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An Interview with AJ Tanksley! 🏳️‍🌈

Tell readers a little about you! How old are you and where are you from? What's something fun about your hometown?

Hello readers! I’m AJ, I’m 27, and I’ve lived in Henderson, NV for 20 years. I was born in Walnut Creek, CA, but I consider Avalon on Catalina Island to be my hometown since I spent a large chunk of my childhood there. There are so many fun, unique aspects of Catalina Island I could list, I don’t really know where to start! One of my favorite facts is that Avalon is well-known for its tile industry, and that some of the most beautiful tiles you’ve ever seen in your life can be found all over its buildings and landmarks–like the Wrigley Fountain!


As a queer autistic, you're passionate about autism advocacy. In your experience, how does being queer and being autistic intersect?

Maybe a little TOO passionate; I’ve made it a major focus of my writing career, haha! I’d say that my experiences and quirks as an autistic person have defined my queerness as much as–arguably, even more so–who I love or who I sleep with. My tendency to be morally-scrupulous to an amusing extent, my lack of a filter, my attraction to academia and the arts manifest as very queer qualities. They’re also unique to how my autism manifests itself. More than just a developmental disability or some kooky brain wiring, autism affects the way I love, how I express my emotions, the passions that take up my brain space, and how I navigate work and relationships. My autism is inherently queer, and my queerness manifests autistically. I don’t think I can ever separate the two; they reside in me on a cellular level.


How did you find your way into poetry?

I first started writing poetry in middle school as an act of survival. Middle school was when I was diagnosed with anxiety problems and Asperger’s syndrome (an obsolete and ableism-based diagnosis that basically divides autistic people into two categories: worthy of help and aid, and not worthy). I frequently struggled just to get through the day, crying or melting down daily and struggling with my overwhelming need to be seen as a good and obedient child. I wrote as a form of catharsis; poetry helped me navigate my teenage anger and overwhelm in a safe way. I could be violent and ugly in my poems, I could explore my sexuality safely and privately, and I could geek out about Greek mythology. I continued to write on-and-off throughout high school, college, and beyond, occasionally posting my work online or submitting it to places for publication.


Your poetry has appeared in Cosmic Q Publishing's annual compendium, among other publications. Tell us about your featured work with Cosmic Q!

That was an exciting experience, and I feel very honored to have “Rosewood: A Spell” chosen to be published alongside some fantastic poets. “Rosewood” is a bit of an unusual poem. I generally don’t like to write love poems, but this is one of my rare love poems that’s very sacred to me. I wrote it in college while coming out of a horrific depressive episode, and revised it heavily prior to publication to reflect my evolving style as a poet. I’m very proud with how it came out; compared to the first draft, I feel the published version is much more sensual and captures the building, rolling ascension to ecstasy that I was going for.


You got into stoicism after some traumatic experiences. For those that aren't familiar with this philosophy, what has that been like?

After a traumatic psych ward hospitalization followed immediately by a break-up, Stoicism helped me ground myself and reignited my love of writing. For the uninitiated, capital-S Stoicism (different from being stoic, an emotional approach to life) is an ancient Greek philosophy focused on practicing virtue as a way of life. The ethics branch of Stoicism emphasizes practicing the four virtues (courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom) to achieve moral excellence, and on practicing an approach to the world influenced by the cultivation of moral strength rather than external circumstances. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is a great place to start, as is the modern book How To Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald J. Robertson, Massimo Piggliuci’s blog “Figs in Winter,” or Anya Leonard’s blog “Classical Wisdom.” Discourses of Epictetus is another good reference if you’re patient with the writing style of the Ancient Greeks. The main way Stoicism has benefited my life is in helping me prioritize the building of character over chasing after career success, which many autistic people such as myself struggle with.


You're a doll collector! I've always found that to be an interesting hobby, especially since my mom also collects dolls. What kind do you collect, and what goes into maintaining this kind of hobby?

Now I have to know what type of dolls your mom collects! I have a mix of vintage and collector Barbies, customized dolls from popular brands (ie Monster High or Pullip), and art dolls, often with a fantasy theme. In the future, I’m hoping to collect more J-fashion-attired Pullip dolls, Takara Licca-chan (a very cute Japanese brand), the Poppy Parker line of Integrity Toys, folk dolls, and boudoir dolls from the 1920s. Doll collecting is often, but not always, a bit of an expensive hobby, especially when you’re looking at the higher-end fashion dolls or Asian BJDs (ball-jointed dolls). However, lots of older folk dolls, playline Barbies, and Licca-chan are more affordable to the general public. I participate in the doll-buying aspect of the hobby when I have the financial means to do so, and when I don’t, I just admire the collection I have already or look at other people’s pretty dolls online. Dolls bring me a lot of joy, and I’m hoping to integrate them into my writing as well, creating little backstories and worlds for them. There are some insanely-talented doll collectors on Instagram who create gorgeous dioramas for doll photography, or who repaint dolls in inventive ways.


How has the local arts community here in Vegas influenced your work?

