s gone wrong when you’re stuck. Everybody who’s good at something gets impostor syndrome, but marginalized people get it worse. To survive as a writer, you need people who will help you bounce back from the bad times, people who will keep believing in you and your work even when you don’t, and who are smart enough about it that you’ll take their opinion seriously. Doesn’t matter if they are fellow writers, fans, family – just find those people and cling to them, because their support makes you strong.
My other advice would be learn to trust your own voice. If your own underrepresentation pisses you off, great! It’s worthwhile to talk about that, and to talk about what other writers are doing wrong. But don’t stop there. You are a writer yourself (if you aren’t a writer, this advice is not for you). You have the power to make books of your own, to your own specifications, so do it.
(I can say this as forcefully as I do only because it is a lesson I have had to teach myself, time and time again.)
But also remember that you are more than the sum of your identity labels. Being queer and a writer doesn’t mean you have to write a specific amount of queer fiction to someone else’s specifications (or queer fiction at all). Likewise with disability. There’s a lot to do in these fields. Chances are that some of the required tasks will set your imagination on fire and some won’t. This is okay. There’s far too much of this for one person anyway. Do the tasks that speak to you, and don’t feel guilty if you want to write stories that aren’t about your identity labels, too. Your voice matters, even when you aren’t talking about those. Don’t stop educating yourself, because there is intersection and variety within your own labels that you probably don’t know about. (This was certainly the case for me!) But don’t let anyone in your group make you feel guilty for writing from your own lived experience, your own fascinations, your own deeply held beliefs, and not theirs.
If you’re asking for advice for others in the community, and not just advice to disabled/queer writers themselves, then I have some other suggestions. Explicitly welcoming diverse submissions in your submission guidelines, if you’re an editor, is a wonderful thing. It’s easy to do and it really helps with the impostor syndrome, and the feeling of “no one wants to hear my story anyway,” which can be pervasive. Making sure that conventions and other science fiction spaces are accessible and that accommodations can be made – I can’t stress this enough. (This conversation often focuses on wheelchair access, which is important. But for autism specifically, having a quiet room to retreat to is often VERY helpful. There are certain conventions I will never, ever attend, because I would not be able to bear the crowds long enough to do anything useful or enjoyable there. I’m thinking especially of the very large, commercially-oriented ones.) And making sure that there is an actual policy to prevent and investigate harassment, which disproportionately targets all sorts of marginalized people, not only women.
Spec Can: Can you talk a bit about the under-representation of queer characters in SF?
Ada Hoffmann: Maybe! I feel like I’m the wrong person to talk about this in depth, because I’m dating a man. (Bisexuality is a thing, yay.) That doesn’t make me straight, and the emotions and experiences that make me different from a straight person are important to me. But it does mean that there are very wide swathes of queer experience which are not actually my experience at this point in my life, and I have to respect that.
What I’m finding these days is that there are a fair number of queer characters around if you know where to look, especially in short fiction. But it’s still hard to find queer characters who turn out happy with each other the way the straight characters do, as opposed to dying, or having a crush on a straight character who dies, or getting into an abusive relationship and turning evil, etc. Which is ironic, because hope is a thing that real queer people badly need.
I also have an absurd amount of difficulty finding depictions of polyamory that don’t suck. (Even Stranger in a Strange Land doesn’t do it right, IMO.) Same with power exchange, and with trans* and nonbinary characters (although Crossed Genres at least has a fair number of those lately), and also asexuality. All of which are important parts of what sexual diversity means. I’m realizing as I type this that I haven’t done enough of this in my own fiction, either.
Spec Can: What can SF do to give voice to people who are traditionally under-represented in society and in fiction?
Ada Hoffmann: First, we can imagine futures (or magical, alternate pasts and presents) in which under-represented people actually exist. This step is more of a mandatory basic minimum, but it’s neglected too often. Second, we can actively look for under-represented authors and find the SF they are already producing.
Going further than this, of course, we can naturally use SF for subversive purposes. We can imagine worlds in which we overcome oppression in new ways, or in which people flourish in new ways because oppression does not exist as it does here. Or we can build worlds in dystopian and satirical modes in order to point out the workings of oppressive systems in the real world.
But it doesn’t all have to be overtly political. There’s nothing wrong with SF serving more individual purposes: wish-fulfilment, catharsis, escape, validation, emotional regulation, education (in many senses), or just being a heck of a lot of fun to read. In a perfect world it would serve these purposes both for the majority and for the marginalized. Which means that as well as political stories we simply need a larger amount of awesome fiction which happens to be inclusive, and which doesn’t scare all the marginalized people away through casual prejudice and erasure.
Spec Can: You are able to write both science fiction and fantasy – in what ways do these two genres support each other and in what way do they challenge each other?
Ada Hoffmann: I’m not sure I even believe in a distinction between science fiction and fantasy. There’s just so much good stuff in the gray area in between. I like SF with magic-y bits and fantasy with science-y bits, and stuff like a China Miéville novel that doesn’t fit neatly into either category because it’s its own thing.
I think the idea of a clear distinction between science fiction and fantasy comes from the very 20th century idea that “science” and “magic” are incompatible. Modern people think this rule is so obvious that it has to apply even in imaginary worlds. And that’s so incredibly boring to me. It’s not even consistent with the way most people intuitively classify the genres. Most science fiction uses handwavey technology that isn’t plausible to modern scientists anyway, and series like Star Wars are full of outright mysticism.
I should note here that I don’t think mysticism is a bad thing. Or even an “unscientific” thing. It’s complicated.
But basically, rather than drawing lines telling people where science ends and magic begins, I’d rather look at the whole thing as one big umbrella genre where the imagination has free rein to do whatever it likes.
Spec Can: Magic and the mythical frequently shows up in your short stories and poetry. What continues to be powerful about magic and the mythical for readers?
Ada Hoffmann: For this sort of question I have to refer back to Carl Jung. The mythical will always be a part of the human mind at some level. “Realism” implies a certain set of rules for what is real, what it means for a thing to be real, and how the world works. But huge swathes of human experience, particularly the unconscious, do not conform to these rules. There are some truths that we can only tell through symbols, and through magical and mythical thinking. This is difficult for some people in mainstream Western culture to accept, but it will continue to be the case no matter how many shiny computers we have.
Spec Can: What do you do differently when you write poetry instead of short stories?
Ada Hoffmann: Poetry is a very different beast from short fiction. It’s not only structured differently, but it feels like it comes from a different place for me. With a short story I have to lay out exactly what is happening, where are we, who is in this place, what are they trying to do, how is this resolved, why should we care. Poetry is not laid out in this way. It can purport to tell a story (or not), but the story doesn’t need the same kind of scaffolding. Things sometimes come out of the depths of my brain and demand to be written as poems, whether I like it or not: there’s no use in laboring to contrive a full setting and plot to support them when they’re already strong enough to stand on their own. But in exchange for this kind of independence, poems have a desperate need for attention to imagery, rhythm, the impact of individual words. It’s detail work in a way that is often superfluous to short stories. Without this kind of attention a poem is just a splat of words on a page, or at best an anecdote or thought experiment, and it can’t survive.
Spec Can: What can poetry add to speculative fiction?
Ada Hoffmann: I’m having trouble answering this question. I assume you don’t mean literally putting poems in the middle of fiction. I’m in a bit of a bind here, because if a device from poetry can be used to good effect in fiction, it’s probably already been used in this way, and we can just continue to use it in fiction with no further recourse to poetry. And if it can’t be used in fiction, then by definition it’s not a useful addition to fiction. So there’s never a need for poetry in fiction, per se. But reading and writing good poetry brings our attention to imagery, to the details of how words are used, to beauty and other spectacular uses of the senses, to structures other than the typical linear narrative, and to the kind of ephemeral truths that fit best into these alternate structures. These are all things that I’m happy to see in fiction, too.
Spec Can: Is there anything further you would like to add to this interview?
Ada Hoffmann: No, I think I’ve talked your ear off already! But thanks for having me, and thanks for asking such interesting questions. I’ve enjoyed this.
I want to thank Ada Hoffmann for all of her insights and thoughts and for her work advocating for traditionally under-represented groups in Speculative Fiction. I hope that you have enjoyed her insights and thoughts as much as I have.
To find out more about Ada Hoffmann and her work, check out her website at http://ada-hoffmann.com/