Thursday, June 14, 2018

Autism And Disability In Literature

This article has just appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Spectrum Life Magazine.
Author, musician, and Autism Empowerment board member Brian Tashima recently had the good fortune to attend a writer’s conference in sunny Florida, where he was not only an attendee, but also a panelist speaking about a very important subject. Spectrum Life Magazine sat down with him to find out more.

You recently left the Northwest! What was the purpose of your travel?

This past March 7th-10th, 2018, I went to Tampa, Florida to attend the 18th annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP)conference. I had been invited to participate in a panel on disability in children’s literature.

How many people attended the conference?

I believe around 12,000 or so.

Wow, that's a pretty large conference. Why does it attract so many people?

AWP is an organization of writers, teachers, students, and other professionals in the literary community. The conference, which is now the largest of its kind in North America, brings its members together for four days of panels, presentations, and networking. It was really energizing and inspirational. I met a lot of great people and had a fantastic time.

That's terrific. Please tell us more about the panel you were on.

It was called “Disability in Children’s Literature: Not an Anomaly, an Imperative.” The official description went as follows: “Children and young adult readers deserve realistic characters reflective of themselves and the people around them. Yet, too often, kids with physical or intellectual disabilities are absent from literature for young readers—or, if present, the disability is the focus of the book. We’ll discuss how authors can responsibly integrate characters with varying abilities into their work so that the disability isn’t the story, but merely a challenge that a particular character faces within the narrative.”

Great topic choice and certainly an important one for our community! Do you know the process for how this panel topic was chosen?

Melissa Hart, the author of several great books including Avenging the Owl, had submitted a proposal for the panel to AWP. Avenging the Owl features a character with Down syndrome, so Melissa is quite familiar with the topic. I heard that less than half of all proposals get accepted, so she did a great job in presenting it for consideration—she wrote the description I gave you in the previous answer. And besides, I think that it’s an important topic that needs to be discussed, especially given the current cultural climate.

Who was on the panel with you?

Melissa was unable to attend, but I was joined by Naseem Jamnia and Rachel DeWoskin. Naseem is a nonbinary Muslim writer who is working toward their MFA and has written articles for numerous publications. Rachel is the author of Blind, a story about a girl who loses her eyesight in a terrible accident, and Big Girl Small, about a teenage little person who wants to be Judy Garland.

What kind of questions did you answer? Was it moderated or did the questions come from the audience?

Melissa and Naseem had come up with a great list of questions beforehand, and the panel—moderated by Naseem—took turns asking each other the questions and providing their individual answers. Afterwards, we opened it up to the audience. Most of the questions revolved around how to write characters with disabilities in a realistic and responsible manner. A couple of the questions were about Autism Empowerment, which I was more than happy to talk about!

Did anyone on the panel identify with a disability? If so, what type?

No one had a disability that I was aware of, but I think that's okay. To paraphrase one of Rachel’s answers, writing—and reading—is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, trying to experience life and the world from their perspective.

What steps can authors take to make sure that their writing is respectful to people and not ableist?

First of all, do your research. If you yourself do not have the particular disability that you plan on writing about, reach out to people who do. Immerse yourself in their lives. Find out what they think, how they feel, what their challenges and their accomplishments are. In my case, my son is on the spectrum and I’ve been active in the autism community for many years, dating back to before the time I even starting writing my series. Rachel spent a year studying Braille and hanging out with blind teens at their school. She also became involved with Little People of America, a nonprofit organization that provides support to people of short stature and their families.

Employing sensitivity readers is also a good idea. Sensitivity readers are people who will read drafts of your manuscript and provide you with specific feedback regarding how your disabled characters are being presented. In one of their articles, Naseem had said that “sensitivity readers aren’t for the writer, but for the readers of an essay or a book.” I think they had a great point, as the final reader of any piece of writing is ultimately the person who will be the most affected by it. Using a sensitivity reader beforehand can help ensure that your book’s audience will have a positive experience.

I love the idea of sensitivity readers and think that is a strategy that would work well for both fiction and nonfiction. Do you get a sense that most writers who feature characters with disabilities in their books were influenced in real-life by someone with that disability?