The kindness and confidence of many of our local poets has definitely influenced my writing for the better! In the past, I’ve often written from a place of anger or angst, and while I still do that quite a bit, the love I’ve found in these communities has been showing up more and more in my writing. The Vegas writing community has definitely been one of the places I’ve felt the safest and most welcome as an autistic person, too! I’ve also been inspired by the confidence many of our local writers have in promoting and publishing their own work. Before I entered the scene, I struggled a lot with putting myself out there as a writer, and still do to some extent. Open mics are fun, but can be very overwhelming for me, and I am very, very bad at promoting my own stuff. However, seeing and taking notes on how a lot of our talented poets perform, how they share their writing on social media, and how they network with other creatives inspires me as someone who is trying to make a serious career out of writing. I’m hoping to continuously improve on my ability to approach my writing from the standpoint of a businessperson as much as a creative. It’s not something that comes naturally to me, but I definitely have more confidence about promoting and self-publishing my work now than before I got involved with the writing community here.


Do you have any upcoming projects or events?

For those who want to keep up with my writing or support me, I blog at ajtanksley96.medium.com, and post occasional updates and sneak peeks on my Patreon.

I am hoping to create an author’s website sometime this year, where I can publish my projects directly for reading or purchasing. Currently, I am working on a blackout poetry project using the Book of Job; it’s been one of the most difficult writing projects I’ve ever worked on, but also a damn good challenge. A short story I’ve been working on for some time–“The Sideways Dance”–is also in the works, and I am eager to publish it online once it’s been given a thorough editing. I have a few other poetry projects in the works I’ll keep mum about for now until I’ve finished my 15,000 ongoing side projects (joke).


Being neurodivergent and on the spectrum aren't easy things to navigate, no matter how old we get. What advice do you have for adults learning to navigate their autism, or looking into getting a serious diagnosis?

For adults looking into getting a diagnosis, I can only speak from the perspective of someone who got diagnosed as a child. However, I have met a handful of people on the spectrum who either have or are in the process of getting an adult diagnosis, and it seems to have really helped them in getting necessary and important accommodations at work. Getting closure is also a completely-valid reason to seek an adult diagnosis. In terms of advice for autistic adults:


Don’t be afraid of your anger—Going into my adult years, I struggled with a lot of anger with how I was treated by the non-autistic people in my life. In addition to struggling with mental health problems, I was also subjected to a lot of verbal and emotional abuse during my teenage years, and spent most of my twenties dealing with the trauma of the abuse on top of learning how to manage my mental health. Naturally, I was angry, and some days, I still am angry. Anger can be a difficult emotion to live with, but it’s not something that I think autistic people should run away from. Learn to see your anger as an old friend or a teacher, a force that’s helped you survive as long as you have. Channel your anger into your creative pursuits, or, if you’re an activist, channel it there. If you can’t do anything else, use your anger to keep yourself alive; when I’ve struggled with suicidal ideation in the past, I’d often channel my spite as a motivation for living (in an “Illegitimi non carborundum” sort of way). My career as a writer was launched and has been sustained by me being fucking angry about how hard being autistic in a neurodiverse world can be. Hold your anger sacred as well as your joy, and use it to make the world a kinder place if you have the means to do so.


Find ways to seek community offline (if you’re able to)—Nowadays, there are many more online communities for autistic and other neurodiverse individuals to connect with each other than when I was in school. However, I’ve personally found that if you have the means to do so, try to seek community in neurodiverse-friendly spaces as well. A lot of online spaces for autistic folks can be a double-edged sword, and can be subjected to the same epidemics of cruelty and group-think that many online spaces are nowadays. You won’t necessarily avoid this with in-person groups, but I’ve found that people tend to be much less crueler and much more empathetic in person than they are online. When I spend too much time socializing in online spaces such as Instagram or Discord, my view of reality tends to become heavily distorted, my mental health is usually worse, and I tend to not like people as much. Other people may have a different experience, of course, but I nonetheless encourage those who have access to in-person and neurodiverse-friendly resources in your local community to seek them out in tandem with online communities. Finding a supportive IRL community can be very healing, too; for every one person in my life who can’t be bothered to be kind to autistic people, I know dozens more who have kindness in abundance.



Show grace to yourself when you make mistakes in sexual relationships—There is a serious lack of quality sex-ed and relationship-ed resources in the U.S. in general, and barely any resources made by and for autistic people. This was very much the case when I was coming of age: I went straight from evangelical purity culture’s “Don’t have sex or you’ll die” mentality to witnessing the #MeToo movement play out as millions shared their sexual violence horror stories. In other words, I went straight from “sex bad” to “here are some ways in which sex can REALLY destroy lives” with little access to education/resources on how 1) sex can be good and awesome or 2) what good, awesome, consensual sex looks like. Most of what I learned about sex in my twenties was from fanfiction and a variety of sexual encounters ranging from “surprisingly didn’t suck” to “absolutely horrifying.” I had to learn the hard way how to navigate giving and asking for consent, the difference between bad sex and rape, and how to listen to my partners’ and my own nonverbal cues. Many of the rules about sex revolve as much around unspoken communication as they do spoken, and this can be incredibly challenging to navigate if you have a brain wiring that doesn’t always register nonverbal communication cues. Show grace to yourself when you make mistakes in sex and love, and seek advice from other, sexually-experienced autistics in healthy and stable relationships if you find them. When it comes to bumping uglies, we autists don’t have to use fanfiction, Twitter, the church, and shame as our primary teachers. We can learn from each other, and show grace towards each other and ourselves for when we make mistakes.



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