Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay is a twenty-one year old man with what the medical community would describe as "severe" or "low-functioning" autism. He grew up in India and came to America with his mother at the age of 13. He is the author of three books: The Mind Tree, The Gold of the Sunbeams, and How Can I Talk If My Lips Don't Move? The first of these Tito wrote between the ages of 8 and 11, and I would venture to say that it is the best book ever written by anyone under the age of twelve. But even this description doesn't do justice to just how sophisticated and writerly it is. Many an accomplished professional would sell their souls to have authored this book — or Tito's others, for that matter.
In Representing Autism, Stuart Murray wonders whether Tito will ever be given his due as a writer, not just as the miraculous (to borrow the publishing world's modifier of choice) embodiment of what someone with "low-functioning" autism is capable. By that people usually mean mere communication. Autism may well be Tito's lifelong subject, but more attention needs to be paid to him as a literary author. If Oliver Sacks can write almost exclusively about odd neurological cases and be considered an exquisite exemplar of the essay, then Tito should be as well. It's time we stop patronizing or dismissing disabled artists.
And yet, it's perfectly appropriate to inquire of the relationship between creative writing and autism. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson speak of "philosophy in the flesh": the fact that cognition is embodied, which is to say radically conditioned by physiological systems. In what follows, I imagine an analogous axiom: "poetry in the flesh." In this case, autistic flesh. As many scholars in the field of disability studies have pointed out, it's not enough to proclaim the social construction of disability. We need to be more attentive to very real differences, which end up being socially constructed to be sure, but which produce alternative forms of being in the world. Without romanticizing the challenges that autism, particularly Tito's variety, presents, I tentatively suggest that it might lend itself to poetic expression. With any luck and certainly much determination, this predisposition can then be cultivated and developed. Why not conceive of this sort of cognitive difference, at least in some respects, as an advantage?
The interview was conducted largely through e-mail. I also flew out to Austin, TX to meet Tito and spend some time with him. He writes entirely by himself on a pad of paper. His mother draws lines on the paper to keep his script from becoming ever larger and meandering across the page. He is a tremendously intelligent and witty young man. At one point, he called me a Marxist — I had been lamenting the plight of poor families whose children have autism — and then he declared, "Activists revolt while I explain." I reminded Tito of the passages in his latest book that argue against the cure fanatics and that insist on opportunities for those with autism. He smiled, qualifying his earlier assertion. "I explain passionately," he wrote.
To think that at the age of 21 he is already the author of three astonishing books — what a pleasure it will be to follow his career!
R.S. How do you account for the practice of "interrupting" prose with a fragment of poetry? I've seen you do this in your books and in your interview with Doug Biklen that appears in Autism and the Myth of the Person Alone. Did you learn this from somebody? Why do you find the technique so satisfying?
T.M. Who knows from where I learnt it? But one thing is for sure: I was exposed to poems very early on in my life. Mother recites, and used to recite, poems in Bengali, Hindi and English languages. I by-hearted most of them because I appreciated the sound pattern. Maybe I felt that my words would sound something like that. Or maybe I did it unintentionally without any kind of care.
But you noticed it and asked me because you appreciated it. Thank you.
R.S. Even if you did it unintentionally — and I don't know what strict intentionality is when it comes to making art — might the careful reader deduce a pattern, however loose or rough? I've noticed that the fragments of poetry seem to appear either when you want to emphasize your alienation from the human world and connection to the natural one or when you want to emphasize the possibility of society accommodating difference — that is, autism — much more generously and sympathetically. Are the bits of poetry little moments of intensity, epiphanies even?
T.M. I use verse when I get bored of writing a dragging paragraph. I usually do. Sometimes the topic becomes too thick and intense to write. I get nagged by this boring state that the topic holds for me. Because of that, I seek a way out to recharge my senses. A verse makes me free. A verse recharges my senses. And a verse can distract the eyes and ears of a reader. It is easy to read it that way.
So instead of being gravitated towards the core, the reader can stay and watch the exterior. And that is where beauty lies! A beautiful face is good to look at from the external surface rather than watching its muscles, bones and numerous blood vessels and nerve endings from the core. Because it is easy.
R.S. What can poetry communicate that prose cannot? You've spoken of your "love for designs" and "repetition" when writing? Can you speak more about this love? Beyond the fact that rhyme and repetition seem themselves somehow autistic (in a good way), what do they communicate?
