‘Embracing queerness delayed my coming to terms with autism. We need more visibility,’ says acclaimed author Naoise Dolan

Naoise Dolan Exciting Times

There is a moment in Naoise Dolan’s tour-de-force debut novel Exciting Times when Ava, the book’s main character, writes a long and winding message to Julian, her sort-of-boyfriend, about Edith, her sort-of-girlfriend.

In the message, Ava says she has been thinking about Edith “more and more”. She tells Julian that she has never had sex with another woman, but she “kissed a few in college”. Then, Ava writes that she sometimes loves Julian, but other times, she wants a plane to fly into a building and for him to be either in the building or on the plane.

When Ava finishes writing the message she decides, “on balance”, that she shouldn’t send it. But it is a fascinating insight into the psyche of a young woman as she begins to explore her queerness.

Naoise Dolan didn’t set out to write a queer novel. Instead, it happened “organically”, she tells PinkNews.

“I just wrote as I went. I suppose it was inevitably going to have some gay stuff in there because that’s what I care about and I was writing it mainly to amuse myself,” she says.

The queer, autistic novelist – who is originally from Dublin, Ireland, but now lives in London – wrote the first draft of Exciting Times in 2017, and it was eventually published to critical acclaim in 2020. In an email interview ahead of the publication of the paperback copy of her book, Dolan spoke to PinkNews about British colonialism, how Brexit crept into the work, and what it’s like to be both queer and autistic in 2021.

PinkNews: You explore British ignorance towards Ireland wonderfully in Exciting Times, such as in the first chapter when Julian is shocked that Ava has never been to London. What was the inspiration behind this? 

Naoise Dolan: It’s not really something I was exploring – it’s just how the characters are. I wrote the first draft in early 2017, when Brexit chat was still more parts vitriol than exhaustion, and there was a sense in Ireland that the border issue wasn’t being properly considered. I must say that sense has since been amply vindicated. But thinking back to that 2016, 2017 atmosphere, I guess it does prompt you to think about attitudes more broadly – that Ireland isn’t a real place with real people, we’re not to be taken seriously, we’re quaint, we’ll be fine; or else that we’re all terrorists. Those are the two stereotypical views of Irish people, I think, and in recent years they’ve come more to the fore, although of course not everyone holds them to the degree in the novel.

Exciting Times has such an interesting and rich portrayal of the impact British rule had on Hong Kong. Why is it important for writers to explore British colonialism? 

I think the thing is Britain still doesn’t have a proper history curriculum, one that reckons even basically with the centuries of violence. Ireland’s curriculum is somewhat better, though by no means perfect, so you grow up with colonialism as a stated feature of the environment. When I lived in Dublin as a kid, everything I learned about Dublin referenced colonialism, because how could it not? You can’t explain the history without it. You can’t explain why this Irish city looks mostly like various stages of London, and you can’t explain why they built Georgian townhouses without saying it was to house members of the ruling elite, and you can’t explain why those houses declined into slum housing without saying we lost our parliament and much else in Britain’s 1801 Act of Union, and so on. So for me it’s just background knowledge.

When I’m in a new country where the British went, I’m curious about what they did there. British people probably have to try harder to understand and contextualise the history, because maybe when they see a big Georgian building outside their country it doesn’t spring to mind so instantly that there’s a reason it’s there. That said, a lot of Irish individuals helped to perpetrate British colonial rule in other countries, and I tried to reference that too vis-à-vis Hong Kong – again, not to make some huge point, not because I think I’ve written a striking decolonial text, but because it’s just true.

Ava is such a fascinating character – she is so different when with Julian compared to when she is with Edith. How would you characterise the journey she goes on throughout the novel? 

Because she’s a first-person narrator, making her up went along with making the story up. So I think a lot of Ava’s character just came from when I needed her to do something bad or destructive to create conflict, or when I needed her to do something good to change the mood and keep it on a rollercoaster. But then once I’d written the first draft I was able to look at the totality of those decisions and work out how to make it consistent and believable. At the end of the novel she still has many of the pitfalls she had at the start – selfishness, pointless introspection – but she’s maybe better equipped to deal with it and move forward. I think when you’re a young woman writing about young women, people often expect an epiphany and perfect closure, and to me that ultimately says that being a young woman isn’t itself an interesting or complex experience. I didn’t want to make Ava move on from it by the end. She’ll be a mess her whole life, because aren’t we all?

