Aro-Spec Artist Profile – K. A. Cook

Handdrawn watercolour-style image of a sparse forest of redwood trees growing among grassy hills, with a white and orange fox sitting in the grass at the base of a tree on the viewer's right-hand side of the image. Scene is overlaid with the dark green/light green/white/grey/black stripes of the aro pride flag. The text Aro Worlds Artist Profiles sits across the image in a black, antique handdrawn type, separated by two ornate Victorian-style black dividers.

Hello! You all know me as the autistic, disabled, transgender, abrosexual, allo-aro Australian behind @aroworlds, @alloaroworlds and the Hallo, Aro short story series. I also have a Ko-fi you can support if so inclined, and you can find all my books on my personal website or collected by theme: allo-aro and aromantic.

Aside from the writing, I’ve worked as an editor and text designer on various community publications. When my hands allow, I like to sew, craft, bead and scrapbook. I’ve made everything from fidget toys for my @stimtoybox blog to dollhouse miniatures.

I’m here to talk about how disability separates me from my own aro-spec community, the importance of early recognition of aro-spec identity and my yearning for allo-aro autistic representation. Thank you so much for your support and encouragement as I attempt to kick-start more conversations on what it means to be aromantic and creative!

Four book covers, depicting cartoon-style fantasy images of a graveyard, a witch's front door, a taproom and a swamp, all with white type and author credit. The books are as follows: The Sorcerous Compendium of Postmortem Query; Love Spells, Rainbows and Rosie; Love is the Reckoning; and The Crew of Esher Hill, all by K. A. Cook.

Can you share with us your story in being aro-spec?

I was that sheltered, undiagnosed autistic kid from a Catholic family who knew nothing about anything queer, beyond gossip, until I saw a poster on the wall at university. Queer? What’s that? I’d failed at being cishet in terms of gender expression, successful dating and human connection, but I had no notion of any other possibilities until then. When everything I did and felt was wrong, my aromanticism didn’t stand out. It was just one unvoiced difference amongst so many, and other things–like my gender identity and my neurotype–needed identifying before aromantic became visible to me.

This wasn’t helped by a lack of information about aromanticism as separate from asexuality. I’m still a little bitter about that.

Having no other information during high school, I assumed that I would (somehow) grow up to become the cisfeminine, heterosexual, alloromantic person my society expected. Because I saw these things as associated with adulthood, I felt obliged to perform femininity, heterosexuality and romance in order to be properly adult. As everything about romance felt wrong and unwanted to me, yet presented as universal, I had no ability to recognise when a partner’s romantic behaviour shifted from socially-acceptable levels of interested to dangerous. It’s clear to me that I wouldn’t have allowed myself to remain in those circumstances if I’d known my own aromanticism, and I’m bitter about that, too. Bitter about scars left by abuse, assault and stalking; bitter because I had to endure the unreasonable.

I am eased some by the knowledge that more people are less likely to bear my scars as the word aromanticism becomes more accessible: representation, for me, is an act of self-defence. This is who you are. But it also terrifies me to see discoursers trying to put that out of reach when the safety of our kin depends on their knowing sooner rather than later.

Can you share with us the story behind your creativity?

I was a teenager when I was walking along the beach at Norman Bay (Wilson’s Promontory, Victoria) and saw a storm rolling in; we stood there watching the lightning flashing down onto the islands out in the bay. I’m not going to pretend I can do the wildness and the beauty of this justice by my words; I can’t. Yet I spent the next two days trapped with my family, while the wind rocked the caravan and the rain hammered down, trying to write this scene. That wildness of weather has no lack of magic, so it was natural that I turned to fantasy: two young elemental mages waiting to meet their pyromancer mentor on that stormy beach.

I didn’t know then that I’d spend the rest of my life writing, but here I am now, trying to build new worlds from bricks of words.

My English teachers often told me they were relieved to read my journal entries because I made collecting Sylvanian Families figurines sound interesting, but until that day, I didn’t know what it meant to have to tell a story. Of course, the type of story I tell changes with every discovery I make about myself, and that first, dreadful novel is long buried in a few million words. I wouldn’t be here without it, though–without that first lightning bolt of inspiration.