T.M. They make me think about a sound pattern. Designs can be visual and designs can be formed in sound. When I write, "A rock lay by the stream," it becomes less of a design than something like…
A rock lay waiting
By the stream
Ready to step inside,
So that it could begin
An existence —
Of a stepping stone!
(Whatever be that meaning.) The words make the rock become more than a thing to ignore. I made the words musical and used the letter "n" several times. You may call it alliteration if you want to make it technical. It doesn't matter.
R.S. I love the phrase "more than a thing to ignore." Thinking of my first question, I'm almost tempted to say that the fragments of poetry are prose becoming autistic, if by autistic I mean patterned, musically perseverative. Why shouldn't the things of this world, which neurotypicals often blithely pass over, be keenly, even fiercely, observed? Perhaps the medium of poetry best captures with its interruptive force the rapt attention of autistic engagement. Is there an ethics of seeing implicit in your answer, an injunction to take note, and if so, does it apply to people with autism?
T.M. I cannot speak for other autistic people. But with my eyes, I may select a fraction of the environment — say "that shadow of a chair" or "that door hinge over there" — and grow my opinions and ideas around it. This creates a defense system for my over-stimulated visual sense organ. (Call it keen observation or any other name.) Maybe poetry happens to grow around these things. Sometimes I write them and other times I discard them because there is "too much to write."
R.S. Many of your poems are elliptical. The great Emily Dickinson once wrote: "Tell all the truth but tell it slant — /Success in circuit lies." She was enjoining poets to be indirect, to use metaphor. Through that indirection they would be able to get at truth. There was a moment in your interview with Dr. Biklen when he asked you about the phrase you used to describe yourself — "intelligent junk" — and you erupted into verse: a beautiful, roundabout meditation on color and the sky, as if there were no other way of responding to his question. Interestingly, Dr. Biklen didn't address the poem, which I found to be the perfect answer, but instead asked another question. Here is the passage I'm referring to:
Biklen: You once said that you were still "an intelligent junk," that you were not functioning in typical ways. Are there benefits though in your way of experiencing the world, for example in creativity, in fascination with colors and sounds, or in imaginative life.
My intelligence is as much useful to me and you
As the color of the sky
What could have mattered if it was green not blue
Would you have thought it twice?
It is accepted fact that the sky is blue
That is very true
How useful is that blue of the sky
Who can explain it better than I?
The blue sky surrounds the earth
Embracing the useful parts
Rivers, lakes, and the salty seas
Minerals and the dust.
It could have done the same with being green.
My intelligence surrounds my body which has all the useful parts
like heart, liver and lungs.
What is the use of my mind, which can think of the beyondness of
blue, it had once seen in Emma's eyes and yet could not tell her
anything about what it had seen? What use is my mind when I
missed out my turn in a debate taking place? I could not give
my point. What use is intelligence when I heard the rubbish
from the experts on Autism and yet all I could do was flap my
hands, which is believed to be one of my traits? And what use
is my intelligence when I hear that I am one of those idiot-savants
and cannot say my words? So I have renamed myself as an
Just as the blue of the sky
Blue or green
It could have been there is nothing to reply
And the artist who
Has colored it blue
Could have made it green
The purpose could be all the same
No matter which color it had been.
T.M. Blunt truth is "affective." But slanted truth is "cognitive." I expect my readers to understand the truth by linking it to something. When we relate a truth or a perception to some known field through metaphors, it becomes the stepping stone towards better cognition. Otherwise it is a childish — "I feel this and I feel that." How many people pay heed to childishness? But right now I feel like a flying kangaroo looking at the world cross-eyed to make sure that it is still in two pieces — one siding left and the other siding towards the right. "No wonder there is YES and NO!"
R.S. I seem to remember a similar kangaroo response when a reporter from CNN captured your reply to your mother's question: "How was your day?" I'm intrigued by the implications of this idiosyncratic analogy, which the reporter simply attributed to your "medical condition." Are you trying to convey both your vibrant imagination and the very different way you perceive the world? What comes naturally to neurotypicals — the production of a seamless whole through the coordinated visual input of each eye — must be strenuously achieved by you. Are you further suggesting, however mischievously, that language reflects sensory processing? Is metaphor cross-eyed?
