David Mitchell: ‘The world still thinks autistic people don’t do emotions’

The writer on how translating The Reason I Jump for his non-verbal autistic son was a lifesaver and his excitement at seeing the new Matrix film he co-wrote

Author David Mitchell, 52, was born in Southport, grew up in Malvern and now lives near Cork in Ireland. He published the first of his nine novels, Ghostwritten, aged 30. He has been twice shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, for number9dream and Cloud Atlas. He has also written opera libretti and screenplays. Mitchell translated the autism memoir The Reason I Jump from Japanese to English with his wife, Keiko Yoshida. Written by Naoki Higashida when he was 13, the book became an international bestseller and has now been turned into an award-winning documentary also featuring Mitchell.

What was your experience of reading The Reason I Jump for the first time?
My son had been fairly recently diagnosed. We had no idea what was happening in his head or how to help him. It felt a little like we’d lost our son. My wife ordered this book from Japan, began reading it at the kitchen table and verbally translating bits for me. There were startling overlaps between Naoki and our son’s behaviours – plus pretty persuasive explanations for those behaviours. Our four-year-old was hitting his head repeatedly on the kitchen floor and we had no clue why. This book arrived in the middle of that and, God, it was a lifesaver.

How did it help you?
At a practical level but also at a more existential level. It felt like evidence that we hadn’t lost our son. He was still here but there was this huge communication barrier. However, knowing he’s there on the other side, and wondering whether he’s there or not, are very different things. It really encouraged us.

The book challenges stereotypes about autism. Was that important for you?
By its very existence, it explodes some of the more pernicious, hurtful, despair-inducing myths. If autistic people have no emotional intelligence, how could that book have been written? The book doesn’t refute those misconceptions with logic, it is the refutation itself. And, practically, it helped us understand things like our son’s meltdowns, his sudden inconsolable sobbing or his bursts of joyous, giggly happiness.

What was the most valuable thing the book taught you?
To assume intelligence. Don’t assume the lack of it. Assume complete comprehension and act accordingly. No baby talk, don’t adjust your vocabulary, don’t treat an autistic person any differently to a neurotypical person. Let them out of infantilisation prison and allow them full human credentials, which they’re too often denied. You’re doing no harm at all and good things can happen.

What emotions did you go through while reading it?
If I’m honest, my initial reaction was guilt. Without wanting to, I’d basket-cased my son. I’d believed all the myths, closed all these doors in his future and condemned him to mute prison for a year or two. Then I read Naoki’s book and wanted to say: “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.” The book ends with Naoki’s short story I’m Right Here. It’s ridiculous – in the process of translation, I went through it seven times and cried every time. It’s got massive emotional welly and never loses its power. It still makes me emotional.

You and your wife translated the book together. Why did you become determined to do that?
It taught us how to interact with non-verbal autistic kids, but what about the people working with our son? So we translated it and gave it to them, saying: “Please, just read it.” When my agent and editor heard about this, I asked them to print a few thousand as a personal favour, just so people in our position who don’t speak Japanese could get access to it. But it took off and became really big. One reviewer even compared it to the Rosetta Stone.

Did you meet Naoki Higashida? What did you make of the controversy over whether he “really” wrote the book?
Yes, when I went to a Tokyo festival. I sat across the table from him, talked to him in Japanese and he replied by pointing at letters on an alphabet chart. It’s not easy but I saw it myself. It’s really him and that’s pretty damn wonderful. I’ve seen the intense effort and willpower it costs Naoki to make those sentences. I was like “Mate, helping spread the message is the least I can do.”

How did the film version come about?
Producers optioned the book and I got involved in a consultative capacity. They flew over to Cork and we discussed how it might work on screen. Naoki didn’t wish to be involved or want it to be a biopic, which sent the film in a fascinating direction. It became this global portrait of non-verbal autism and it works beautifully. Sometimes, God’s greatest gifts are his unanswered prayers, to quote the bard Garth Brooks.

What does Naoki make of the film?
He sent us a lovely email saying that seeing his brand of non-verbal autism in different international contexts for the first time had given him a sense of worldwide community. This isn’t a rich western thing, it’s a human thing. Maybe that’s the first step towards ushering in a new age of neurodiversity.

Watch a trailer for The Reason I Jump

What are your hopes for the film?
That many people see it, absorb its message – to start thinking of autism less as a cognitive disability and more as a communicative disability – and then act accordingly. I hope it reaches non-insiders, people without a personal link to autism, because we already know this stuff. The rest of the world still thinks autistic people don’t do emotions, like Data from Star Trek. I’d love that narrative to be changed. I’d like bus drivers to not bat an eyelid at an autistic passenger rocking. I’d like supermarket shoppers not to look in horror at the autistic kid having a meltdown in aisle seven. Basically, I want more kindness in the world. It’s felt like an endangered quality over the past four years. Sod that. Bring it back.

You co-wrote the fourth Matrix film, out in December. What can you tell us?
Nothing about the plot, or scary entertainment lawyers will come and get me. [Director] Lana Wachowski, [writer] Aleksandar Hemon and I wrote it a couple of Christmases ago at the Inchydoney hotel, just around the coast from here. It was filmed under Covid protocols, mostly in Berlin, and it’s now in post-production. I can’t wait to see it.

What was the last great book you read?
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s encouraging for a middle-aged writer to see him getting better with each book. If he can do it, there’s hope for us all.

What kind of reader were you as a child?
Pretty voracious. I stammered, I still do, which internalised me linguistically. I found comfort and solace in books. All my birthday and Christmas presents were book tokens and a trip to either Foyles in London or Hudsons in Birmingham. Those were high points of my young life and the beginnings of my professional development. I was pretty scattershot but had an inclination towards fantasy, then sci-fi. Nearly all my favourites were women: Alison Uttley, Susan Cooper, Penelope Lively, Rosemary Sutcliff, Ursula K Le Guin. I’m grateful to all of them. Things you read early on set the bar.

You worked with Kate Bush on her stage show, Before the Dawn. What was that like after being a lifelong fan?
Meeting your heroes can go either way but it was a gift. She was gracious, thoughtful and I’ve got treasured memories of our brief but fairly intense creative interaction. Her music is life-enhancing. Like Ishiguro, she kind of got better. I just wish she recorded more.

Do you ever get confused for your famous comedian namesake?
We get each other’s gig offers sometimes. A few weeks ago, I was invited on to a podcast called Three Little Words. I listened to an episode and they had Rob Brydon on, being hilarious. I emailed the producer and said I wonder if you’ve got the wrong one. I think in the 00s, we both quietly assumed the other would vanish into obscurity but that hasn’t happened. I’m just glad I really like his work, so I don’t mind us being mixed up.

Is another novel in the pipeline?
Short stories, actually. I’ve got some stories from the past 20 years that I’d like to find a permanent home for. I thought I’d polish those, write a few more and, hey, a free book. Of course, it hasn’t worked like that. I’ve rewritten them so extensively, they’re basically new stories. Now their tendrils are starting to join up and they might form some kind of weird novel.

What cultural things have you been enjoying?
It’s mainly been reading. I didn’t notice it happening but, between Brexit and the end of Trump, I stopped reading. The news was such a horror story that I took refuge in Netflix and kind of forgot to read for five years. That doesn’t cast a writer in a flattering light, does it? But during lockdown, I’ve rediscovered my passion. I even finally read Ulysses. I’ve spent all my whole life going quiet when the subject of Ulysses came up. Not any more.

The Reason I Jump is released on Friday 18 June. David Mitchell’s latest novel, Utopia Avenue, is just out in paperback (Sceptre, £8.99)


Michael Hogan

The GuardianTramp

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