A photo taken on a blue microfibre blanket depicting a cardboard spiral-bound journal, open with front and back cover facing upwards, decorated with stripes of plain and glittery washi tapes in aro pride flag colours. The cover displays some journal card and scrapbook design pieces depicting arrows, cacti and typography over the tape stripes. Mini aro pride flags, a bead pendant, two bead ring necklaces, a woven bracelet, a gecko bag charm and a Sylvanian Families figurine wearing a handmade aro pride dress, in aro and allo-aro colours, sit on top of the journal.

Are there any particular ways your aro-spec experience is expressed in your art?

In characters who concern themselves with family, politics, identity exploration, magic, friendship, student-teacher relationships, disability and survival, yes! Everything under the sun but romance looms large in their lives. When most of the protagonists I’ve written in the last three years are explicitly aro-spec, I suppose it’s more accurate to say that my aro-spec experience isn’t expressed in my art as much as it is my art.

I’d written non-romantic characters before my aromantic realisation: the aforementioned pyromancer stuck around through about five rebuilds of that world. He has always been a mentor first, cheerfully single in the face of everyone else’s coupledom. I needed to know that I was aro, though, to understand that I don’t have to write four alloromantic protagonists falling in love while one snarky aro pyromancer rolls his eyes at everyone else over the top of his book.

What challenges do you face as an aro-spec artist?

As an indie creative, there is nothing stopping me from creating the storytelling that matters to me. The problem lies in selling it: in finding interested people with the money to support me so I can survive to keep telling stories about diverse characters. In that respect, I am failing, and since I’m multiply disabled and struggle with employment, this is a heartbreaking, terrifying thing. The stories I need to tell aren’t seen as compelling enough by others to be worth payment, leaving me unsure that I can live in this capitalist disaster of a world as an aromantic creator.

In a world where romance is unconsciously understood as something that drives compelling narrative, to centre a story on other experiences means that other people open to queer and trans writing unconsciously decide my work isn’t interesting. If this amatonormativity happened on a conscious level, it’d be easier to discuss and challenge, but it doesn’t.

Tumblr also talks about wanting diverse, intersectional representation, but it doesn’t always follow through with supporting the creators who provide it. People who talk about wanting trans autistic characters don’t read my free works because they’re also all aro-spec. Characters who represent me get little traction in a social media environment so ostensibly focused on social justice and representation. The aro-spec community is a bit better, but I’ve given up any dream of being supported by my trans, queer and autistic communities as a content creator who thinks my aromanticism is an important attribute in my narrating protagonists.

Three book covers, depicting grey pencil sketch images on a waterstained cream paper background, including birds, trees, leaves, bones, dogs, knives and arrows, with grey type and author credit in an ornate handdrawn type. The books are as follows: Their Courts of Crows, A Prince of the Dead and The King of Gears and Bone, all by K. A. Cook.

How do you connect to the aro-spec and a-spec communities as an aro-spec person?

I don’t feel welcome in the broader a-spec community as an allo-aro, not in spaces that are lead by asexuals with a historical centring on asexuality. These spaces may include me in name, but they’re not made for me. Since changing this requires more ongoing activism than for which I have ability, I now avoid general a-spec spaces. It’s easier for me to stay in aro-spec and allo-aro spaces where I don’t feel so completely overlooked through not identifying as part of the asexual community.

This will come as a surprise, I think, but I also feel on the outer in the aro-spec community. I don’t have the spoons (disability slang: a measure of ability) to run a blog, write and join Arocalypse. I don’t have the spoons to join Discord servers. I can’t reblog and respond to as many posts as I wish to or even need to. My chronic pain makes communicating with others difficult, and I’m sacrificing normal connection and friendship with other aro-specs just to write fiction and run my blogs.

I feel like the community often passes me by, because I can’t keep up with all the conversations on my dashboard, can’t respond to asks in a timely fashion, can’t write my stories and stay engaged with my friends (never mind my community). I’m left holding thoughts and feelings inside with no ability to express many of them. It breaks me, at times, to be unable to participate at the same level on which I’m thinking about aro-spec issues and the aro-spec community.