T.M. In one of my yet to be published works (in fact it is a book about my social experiments), there is a character who is a flying, invisible kangaroo that never looks straight, only cross-eyed. When they did the interview on CNN, I was writing this piece. The whole world looked like a field to me as would be seen through the eyes of that flying, invisible kangaroo that never looks straight, only cross-eyed. The kangaroo could separate this from that — the specifics from general, the colors from shapes, properties from labels — and giggle at all the confusion that could happen after that!
R.S. The kangaroo certainly seems to be a stand-in, or persona, for Tito Mukhopadhyay. Is there a connection between your sensory processing and your imagination? In How Can I Talk If My Lips Don't Move? you contend that your mind is very associative and that concrete objects (your tape recorder, for instance) allow you "to find your identity." Is poetry, in a sense, a more natural means of expression, with its reliance on association and image and metaphor, not to mention rhythm? In the chapter "How Do You Perceive a Linear Situation?" you show how the "dynamic situation" that is a red bucket filling with water is anything but simple or easily mastered by you with words and labels. (This, of course, has nothing to do with intelligence.)
If I am out in a garden, where there is a garden tap, and water is filling up a red bucket, which is a dynamic situation, changing from instant to instant, I first notice the color of the bucket. I might easily get distracted by its redness, since it would remind me of how my hands bled when I had fallen from a swing, how I was so absorbed in the red that I had forgotten about my pain, and how the red resembled a hibiscus…
I would then realize that I was hearing the sound of water, wondering why that sound reminded me of a drowning man's last blood flow….
The bucket is filled up eventually, and I see water spilling from it. I understand the situation, waking from my branching thoughts, summing up the components into one conclusion, which is "water filling up a red bucket from a garden tap" (96).
How much more interesting and evocative is the process of apprehension than that "one conclusion"! Your associative deconstruction of the scene allows those of us who do this too easily and quickly to see it anew, which, as I've intimated, is the very goal of creative writing. (My son, DJ, who is autistic, explains it like this: "The word comes late, Dad.") So, would it be fair to say that your sensory processing differences lend themselves to poetic articulation, at least potentially? In the chapter "Tell Us What He Was Reading," you write, "Mother knows my difficulty of overassociation when she reads" (201). And later in the chapter you add,
I do not believe that only my motor dysfunction is to be blamed for my alternate actions, which others call behavior. I tend to overinclude many components within or outside the limits of my surroundings into the permeability of my mind, often resulting in a tangential way of perception.
Do I voluntarily involve extra components to existing components in the environment, like those green and yellow strings around Claude's voice? No, I don't. Those extra components are totally beyond my voluntary control. On that particular day my overassociative mind allowed me to perceive Claude's voice in strings of green and yellow (203).
What's behind this overassociation?
T.M. I have described it in my book How Can I Talk if My Lips Don't Move? However, since you ask it again, I may say this about my processing — it may make me disassociate myself from the totality of the situation and select one aspect of it. After that I may be completely within a labyrinth with my overindulgence or overassociation in that single aspect of the environment that has multiple aspects, making me ignore the other parts of the situation. Does it link to poetry? I do not know.
R.S. Certainly these neural propensities overdetermine (to use a fancy word) poetic perception and representation. Toward the end of How Can I Talk…, you recount how you used to "form wrong associations between words and objects" (214). "For instance, when I heard the word banana while I was looking at a cloud, I labeled the cloud 'banana'" (214), you explain. Then, when you heard the word table while looking at a cloud, you "wondered whether some clouds were called bananas and some tables" (214). "Education," you wittily report (sounding more than a bit like the modernist poet Gertrude Stein), "helped me settle my dispute with nouns" (214). Both in your "tangential perception" and your way with language, this "dispute" remains partially open, the effect of which is that the object, or signified, is not completely mastered by the word, or signifier. This, too, I would propose, contributes to the necessary defamiliarization of art. Your education allows you to use language the way that neurotypicals do, but everything seems much less fixed and settled in your work, thereby allowing for surprise and fresh insights.
But I guess, finally, I'm less interested in some reductive causality between an alternative neurology and creative writing than I am in the way that an alternate neurology, which seems to overdetermine poetic perception and representation, combines with extensive reading and practice in the figure of Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay to produce exquisite writing. What you describe as involuntary — the habit of overassociation — finds itself shaped and crafted by your quite voluntary pursuit of literary excellence. Do you ever remember encountering in poems a way of thinking or even organization that resonated with how you take in the world? Were you drawn to the literary?
