Naoki Higashida is profoundly autistic, so profoundly that he is almost totally non-verbal – only occasionally does he use short, pre-learned phrases which, all too often he uses inappropriately. But the fact that he does not – cannot – use words in speech does not mean that he cannot use words. Far, far from it. He writes, via his alphabet grid and his computer. His first book, written when he was 13, was The reason I jump; it has now been published in over 30 languages.
Fall down 7 times Get up 8 is his most recent, beautifully translated by author David Mitchell (who has profoundly autistic, non verbal son himself) and KA Yoshida, a specialist in English poetry at Notre Dame Seishin University in Yokohama. It is a book of short essays and poems many of which deal with the issues faced by those who are non verbal in attempting to navigate a verbal world.
Like many of the other books I have read by those on the autistic spectrum, Fall down 7 times Get up 8 is fascinating in that it opens a window on the ways that those on the spectrum think and see the world – and the struggles that they have in communicating with, and being understood by, the rest of us. It also reminds us just how lucky we are to be able to access these skills with so little thought to their value.
But Fall down 7 times Get up 8 is much more than just a book about being non-verbal. It is beautiful. The prose is stunning and the short poems a delight. I am going to quote you just part of Noaki’s essay, Thoughts on Words, and the poem that follows.
Spoken language is a blue sea. Everyone else is swimming, diving and frolicking freely while I am alone, stuck in a tiny boat, swayed from side to side. Rushing towards and around me are waves of sound. Sometimes the swaying is gentle. Sometimes I am thrown about and I have to grip the boat with all my strength. If I’m thrown overboard I will drown – a prospect so disturbing, so laden with despair, it can devour me. At other times, however, even if I can’t swim in the water, I gaze at the play of light on the surface, delight at being afloat on it, trail my hands and feet in the sea, and dream of jumping in with everyone else. When I am working on my alphabet grid or my computer, I feel as if someone’s cast a magic spell and turned me into a dolphin. I dive down deep, then shoot back up, break the surface and surprise all the swimmers. The process can feel so free, so effortless.
…..Especially with creative writing, I think a writer needs to work with the reader’s imagination in each and every sentence. Narcissism in writing causes nausea for the reader. Writing prose that I know will be read feel like discreetly placing a manuscript on a mountain top and leaving it there. From a good vantage point at the foot of the mountain, I can look back up and watch travellers finding, crying or smiling over the pages I left up there. The mountaintop looks far away, but their voices echo down to where I am listening.
People, when wounded by words,
replay those words endlessly
and down they sink
Wise to remember:
words are only words.
No need to swallow, too,
the feelings that encase them.
I did read most of Fall down 7 times Get up 8 in one sitting – but that is not the way to read it. It needs to be dipped into, for both the writing and what Naoki is saying, to be appreciated. It sounds disrespectful to say that my copy has now found an honoured place in our loo library – but, as anyone who has visited our loo library (equipped with reading light and a spare pair of reading glasses for those who have forgotten their own) will know, those are the most sought after bookshelves in the house!
For those who would like their own copy, you can get it here on Amazon. For those who are interested in reading more by those on the autistic spectrum, see this blog about Andrew Edwards and number of articles on the Autistic spectrum section of the Foods Matter site.