The Colorwheel of Neurodivergency with Vivek Bald

How are you?

I’m OK. I am a multiverse of things, I am…excited about the world, there seems to be this buzzing feeling. If you locate it, it can feel like anxiety, so I don’t want to just sugarcoat it or wear rose colored glasses, but I definitely feel like I’m sublimating this sensation into something that feels more harnessed and more controlled.

Mm hmm. 

And it’s not even into work or a project. It’s just harnessing that energy to make sure it’s not going all over the place… Meanwhile, I’ve also been feeling a lot of complicated feelings around identity and the abstraction of identity, and how the colonial project plays into my own identity. Then, I’ve been thinking about the distance between my father and death—and also my own distance between my father, like a geographical one. He’s in Abu Dhabi, I’m in New York. I mourn not having him close and am sad I felt like I had to flee my life to find freedom. Just generally feeling a lot of dislocation on top of already being, and feeling, so dislocated. How about you?

I’ve been thinking a lot about ancestors as well. I’ve spent this year in a situation where my mother, who’s now 85, and who is really the origin of our family’s diaspora out of the subcontinent, has been having a series of health challenges. She lives on her own on the West Coast and we haven’t been able to see each other over this last year when we’ve been losing so many people of her generation. 

So I’ve been thinking about my matrilineal line. I think I’ve talked about this before with you, I’ve been learning a little bit more about my great grandmother through my mom. She was born in the late 19th century into a Hindu family in Lahore, and then as a young woman  became involved in anti-caste activities, anti-colonial activism, and also became a big proponent of girl’s education. And she wanted my grandmother, her daughter, to be educated. 

My grandmother was very bright and went farther in her education than a lot of girls of her time, in the sense that she went through the equivalent of what we call high school. But then the male elders in her family overruled my great-grandmother’s wishes and insisted that my grandmother not be allowed to sit for her final exams. Her formal education came to an end before she could officially complete high school. So when my grandmother herself had daughters, including my mother, she insisted that they have as much education as they themselves wanted. And my mother is the one daughter out of her generation who took that the farthest – first of all completing college and getting a master’s degree in Delhi after Partition and then getting a scholarship to come here to do a Ph.D. in the late 50s and ultimately becoming a professor of International, Postcolonial, and Women’s Studies. 

In coming here to the U.S., that’s also how she met my father, who was an immigrant from Australia, So there’s this way that my existence – as is the case for so many others —  rests upon this kind of chance meeting of my two parents. But at the same time, that meeting was predicated upon these three generations of South Asian women defying what was expected of them. So I guess I’ve been feeling the significance and the weight of that more and more as I’ve gotten older, and as I now have a child, a daughter, myself. What are the legacies of struggle, of political vision, of visions for better futures that we carry? And how do we honor them, sustain them, and pass them forward?

It’s interesting that, a year ago, or a little more than a year ago, as 2019 was ending, I remember just everyone I knew was talking about how 2019 was such a bad, difficult year, and everyone was hoping for a better year in 2020.  I found myself thinking, and heard a lot of people saying: “may the next year bring you 20:20 vision.” And on one level, that now, in hindsight, sounds naive. If we only knew, right?  But I do think there was a lot of clarifying this past year, perhaps especially for those who are part of what you might call the “liberal center” in the United States. How could liberal-minded straight, non-BIPOC folks not see the depth and persistence and ongoing violences of white supremacy this past year, right? This year when, after four years of pain and trauma, corruption and deception, almost half of the country still voted for a homicidal megalomaniac because the alternative (the Democratic party!?) would somehow put the structures and privileges of white supremacy at risk? How could people not recognize after all this, right, the need for a deep reckoning with the United States’ past, a questioning of its sustaining myths, the need for unsettling, the need for systemic change. I’d like to think that more people have come to that place over the last four years and especially the  past year – have begun to engage with ideas of prison abolition, reparations, with the idea of the U.S. as a non-exceptional, as a settler colonial nation, etc. These are conversations rooted in years of BIPOC, feminist, and queer activism, analysis and critique that feel like they are happening at a larger scale than a decade ago.  