T.M. I think I began to write because I was introduced to literature very early in life. By the time I was six-years-old, mother had read aloud to me Treasure Island and The Hunchback of Notre Dame along with parallel literature in Bengali and Hindi. As I grew older, mother would ask me if it was "me" who was the author of the fiction she just read and, if so, how I would have ended that story. There was a discipline around my "home school." Even after teaching a science lesson on "Atoms" or "Blood Cells," I had to discuss the lesson with passages like "If I were a Proton…" or "If I were a Blood Platelet…" and not mere questions. Perhaps I adopted writing from that discipline. Or perhaps from something more than that. Who knows? It just makes me wonder. Today I write to get published.
R.S. Can you describe your mother's efforts at "poetry appreciation" when you were young? How much actual instruction in poetry have you had? Do you read contemporary poetry? Do you ever emulate other poets?
T.M. Mother read, and still recites, poetry most of the time as a background to my sound environment. It gives me a secured feeling because of the predictability formed by the pattern in the words. She read Chaucer and she reads Robert Haas. I prefer the 19th century poets because I wish I were one of them. I regret that I am born in the wrong time when I struggle to appreciate contemporary poetry. (Of course I do not expect others to appreciate my poetry — for a "tit-for-tat" reason.)
R.S. Why do you prefer 19th-century poets and wish you were one of them? Which poets in particular? And what about contemporary poetry do you find unsatisfying?
T.M. I like the care 19th-century poets took in writing their poems. Some of their poems are so successful that one can recite them over and over again like self-stimulating action. Take the word-picture painted by Shelly in these powerful lines —
I wield the flail
Of the lashing hail,
And whiten the green plains under,
And then again
I dissolve it in rain,
And laugh as I pass in thunder.
These lines are not just a word-picture. They are emotional and with their force one will think of them every time one experiences a powerful summer storm. When William Blake wrote,
There is a Frown of Frowns
Which you strive to forget in vein,
I am sure he knew he would chill the spine of readers even in the coming centuries. And when Yeats wrote his words —
She opened her door and her window,
And the heart and the soul came through,
To her right hand came the red one,
To her left hand came the blue —
I can imagine the power of the Jester's total submission. He had only caps and bells for the young queen, and even after his death he offered his heart and soul to her. So when I write today as Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay, my lines as —
It was in and out of my mind,
It was light or dark with pain
It was ever out by far,
It was closer to my breath,
It was never out of sight,
Yet light or dark with pain,
It was the whisper of your voice,
And my breathing in your name —
I know that such words are just my homage to those who inspired me, through my growing years.
R.S. It's pretty clear that you like formal poetry, poetry with rhyme and meter. Much of that was lost in the previous century, though a group called the New Formalists has tried to revive it in the last twenty or so years. How interesting that you have drawn a connection between reciting poems by heart and "self-stimulating action" — as if (and I know I'm pressing here) poetry and autism are indeed connected. Both involve — or maybe I should say, afford — a kind of pleasurable, even productive, perseveration. How has your writing developed?
T.M. When I look back at my writings from 5 or 6 years ago, they look ridiculously immature. And when I will look at my writings of today 5 or 6 years from now, they will also look ridiculously immature. It's just a thing to make better with practice.
R.S. What specific things have you focused on while trying to improve? I know that you write regularly in a journal. Do you give yourself exercises? Do you read other writers you admire and attempt to model what they do? Besides your mother, has anyone given you actual creative writing instruction?
T.M. Mother and I read together. Mother reads to me aloud because, being an auditory person, I need to hear the words. She reads to me the theories of relativity and string theory in one instance accompanied by a classic like Howard's End or Hard Times or Tess of the D'urbervilles in another instance. In a day we cover a chapter from one fictional piece and a lesson from a nonfictional piece as a daily discipline. She does this because if I become a writer I need to know history, geography and other classic subjects, along with the different styles of writing. When she is at work, my aide, Mr. Daniel Butler, reads to me from other writings, fiction or nonfiction.
Creative writing instruction? I follow these rules:
- When I write, I choose a reading-audience just like any speaker.
- Then I try to tell them something new.
- And I tell them in a way so that they may understand my words.
- As you know, I try hard to see that my reading-audience doesn't fall asleep.
Four simple rules to follow. Otherwise the technical details take away the basic outburst of the idea, suppressing its natural fragrance. But, yes, I am inquisitive to know what rules creative writing instruction might present?
