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In Helen Hoang's Novels, Autism Is No Bar To Love And Happiness

May 5, 2019
Originally published on May 5, 2019 1:14 pm

Esme Tran supports her family — including her five-year-old daughter — by working as a maid in a Ho Chi Minh City hotel. Until the day a wealthy Vietnamese American woman offers her an opportunity: Come to California and accompany her son Khai, who is on the autism spectrum and has never had a girlfriend, to a summer's worth of family weddings.

That's the setup for Helen Hoang's new novel, The Bride Test. And of course, Khai resists his mother's matchmaking — but it wouldn't be much of a romance novel if he and Esme didn't begin to fall in love. "It's awkward and really uncomfortable — because he's on the spectrum, he's set in his ways, and she has some difficulties assimilating," Hoang says, "so they both have to reach a compromise together, and learn from each other."


Interview Highlights

On writing an autistic character in her first novel, The Kiss Quotient, and her own experiences with autism

I'd been considering writing a gender-swapped Pretty Woman, but I didn't know why a successful, beautiful woman would hire an escort. And I puzzled over this for a long time. And it was a meeting with with my daughter's preschool teacher that really brought things together for me — she told me that she thought my daughter was on the autism spectrum, and that was very surprising for me, because at that time I hadn't had much exposure to autism, but I came home and I researched it, and it didn't seem right, because my little girl is not, she didn't seem to be autistic from what I knew and what I saw ... but then I was thinking about autism, and one of the big things they say is there's difficulty with social interaction. And that's something that I can really empathize with. And I thought, wouldn't that be an interesting reason to hire an escort.

And so I started to research autism solely for the book, but as I researched, I ran into this very interesting thing where autism seems to display differently in women than in men ... women have learned to mask their autism, and they learn to copy their peers, and they learn to mimic. And as I was reading, I was thinking about all the things I do. I tap my teeth, but I tap them because no one can see. Because if you move your fingers or you move your body or you rock in your chair, then people will see, and that's no good, it has to be secret ... and that put me on this journey where I started to explore, could I be on the spectrum? And this all kind of happened as I was drafting the book. And the more I learned about myself, the better I could write this character — her name is Stella — but then as I wrote Stella I was learning about myself as I wrote her, so it was this reciprocal process. That's how the diagnosis came to be, and how the character came to be, we kind of happened at the same time.

On writing another character on the spectrum for her second book

I want to believe that I can be a main character, I can be a leading character in my life, that I can have a happily ever after, that I can find true love, and I can get married, and conquer, and be happy. - Helen Hoang

There was this website I looked at — I don't want to tell you what it is, because I don't want to drive traffic there — but it, basically they say that autistic people are heartless, and that we don't experience empathy, we are selfish and cold, and anyone who's had a relationship could go on there and kind of air their grievances and say how horrible it was. And I'm sure that those situations exist, but I can't accept that that's a rule. So Khai, this character, was born from that injustice. I wanted to write a character and show how he may look cold, he may look heartless, he might even think he's heartless, but he's not. And I wanted to show what that disconnect is, and how different people experience emotions and process emotions in different ways, and there isn't a one right way.

On telling stories about autistic people living and loving

I want to believe that I can be a main character, I can be a leading character in my life, that I can have a happily ever after, that I can find true love, and I can get married, and conquer, and be happy. And I think one thing for my books is yes, my characters have sexual intimacy, and I think that's also important, to show autistic people can have these very full lives, and experience things that regular people do. I sometimes run into people who find my portrayal to be offensive and insensitive, by giving people normal lives, which is, it kind of breaks my heart every time I hear that. Because I'm married, I have kids, my husband loves me as a woman. I am a woman, and I have the same needs and desires as anybody else. And I wanted to communicate all of those things by kind of tearing down all the perceptions, and not handling autistic people with kid gloves.

This story was produced for radio by Samantha Balaban and Caitlyn Kim, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Esme Tran supports her family, including her 5-year-old daughter, by working as a maid in a Ho Chi Minh City hotel - until one day, a wealthy American woman offers her an opportunity to go and live in California and accompany her son, Khai, who is autistic and has never had a girlfriend, to all the family weddings that summer. Khai resists his mother's matchmaking. But, well, it wouldn't be much of a romance novel if they didn't begin to fall in love. Helen Hoang is the author of "The Bride Test," and she joins me now. Hello.

HELEN HOANG: Hi, thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me about Esme and Khai. How does that romance between them unfold?

