Thursday, December 7, 2017

Christina Adams is a leader in Autism and Camel milk and the author of A REAL BOY: A TRUE STORY OF AUTISM, EARLY INTERVENTION AND RECOVERY. You KNOW you want to read this interview


Christina Adams first attracted my attention on Facebook because she was just so freaking fascinating. And be prepared. She gets even more incredible.

Her essays and reported pieces have appeared in the LA Times, The Washington Post, NPR, OZY, Open Democracy, Orange Coast Magazine, Orange County Register, Global Advances in Health and Medicine and literary magazines. Perhaps more unusually, her work with autism and camels has been featured by Dubai One, Gulf News, Khaleej Times, Tata Sky Channel, Epocha, GOOD, Farming, radio and more. She’s spoken at Sarah Lawrence Writer’s Program, CSULB Distinguished Visiting Writer’s Program, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, international health and disability conferences, and just spoke at the Marwar Camel festival hosted by HRH The Maharaja of Jodhpur. She wrote A Real Boy: A True Story of Autism, Early Intervention and Recovery.

You’re a writer, but you have this other side. I’ve seen the photos.  You’re in India or Dubai or Cuba, or on some Amish farm. Is this related to your writing?

Yes, and it’s all because of my bedeviled writer’s mind. After writing in the corporate and government world, I got an MFA in fiction and wrote a novel. It won an award, but before I could publish it, my son was diagnosed with autism. So I worked hard to get him better and wrote a memoir about that (A Real Boy).  After it came out, I was at a children’s book fair. I got bored and my mind started turning when I saw a camel there, but no kids were riding it. I went over to chat with the owner and got an intuition that camel milk might help my son. After a lot of research and guesswork, I flew in some frozen milk from Bedouins in Israel. He drank it and got better overnight. That set me down the path into this strange world. Sort of my own Silk Road.

That’s an incredible story. How do you balance being a writer with your research and advocacy work? Do your two lives get along or conflict with each other?

I’m a literary writer at heart—I wrote my first short story at nine. I was so devastated when my son was diagnosed, and I swore that autism wouldn’t stop me from writing, but slowly you turn toward your lived story. Autism became a window on the world and informed my writing—it taught me biology, nature, law, psychology, medicine. And I had to try to help others. So I’ve written memoir, essays and reported pieces and do TV, radio and conference speaking. My first piece about camel milk and autism went viral and helped start the industry. Then I published a medical journal article on it. It’s cited a lot, but it’s a weird success for a writer since only scientists see it (it’s cute how many assume “MFA” is some kind of scientific credential!). That piece led to international speaking and advising. I’ve always had a knack for putting advanced concepts into explainable terms. I guess the takeaway is that life happens and since we chronicle life as writers, we have to chronicle what it does to us. Whether it’s overt or unconscious.

So your work energizes your writing?

Definitely. I just returned from a month’s speaking tour in India, and had overflow crowds on the topic of autism, camel milk and the value of camels to society.  Being barefoot in the TV studio was a fun new thing, wearing glam Indian clothes but no shoes. I wrote an essay for the Rajasthan Patrika (newspaper) and got a lot of press, which triggered a lot of interest. Being treated like a celebrity was really unexpected. A policeman showed up at my hotel at night, and I asked, am I in trouble? Turned out a VIP wanted to talk about camel milk!  Having people drive so far to meet me, being honored at a village temple, seeing my work in Hindi and Portuguese, was all gratifying, but once I got back home it was humble pie as usual. My favorite part was hanging out with the Raika camel herders, a reclusive camel caste I’ve gotten to know as we try to save their camels. Blowing smoke from a bedi (leaf cigarette) out my nose, like they did, won me some points--a guy wanted to trade rings with me. 

Camels are amazing creatures and more useful to humans than you could dream, almost sci-fi stuff. They have unique abilities found in no other creatures. Now the price of a pregnant camel has doubled in the US since I started, but camel cultures are under pressure. I just read my new piece about this at Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute’s series on Democracy and Education. These herders have never shared their ancient wisdom, so I help bridge the two worlds. Camels can help human health conditions like diabetes, STDs, snakebite, and cancer now, so I work with scientists and spend time with Somali, Tuareg, Amish, Indian and Arab cultures. I’ve seen 2,000 pampered camels gleaming in red desert sand, and fed bottles to bleating, curly-haired baby camels. My videos were translated into Malay this month. Some things you just can’t see coming.

Maybe not! So what stories have yet to come from all this?

I’ve been on this wild ride for over 10 years, so now I have a book proposal I’m finishing. It’s a great emotional subject. The camel world is super visual, hidden, magical and political. Camels mean different things to people: family member, heritage or ego symbol, currency, luxury pet or work animal. Also, this year I published print magazine essays, one about my “divorce apartment,” a place I rent to divorced people, framed by the story of my own divorce and remarriage, as well as a long feature on an autism school. Other things I want to write are about being an Appalachian that breaks tradition to leave home but finds out you never really can, with some sensitive family history about the Civil War and its aftermath. And one about marriage and divorce, a subject I finally mastered in real life.  But so many of my readers want this camel book, and I hope I can get it out there.

What are you obsessing about now?

Indian fabrics. I wore Indian clothes for my events and I’m missing getting up and choosing a dupatta (scarf), embroidered tunic, leggings and sparkly jewelry every day. I love the care women take with their daily style. I visited female sheepherders who wore ruffled bodices, armloads of bracelets and pink toenail polish.

Also people give me camel statues, art, chocolate and hats. So I’m facing ‘creeping camelization’ in my life, but trying to keep it micro.

What question did I fail to ask you?

The word ‘fail’ doesn’t apply to you! I love how real and friendly you are on Facebook and the NYC vibe is a bonus. People often ask how my son is. He’s doing great. Got a job without help, at a big employer. Taught a lesson in class. He even asked me what I wanted for Christmas. He never ends a call to me without saying, “Love you.” So that’s what it’s all about. A producer just finished a short documentary about him. He even did a radio show, discussing the ‘toxic masculinity’ of frat culture and why guys with autism are more logical than that. Like they say here in Orange County, Dude, that’s sick! (A compliment.)

1 comment:

Jessica Brilliant Keener said...

Christina - your flash of intuition about camels is fascinating. Do you know the documentary The Weeping Camel? Incredible. I'm off to learn more about your writings and, thank you, Caroline, for showcasing Christina's work.