Shyness Isn't Nice

Hamja Ahsan, Shy Radicals: The Antisystemic Politics of the Militant Introvert

Book Works, 164pp, £9.95, ISBN 9781906012571

reviewed by Dominic Fox

The first thing I have to tell you about Shy Radicals is that, while it is often terribly funny, it isn’t a joke. Hamja Ahsan has taken the form of the militant tract, with its demands and denunciations and piercing accusations against a fundamentally disordered world, and used it to talk about, well, shyness. The world as it is for other people, neurotypicals going about their noisy neurotypical business, is confronted as a kind of torture chamber for the shy and introverted, the quiet and the autistic. As with any tract addressed to the world as the work of a malevolent demiurge, the question is: can this world be improved? Must it be destroyed? Might we find or create somewhere else to live?

The feeling of people on the autistic end of the autistic spectrum that the world is in some way deeply not right for them, is common enough that one of the most popular forums for discussion of issues relating to autism is called ‘Wrong Planet’ (as in, ‘I was born on the…’). This, again, is not a joke. The tone of posters on the Wrong Planet message boards ranges from cheery-making-the-best-of-a-bad-job to wrenching despair at the sheer bloody unreasonableness of everything. Either the world is irreparably broken, or I am. People console each other, offer strategies for coping, promise that it will get better. Shy Radicals imagines this constituency up in arms, awkwardly politicised, quietly furious. It adapts, at times discomfitingly, the language of Black Power and militant Islamic groups to analyse ‘Extrovert-Supremacism’, heap scorn upon the ‘Trendy Club’ of British social institutions, and demand the formation of an independent ‘Aspergistan’.

A biographical note is in order at this point. Hamja is more widely known for the Free Talha Ahsan campaign, for which his art career was placed on lengthy hiatus, and for which he was shortlisted for a Liberty Human Rights Award. In 2006, Hamja Ahsan’s brother Syed Talha Ahsan, a British poet and aspiring librarian who had been diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome, was arrested at his home in Britain and detained without trial or charge for six years before being extradited to the US on terror charges. After nearly two years of solitary confinement in a US death row prison, in October 2013 Talha entered into a plea bargain (unlike the UK system, where he would most likely have been cleanly exonerated, 97% of US federal cases end in a plea deal), pled guilty to the catch-all charge of providing ‘material support’ to terrorists (through very peripheral, and entirely non-criminal, association with an obsolete website covering the conflicts in Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan), and, all other charges being dismissed, was eventually released and returned home to the UK after a US judge at sentencing saw little substance in the US government’s accusations.

(Earlier this year I was speaking to a work colleague who remarked in Theresa May’s favour that at least, during her tenure as home secretary, she had prevented ‘that autistic guy’ from being extradited to America on terror charges. He meant Gary MacKinnon, whose extradition was blocked at least partly on the basis of his Aspergers diagnosis. He had never heard of Talha Ahsan, whose extradition May had consistently supported in the face of multiple legal challenges, including one to the European Court of Human Rights. After Talha was extradited, May publicly crowed that it was ‘great to say goodbye’.)

With this in mind, it is difficult not to read Shy Radicals as a way of processing the secondary trauma of Hamja Ahsan’s brother’s abduction and imprisonment. Solitary confinement, which is widely recognised as a profoundly destructive form of psychological torture, is re-imagined as a therapeutic escape from the excruciating sensory overload of the extrovert world. Overwhelmed aspies are rescued from imminent meltdown by crack intervention teams who rush in with hoods and goggles. All things considered, this is gallows humour of the highest order. It is also a more or less self-conscious way of re-figuring an ‘evil cradling’ (to borrow a phrase of kidnapped journalist Brian Keenan’s) as nurturing and protective.

For a book about shyness and reservation, Shy Radicals sails remarkably close to the wind at times. I found myself wincing at a passage in which a fictional interviewee, ‘Amy Littlewood’, refuses to recognise Israel’s right to exist on the grounds that the nightclubs of Tel Aviv spread Extrovert-Supremacism throughout the region: ‘Israel is an apartheid state and yet there was a media stunt showing Palestinians dancing alongside members of the Israeli Defence Force in a version of “Gangnam Style”. Is this the final destination of the Nakbah?.’ Here, the off-kilter framing enables something obnoxious about the party-loving wholesomeness of the IDF’s propaganda image to be brought into focus: one type of disgust and resentment – the introvert’s bridling at senseless and gaudy spectacle – is brought into communication with another. Moments such as these produce a kind of short-circuiting effect, in which political anger becomes confounded with a more visceral feeling of affront, the throbbing of a permanently-bruised sensibility.

Shy Radicals may be received by some readers as an oddity, a quixotic thought-experiment (‘what if people with autistic spectrum disorders formed their own militant separatist movement?’). I think it is more than that. Even given the layers of fiction and formal artifice, it is a deeply-felt work of imagination (as Ahsan notes in the very first sentence: ‘this book is written on the back of a lifetime of resentment’), which both expresses a genuine anguish and develops a rich symbolic framework within which that anguish can be borne. I owe my acquaintance with the phrase ‘secondary trauma’, which I used earlier, to an episode of Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s extremely raw and uncanny television series The OA, which seems to me to perform a similar function of building a secondary world of imagination around something almost inarticulably sad and painful. One of The OA’s most intriguing and delicately handled themes is that of the “invisible self”, the self that remains separate from the world of appearances generated by the status games of normal society (which Shy Radicals denounces, in classic petulant-goth-teenager style, as ‘superficial’). Like The OA, which manages to be both very self-consciously “meta” about what it is doing, and extremely directly affecting at the same time, Shy Radicals is attuned to the voice of the invisible self, and challenges the conventions of extrovert self-advertisement precisely in order that this self might be recognised and heard. I read it with a feeling of recognition, of surprised identification – with resentment, and also a kind of furious joy.
Dominic Fox is a writer and programmer living and working in London. He is the author of Cold World and blogs at