I believe so. Most writers I’ve met that feature disabled characters are either disabled themselves or have a close friend or family member who is. Melissa’s brother has Down syndrome. Naseem, who is working on a manuscript featuring an autistic character, has a brother on the spectrum. Rachel was originally influenced by The Black Book of Colors, a children’s book that contains images you feel rather than see, but as I mentioned, she proceeded to deeply engage with the blind community and, I’m sure, gained a lot of inspiration from the real-life people that she met.

What do you think is the future of disability in literature?

That’s a great question. My hope is that the portrayal of disabilities in literature continues to expand and improve, and that writers of all abilities feel encouraged and inspired to share their own stories and experiences in a positive, respectful manner. As I mentioned in a previous Spectrums Life article about fictional autistic characters, I feel that representation is very important—especially for kids, who are looking to see themselves in the books that they read. I think that even imperfect portrayals—and, granted, there are a few of those—are a step in the right direction, because at least they invite discussion, which, hopefully, will lead to continued progress.

Thank you for sharing your experience! All of us at Autism Empowerment and Spectrum Life are glad that you were able to represent our organization and the autism community at such a prestigious event.

My pleasure! It was a terrific honor to be on the panel. I’d like to thank Melissa for inviting me to be part of it, and Naseem and Rachel for being such incredible panel-mates. I hope I get a chance to do something similar again in the near future.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

It Takes A Village

This coming Saturday, Washington Autism Alliance & Advocacy is putting on their annual It Takes a Village Conference from 9am - 3pm at Clark College in Vancouver, WA!
There will be a large, diverse group of service providers, panelists, and speakers there, including Autism Empowerment and yours truly. If you're in the area, please come by and check it out. Clark College is located at 1933 Fort Vancouver Way, Vancouver, WA 98663.

Oh, and speaking of Autism Empowerment - happy 7th birthday!
Looking forward to many, many more years to come.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Anime Roundup

I guess you can say I've been a fan of anime for a long time, although maybe not to the extent that some other people are. I've been watching Pokemon on and off since it started in the U.S. back in 1998, and I've been a casual viewer of various other series like Beyblade and Yo-kai Watch (I was - and still am - a HUGE fan of tokusatsu series like Kikaida and Kamen Rider, but those are live-action, so they don't count here).
Recently, however, because of a newfangled streaming service that shall remain nameless (hint: rhymes with "Getflix"), my interest in anime has leveled up dramatically. Thus, I decided that it was time to do an Anime Roundup post. Like my Movie Roundup posts, these are not really reviews, they're just my random thoughts about various shows that I've been watching. Unlike the Movie Roundup posts, however, these thoughts will be broken out into categories (with appropriate Japanese-style rankings), as you shall see below.

Category S: Loved Them So Much That Once I Got Going I Couldn't Stop Watching

Death Note
As I mentioned back in January, this is a show I had heard a lot about, so once I finally had access to it I decided to give it a shot. And boy, I was not disappointed. There was a little saggy part in the middle when I wondered where, exactly, the show was going, but then it got back on course pretty quickly and revved up to an amazing ending. I still rewatch the final episode every now and then because it's just that awesome.

Normally the little descriptive log lines for these shows don't really pique my interest all that much; I have to actually start watching the show itself before I can decide whether I'm into it or not. The log line for this show, however, hooked me right away: "Frustrated with her thankless office job, Retsuko the Red Panda copes with her daily struggles by belting out death metal karaoke after work." I mean, c'mon, how can anybody resist that? After breezing through Season 1 (I could barely tear myself away), this became not only my favorite anime of the moment, but one of my all-time favorite shows, period. I cannot wait for Season 2.

Category A: Didn't Love Them, But Liked Them Enough That I Managed To Finish Whatever Was Available

Devilman Crybaby
Like Death Note, this was another one I had heard a lot about. It had an interesting art style that took a little getting used to, and the raps were kind of weird, but it managed to hold my attention until the (mild spoiler alert) poignantly tragic ending. And boy, let me tell you, the whole series is definitely NOT kid-friendly.

