Wednesday, 6 July 2016

The Colorful World of Synesthesia by Nancy Freund

When I started asking friends if they associated significant memories with colors, I was about a hundred pages into my first draft of ‘Rapeseed,’ my debut novel sometimes now referred to as my “synesthesia book.” Usually when I asked, the first response would be another question: “what are you talking about?”

“Yeah, you know, like for me, high school is yellow. But my school’s colors were yellow and brown so I’m trying to figure out if it’s a nature or nurture thing with my color associations. Also, do your foods taste like colors? No? Chicken isn’t blue? And smells? What about music? You don’t hear dark orange with a trombone?”

I learned quickly not to ask too many questions unless the friend was super open-minded, a neurologist, or – as it turns out – a fellow synesthete. It took me 10 years to write ‘Rapeseed,’ and during that time, I read everything I could on the brain phenomenon of blended senses. The minute I started looking, the research just kept coming. Today there are sophisticated labs in Texas, London, Brussels, Barcelona, and Edinburgh. Many famous artists and musicians have synesthesia: Vladimir Nabokov, Stevie Wonder, Lady Gaga, Pharrell Williams, Marilyn Monroe, Van Gogh, Kandinsky, Paul Klee. Almost every time I meet a book club, at least one person in the room is a synesthete – classic or variant. Many of them didn’t know its name, or how many variations there are. We all have versions of this phenomenon of blended senses. A classic sees their letters and numbers in color. Further, there are now more than 60 known variations involving color, movement, sound, days of the week, textures, emotional response, graphic organization, and memory, to name a few. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the body of literature on it is growing too.


‘Rapeseed’ focuses on a 32-year-old woman’s self-acceptance after years of confusion about herself and how she fits with her family. Synesthetic Carolann has been keeping secrets from her husband, her community, and even herself. Her twin sister is not a synesthete, and she’s also not very nice to our protagonist! As a result, there’s a lot to untangle – with synesthesia at the heart of it all. Wendy Maas wrote a fantastic YA synesthesia book called ‘A Mango-shaped Space’ that offers one of the best synesthesia discovery stories I’ve seen. Since I’ve been meeting more and more synesthetes, the question, “when did you first know?” always opens a fascinating conversation. Clare Morrall’s Booker shortlist novel ‘Astonishing Splashes of Colour’ is another revealing novel, showing why synesthesia may be viewed as both a gift and a burden. Dr. Jamie Ward’s ‘The Frog Who Croaked Blue’ is a lighthearted scientific study, if you can imagine that. Daniel Tammet’s ‘Born on a Blue Day’ is a revealing memoir of synesthesia and Asperger’s, while on the other end of the literary spectrum, T. Jefferson Parker’s thriller ‘The Fallen’ uses synesthesia almost as a super-power for a homicide detective who can “see” colors of deception in people’s speech. Similarly, Dominic Smith’s ‘Beautiful Miscellaneous’ features a trauma-onset synesthete whose car accident and subsequent coma deliver his form of synesthesia and a new life as a child prodigy. Fascinating stuff! These books are all about synesthesia, either fictionally or as memoir or scientific study.

It doesn’t take a lot of creativity, though, to also recognize synesthesia in books that don’t specifically claim it. Aimee Bender’s ‘The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake’ certainly hints at it. Take also Sandra Cisneros’ novel ‘The House on Mango Street.’ Young Esperanza is not described as a synesthete, but check this out: “In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting. It is like the number nine. A muddy color. It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday mornings when he is shaving, songs like sobbing.”

The gorgeous poetry of those few lines made me fall in love with Esperanza and Sandra Cisneros both. And I have a feeling if there’s to be a cocktail party of fictional characters in some alternate universe, my Carolann from ‘Rapeseed’ and Mia from ‘A Mango-shaped Space’ and a handful of characters from the books (and authors) I’ve described will happily welcome Esperanza to the blended senses club. As for me, I want to hang out and talk neurology with Nabokov!

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  1. That's really intriguing. My mum is a letter synesthete and I get it with texture in words and art: can't look at artworks, read, or listen to music with gloves on. :-)

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