Hello everyone! I am so pleased and excited to have Akemi Dawn Bowman, the debut author of Starfish, to talk about her book and mental health representation in YA! Starfish is a contemporary YA novel about Kiko, a half-Japanese girl whose rejection from her top art school sends her on an unexpected journey to come to terms with herself, her history and her family. The novel features on-the-page representation of anxiety in various forms. You can find Akemi on Twitter and her website.
So Akemi, my first question is where did this story about a girl struggling with abuse and anxiety come from? Did you know going into the writing of it that you would be tackling these topics or did they emerge as you were writing?
I guess the simple answer is that Starfish is the book I needed most as a teen. I wrote it knowing exactly what topics it would tackle and how it would end. A lot of writers say they pour their heart into their work, but I think I might’ve left a few pieces of mine on the pages. My biggest hope is that Starfish will reach the people who need it most, and that they’ll read Kiko’s story and find a mirror. And I hope that mirror will help them feel not so alone.
The representation of mental health and illness in Starfish deals with the intersection of mental health with other parts of Kiko’s identity and her experiences, from her Japanese heritage to her family to abuse. How did you go about crafting this intersectionality and how important was it for you to show the intersectionality of mental health in the book?
Very important! Similar to Kiko, I am biracial and have social anxiety, so crafting her identity and experiences felt very natural to me in some ways. Creating a story that pulls from lived experiences is very different than writing something completely from a person’s imagination. Because there are nuances that aren’t easily picked up on by people who’ve never lived that experience. And also, these experiences can vary so much when you take into account the other parts of a person’s identity. Kiko, for example, is a survivor of abuse, lives with social anxiety, and is half-Japanese/half-white, but raised by her white mother in a predominantly white town. Her anxiety is a part of her, but it’s also hugely shaped by her environment and the many layers that make up her identity. All of these different parts of Kiko overlap and intertwine—they affect one another. Being biracial alters how connected she feels to her Japanese identity. Having anxiety changes her perception of her emotionally abusive mother. Being a biracial teen girl with social anxiety in a white town gives her a different experience to someone who might’ve lived in LA, for example. I tried to show the complexity of these layers while also making sure it felt organic to the story.
You mentioned on Twitter that you edited out instances of the words “crazy” and “insane” from the book in between the printings of the arcs and the final copies. Thank you so much for doing that and being so candid about it. What led you to that decision and what has the reaction to that decision been like?
All the credit goes to my amazing editor, Jen. She’s the absolute best, and I’m lucky to be on the same team as her. She pointed the words out to me during a round of edits because she wanted Starfish to be as inclusive as possible. I hadn’t known those words were offensive, and I immediately panicked and deleted every single one of them. I have a very deep fear of upsetting people, so I spent a few months being really embarrassed and terrified I was going to unintentionally hurt someone. Eventually I came to the conclusion that it would be better to just admit my mistake and put it out in the world, because maybe the admission would prevent someone from being hurt. I haven’t really noticed a reaction to it, really, but it honestly wasn’t about getting a reaction. I don’t need a cookie or anything like that—I just wanted to prevent readers from getting hurt, and tell the ones who were hurt that I’m sorry and that the words had been removed from the final copy.
One of the goals of Shattering Stigmas is to dismantle the stigma against mental illness by creating a safe space for people to discuss these issues and raise awareness about mental health via their favorite mental health reads and personal experiences. How important is mental health awareness to you and has writing Starfish impacted that in any way?
I LOVE that this is one of your goals! It’s so important and something near and dear to my heart. People shouldn’t be afraid, embarrassed, or ashamed to talk about their mental health. It’s so important to speak up if you’re not feeling okay, and to seek help or medication if you need it. It took me years until I finally sought help because I thought what I was feeling made me weak. I worried people would think I was complaining or exaggerating, because I’d never had the support of people who were very knowledgeable or understanding about mental health.
When I was a teen and in my early twenties, I was horribly afraid to leave my house. I was fine going to and from work, because that felt like someone else was depending on me and I hated letting people down. But if it was just me, I didn’t like to go anywhere. I always thought everyone was staring at me, even if I was just driving around in my car. Sometimes I’d have to loop around a parking lot several times, and then sit in the car for an hour before I could manage to walk inside the grocery store. And there were other things too, like how I’d only take the trash cans down to the curb once the sun went down, because I didn’t want anyone to see me. It would take hours (sometimes days) to make a phone call because I was terrified of having to speak to anyone. And if someone knocked on the door without calling or giving me at least a few hours to prepare, I’d freeze up and not answer. And then I’d end up sitting at home having an anxiety attack because I was so afraid they were going to come back.
But then I sought out a therapist, and that’s how I learned what social anxiety was, and how it was affecting me. Therapy wasn’t a cure, but having a term for what I was feeling has helped me to cope so much better. And I live with it now, in a way that isn’t quite as restrictive as it used to be.
So yes, mental health awareness is very important to me, and Starfish was therapeutic in a lot of ways. I was able to channel my anxiety into another character, and then give her a hopeful, triumphant story to show how anxiety can be dealt with in a healthy way (especially when you have supportive friends and/or family!).
What are some of your recommendations for great mental health representation in YA?
History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera does a wonderful job of portraying OCD. And I’ve heard incredible things about Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert, which deals with bipolar disorder, and Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia, which has anxiety and depression rep.
Are there any mental health issues you wish were more widely represented in YA?
I wish there were more books with characters who have depression but don’t also have suicidal thoughts. Because the two don’t always go together. And it would be great to see books with characters who deal with mental health issues, but where the main plot doesn’t revolve around this. For example, Kaz Brekker in Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo has PTSD, but it wasn’t a book about PTSD. It was a fantasy world, but the rep felt realistic, because that’s how real life is. Many of us have mental health issues, but they don’t necessarily define us, and they certainly aren’t all that we are.
Do you have any self-care tips, tricks or secrets you’d like to share?
I wish I had more, to be honest! I used to draw a lot, and I found that relaxing. My three-year-old has one of those watercolor books where the paint is already in the page so you just have to add water. It’s so therapeutic. For me, it’s finding distractions to keep my mind and hands busy at the same time. And a lot of deep breaths and imagining all of my bad thoughts are literally drifting away from me. Sometimes it helps!
Thank you so much for answering my questions, Akemi! It has been such a joy to host you on my blog for Shattering Stigmas.
Thank you so much for having me!