I have a story to tell.
At the beginning of this year, I drafted a novel that’s probably the most autobiographical one I’ve ever written. It drew from my experiences struggling in law school and struggling to find employment (and later, non-exploitative employment) for several years in order to capture the feeling of being an over-educated, under-employed millennial who did everything “right” but somehow still failed as an adult.
Because it was so closely intertwined with my own experiences, I decided to make the protagonist autistic, even though that wasn’t my intention when I started writing. Because I am autistic and I process the world through those eyes, so I don’t know how to separate out which of my experiences are “due to” my being autistic and which aren’t.
But, at the same time, I knew this wasn’t a story about being autistic. In other words, the protagonist is autistic and that informs his experiences, but his struggles in the book aren’t related to whether people can accept his autism, finding accommodations, or anything like that. So, I portrayed him as autistic and explicitly mentioned that he’s autistic briefly near the end, but didn’t spend much time on it.
Mostly, this was a story about being Chinese American and having mental illnesses, so I tried to focus on those aspects when querying the book.
One of the agents I queried was herself Asian. I placed too much faith in that fact and felt hopeful when she requested the full manuscript.
She rejected my novel—and the main reason was that she didn’t like the autism representation.
She said it was “unrealistic” that the protagonist concluded he was autistic from internet research and didn’t follow up with an official diagnosis.
She also said it was “too much” for the protagonist to be autistic “on top of” also having depression and anxiety.
Rejections always hurt, but this one hurt more than most because (1) I had trusted the agent since people said she championed marginalized authors, and (2) every single aspect of the protagonist’s autism came from my own experiences.
Which, I guess, really highlights how little allistic people understand about autism, even though they think they understand.
1. “Unrealistic” self-dx without official dx: The thing that really bothers me here is that I actually explained in the text why the protagonist didn’t seek an official diagnosis, which was that he couldn’t afford it.
Like wow, I’m sorry you believe getting an autism diagnosis as an adult is free and that a poor person would choose to spend money on that over paying rent? Do you even understand the medical/health insurance situation in America?
Also, intersectionality matters here. I know a bunch of Asian Americans who are autistic, and none of them received childhood diagnoses. My strong suspicion is that Asian Americans are probably underdiagnosed because no one thinks it’s weird for us to be quiet and socially awkward.
Plus, neurodivergence is heavily stigmatized in East Asian culture in general, which is another reason my protagonist was dissuaded from seeking a paper diagnosis.
2. “Too much” for a character to be autistic and have depression and anxiety at the same time: My reaction to this is bitter, hysterical laughter.
Anyone who is autistic can tell you we have high levels of comorbidity with depression and anxiety because of the ableism we face from childhood on.
I just…don’t even know what to say about this, really. It’s fundamental ignorance about autism to not understand how autism and anxiety/depression usually exist in a symbiotic, self-reinforcing relationship. Feeling different and isolated from other people usually results in anxiety/depression. Getting blamed for your difficulties usually results in anxiety/depression. Being mistreated because you’re autistic usually results in anxiety/depression.
Another facet of the agent’s criticism is that it felt like she was treating my protagonist’s disabilities as conflicts within the story that needed to be resolved—hence, her criticism seemed to center around how his autism “wasn’t resolved.”
Except…that wasn’t what I was trying to do? At all? Disabilities by and large don’t get “cured.” They’re simply things we learn how to cope with. My protagonist’s autism wasn’t “resolved” because it doesn’t need to be “resolved.” It’s just a part of his life.
(And, I mean…yes, the protagonist is happier at the end than he was at the beginning, but he also makes it clear to his love interest that his depression is never going to be “cured,” so I really don’t get how the agent assumed I was treating his mental illness as something that gets “resolved” at the end.)
3. Maybe the agent’s response would’ve been different if I’d said in my query letter that the autism representation was ownvoices.
See, this is the part that I’m afraid of with respect to the ownvoices movement, which is otherwise a very important and necessary movement: The idea that it becomes necessary for authors to “out” themselves, or else a story is assumed not to be ownvoices.
Look, ownvoices means something different for race than for sexual orientation, gender, or disability. My identity as a person of color is obvious to anyone who sees my name. My other marginalized identities are invisible if I don’t tell people explicitly about them.
However, asking people to “out” themselves in a query letter is…not good allyship.
I of course get the necessity of seeking ownvoices rep.
But let’s not ignore that marginalized identities can still be deeply personal to an individual.
I’ve spent my entire life hiding my being autistic, even before I knew I was autistic. Starting to write openly autistic characters has been a huge milestone for me. I’m still not comfortable writing a query letter to a stranger that says “I am autistic” when it’s something I hide from everyone who isn’t family or my closest friend.
It’s both intensely personal to me…and it also feels weirdly like I’m trying to commoditize my own identity, since I have to use it as a selling point.
There was an undertone in that agent’s comments that made it feel like she thought I added in my protagonist’s autism to grab “diversity points.”
I can’t begin to tell you how much that hurt me, an actually autistic person.
4. The agent loved every marginalized rep except the autism rep.
This is just…something I keep coming back to.
She loved the Chinese American rep. Okay, since I am Chinese American.
But she also praised the queer rep, and that’s, in a way, the weird part.
The queer rep in my book is NOT ownvoices.
I am asexual (and probably demiromantic). My characters are gay and bi/pansexual.
I spent quite a while thinking about the queer rep in my story because it’s not ownvoices. I knew I didn’t want to write any coming-out narratives and I didn’t want to write about homophobia or biphobia, because none of that is in my lane.
I even skirted the topic of the intersection of being gay or bi/pan and Asian American, because my experiences as an asexual Asian American are categorically different from that of a gay or bi/pansexual Asian American. In the past, I’ve abandoned writing stories that discussed the experiences of being gay or bi/pan and Asian American since I didn’t feel like that was my story to tell.
So it’s really pretty weird to me that the agent would praise the queer rep, which is not ownvoices…while slamming the autism rep, which is ownvoices.
(Especially since my legal name is a female-sounding name, so the agent would have no reason to even think the queer representation in my book is ownvoices, since the characters are all queer men.)
Publishing is still a hard place if you’re marginalized, especially when you’re multiply marginalized.
I doubt any literary agents would read this post, but hypothetically, if I could tell literary agents what I wish they would do differently, it would be the following:
1. Don’t expect authors to “out” themselves in a query letter, or assume that if an author doesn’t say they have an identity, it’s not ownvoices.
Seeking ownvoices representation is great and good and necessary.
But authors are also real people who live in the prejudiced world, identities can be deeply personal and private, and some people have incentives not to loudly proclaim all of our marginalized identities in our Twitter bios.
2. If you don’t have a particular identity…you really don’t have any business saying the portrayal of that identity is “unrealistic” or “too much.”
Even if you have a relative with a particular identity, if it’s not you, you don’t have the expertise to evaluate whether a portrayal of that identity is “realistic” or not.
You’d think this much is obvious, really.
And yet, somehow, it’s not.