But there’s always the danger that once there’s a more comfortable administration for folks in the liberal middle, that the urgency of everything that we saw unfolding so clearly over the last four years, culminating on January 6, will begin to fade. Because it’s more comfortable for some people not to feel that urgency. And so many people are protected from the urgency of this situation on a day to day level. 

Regarding “clarity” on a more personal level, one of the things that you and I have talked about, that I haven’t talked about that much publicly is that in the middle of  this year of lockdown, I discovered, at age 54, that I am on the autism spectrum. I had had certain suspicions about this for a while, around just the way I am in the world, with other people, how I process things — and those got me to a point where I decided to do a fairly extensive assessment and was assessed with Aspergers. That — and then beginning to engage more deeply with the existing writing about and activism around  neurodiversity/neurodivergence — that’s  been very clarifying for me, both at a kind of a personal level and a broader political level. 

So, for example, on the personal level, my whole life I’ve lived with this image of a future version of myself that would be better able to do certain kinds of things, in a way that’s more broadly accepted — like just being able to to be in social situations in an effortless way, or meetings without a constant underlying social anxiety — that’s just one example. But, really my whole life I’ve been operating in this kind of deficit model, that there’s a me in the future that I have never quite reached — that is going to be better at this, and better at that, and more comfortable with this, and more comfortable with that. Right. And there’s a lot of energy that goes into that and it comes with an inherent and constant devaluing of who you are in the present moment against an imagined version of a neurotypical you that is completely a social construct.

At a very, really personal level, what I’m still going through right now is gradually learning to stop putting all of my energy into this, because there is also a violence in it, an internalized social violence. And I’m recognizing the strengths that are rooted in my neurodivergence that have been really integral to my work. I am someone who will get a specific, intense focus on something particular that I want to figure out and just keep on pushing — maybe to the detriment of everything else that I’m supposed to be doing — but this pays off in tangible ways. The research that went into the Bengali Harlem book was like this. You know, so much of the research was just me pushing the limits of various different digital archives between 11:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. in the morning, without looking up from my screen, like night after night after night, you know, kind of unrelentingly determined to find every single possible document in which a South Asian migrant is mentioned between 1890 and 1940 – this period during which it was thought South Asian immigration to the U.S. gradually came to a halt because of the Asian Exclusion laws. 

And then, you know, the other thing that I discovered in this process is that one of the arenas in which I function at a higher than “normal” level is in pattern recognition. 

That was another thing that was really crucial to doing that archival work is, because once I had amassed hundreds of archival documents and started seeing names in different documents at different times and places that might have been the same person, or not, but also certain kind of patterns related to different times of year when people were moving, or where migrants were moving to, tracking these hundreds of migrants who were otherwise sort of under the radar, just blips on different documents in different archives. That kind of pattern recognition was actually really, really central to doing that work – to figuring out from, say, 200 different archival documents that each represent a specific moment and place over the course of a 30 year period to find the patterns that would show me the length and breadth and functioning of a global network of silk peddlers, for example. 

So part of this clarity around neurodivergence, or my particular neurotype, has been understanding those strengths and, in some way, realizing that I’ve had the privilege of finding a space – in creative and academic work – in which those strengths are recognized and appreciated and can have an outlet. That space is not perfect by any means, but a lot of people don’t even have that. 

On the larger level, the larger social or political level, the various kinds of work that people in disability studies and queer studies, in Third World and womxn of color  feminism and critical race studies, et cetera, do around the idea of normativity, there’s a way in which that was all, you know, part of the scholarship that I’ve been reading for a while but which sunk in even further. There’s something pervasive about the violence of normalization and normativity, the violence that comes with the definition of certain characteristics as “normal,” that I think really hit at a deeper level this year for me as I  delved more deeply into an understanding of neurodivergence as a critical framing of the world, especially reading what younger autistic and ND folks have been writing and talking about in arenas outside the academy — on social media, for example. 

To go back to the idea of patterns, there is a kind of this meta-or repeating pattern in Western modernity and the modern nation state, the liberal-democratic capitalist nation-state – in which a norm is defined at the center, borders constructed around it, and multiple forms of difference, divergence, placed outside those borders. The borders then, not only become sites of policing and violence, but the policing and violence are also internalized, within those of us outside, as conditions we must put ourselves through in order to cross the border inwards. Does that make sense? I feel others articulate this better than I.