In being aro, I never get to stop being aware of my disabilities in an environment so focused on online activity and activism.

How do you connect to your creative community as an aro-spec person?

Not at all. When the vast majority of the LGBTQIA+/queer writing community is focused on romance narratives, and when the vast majority of the a-spec writing community is focused on asexual narratives, and everything else is cishet and alloromantic, a shared passion for storytelling doesn’t bridge the gap. I have a few alloromantic writing friends, yes, but I feel like we’re speaking two different languages when it comes to discussing our craft. Unquestioned amatonormativity is far too tall a wall for me to surmount.

Most alloromantics aren’t going to understand what drives me when it comes to narrative and character, or the challenges that lie in eschewing romance as a genre writer. It’s easier to find connection with other creative aro-specs. Even if together we can’t climb over that wall, at least we recognise its existence.

A photo showing a Sylvanian Families village, comprised of a bakery and a florist. The village is crowded with small animal figurines set up to be either marching in a parade or waving the parade on from the sidelines, with many figures carrying handdrawn aro, akoi/lith, greyro, demiro, fray, cupio and quoi pride flags. Coloured pompoms in dark green, light green and white decorate railings and doorways, coloured bows in aro-pride colours decorate roofs and railings, and a banner comprised of pompoms and bows stretches from the corner of the house to the corner of the bakery, across the small village square. Animal figures include hedgehogs, rabbits, deer, cats, mice, dogs, beavers, bears and a frog.

How can the aro-spec community best help you as a creative?

Can folks please, if they have the ability, reblog the works by all the aro-spec creatures I’ve ever featured on this blog? We all need help in finding the few aro-specs who can afford to pay for our art, and the reblog button is the most effective way for our supporters to help expand our reach.

Please. Reblog the artist profiles. Reblog everyone’s creative media posts.  (The “no posts with external links showing in tags” problem on Tumblr means that pride merch creators and published authors never get our content further than our own blogs if our followers don’t hit that reblog button.) I know this takes time and effort that not all aro-specs possess, but is a real, significant way you can help independent aro-spec creators continue to post the works you like, even when you can’t donate or purchase.

Can you share with us something about your current project?

April is Autism Acceptance Month, so I’m working on a trilogy of fantasy stories to post–Love in the House of the Ravens, One Strange Man and The Skin Game–about an abrosexual, aromantic autistic dealing with the many steps between learning he is aromantic, accepting his aromanticism and exploring non-romantic shapes of sexual attraction and experience.

If Western society has almost nothing to say on the experiences of aromanticism shaped by sexual attraction, there’s even less on what aromanticism shaped by sexual attraction looks like when the aro in question is autistic. When one is already alien in one’s own society, it’s hard not to struggle with the fear of being seen as even more different. This trilogy looks at the challenge of accepting the word as an autistic in an ableist world, no matter how much aromanticism rings true.

I’ve also never seen storytelling that depicts non-romantic sexual experiences negotiated through some of the limitations and requirements associated with autism. What does sex best look like as an allo-aro autistic when it centres my feelings, needs and abilities? I don’t even know, so the last story is my trying to figure out one possible road to that destination.

Three book covers comprised into a single image, all by K. A. Cook. The Wind and the Stars has white type set against tree silhouettes before a full moon; Hallo, Aro has pink casual script type against a blue background surrounded by feathers and leaves; Old Fashioned, with red type, shows a fantasy bedroom scene.

Have you any forthcoming works we should look forward to?

The other piece I’m editing is a short story called Like the Other Prince, the fourth book in the Eagle Court series. This one features new characters: an abroromantic, abrosexual trans man in the beginnings of a QPR with an allo-aro gay cis man, against the backdrop of a city that claims to recognise those things in theory–but theory isn’t reality. It’s about the pressures of hiding one’s identity, the pain of living in a world where acceptance is a thing that’s spoken but not delivered, and the way having friends and family (chosen or blood) who do offer true recognition and validation are the difference between death and survival. The aromanticism, this time, is fairly incidental. I’m not sure when it will be ready to publish, but I’d like it to be in the next few months or so.

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