The Secret Life of a Black Aspie

FAIRBANKS - From the earliest pages of its introduction, “The Secret Life of a Black Aspie” is something special.

Winner of the 2016 Permafrost Nonfiction Book Prize, “Secret Life” is the beautiful, lyrical first memoir of poet and professor Anand Prahlad, who grew up (as the title suggests) both black and with an undiagnosed place on the autism spectrum in Civil Rights-era rural Virginia. The book follows him from birth through a newly-integrated high school and long academic career into adulthood.

More importantly, it chronicles his unique perspective on the world, starting with the former plantation community of his youngest years, filled with ghosts both literal and figurative. Through rich, evocative prose, Prahlad describes a life surrounded by spirits of the future and past, bringing to mind the metaphors other black authors such as Toni Morrison have used to discuss the collective trauma lingering in the African American community.

But part of what makes “The Secret Life” so fascinating is that Prahlad warns right in his introduction that his descriptions are not meant as metaphor. They are, by his insistence, meant to be utterly literal, an accurate depiction of his story through his eyes. Which honestly makes all the difference.

If readers can buy into the author’s perspective, take him at his word instead of dismissing the whole business as “dramatic” or “exaggeration,” then it goes a long way to enabling the book’s stated intention: to give non-spectrum people a better perspective on the way friends and loved ones who are on the spectrum view the world.

And that world, Prahlad’s world, is a beautiful one, full of connection that defy all physical logic and a unique view on time, space, and personal identity that rivals the very best of genre fiction. I can’t say whether this accurately reflects the personal experiences of any autistic individual beyond the author himself, but either way it can’t be denied that the perspective shared here is one you’re not likely to find anywhere else.

Equally intriguing and arguably more important is the fact that this is specifically the story of a black “aspie,” where people of color who fall onto the autistic spectrum are often overlooked, unacknowledged by the public, or simply have their experiences disregarded. The way these two aspects of the author compliment and conflict with one another throughout his life is among the most compelling driving themes, and trying to summarize it in a short review would not do it justice.

Suffice it to say, the book is worth picking up for the importance of that perspective alone. At the same time, you’ll also be getting a truly beautiful piece of written work. Prahlad’s experience as a poet is clear throughout, with a flowing conversational tone and beautiful descriptions that feels very much like listening to a beloved and eloquent friend ramble about their brightest passions.

Is it fantastical? Yes. Overwrought? In places. Too bizarre to be true? That depends on the reader. Memoir fans looking for a perspective that they can slot into their personal “reality” may be disappointed.

Nevertheless, if you can buy in at the beginning and meet this unique storyteller on his terms, you’ll be rewarded with a perspective unlike anything else you’re liable to find from memoirs for years to come.

Addley Fannin is a freelance writer with a master’s degree in Northern studies from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She can be reached at addleyfannin@gmail.com or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/addleyfannin.