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David Mitchell: ‘We cannot change the fact of autism, but we can address ignorance about it’

David Mitchell is the author of seven books, including Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks. Along with his wife, Keiko Yoshida, Mitchell is also the translator of Naoki Higashida's memoir The Reason I Jump, which was published in Japan in 2007 and into English in 2013. The book, the memoir of a severely autistic child, has since been translated into more than 30 languages. Higashida's latest book, Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8, once again translated by Mitchell and Yoshida, was recently published by Knopf Canada.

Why did you write your new book?

Actually, I didn't, which, I bet, isn't the answer writers normally give. I'm the co-translator of Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8. Its young author, Naoki Higashida, has non-verbal autism, like my son, and Naoki's previous book The Reason I Jump was more illuminating and helpful than anything else my wife and I had read about the subject. The new book is a kind of "older brother" volume dealing with autism during adolescence and young adulthood, and we hope it will help parents, carers, teachers and the general public to a better understanding of the condition. We cannot change the fact of autism, but we can address ignorance about it.

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What scares you as a writer?

What scares me as a writer is the same as what scares me as a father and a citizen: people who lack the imagination to understand that they might have been born in somebody else's skin. Scarier still are people willing to stoke fear of "foreign" groups to gain a base from which to grow power. Abraham Lincoln said, "If we'd been born where they were born, and taught what they were taught, we would believe what they believe." He said that about his enemies, one of whom then shot him. Can you imagine the gentleman currently occupying the White House ever using that kind of language?

Which book do you think is underappreciated?

Poetry is underappreciated. Too many people think it's an elitist pastime, like polo; or twee verse; or brain-bruising verbal Sudoku. Poetry isn't these things – or if it is, you're reading the wrong stuff. Like music, you need to explore a little to find poets whose work speaks to you – and then you have a lifelong friend who'll tell you truths you didn't know you knew. Look up James Wright's Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm on your phone: What else reminds you so strongly, so instantly, to quit whining and be grateful for being alive? Or try A Contribution to Statistics by Wislawa Szymborska: What better deep, dark truthful mirror of humanity is there? Or, the next time you're in you local bookshop, see if they have any Mary Oliver. An old English professor from my university used to say, "Not liking poetry is like not liking ice cream." Mary Oliver is superlative ice cream.

What's a book every 10-year-old should read?

In my perfect world, every 10-year-old would read books by people whom the child's culture teaches them to mistrust, or view as Other, or feel superior to. Jewish children in Israel, for example, would read books by Palestinian authors, and Palestinian children would read Jewish authors. Japanese kids would read books by Chinese and Korean authors; Chinese and Korean kids would read books by Japanese authors. White American kids would read books by Muslim or African-American authors (as many do, to be fair); and vice versa. Likewise, Russians and Ukrainians. More British kids would read books by continental European and Middle Eastern authors. Kids in strict Muslim societies would read books by Americans. North Korean kids would be allowed to read anything not about their psychopathic Dear Leader. As for child readers, so for adult readers. Dream on, right?

Which books have you reread most in your life?

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I've read The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin every decade of my life, along with The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed by the same author. These works of art age as I age. New things in them float to the surface as my understanding of the world gets marginally less bent out of shape by illusions and self-delusions, as I age. When I read these books I meet younger versions of myself, reading them. Intellect and imagination are their warp and weft. I love them.

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