Category B: Tried, Tried, Tried, To Get Into Them But Just Couldn't For Whatever Reason; Maybe Will Try Again Someday

Attack On Titan
Gasp, I know. I actually tried watching this one before I got Netflix, and I managed to make it through about ten episodes before the momentum just kind of petered out. I think maybe it had just a little too much unrelenting bleakness for my taste, kind of like The Walking Dead (another show that I had tried and failed to get into). Although I loved The Handmaid's Tale, so hmm.

Category C: Not Ranked Low Because I Don't Like Them, It's Just That I Haven't Finished Watching Enough Of Them Yet To Assign Them To A Firm Category

Fullmetal Alchemist
Highly recommended by Dan the Second Player Score bassist, this one was a little intimidating at first because of its extensive history and reputation. You take one look at its sprawling body of work and wonder, where do I even start? But like with Doctor Who or learning how to swim, you just have to plunge in and do it. The biggest upfront question for me was, do I watch "Fullmetal Alchemist" or "Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood"? Dan suggested the first one, so that's what I did, and so far I'm through eleven episodes and enjoying it well enough. My guess is that this one will eventually end up in Category A.

One Punch Man
Just started this one but am already through the first five episodes. Lots of action, quirky humor, and post-credits scenes - kind of like the MCU! On a fast track to Category S.

Violet Evergarden, Gurren Lagann, Sword Art Online, Kill La Kill
Finished the first episode of each. Not bad so far. Too early to tell which category they'll eventually migrate to. Find out in future installments of Anime Roundup!

Thursday, May 24, 2018

How Would Joel And Felicity Fare In A Duel With Other Heroes?

The other day I found myself wondering who would win a fight between The Avengers and The Justice League. As it turns out, a few other people have wondered the same thing, so I think that that particular stretch of ground has already been covered quite adequately.
So then my thoughts turned to my own characters, Joel Suzuki and Felicity Smith. How would they do in a fight against The Avengers? Or, say, Harry Potter? Or Avatar Korra?

To help answer these questions, I decided to bring in Joel Suzuki superfan and pop culture expert Nairb Amihsat. Say hello, Nairb.

N: Hello.
B: You know your name sounds like something straight out of Star Wars, right?
N: Yes, I've heard that before.
B: All right, let's get started. So the question here today is: how would Joel and Felicity fare in a fight with other sci-fi/fantasy heroes?
N: Well, first of all, I think you have to settle on a specific skill level for everyone involved. Obviously, Joel and Felicity's wavecasting proficiency varies depending on which part of which book you're talking about.
B: Good point. Why don't we just go with a "standard/average" level - like, post-training period, but no extra power-ups or temporary weaknesses.
N: I suppose we can do that. All right, begin.
B: Let's start with Joel vs. Harry Potter.
N: That's a tough one. Wands and wavebows have similar capabilities, and it takes roughly about the same amount of time to play a wavebow riff as it does to say the name of a spell. The movie version of Harry might have a little advantage there, because he was able to perform nonverbal spells, and Expelliarmus could knock the wavebow out of Joel's hands pretty easily. Joel has the Sight, but I'm not sure it would give him any extra advantages. So I'm going to say: Harry Potter.
B: Fair enough. How about Felicity vs. Luke Skywalker?
N: Oo, that's an interesting one. It'd be tough to defend against the Force, but "standard/average" Luke never really had the whole Force-pushing thing down, at least not to the extent that more experienced Jedi Knights did. Without that, he'd be at a distinct disadvantage, because wavebows are ranged weapons whereas lightsabers are not - unless you throw them, which "standard/average" Luke never really did. And in a case where both of them were disarmed for whatever reason, Felicity is much better with hand-to-hand combat. I'd have to go with Felicity here.
B: She'd be happy to hear that. Okay, let's say...Joel vs. Avatar Aang.
N: What would qualify as a "standard/average" Aang?
B: Let's go with all four elements, but no Avatar State. And we're talking about the young Aang, so his Earthbending is not the greatest.
N: All right. Well, this is another tough one. Joel would be able to deflect most bending attacks with a shield cast, but Aang should be able to dodge most directional wavecasts. The Earthbending move where you trap someone in the ground would be effective, but Joel might be able to avoid that one given the skill level that we're saying Aang is at. I think this one would be a pretty long and entertaining battle, and whoever gets in the first strike would win.
B: Let's give it to Joel, then.
N: If you say so.
B: I do. All right, one more and we'll call it day for now. How about Felicity vs. Captain Marvel?
N: Um, Captain Marvel. Duh.
B: Really? No contest?
N: No contest. I mean, c'mon, Captain Marvel can probably take out everyone else you've mentioned so far all at once by herself. I don't think Felicity would disagree.
B: You're probably right. Okay, well, thanks for stopping by, Nairb.
N: No problem. This was fun, we should do it again sometime.
B: Sure.
(Nairb leaves)
Felicity (walking in): Hey, who was that dude?
B: Oh - um, just a friend.
F: What were you guys talking about?
B: Nothing really important.
F: Oookay, whatever. Got any diet sodas left?
B: I need to do a store run. Before I do that, though, tell me - who do you think would win in a fight between you and Captain Marvel?
F: Pfft - me, of course.
B: Really? Why do you say that?
F: Because she's a comic book character, and I'm a real person. All I would have to do is close the comic or turn off the TV or whatever.
B: Interesting point.
F: Yeah, I know. Now, c'mon, off to the store with you. I'm getting thirsty over here.

- THE END - 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Volume Four Status Update: Ahead Of Schedule?

About six months ago, I told you that the first draft of Volume Four was done.
Volume Four??
Then, about three-and-a-half months ago, I told you that I had just received the draft back from my editor, and that I would be starting the revision process.

Now, I'm happy to announce that the revision process is more-or-less complete. I incorporated as much of my editor's feedback as I could, and I also did a couple of read-throughs to make sure that everything is working smoothly.

On top of that, I also have a cover! Well, mostly, anyway. Jill Colbert, the talented artist who designed and illustrated the covers for the first three Joel Suzuki volumes, has already finished her part (see the sneak peek above) - now it's up to me to finalize the back cover blurb, of which I already have a pretty solid draft.

So, at this point, I'm just waiting for some feedback from a few other sources, and then I can ship the manuscript back to my editor for a final line edit (okay, maybe after one more read-through).

Needless to say, this is all very exciting. The original release date for Volume Four was April 2019, but now I'm contemplating pushing that up a bit, possibly in time for this year's holiday season. But we shall see. There's always a chance that the line edit (and my ensuing revisions) will take longer than expected, but in any case, right now everything is comfortably on or ahead of schedule.

If you want to get an exclusive sneak preview of the text of Volume Four, all you have to do is sign up for the Joel Suzuki fan club, aka The Wavemaker Order, here - once you've done that, the file is easily found in the archives. And if you haven't read Volumes One through Three yet, you can pick them up at any one of the sources listed here, here, and here.

If you've already done all of that, you are super awesome and I thank you. Stay tuned for more updates!

Monday, May 7, 2018

Felicity and Fireflower React To Avengers: Infinity War

WARNING: this post contains major spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War. If you haven't seen it yet, what are you waiting for?

Scene: Felicity, Fireflower, Joel, and Keeper of the Light are walking out of the theater, having just watched Avengers: Infinity War.
Felicity: Wow. Okay, yeah, that's my new favorite MCU movie. Like, by far.
Fireflower: To be honest, I am still a bit shocked by all of the deaths. Especially Gamora's.
Felicity: You had to have known it was coming, though. You read all the comics.
Fireflower: I know, but you told me before that the people who produce these films often change the events contained within the paper versions of these stories.
Felicity: Don't worry, most of those characters - if not all of them - are going to come back to life.
Fireflower: How do you know this?
Felicity: They already have movies on the future schedule. And the actors are still under contract. So don't get too worked up about it.
Keeper: That is easy for you to say. You are the only one of us who is not dressed up like a character who died.
Felicity: Hey, if anything, Black Widow and the rest of the original Avengers are probably in more trouble than Mantis, Gamora, Spider-Man, or any of those guys.
Keeper: Why do you believe that?
Felicity: They've been around longer, and some of those actors' contracts are done. So in Avengers 4, or whatever they end up calling it, my guess is that the older characters are gonna sacrifice themselves to bring back the newer ones.
Joel: Although they have been talking about maybe doing a Black Widow movie.
Felicity: True. And they'd better. I was more talking about Iron Man and Captain America, anyway.
Keeper: I have a question.
Felicity: Yeah?
Keeper: If the character known as Doctor Strange could see into the future, why did he not inform the other characters of the particular actions they needed to perform in order to ensure the one most favorable outcome?
Felicity: I think it's one of those "if-you-tell-them-about-it-then-it-won't-work" kind of deals. Like, if he said "Hey, Star-Lord, Thanos killed Gamora so you're going to get really mad and then hit him before Stark and Parker get the gauntlet off" then I think that would've messed things up.
Keeper: I see.
Fireflower: Excuse me, but I, too, have a question.
Felicity: You know, you guys can just ask away without prefacing it. We're not in a classroom here.
Fireflower: Very well. Once Thanos collected all six Infinity Stones, thereby becoming more-or-less omnipotent, could he have not simply created enough resources for the entire universe, rather than killing off half of its population?
Felicity: I'll bet you this question is gonna pop up a lot on the Internet over the next few days.
Joel: There are a number of possible explanations for that. One is that the stones are only able to destroy, not create. Another is that Thanos was already committed to that particular course of action before he started collecting the stones, so he didn't want to deviate from it.
Felicity: Or maybe you guys are just thinking about it too much.
Keeper: So what was that symbol on the device at the very end?
Joel: It's for Captain Marvel.
Fireflower: I actually knew that one!
Felicity: Thanks to all the research you've been doing.
Keeper: Who is Captain Marvel?
Joel: She's another character. Probably one of the more powerful ones, depending on how they portray her.
Felicity: She has her own movie lined up for next March.
Keeper: And is she going to be the one who defeats Thanos?
Joel: Probably not by herself.
Felicity: Although she totally could.
Keeper: So if they are going to resurrect most or all of the characters who perished in this film, and a majority of viewers are aware of this, then what was the purpose of killing them off in the first place?
Felicity: To make one completely awesome movie.
Joel: Let's see it again.
Felicity: Good idea. I still have Brian's credit card.


Thursday, May 3, 2018

May The Fourth Be Book Fair Day

Some of you may remember when I participated in Shahala Middle School's READCON book fair a couple of years ago. Some of you may also remember when Joel, Felicity, Fireflower and I celebrated Star Wars Day last year. Well, this year the two events have merged into one, forming a single awesome hybrid experience!
That's right, this year READCON will take place on Friday, May the 4th - that's tomorrow! It'll be from 5:30pm-8pm (30 minutes longer this time!) and it is FREE to attend. There will be all kinds of cool stuff, like:

- Activities, crafts, games, prizes
- Costume & trivia contests
- Real life-size working Star Wars droids!
- Photo ops with Star Wars characters
- Book and poster sales
- Collectibles and displays
- Some author guy named Brian Tashima

As I said, it's free to attend, but donations will be accepted to support both the Shahala Middle School library as well as Autism Empowerment. And if you eat at the neighboring Firehouse Subs between 5 and 8:30pm and/or the nearby Menchie's Frozen Yogurt (do both, you know you want to) between 5:30 and 10pm, just tell them you're there for Shahala Middle School and each establishment will make an additional donation to the school and to Autism Empowerment.

Here are the addresses in case you need them:

Shahala Middle School
601 SE 192nd Ave
Vancouver, WA

Firehouse Subs
19151 SE Mill Plain Blvd
Vancouver, WA

Menchie's Frozen Yogurt
19171 SE Mill Plain Blvd #107
Vancouver, WA

See you there, and May the Force Be With You, Always.