David Mitchell on autism, expectations and ‘The Reason I Jump’

Author David Mitchell has helped bring a book by a 13-year-old autistic Japanese boy to English readers.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

David Mitchell, whose complex novel “Cloud Atlas” was adapted into a film last year, has quietly hit bestseller lists again as one of three authors of “The Reason I Jump.” He shares credit with KA Yoshida and young Japanese writer Naoki Higashida. Higashida has a severe form of autism, but, as a 13-year-old, wrote this book about what it’s like to live inside his head. Mitchell collaborated with his wife, Yoshida, on the translation from the Japanese; as parents of an autistic child, they see the book as a way to break through the speechlessness of autism.

Mitchell, who appeared on “The Daily Show” earlier this month to talk about the book, spoke to us by phone from his home in Ireland.

Why was it important to you to translate Naoki Higashida’s “The Reason I Jump” into English?


Writers have to strive to do what [Higashida] just IS. He is his voice. As his translators into English we tried to stay as close and true to that voice as we could do -- we tried to give it a boyish insouciance that comes through in the Japanese. Hence the few grammatical mistakes, such as “us kids with autism,” instead of “we kids with autism,” for example.

He’s been giving this genetic lucky break whereby his autism doesn’t preclude being able to express his mental eloquence through a keyboard independently. He’s taken that lucky break and used it with more energy and application and determination and persistence than I think I’ve ever applied to my non-autisitc life.

What do you think people who aren’t familiar with autism might get out of this book?

I hope that people whose lives aren’t directly touched by autism will read it, because then their lives will be indirectly touched by autism. Then when they see someone who has autism they will be less fazed, less creeped, and more understanding.

When Naoki talks about how memory works for him, inadvertently, he nudges us neurotypical lot into thinking about how our memory works. He talks about memory being like a pool of dots, one of those pointilist paintings, rather than a chronological line. If you have autism, it’s really hard to sort out the distant past, into the recent past, into five minutes ago. It starts making you think about how your memory works, too.

Inadvertently, it’s quite a philosophical book; by being a users manual of his autistic mind, he also can cast light on how our brains and our minds work as well. In a way that I find quite intellectually nourishing.

How did you come to understand your son had autism?

Lack of eye contact and a very tortuously slow language acquisition and compared to our non-autistic daughter; a lack of interest in books aged 18 months to two years. Because our son has an elder sibling who doesn’t have autism, our family had an in-built basis of comparison. When outsiders maybe imagine a single monstrous shock, it’s not really like that. By the time the assessment comes through you pretty much know yourself....

Autism teaches you many things and one is that bitterness about the genetic hand you’ve been dealt really doesn’t help. Life deals all of us a whammy from time to time; being autistically wired is a pretty tough one in the scale of them. People like Naoki -- and our son too -- who handle it from the inside and chip away at the problems it throws up, they really are heroes.

The book has been on bestseller lists. Have you been surprised by the reaction to it?

I think both me and my publishers were very pleasantly taken by surprise by the size of the audience that the book’s found....And Jon Stewart cares very sincerely about autism, and I owe him a couple of beers. I really do. It’s great that people in the media are willing to throw their weight behind a cause like this. I’ll be grateful to him forever.

Was it your first time on “The Daily Show”?

The only piece of American TV I’ve done before was “Good Morning Minnesota” or something; “The Daily Show” was the first national American TV show I’ve ever done. I was a little bit nervous, but Jon came in before the show and made sure we were on the same wave-length. Actually, me and my agent and publicist and my editors – we played Scrabble in the green room. That was very relaxing. Except my agent fleeced us all.

What are some of the misperceptions about autism the book can address?

The problem with received wisdom is you don’t know it’s received wisdom; that’s why it’s somewhat corrosive. I never really noticed that I had assumed that people with autism, to be direct, don’t have imaginations. Or, I never noticed how it had gotten into my head, I can’t pinpoint the moment I started to believe that people with autism are incapable of empathy. There’s a number of occasions in the book Naoki displays a level of empathy that’s unusual in any 13-year-old, let alone an autistic 13-year-old.

He’s asked at one point – he asks himself, the book’s mostly a list of questions and answers – at one point, the question is, what’s the worst thing about being autistic? And his answer is, it’s not actually what you’d think. It’s not the day-to-day hard grind of having a mind that’s editorless, that isn’t under your control. The hardest thing is knowing you’re making massive headaches and stress for everyone around you. That your autism is causing your parents to cry at night when they think you’re asleep. That kind of stuff, you know?

This is what Naoki does routinely in his book: Metaphor. Creating fiction. Imagining a world that isn’t. Which is what every storyteller does, and reporting from that world. A playfulness with language. The manipulation of the reader’s expectation. Pop-pop-pop-pop go falsehoods about autism. We confuse the symptoms and the causes. I’m making him sound like some sort of guru here – he really isn’t, he’s just describing what his life is like, and how his mind works.

We muddle the symptom and the cause. We do that, not him. We do that.

What do you see next for autism?

I look forward to a future that maybe talks more about autisms than autism. We need a revolution in autism. The book’s a little part of that. It offers one ripple of what I hope can turn into a big wave. We need to credit people with autism with much more imagination, intelligence, empathy and human potential – they have so much more than they are given credit for. They need help and understanding to make that intelligence, that potential, manifest but it really is there.


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