HOANG: So she gets invited to the United States by his mother. And his mother says to him that, you know, he has to let this woman live in his house for the summer - just the summer - so that he can hopefully develop a relationship or a connection with her. And while Esme is there, then she, of course, tries her hardest to seduce him. And it's awkward and really uncomfortable. And because he's on the spectrum, he's set in his ways. And she has some difficulties assimilating. So they - they both have to reach a compromise together and learn from each other.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your last book, "The Kiss Quotient," also featured an autistic main character. And you've said that through writing that story, you also came to realize your own autism at the age of 34. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

HOANG: So I'd been considering writing a gender-swapped "Pretty Woman," but I didn't know why, you know, a successful beautiful woman would hire an escort. And I puzzled over this for a long time. And it was a meeting with my daughter's preschool teacher that really brought things together for me. She told me that she thought my daughter was on the autism spectrum.

And that was very surprising for me because at that time, I hadn't had much exposure to autism. But, you know, I came home, and I kind of researched it. And it didn't seem right because my little girl is not - she didn't seem to be autistic from what I knew and what I saw, what I was reading online.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: From your perceptions as her mom.

HOANG: Yes. But then I was thinking about, you know, autism. And one of the big things they say is it's - there's difficulty with social interaction. And that - that's something that I can really empathize with. And I thought, wouldn't that be an interesting reason to hire an escort? And so I started to research autism solely for the book. But as I researched, I ran into this very interesting thing where autism seems to display differently in women than in men. Women have learned to mask their autism, and they learn to copy their peers. And they learn...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: To mimic.

HOANG: ...To mimic, yes. And as I was reading, I was - I was thinking about all the things that I do. You know, I tap my teeth. But I tap them because no one can see - because if you move your fingers or you move your body or you rock in your chair, then people will see. And that's not good. It has to be secret. And there are so many things like that that I've done and that I've been hiding so unconsciously - or subconsciously, I guess. And that kind of put me on this journey where I started to explore, could I be on the spectrum? And this all kind of happened as I was drafting this book.

And the more I learned about myself, the better I could write this character. Her name is Stella. And - but then as I wrote Stella, I - you know, I was learning about myself as I wrote her. So it was like this reciprocal process. That's how the diagnosis came to be and how the character came to be. We kind of happened at the same time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What made you want to revisit having an autistic main character for this book?

HOANG: There was this website I looked at. And I don't want to tell you what it is because I don't want to drive traffic there. But it - basically, they say that autistic people are heartless and that we don't experience empathy. We are selfish and cold. And anyone who's had a relationship could go on there and kind of air their grievances and say how horrible it was. And - and I am sure that those situations exist. But I - I can't accept that that's a rule.

So Khai, this character, was born from that injustice. I wanted to write a character and show how he may look cold. He may look heartless. And he might even think he's heartless, but he's not. And I wanted to show what that disconnect is and how different people experience emotions and process emotions in different ways and that it's not - there isn't a one right way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, I read an interview where you said you were told you had a stone heart when you were younger.

HOANG: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that's actually a line that you give Khai in the book. That must have been a hard thing to hear.

HOANG: Yes. It was exactly like I wrote it in the book. You know, I was walking home from school with my cousin. And he - I don't remember what we were talking about. But it came up that I had a stone heart because nothing bothered me. And I - you know, I didn't care about anything, and - and I didn't have feelings.

And - and it's really stuck with me because I thought, well, that's not true. I do have feelings. I don't act like everyone else, but it's there. I can feel them sometimes. Sometimes it gets too much, and it's confusing. Or when the emotions get too big, then I feel that I will shut down. And then I need time, I think.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are, as you know, so many people who are autistic. And there is such a wide spectrum of how people experience that but very few stories that show them sort of living and loving and succeeding. And your book changes that. Why is it important to tell that story for you?

HOANG: Well, I think it's important for these characters, for - especially for, you know, me, personally. I want to believe that I can be a main character, I can be a leading character in my life, that I can have a happily ever after, that I can find true love. And I can get married and conquer and be happy.

And I think one thing for my books is, yes, my characters have sexual intimacy. And I think that's also important, to show autistic people can have these very full lives and experience things that regular people do. I sometimes run into people who find my portrayal to be offensive...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Really?

HOANG: ...And insensitive by giving people normal lives, which - which is - it kind of breaks my heart every time I hear that because I'm married. I have kids. My husband loves me as a woman. I am a woman. And - and I have the same needs and desires as anybody else.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Helen Hoang is the author of "The Bride Test." Thank you so much.

HOANG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.