Yes, it makes sense!

Whether we’re talking about the nation as a constructed sovereign territory with claimed borders that are policed through violence, or we’re talking about citizenship as the main form of being in the modern nation – of accessing rights – in which the borders of citizenship – who gets to be and who doesn’t get to be a citizen – are policed and surveilled and enforced through violence … down to the way that those of us who are immigrants, or children of immigrants, or grandchildren of immigrants are brought into the nation through a desire for belonging or inclusion – this is also predicated upon behaving in a certain way, right, as a good immigrant, as a model minority, who puts their head down and doesn’t question too much but also always backed by the threat of violence once we are perceived not to be acting in that way, when we become the “ungrateful”, or the “culturally unassimilable,” or the “terrorist threat.” So, you know, I see the model minority as this form of normalization in which we are encouraged to strive and rewarded for striving for national inclusion, but on the terms of the nation as it is, with all its existing violences, exclusions, injustices, and inequalities.

I think that even those of us who have a critique of the model minority myth, there’s still been, at least with my generation, a kind of push for some kind of a recognition – you know: “we are also here – we are also part of this place.” And, you know, these are our experiences. These are our voices. That has been crucial on a cultural and political level. And it has definitely driven my own work. But this can also very easily slip into being simply a quest for national acceptance, rather than social transformation. When there’s one segment of the South Asian community that gains national acceptance it’s never been the case that there haven’t also been segments of the South Asian community that are denied the possibility of that acceptance – who remain subjected to the nation’s violences and exclusions – because they’re undocumented, because they’re queer, because they’re working class, because they simply display outwardly the signs of their faith. And this is not even beginning to talk about what national acceptance without social transformation means For South Asians in relation to other communities of color – how it short-circuits our alignment with those who have been fighting here, for generations before us, for justice, self-determination, and systemic change.

This is also so much of what I wanted to talk to you about. I finished reading your essay you sent me. It’s fascinating that today you began by talking about ancestry, and immigration, and while you were talking about your great grandmother and your grandmother and this lineage women, I wondered if this lineage is a metaphor for education. I find that even in my own lineage, women were always the ones (for better or worse) doing the deeper thinking, or the more even investigative work. Auntie network type shit, I used to say my mum was a C.I.A agent, she was so deft at finding things. I know this is kind of broad, but I wonder if these women are working through to ask you to go deeper to understand what exists inside of you, all these intricacies that make you who you are. I have a mother who has suffered through extreme mental illness, and I think of patterns and mirrors as well, and up until twenty-five I wondered if I would get diagnosed for schizophrenia, the cut off they say is 25. Unrelated but related, my dad was just telling me about how his father lost one of his front teeth when he was seventy-five, and for the last couple of years, my dad’s front tooth has been wobbling and he knows it’s going to fall out just like his dad. We are just these replicas of our parents, our ancestors. 

What I gained from your essay is this deeper understanding about how you interact with yourself as both within a nation state, and also as your own nation state, in the body you occupy, and how they all play into one another, especially when you’re talking about illness or disease. So at eighteen, you experience this moment of state violence and ricochets into the rest of your life. And you are now in your 50s trying to understand why you are the way that you are. I think it’s actually phenomenal. It’s quite big. 

For me, it was really necessary to engage in a deeper questioning of the desire for national inclusion. I think this is what I’m saying in the essay that you read. My experience in L.A. at 18, in which I was mistaken for someone who was being pursued by the police, was arrested, jailed, interrogated, tried and then ultimately acquitted – because, as a light-skinned, middle-class, mixed person, I could be de-racialized or re-racialized in court – has become a metaphor for a lot of other things over the course of the almost four decades since then. That’s what I’m gesturing toward at the end of that essay. To bring it back to what we were talking about at the beginning of our conversation – those of us who have grandparents and great grandparents who fought for the end of colonialism on the subcontinent, for self-determination, freedom from the British. Did they do that so that our generation could come here and gain “success” as part of a settler-colonial society that continues to be structured by deep and violent racial inequalities? Is that what they were fighting for – our inclusion and acceptance in that society? Maybe in some cases the answer is yes. I don’t know. But…

I don’t think so for our ancestors. 