There has been much discussion about the relatively small number of queer stories being published. Why is it important that more LGBT+ themed novels are being widely read? 

It means we’re allowed to nourish our imaginations as full human beings, not as camp second fiddles and trauma mines. I never want to feel like I have to enjoy a queer book, or that I have to see myself in it, or that I have to read one particular book to feel engaged in the community. There should be enough variety for our media to mimic the endless variation of queer life. That’s another thing, why are queer people in straight fiction the only queer person in their friend circle? Baffling. I don’t think I’m anyone’s one queer friend, because I am too mean and jaded to teach a cis-het how to interact with me. We need to see that. And we need to see everything else. I can only do a tiny fraction of it with my dark brittle books about morbid women, so I hope they’re never the only queer options for someone else.

What was it like for you growing up queer in Ireland, and how have things changed in terms of LGBT+ rights and equality since then? 

When I was growing up there was still a lot of homophobia at school and in the general environment – I mean, we had posters telling us we weren’t fit to be parents in 2015 for the marriage referendum. I don’t want to discount the victory but I’ll always be bitter that straight people were allowed to vote on whether we should have rights, then congratulated for voting yes. And there’s a virulent wave of rising transphobia in Ireland now. It’s not as bad as the UK yet, but it’s not good enough to take that as our standard. The standard should be none.

Did it take you long to come to terms with your own sexuality, and what was that process like? 

Ages. I had a lot of semi-coming-outs and partial coming-outs and backtracking, and then eventually a big dramatic one when I was 22 and I told absolutely everyone. But I think the last generation regard that as relatively young, so it’s a sign that they had to face a lot of things I didn’t and it’s important to remember that history.

You’ve been open about being autistic. We know there are a huge number of queer autistic people out there, but they are so rarely represented in popular culture. Why is that, and do we need more representation?

There are so many of us! I think a lot of people tend to know one but not the other about themselves, though hopefully that’s changing. Certainly when I came out as queer I was so confused and scared and relieved, and it seemed like the one thing that accounted for every way I’d ever felt different or ostracised, so I think embracing queerness actually delayed my coming to terms with autism, much as it was otherwise a life-affirming thing to do. And then a lot of it is impossible to extricate, because you present yourself and interact within one body, so I can’t really say where the queer impulses stop and the autistic ones start.

We need more visibility because it will sharpen absolutely everyone’s thinking. The experiences presented in most entertainment as ‘universal’ are not in fact universal, because a lot of the time I don’t feel anything, and that means the creators are missing out on the particularities that would have drawn me in. Rather than creating a self-complete world, they’ve relied on their audience to project, and I have nothing to bring. So it would improve all of art and popular culture if there were more queer autistics out there, as well, of course, as all the other marginalised groups shut out.

A lot of depictions of autism in popular culture, and much of the media discussion, tend to be quite problematic. How and why does this narrative need to shift?

For me the main problem right now is that there’s enormous pressure on own-voices autistic portrayals to undo the damage caused by decades of harmful ones from non-autistics. I get so upset and stressed out even thinking about writing an explicitly autistic character, because I don’t want to hurt my community any more than we’ve already been hurt by outsiders. The thing is, bad portrayals are rarely utter lies. There are autistic people who move, speak and act in some of the ways that the stereotypes do – although you’ll rarely find one person who does the whole lot of it – but in real life they’re full human beings; they don’t exist as disabled props to make non-autistic people look good and help them learn and grow.

Like, sometimes when I talk to my friends about their relationships I sound like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. I just do. But I’m a whole person who does other things, and Sheldon mostly isn’t. But then what if I want to write a character who shares those traits and I want to make them the protagonist and grant them their full humanity? They’d still match some of the stereotypes, and it will still reinforce discrimination because it will confirm biases. But then if I go the other way and deliberately write the most counter-stereotypical autistic character possible, it’s like I’m distancing them from broader perceptions and saying they only matter because they’re good at pretending not to be autistic. It’s so frustrating, and the worst thing about it is most of the harmful portrayals come from non-autistics who aren’t engaged enough in the community to have such concerns. They find it easier to write about autism than I do because they don’t know enough of us to care if they get it wrong, or even know if they have until it’s too late. So they need to stop, and then maybe there’ll be less pressure on the people who can do a better job.

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan is is out now in paperback.