R.S. I think you and your mother have done an amazing job. There is absolutely no condescension in your mother's approach, only high expectations and ambition. I wish my very bright college students were as disciplined and voracious as you. Specific creative writing instruction isn't essential — God knows that writers from previous centuries never enrolled in MFA programs — but it can be helpful. In the poetry writing classes I teach, I try to get my students to be more sensitive to issues of image and tone and rhythm and metaphor. I assign specific poems by established poets and ask them to practice employing the formal elements in these poems. So, for example, Amy Clampitt has an elegy called "Winter Burial" in which she uses a periodic sentence strung out over many lines to capture the life of a friend. The effect is to heighten the sadness and irony — a whole life imagistically condensed into a single sentence, with clause after clause suggesting the way that events just keep coming at you until, of course, you die. The poem would be so much less without this formal element. Syntax has become expressive; form and content are one. I ask my students to experiment with periodic sentences, to find a theme that might be enhanced by this rhetorical strategy. I believe in guided, model-driven learning.
But I'm thinking more about your style, Tito. How different is your conversational style (in person, in e-mail) from your writing style? I would say that your published prose is quite poetic, even when it isn't actually poetry. Is that true of your other writing? I guess I'm asking you if your use of language is in any way automatic? Does the style just come to you? Do you think of yourself, when writing for the world, as adopting a certain kind of voice?
T.M. I have not analyzed my style. It is spontaneous whether in e-mail or whether I am writing in my journal. You complement it with a style component, and I feel honored. My language use depends on the sound factor. So when I write, I think of some kind of a voice reading my words aloud — sort of reciting my words. That makes me take some care to arrange my words, although spontaneous, so that their arrangement may sound right. I make several revisions before finalizing my work. I do not need to be adopting any kind of a voice other than the subject of my writing. For instance in "The Mind Tree," I wrote my words from the perspective of a big banyan tree that mother and I used to visit often on the outskirts of the city of Bangalore.
R.S. Can you say more about writing from the perspective of this tree? The humans in this narrative largely ignore it, and they certainly have no idea that it possesses the "gift of mind." It's hard not to read this as a metaphor for how neurotypicals treat people with autism, especially those who write or type to communicate. But there's also in this conceit your characteristic sensitivity toward, even identification with, nature. If trees were sentient — and maybe they are — they'd sound like they do in "The Mind Tree." That's how credibly you've evoked this point of view.
T.M. I believe in the concept of pan-psychism. All matter possesses a mind because everything is the manifestation of the greater Being that Is in everything. My having a brain does not make me superior to a tree or to a non-living substance like a stone. After all we — human beings, a block of wood and a piece of rock — have the same atoms that make up what we are. And even if those atoms are of different elements, their core combinations are the same — protons, neutrons and electrons. In the macro field we are different, yet in the micro field we are the same. Can anyone prove that the stone I just stepped on does not have a mind? Just because I don't have the right kind of instrument to detect it, it does not mean that it cannot exist with a bigger mind that thinks — somewhere in its core or somewhere in its base. How much do we know and how little can we know? When we believe something, we seem to know…somewhat! As St. Anselm said "I believe that I may understand."
Hence, I am the air or I am the stone,
And sometimes I am the Mind Tree,
Perhaps a grass blade wet with dew.
Whatever I think, I understand…I may be.
R.S. You're a person of enormous imagination. Do you write fiction? Have you ever written from the point of view of a neurotypical person?
T.M. My book The Gold of the Sunbeams is fiction — through the eyes of a neurotypical person.
R.S. Yes, of course. Let me reframe the question. How difficult was it for you to imagine the point of view of someone quite different from yourself, someone with a very different sensory processing system? Also, have you read fiction by neurotypicals about people with autism — say, the bestseller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime? If so, what did you think of it? I find it deeply ironic that one of the prevailing theories of autism — that autistics lack awareness of themselves and others — masks what is generally a failure of neurotypicals to imagine the rich interior lives of people with autism. All neurotypicals think about when they think about autism is deficits.
Theories are created
For reasons observed
Theories are broken
For reasons replaced
As old order goes by
They inspire the new
We watch them die
With our obscured view
So what if a Theory
It doesn't change for sure
Any — Thing.
I may be that
And I may be this…
Who cares anyway?
