Autism is an endless mystery, largely unknowable by its nature, yet there are dozens of books by or about autistic people determined to explain the lives of those affected. The newest is “The Reason I Jump,” popular in Japan since it was published in 2007. The author, Naoki Higashida, was 13 years old at the time he wrote the memoir, and nonverbal. He wrote by spelling out words on a Japanese alphabet letter board.
The slim volume consists of short chapters beginning with questions like “Why do you speak in that peculiar way?” and “Why do you like spinning?” Describing why, exactly, he likes to jump, Higashida tells us: “The motion makes me want to change into a bird and fly off to some faraway place. But constrained by ourselves and by the people around us, all we can do is tweet-tweet, flap our wings and hop around in a cage.”
Higashida is bright and thoughtful. He maintains a blog and has written other books. His American publisher describes Higashida, who can also type on a computer and is able to read aloud what he has written, as a “motivational speaker.” As the parent of an autistic adult, I know autism has hidden depths, but they are hidden under real impairment. The author tells us that he gets lost and panics. He can’t remember rules, sit still or make sense of time.
The book comes to English readers through the passionate efforts of David Mitchell, the author of “Cloud Atlas” and the father of an autistic child. Mitchell and his wife, KA Yoshida, provided the translation. Mitchell believes the book is proof that the standard definition of autism is wrong, that autism’s obvious restrictions of socialization and communication “are not symptoms of autism but consequences.” Higashida, he has also said, is “more of a writer than I am.”
I will leave that consideration to others, but by its own context, “The Reason I Jump” makes for odd reading — a book about disordered sensorineural processing by a person with disordered sensorineural processing, written one letter at a time in adolescent Japanese prose and then translated into colloquial English (“It really gets me down”). The author barely mentions other people — there are brief references to his mother and his teacher — but he uses the plural (“our,” “we”) on almost every page. The constant presumption that he speaks for “people with autism” and “us kids with autism” is jarring.
The English edition is being treated more as a fragile objet de consciousness than as a book, as though criticism or analysis would be vulgar. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to sort out what is Higashida here and what is Mitchell. The two have never met in person, and Higashida had almost no involvement in the English edition. Mitchell has said that Yoshida “did the heavy lifting” from the Japanese, and that he “provided the stylistic icing on the cake.”
“The Reason I Jump” may raise questions, as many books have, about the nature of autism. But it raises questions about translation as well — that “icing.” Translation, at its best, is a dance between an objective search for equivalent language and an intuitive grasp of the author’s intent, which may have nothing to do with the translator’s point of view. The parents of an autistic child may not be the best translators for a book by an autistic child.
Mitchell writes that reading “The Reason I Jump,” he “felt as if, for the first time, our own son was talking to us about what was happening inside his head.” No parent of an autistic person — and I include myself here — can help longing for such a chance, and looking for it wherever we can. We have to be careful about turning what we find into what we want.