Autistic Reader Interview: Sia Tukiainen
"It’s beautiful and strange, and it will never run out, because human imagination will never run out."
Sia (sigh-ah) has been, in no particular order; a teenage runaway, a dragonologist, a medical mystery, an anarchist, a schoolyard vigilante, a witch, and a very bad musician. (She is still most of those things.) In other words, becoming a writer was inevitable. She is autistic, agender, and asexual—luckily, she also adores alliteration. She lives in Finland with fibromyalgia, five pets, never enough books, and one husband who claims to enjoy the 2am gesticular ramblings on fantasy worldbuilding, queer rep in fiction, and what kind of art self-aware AIs might make. Her favourite colour is unicorns.
Tell me a little bit about yourself. Is there anything you've written or made recently that you'd like other readers to know about? Other than what's in your bio, is there anything about your connection to autism, books, and reading that you'd like to share?
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Well, the first thing is that I freaking LOVE being autistic. I am so unbelievably happy to be the way I am. I’m not sure enough people hear that – neurotypicals so often have the idea that being autistic is some kind of curse, and people who are new to their diagnosis/realisation, or are just approaching it, have grown up with that idea. I’ve seen so many young/`new’ autists struggle with or try to reject their identity because they think it’s bad. And I want to be super clear that it isn’t. Is it hard to be autistic in a world not built for us? Yes. There’s no getting around that. But still, I am happy and grateful every single day that I’m not neurotypical. And I hope every other autist out there gets to experience the joys of being us, not just the struggles. Because the way we work is awesome, and I want everyone to know that.
I probably would have had a lot more trouble as an autist – especially pre-diagnosis – trying to make sense of the world if I hadn’t been a major bookworm. Books and reading were – and still are! – a major bridge for me; they span the distance between my brain and those of neurotypicals. Because a book puts you inside a character’s head, I could understand those characters in a way I couldn’t understand the people around me. That’s always been such a major relief, and one reason I always had my nose buried in a book; I could escape from the ‘real’ world and interact with (alas, fictional) people whose thoughts and motivations were always explained to me. And gradually, I started to reverse-engineer a lot of the behaviour around me; if person A was doing x, maybe it was like when fictional character B did it! Maybe they had similar reasons for doing the same thing! And, hey, in the story, character C did y in response, so maybe I should respond by doing y too?
Not a fool-proof system, at all, but it was a lot better than nothing. (Although wow, was I bitter about how often a book just said ‘they said angrily’ or ‘she looked sad’! What did that mean in practical terms? Alas, books couldn’t help me with figuring out tone of voice or facial expressions.)
As well as helping me understand neurotypicals, reading was a huge part of working out things about myself, too. For one thing, I had no idea queer people existed until I came across them in fiction (I was raised by conservatives in the very Roman Catholic Ireland of the 90s; enough said) – I’ve no idea how long it would have taken me to realise I was queer without those stories. And despite being best friends with an autist in my last years of secondary school, I didn’t have a clue I was one until a conversation that spun out of discussing worldbuilding and character motivations, years later. It only clicked that I have alexithymia – a difficulty identifying and/or expressing emotions that often comes with autism – when I started reviewing books, and had to analyse what it was I enjoyed about my favourite stories in a way I’d never had to before.
(Which – going back to the question, I guess reviews count as something I’ve made? I’d definitely love for other readers to check out my book blog and see if it’s for them!)
So even aside from the fact that I just plain love to read, reading has been a major part of my life, and is very much tied into my experience of being autistic. One other example that makes me laugh is that, I was really never afraid to be weird. It was very obvious to me that I was different from other kids...but I read fantasy exclusively back then, where being weird meant being special, magical, something to be celebrated. So I never tried to hide it, never tried to be ‘normal’, because everything I read told me being strange was a good thing, and that belief crystallised into something unbreakable pretty early on, before anyone could convince me otherwise. I’m very grateful for that!
TL;DR: I learned how to People from books, and the results were, ahem, eccentric.
Are there any tropes you really, especially hate?
Miscommunication. Or maybe I should say, lack of communication – you know when a big part of the plot rests on the characters not just talking to each other? I absolutely cannot stand that. Open and honest communication is a very big deal for me, as it is for a lot of autistic people – I just can’t understand why people won’t simply talk, and say what they mean when they do talk. It’s maddening in real life, and I definitely don’t want to deal with it in my fiction!
Also, love triangles that don’t end in polyamory. How is a poly relationship not the most obvious and logical solution to a love triangle??? Especially since, if a storyteller has done it correctly, I’m rooting for both/all the love interests and don’t want any of them kicked to the curb! Let them all have their happily ever after, okay???
Have you ever had a special interest in a fiction series or genre of fiction? What makes a work of fiction special-interest-worthy for you - or do the interests seem to descend at random?
Fantasy – and maybe magic/mythology in general – is my main special interest. I didn’t start off reading fantasy right away, but once I did I never looked back. I mean, you could probably argue books in general are my special interest – I have a book releases calendar that I update obsessively, I’m always keeping track of book deals and what’s happening in indie and self-published spaces, I love taking stories and prose apart and figuring out what it is that makes them work (or not work!) etc – but really, it’s fantasy. I just love magic. I love how beautiful fantasy can be, I love how the possibilities of it are literally limitless, I love reading about an entirely different realm or world in as much detail as possible. Breaking down why... I’ve never really been able to do that. I have a hard time understanding why everyone else isn’t automatically interested in fantasy! It just seems so obvious to me that fantasy is The Best Thing!