I am a Proud Autistic.
R.S. Can you talk about the difficulty you used to have distinguishing between imagination and experience? Sue Rubin, the star of CNN's Autism Is A World, has described a similar difficulty. In the chapter called "Shadows Don't Tell Stories" in How Can I Talk If My Lips Don't Move? you write,
My boundary between imagining and experiencing something was a very delicate one. Perhaps it still is. So many times I need to cross-check with Mother, or someone who can understand my voice now, whether an incident really happened around my body (22).
T.M. When imagination becomes empathetic, the sensory neurons make it look and feel real. Many times when I stare at a magazine page, I almost feel that I am part of that picture or perhaps a scratch of ink mark on a page. And wouldn't that lead to fantastic possibilities? Imagination is more powerful than reason. Reason limits possibilities. And how impossible can possible be if one does not have to try hard? I don't have to try hard to reach that impossible and fantastic possibility.
R.S. I find it fascinating that your imagination could be so strong that you lose track of the real. Or, said another way, that your empathy could be so powerful that you lose track of yourself. I think of the passing references in How Can I Talk… to news stories where people are suffering or have died and how they so disturb you. Reason would say, quite literally, of the coal miners trapped in a mine, "That's their problem," whereas imaginative, empathetic identification would place one convincingly in the damp and suffocating darkness. Does this ever become a problem for you? My son, for example, can't stand having the news on in the family room.
T.M. It's true that when I think of the situation, there may be empathy. But my empathy would probably be towards the flashlight batteries of those trapped coal miners if there happens to be a selection on my part. Or my empathy would perhaps be towards the trapped air around those coal miners. There would be me watching through the eyes of the flashlight cell the utter hopelessness of those unfortunate miners as my last chemicals struggled to glow the faint bulb so that I didn't leave them dying in darkness. As the air around them, I would try to find a way to let myself squeeze every bit of oxygen I have to allow the doomed lungs to breathe, for I am responsible for their doom. And while I found myself trapped, I would smell the burning rice being cooked with neglect in an earthen pot.
News channels do not worry me. If they do, I go to my room, where there are those walls that tell me their own stories in the language of a wall.
R.S. In the chapter called "Autism! A Fancy Word," you poke fun at how doctors tend to diagnose autism, and you directly link autism with enhanced imagination. With autism the world seems to be utterly alive, animate. I think of the line: "I wished to tell the curtains and the leaves that they, too, were autistic" (28). (Like you, you report, they don't speak, they flap, and they cannot imitate the attending doctor.) Literary scholars call this personification: treating inanimate objects as if they were animate, sentient. Is personification a kind of natural autistic literary device, especially when "fantastic possibilities" come so easily to you?
T.M. Personification…it will be called as pan-psychism by me. I have named a broken cup at home as Prometheus. I have named a wooden frog on the window as Mr. Voltaire. There is a connection between what I am physically composed of and what the broken cup or wooden frog is made of on an atomic level. We all possess protons, neutrons and electrons as the basic part of our composition. So I feel (as some others) that we are related in some sense. All I do is put a personality on things to make their existence meaningful in my eyes. Interacting with the broken cup becomes easier once I realize the link.
R.S. To stick with this issue, in your chapter "When I think of the Wind I Am the Wind," you seem to imply that your power of identification is stronger than that of neurotypicals. Where do you think this comes from? Is it simply a function of a very powerful imagination? Do you think it has anything to do with the ease with which you can lose your body, have difficulty sensing where you are? You often speak in your work of having to collect yourself — literally — and that effort seems to involve collecting the world as well. I almost want to coin a term: ethical proprioception. Those of us with typical sensory processing seem so stuck in our bodies and, thus — I know, this is a big leap — so challenged when it comes to understanding the other, whether that be another person or an entity like the wind.
T.M. Maybe I do not have to try very hard to be the wind or a rain cloud. There is a big sense of extreme connection I feel with a stone or perhaps with a pen on a tabletop or a tree. It motivated me to write "The Mind Tree." I just have to think about it and become it. Somewhere in the matrix called the cosmos, we are all linked to that primordial origin. Every religion has a name for It. There is no separation.
R.S. I'm wondering how you reconcile your imaginative visions with your scientific knowledge, your reason with your "fantastic abilities"? At the end of How Can I Talk…, you proclaim, "Now, as I stand in front of a mirror, trying to find some inspiration for my next story, I can clearly separate the physical laws of reflection with the planes of incidence and reflection from my enchanting sensory experiences, leading my mind to differentiate between my alive and interactive world and the reality about what the mirror is, a mere object with a plane surface" (213). The customary narrative of maturity, both for the individual and for the nation, is from primitive animism to rational disenchantment. What's so interesting to me is that your education, while allowing you to distinguish between fancy and fact, has in no way quelled your deeply animistic sense.
T.M. It's like this. This is full and that is full. Take the full away from the full and what you are left with is full again. And this "full" I am talking about is Zero. 0 - 0 = 0. It is this Zero that is the center of all numbers, balancing the positive and negative on either side. So it is easy to imagine the Big Bang and Creation from Zero. The other side of Zero is not perceivable or conceivable to us. What is understood by us is the plane surface of the mirror and the laws on this side.
Who knows what laws rule the other side if the plane surface of the mirror is understood as Zero?
R.S. Do you think there's a link between synesthesia, which you experience, and poetic expression? Synesthesia in literature, as you know, is a kind of metaphor, where one sense gets described in terms of another. You do this beautifully in your new book. The estrangement from the ordinary that synesthesia allows, along with the implicit analogy, contributes to the poetic effect. Recently, the neuroscientist Vilaynaur Ramachandran postulated that synesthesia might be the origin of language and art. It's a complex argument, and I can't reproduce it here. But noting that synesthesia occurs much more frequently in writers and artists, Ramachandran suggests that synesthetes have extensive cross-wiring of anatomical regions otherwise responsible for discrete functions, which makes it easier for them to relate unrelated concepts. You've already spoken of metaphor as having a cognitive mission. Here the senses understand themselves in terms of one another.
T.M. Synesthesia is a combination of two or more sensory experiences. There was an fMRI done on me, and they tapped my left hand. My visual cortex area lit up. So when I was supposed to be experiencing a tactile sensation, I was seeing patches of colors. How is it related to poetry…I do not know. Perhaps it is. Everything counts.
R.S. Yes, it does. Your synesthesia helps us to see Claude's voice, for example — both literally and figuratively. The voice becomes, in your phrasing, "more than a thing to ignore." I noticed that your mother learned your poetic language of color to soothe your anxiety, as in the chapter from How Can I Talk… called "A Grip on the Shoelaces." (I love, by the way, the mischievous pun on "grip," as in the idiom "get a grip.") Does reading poetry calm your anxiety? If so, what kind? Does it need to rhyme, be metrical? Does writing poetry alleviate anxiety? Earlier you spoke of poetry giving you a "secure feeling."
T.M. A rhyme is a very linear auditory experience. And so is the beat — be it in tetrameter or in pentameter. It arouses the cortical mind with certain meaningful language experience and arouses the subcortical mind with the expectation of the mechanical beat that is offered by the lines of the poem. Anxiety is subcortical. Anxiety gets diluted by the experience. That is what makes it soothing. In my book How Can I Talk If My Lips Don't Move? I have written about a link between the auditory experience and a motor learning process of tying my shoelaces. The anxiety of some new learning process gets diluted with those stories about colorful strings.
R.S. You speak of storing faces in your memory as symbols or of remembering a complex abstraction by thinking of a concrete and often unrelated image. Here again, a sensory processing difference seems to facilitate poetic expression, or at least thinking. If your teacher's face in Austin is a bowl of tulips, you're well on your way to metaphor and organizing the world poetically. Am I right about this?
T.M. Some associations are natural and others are not. For example, when I write, "She walked away from the bus stop, and the sun descended behind the television tower, promising to be back sometime…," I do not really see anything naturally. Rather, I imagine some scene like that. But when I write, "Mr. Blake's voice felt like a squished tomato smell," there is a natural process involved in it because every time I have to hear Mr. Blake's voice, I recognize it by the squished tomato smell. After that, I know that there ought to be Mr. Blake somewhere around carrying his voice with him.
- Biklen, Douglas. Autism and the Myth of the Person Alone. New York: New York University Press, 2005.
- Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
- Mukhopadhyay, Tito. How Can I Talk If My lips Don't Move? New York: Arcade, 2008.
- ---. The Gold of the Sunbeams. New York: Arcade, 2005.
- ---. The Mind Tree. New York: Arcade, 2003.
- Murray, Stuart. Representing Autism. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press 2008.