Yeah, is that the end point that they were imagining when they were fighting for freedom against the British? Or is there a different endpoint, a different horizon we should be looking toward now that we’re here? 

I’m glad you brought in what we owe to the ancestors of this land. But also, what we owe to our own indigeneity, and that returning to the land is very much tied into liberation on all fronts — a liberation from capitalism, mostly, and an acceptance that our minds and resources were colonized, and so were the means to cure and aid ourselves. The colonial project is so vast and they really thought of a complete and holistic way to ruin us for centuries. Our grandparents didn’t want this conclusion, now we’re here on stolen land. And all of our cultural knowledge has been taken.

Yeah, I mean, but the thing is that that knowledge is not gone. Generations have fought for its survival. 

Yes, but there was still much that was taken. I was reading about five hundred thousand books being burned in Al-Andalus. They had the biggest library in the world, European libraries had a thousand to five thousand books maximum. When I think of the way the colonial project has harmed Islam it really upsets me. It’s a long, protracted assault, but it’s interesting that post 9/11, the impact of being a Muslim body and the isolation of being a Muslim person has intensified. Looking at my people and the sadness that we feel, how we are so disconnected from ourselves and our faith… that was the entire fucking plan, they wanted us depleted, disconnected, in-fighting and waging war on each other. This is what the Catholic Church wanted when it captured Granada.

I’m going to make a jump to something you said about reckoning with your neurodivergence and accepting these parts of yourself that you potentially never looked at. It’s this pattern recognition. Reading your work, it also comes out as an earnestness. That’s why when you first told me about your diagnosis, I wondered about it for myself — it kind of opened up a portal in myself to question how I am the world. I am so high functioning and I also have extreme trauma, so I’m constantly grappling or oscillating between these two parts of myself.

That’s why I smoke a lot of weed, because I actually have to numb this part of myself that is just so emotional and so tapped in and feeling everything all the time. I’ve done so many things throughout the years just to deal with myself, but only by keeping myself boxed in. Now I’m actually coming to terms with the idea that this is just who I am and that’s beautiful. What if life is just coming to terms with all the things that you are in this complicated moment? Anyway, when you told me about your neurodivergence I felt like I finally had words for something abstract in myself.

Well, that’s what’s really powerful about the work that neurodivergent activists have been doing – the unsettling and reframing that constitute neurodiversity as an idea, a starting-point. I’m still just catching up – this is the beginning of my journey. But, you know, I think that what’s powerful about the work of ND activists is that it goes beyond and even against clinical diagnosis. To understand the vast differences in the way that each of us processes information, understands the world, and interacts with one another. 

Some of the work I’ve been reading – and encountering through Instagram channels et cetera – talks about the idea of the “spectrum” not as a linear spectrum, but as a color spectrum, like a color wheel, where there is not an inherent hierarchy. People land on different points in that color wheel. What we know about trauma is also that especially with early childhood trauma, but with all trauma in one way or another, it has very significant effects on how we as survivors process, you know, how our brains function. And you and I were talking about in another conversation, about the classic book, The Body Keeps Score, but there’s, you know, a lot of other writing about this. Again, you know, I’m not an expert. I’m someone who is just at the beginning of this journey in so many ways. But, as someone who both deals with PTSD and who is now understanding the way that I experience the world through the lens of neurodiversity – it demands an understanding simultaneously of material, structural inequalities and of the multiplicity in how people experience the world, exist in the world, think, act and create in the world, strive, struggle, and relate with one another. This is part of what I was referring to in talking about the violences inherent in the definition, bounding, and policing of the “normal.”

Which is why even though I know that this is a preliminary stage you’re at, and I just barely have the right articulation myself, knowing more about neurodivergence—through you, and these ongoing conversations—has really helped me better understand myself. Just because it helps put words to an explicable experience, or something that is more fragmented. I think it’s powerful for me to have this conversation happening in my life because I want to see more people exploring and being vulnerable and open about the exploration. It helps to see folks at different parts of their journey. Because we’re all just figuring it out all the time. 

What Vivek is reading: 

Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha 

Shy Radicals: The Anti-Systemic Politics of the Militant Introvert by Hamja Ahsan

Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad by Manu Karuka

Who Vivek is following on IG: