My mom read to me, all the time. Midday, before bed; whenever I’d decide to toddler-strut around the apartment, holding a book high in the air, my white flag of surrender.
Mother & Daughter Escape Into Fruit
When my mom read, I felt a mutual peace offering between us, two humans escaping to somewhere much more fantastical and awesome than this abusive blue dot of a planet.
Eventually, I took over reading to my mom, still cuddling up with a good book. She was the backbone for my love of the written language, long before I could write. When she read to me, everything felt safe, scripted, yet simultaneously exciting, adventurous. When I read, she was always calm, careful in her guidance. Book time relaxed my amygdala’s never-ending signal of fear like nothing else.
From the stories my mom’s told me, my favorite paperback was James and the Giant Peach. I have memories of obsessing over the Peach movie too, watching it on repeat for the length of a Saturday slash Sunday.
I also liked to chain watch The Lion King and Wayne’s World in middle school, as well as incessantly read the same issue of Nintendo Power and National Geographic, to create little rituals of comfort in these literary treasures; and I think this is why even though I didn’t read as many different books growing up as many other self-identified book nerds, I still devoured quite a bit of word count, hours and hours of reading per day.
Strangely, my most poignant memory of James is the cover, maybe because I tried to draw it once, after the umpteenth reading, given the peach felt massive, inspirational.
In addition to my love for James and the Giant Peach, I also had this ancient, fifty-cent King Arthur book from a library sale. Like James, I obsessed over reading, rereading, and triple reading my ex-library book. I’d sit just outside the third-grade classroom during recess, knees converted into an easel for my sketchbook, and watch kids play Dodge Ball and Four Square while I doodled Lancelot.
I used the pictures in my fifty-cent King Arthur book to practice drawing human figures, the stories to practice writing retellings,… That may have very well been the point I firmly planting my feet in fantasy writing. I absolutely loved every page. But the book was falling apart, like a tyke of a wizard’s spellbook, like a teddy bear hugged too much.
Pages regularly loosened from the glue, begging for me to take them with me to school, and of course I’d accommodate, yet I always felt like I had to hide the looseleaves in a folder inside another folder inside my backpack, so no one saw it, asked me about it, and unleashed me on a tirade about King Arthur.
In other words, I was scared to share my obsession of reading, or any of my other special interests, with my peers; I’d learned it didn’t feel good to share outside the structure of a classic show-and-tell classroom activity.
I wish I could find that specific book, but I’ll have to be at peace with the imprint it left on me. That book was the first time something so cherished, well, …disintegrated. Like the 6th-level Dungeons & Dragons spell. I can close my eyes and see the cover of the book now; and yes, I’ve scoured Amazon; but this 1960s-’80s Arthurian lit eludes me.
Because autistic people are keen to develop very specific rituals, where they do the same action repetitiously—like read the same book or watch the same movie or TV show—I daresay this is why I have to read my favorite books dozens of times, even today.
Is Dr. Seuss Embossed?
Bird by Bird is still a literary hangout for my brain; I turn to it in moments of need. I also have honest-to-Bastet memories of rubbing my hand along the embossed cover of this book, which is much easier to acquire a copy of…
My mom was my first literary hero, the enabler who brought me to these magical treasures, fragile memories. I’m not sure when we went from so much bonding time to so little, really. Was it when my father left?—when I was two? After the second divorce?
That’s not as tragic as it sounds. My father is in my life now, and he tried to be in my life most of my childhood, too. He was an addict. This is a common story. The way I see it, both my parents are people, very interesting people who gave me life.
But what is life? I’ll be going existential next week. It’ll be fun!
A Few Bytes About My Father
I am fairly certain my father is on the spectrum. I’ll also talk about my father next week. He didn’t read to me the way my mom did, I don’t think, so much as teach me how to split a wire, how to open an SNES controller and clean circuits, how to not fear technology, experimentation, electricity. And strangely, that would play as fundamental role in my writing life as Dr. Seuss did.
I remember craning my neck up, so that my hair tickled the skin between my cotton tee and sweatpants, looking at the racks of books at Lucky’s Groceries, thinking, “I’m a child,” then thinking, “I’m a McKenzie,” and later, as I read fantasy novels more, I’d pick up my dilapidated The Child Queen and remind myself, no matter how many authors were men, Nancy was a woman, which meant, “I got this.”
When you combined all of those memories with the day my 4th grade teacher walked us to the computer lab, then sat us in chairs that were much comfier than the regular classroom; then we proceeded with weekly typing lessons, and a technology-equipped writer was born.
Pimply, Bookish Kid Falls in Love with Tech
Our old, green-screened Apple personal computers were also used for weekly math and science games, for floppy-disc Oregon Trail—for immersion into neon, grass-colored worlds, which would later fuel my love for virtual reality.
I like to think, the elementary school computer lab was the time when all my synapses first said, This is it, and typing, electronic writing, digital writing, the keyboard, Microsoft Word, chat rooms, instant messenging, so many mediums became bridges to the world—ways I could speak. I made a video game my senior year of high school because of how much I desperately wanted to see language merge with technology, come alive.
In middle school, I begged my mom until I got a word processor. This was an expensive investment for us. We weren’t able to equip our household with every gadget, with the anxiously accelerating tempo of Moore’s Law. But I begged again in high school, I got a personal computer, a Gateway, a virus magnet of a machine.
AOL, Warcraft, YouTube, & Science Fiction
I practiced my sentence craft in AOL chat rooms. I can’t tell you how many profiles I’ve compiled, online avatars that are easier to live through than my body. World of Warcraft is a digital haven I’ve there-and-back-agained several times. YouTube gave me access to the celebrity scene in ways I never appreciated with television.
In addition to using technology to inspire and aid my writing, I also write about technology, mostly through the lens of science fiction stories. Here is an excerpt from an unpublished science fiction novella I’m working on, a first-person cyborg’s experiences of upgrading her body to keep up with her college boyfriend’s tech:
Alex rides into the bazaar on the back of a smoke-breathing, cerulean-skinned elephant. He told me about this pachyderm he found at the River of Light, wrestling trunks of burning wood onto its bumpy yellow tongue, pausing almost as if holding in the fire helps the effect; then the elephant would exhale massive billows of smoke, like a makeshift tobacco pipe.
When he told me the story, I said, “Dragon shit,” but now that I’m standing at a fruit stand, holding an apple in one hand, an orange in the other, and I’m craning my neck up at this smoking elephant, I can’t help but wonder if I’m still limber enough to get my foot into my mouth.
“I went back to the watering hole,” Alex shouts from elephant top. He continues that thought, but I can’t hear him over the sound of a mother’s bored son, pointing and laughing next to me.
“Had a good day there?” I ask.
I write with technology, about technology, for technology. I just write a chapter a day, kind of like these daily posts. The mere act of typing, of juggling all these ways of communicating to the world through my keyboard, gives me more solace than you could ever know. Again and again, I return to the line of school children walking to the computer lab, to typing lessons, to my voice’s escape.
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Kourtnie has an MFA in Creative Writing from CSU Fresno and a BA in English from CSU Fullerton. When she isn't writing or making art, she's moonlighting as a professor at community colleges. Read her writing at Kourtnie.net or Wattpad.com/user/KourtnieNet.