It’s just...beautiful and strange, and it will never run out, because human imagination will never run out. I really don’t know how else to explain it. I just know that I love it, deeply, that I never get tired of reading it or talking about it or writing it (not that anyone will see anything I’ve written any time soon!) – or watching it or listening to it, when it comes to films and shows and music as well as books. Books are best, but I’m not too picky about the medium!
When it comes to specific books or series – yes, it happens, and nope, it’s definitely not random, even if it can look it from the outside sometimes! The books I get obsessed with have beautiful prose, intricate and unusual worldbuilding, and usually feature characters who are Outside The Norm. I love stories featuring characters who are queer or neurodiverse or anything-but-white or disabled – preferably some mix thereof! – but I don’t care so much about stories where those are the qualities that put those characters on the outskirts of their society. I much prefer when those things are normalised in a fictional setting, and the characters are Not Normal because of something else – like having strange powers others don’t understand, for example. (Like Yasira in The Outside – she’s autistic and queer, but neither of those things are what make her special/an outsider in the context of the story!)
The deal-breaker is usually the prose, which is a big part of why other people can’t always see how my favourites all belong together. The stories and premises are often wildly different from each other, so the similarities aren’t obvious. The flip-side is then when people are surprised that Book X doesn’t hook me, because it looks like it checks everything on the list, but the writing doesn’t work for me. (I talk more about that in the next question.)
I think the series (they’re usually series) that become life-long special interests are also...ones that either verbalise something about Life, The Universe, And Everything that I’ve not been able to put into words myself, or that introduce me to a new idea that changes how I look at the world. The Kushiel series by Jacqueline Carey, for example, features a nation where the only holy law is love as thou wilt, queerness is normalised, and the books explore many different kinds of love, as well as being very sex-positive. I read the first book right after I got away from my very Roman Catholic upbringing in Ireland, so it was an enormous galaxy-brain moment. So much of the nonsense I’d been taught or had absorbed dissolved as I read those books. And now I have every edition of them that I’ve been able to get my hands on, signed copies, posters of licenced art on my walls, official jewellery... And I recommend them to almost everyone I meet.
I’m like that for all of my special-interest books, and I regret NOTHING.
What makes a book difficult for you to read? What, if anything, helps make books accessible to you?
Books that don’t delve into characters’ emotions or motivations. At that point I may as well be watching a movie, watching a person act from the outside. One of the (many!) things that makes books amazing is that it lets me inside other people, and experience emotions I’m not very good at understanding on my own – if a book doesn’t do that, what’s even the point?
There’s also – and honestly, I consider this to be a sensory issue of the kind autists often have, albeit an odd one – I struggle to put this into words. Every piece of prose has a rhythm, and sometimes that rhythm is (to me) really – discordant. It’s like hearing a piece of music that’s out of tune. I don’t have the technical understanding to explain how it works, which makes it very hard to avoid books that have a ‘bad’ rhythm! And sometimes, it seems like an author is unaware of their own writing rhythm, because here and there in their book that rhythm is suddenly broken or jarred. (Some authors are very aware of their rhythm, and deliberately ‘break’ it in places for effect. That’s different; that’s really cool!) I generally don’t get very far into books like that. But other readers generally don’t know what I’m talking about – they don’t ‘hear’ the rhythm at all. I don’t know if it’s a me-thing, or if other autistic readers face this issue too. But it’s very similar to experiencing a texture or sound that I Cannot Handle.
I’m not sure there’s a way to fix that, especially when I don’t properly understand the problem myself.
Book formatting can often turn into something I Cannot Handle as well – it’s as if the page is covered in loud, clashing colours, but it’s only that the paragraph indents are (for me) too big, or the text is left-aligned instead of justified, etc. It itches and scratches and makes me completely unable to read the book. But maybe there are readers who would feel the same with justified text and smaller paragraph indents? In which case, making those books more accessible to ME would make them less so for someone else, which I don’t want.
The best solution I can think of would be if publishers ‘locked’ fewer formatting decisions into their ebooks, and ereaders allowed you more customisation freedom in your reading experience. I definitely need to be able to dismiss a font that hurts my eyes! With paper books, I can’t see a way to make them easier for me that wouldn’t risk making them more difficult for others.
Is there anything (a type of character, a type of plot, a type of setting, a type of author, an idea, a style, etc...) that you have difficulty finding in the books you read right now? What do you wish that there was more of?
Non-humans who actually feel not-human. I read SFF almost exclusively, and I love intricate, detailed worldbuilding – but so many storytellers don’t really think through the fact that a species that isn’t human isn’t going to think and act like us. Whether that’s elves or aliens, dragons or AIs...so often they read as humans just wearing odd-looking masks. And that’s always massively disappointing!
(I’ve read that there are a lot of autistic readers who identify with non-human characters. I’m not sure that’s the case for me; maybe? I just know that I love them and find them wonderfully interesting.)
Also, unicorns. It is ridiculous how difficult it is to find Adult SFF with unicorns. They’re supposed to be one of the most well-known magical creatures, ubiquitous to fantasy! But I can count the number of Adult books I’ve read that feature unicorns on one hand and not need my thumb to do it! I absolutely need people to start writing more unicorn books, please and thank you!
This month at Everything Is True, we’re interviewing a wide variety of autistic readers with questions like these! You can find a schedule with the rest of the interviews here.
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Unbelievable! Sia was talking very accurately about who I am and how I see and have always seen the world. What a thrilling interview!! Thanks!