David Mitchell on translating—and learning from—Naoki Higashida

The author of ‘Cloud Atlas’ and ‘The Bone Clocks’ credits the autistic Higashida with helping him understand his own boy

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Japanese author Naoki Higashida, who wrote “The Reason I Jump” when he was 13 years old, speaking during an exclusive interview with AFP in Kisarazu, in Chiba prefecture outside Tokyo. David Mitchell, the best-selling author of “Cloud Atlas”, remembers the day he read the memoir of the 13-year-old Nigashida with autism — hailing it a “revelatory godsend” that offered a window on the life of his own autistic son. (Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images)

Japanese author Naoki Higashida, who wrote "The Reason I Jump" when he was 13 years old, speaking during an exclusive interview with AFP in Kisarazu, in Chiba prefecture outside Tokyo.  David Mitchell, the best-selling author of "Cloud Atlas", remembers the day he read the memoir of the 13-year-old Nigashida with autism -- hailing it a "revelatory godsend" that offered a window on the life of his own autistic son.  (Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images)
Japanese author Naoki Higashida. (Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images)

“My novels matter to me,” says David Mitchell, “but there are lots of novels in the world.” More important to the bestselling, award-winning author of Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks is the svelte non-fiction book he and his wife, KA Yoshida, have just translated from the Japanese: Naoki Higashida’s Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8. Higashida, who wrote it in his late teens, has non-verbal autism, and Mitchell and Yoshida credit his work with helping them understand their son, who has autism, too.

Higashida wrote his first book, The Reason I Jump, in 2005, when he was 13, by pointing to letters on a grid; a helper would transcribe the resulting sentences. It’s a series of Q & As about autism, interspersed with short, parable-like pieces of fiction. Together, they offer an evocative window into his thought processes as he struggles to communicate. The book struck a chord with Mitchell and Yoshida—and with readers around the world after the couple translated it into English in 2013: it has since appeared in 34 more languages, and Mitchell notes it’s now used for teacher training in some special-needs schools. But it has also stirred distrust among critics and parents who don’t believe Higashida could have written the book—its figurative language and evidence of empathy, they insist, would be beyond him.

Mitchell expresses his hope that with Fall Down 7 Times, which reads as a more confident sequel, his publishers have “headed off the bandits of skepticism at the pass” by supplying “Tweetable video-ettes” of Higashida composing sentences himself. At times, the book is heartbreaking: it opens with a passage about Mother’s Day in which Higashida notes, “I’m unable to utter even a simple ‘thank you.’ It’s wretched and it’s miserable.” And yet it’s heartening, too, documenting the progress he has made in communicating, in social situations, and in venturing out of his previously rigid comfort zone. New to the English edition is his dreamlike short story “A Journey,” which resonates with Mitchell’s own cerebral-yet-gripping works of speculative fiction.

On the phone from Chicago, where the England-born, Ireland-based Mitchell is taking a break from a forthcoming novel on the psychedelic folk-rock scene in the 1960s to work on “a mystery project with a couple of friends,” he tells Maclean’s why Higashida’s resilience, and his eloquence, matter.

Q: How has Higashida’s writing affected the way you have understood and dealt with your son’s autism?

A: Specifically and attitudinally. Specifically, there are little asides Naoki gives, like “Always put a little bit of a food that you think I won’t eat on my plate, because you never know when I’ll try it.” We did that, and sure enough, over the years, my son’s repertoire of food has grown. He talks about travel: in 7/8, Naoki urges parents just to give it a go. We did and flew to London early last year, and it was great. Our son loved it, and all of the things I was afraid he couldn’t handle—being on the plane and train and taxis and buses—were his favourite parts. It was the relatively safe and static environment of the hotel that was hardest.

On the attitudinal end of the spectrum, Naoki’s message, over and over, is “Don’t give up on us. I know it’s tough for you looking after us, but actually it is tougher for us, I’m afraid, no matter how it looks.” [He writes] in 7/8 about how neurotypical people will talk about people with non-verbal autism as if they’re not there, or they’re just a coat stand. That made me modify my behaviour a little bit.

Naoki shows the gap between what you see and what there is. On YouTube, you can see this pretty hard-core autism—you’d probably cross to the other side of the sidewalk if you saw him walking towards you. He’s full of the classic autistic tics, yet he can write so elegantly and think and analyze and imagine and feel. This encourages me and my wife—I think many readers as well—to raise our expectations and to not always speak in one-word sentences, because maybe [people with non-verbal autism] can get more than we give them credit for. And to be more alert to the flashes of intelligence and understanding that are further hidden by our disbelief that they’re there in the first place.

Q: Do you have a sense of how much the changes you’ve made, inspired by the book, have helped your son?

A: All the time. It’s not measurable—autism laughs at measurement. When I look back to what my son was able to do and say and handle before, then you really see how far he’s come. To what degree I can give credit to the books is anecdotal, but a virtuous spiral kicks in, I believe. You credit the young person with more intelligence and imagination; they sense that they’re being treated like a real human being with full membership rights in the household, or the school, and not like a nuisance, a source of misery and grief and anxiety. They respect you back a bit more. And as the years have gone by, the meltdowns have gotten shorter and fewer.

Now, Naoki’s not a guru. He’s writing about himself, and he hopes it’s useful, but neither I nor he nor my publishers want to market this as any kind of a cure or a magic key. Autism is a syndrome; it’s not a disease. There is no cure, and for every key you find, you find all these locks that need opening on the other side.

Q: When you were promoting The Reason I Jump, you were confronted by people who felt that Higashida himself could not have written the book. How did you deal with that?

A: Well, first time around, not that well. I was too astonished to respond effectively, feeling bruised and exasperated that someone would think I would recklessly gamble away my professional reputation on some kind of fraud.

But yes, in the early ’90s, a false dawn on autism was this idea of assisted writing [called Facilitated Communication, or FC], where you put your hand over the hand of someone with autism and steady it and allow it to move over a keyboard and let them write. It led in some cases to tragedies where there were allegations of abuse written by kids whose hands were being assisted. Even one of [FC’s] early proponents realized to her horror later that she wanted so badly for the non-verbal girl with autism she was helping to have a voice that she was encouraging the process and the composition of the sentences herself.

This did give assisted writing a very bad name, and people conflate “texticating,” which is what I call what Naoki and some other people with non-verbal autism have learned to do, with it. I found that [skeptics had] stopped listening by the time I was explaining, “No one’s hand is touching his hand. Look on YouTube!” An initial skepticism needed to be worn down. It’s a world where sensitivities are high, where skin is thin—understandably so.

Q: The Reason I Jump itself seems designed to address how neurotypical people refuse to believe those with autism can think in certain ways, simply because they can’t communicate what they’re thinking.

A: It’s not so much that Naoki set out to dispel myths; he just noticed the same questions were coming up again and again, based on assumptions that ran contrary to his own experience, such as, “People with autism can’t feel emotion.” He does. He did. He can. He sometimes feels too many emotions that are outside his control. And [the assumption] that, “People with autism can’t imagine. They can’t see things from other people’s points of view.” Again, he was doing this all the time and wrote a testimony to that fact, by talking about it and by writing a story: “It’s my work, and it’s in my book. Now tell me that people with non-verbal autism can’t imagine.”

Q: In the introduction to Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8, you mention “Naoki’s conviction that we are mistaking communicative non-functionality for mental non-functionality.” To what extent could autism be a communicative issue?

A: It varies massively from case to case. In Big Bang Theory, [the character] Sheldon Cooper has autism. Once I spoke to a scriptwriter who said, “Yup, he has autism, but we don’t mention it because, a) it’s not relevant, and b) it then takes the show into a political dimension that we might not want to take it in.” He is probably the most famous fictional creation right now with highly functional autism, and the obstacle, and much of the comedy, is that he communicates a bit too much, too honestly, brutally, unstoppably. Yet there are kids in my son’s unit at school who have never spoken a word. It all depends on the individual.

My son has a vocabulary in the hundreds, if not thousands, in both English and Japanese. He plays his favourite apps; if there are adjustments to other languages, he’ll play them in Danish or Finnish, and memorize words that come up onscreen in those languages. Yet he’s never had a conversation like we’re having now. Compared to Sheldon Cooper, he’s non-verbal. Compared to his classmate who’s never spoken in his life, he’s highly verbal. So nomenclature gets awkward as well. However, a message I take from the book is: “Let’s assume that behind the speechlessness, there’s a mind as perceptive and imaginative and curious as our own.” The worst that can happen is you’re giving dignity to someone. The best that can happen is that you’re issuing a kind of “humanity passport” to someone who’s never had one. With the energy you can muster, give non-verbal people with autism the benefit of any doubt there is, and even that act can have alleviating, curative effects.

Q: Around the time The Reason I Jump was published, you wrote the story “Lots of Bits of Star,” whose narrator has autism. His voice is unorthodox and compelling. Have you pursued such a point of view further in fiction?

A: I’m working now on a side project about an autism family from different viewpoints. I’m obviously treading on ground that’s very close to home here, so I both want to use what members of my family must be feeling, yet not for that to feel exploitative or even offensive. That can be quite a fine line, so it’s not going quickly.

Do you know what form it may take?

A: Guess what? A suite of interconnected short stories! [Laughs] It’s a building that I’ll keep adding annexes to with each story, and I don’t know what the next annex will be until I’ve built the one before.

Q: That additive process is a departure—often your work has an overall structure that’s imposed from the beginning.

You’re being far too polite to say that I’m making this one up as I’m going along! It’s liberating.

Q: Higashida’s own short story, “A Journey,” is both moving and quite dark. I suppose a lot of young men are drawn to dark literature at that age…

A: He is the author of one of the best-selling accounts of autism in the world, but he’s also just this young dude as well. He is like his neurotypical contemporaries in many ways, including perhaps a penchant for dark short stories. On the other hand, if Alzheimer’s is the topic [of the story], it’s not really going to be a laugh a minute.

His gran has Alzheimer’s, and in some ways, it’s like autism. There’s a person inside, but no one’s treating you like it, and a lot of the time, the world’s very mysterious and you don’t know what’s going on, because you’ve lost that bridge of communication—that effortless, instant bridge where you get answers. You’re stranded somewhat.

There’s a nice shift between the books: with The Reason I Jump, he was a boy with severe autism who happened to also have the intellectual apparatus you need to be able to write, whereas with 7/8 it’s sort of reversed—he’s a writer who happens to have autism.

Q: There’s a stereotype that people with autism are unable to empathize with others. Countering this, Higashida writes, “Our world would improve if the neurotypical majority could try to empathize a little better and more often with people who, like me, lack endurance.” He’s turning the tables, isn’t he?

A: Yeah. There are trace elements of—I don’t know if it’s teenage, but militancy in this book which were absent in the first. Great to see. [Laughs] He says, “We’re not great at communicating, but suppose you’re not great at picking up the signals we are doing our damnedest to send out?”—or words to that effect. He wouldn’t say “damnedest;” he’s too much of a gentleman.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.