I am so grateful to have Akemi Dawn Bowman, the author of STARFISH and SUMMER BIRD BLUE, back on the blog for Shattering Stigmas this year. Akemi is such a lovely person and a fantastic writer about complex mental health issues in YA, so I’m always so excited to talk to her about writing, mental health issues and more. When you’re done reading this lovely Q&A, you can find Akemi on Twitter and learn more about her and her books on her website.
Tay: Your latest book, SUMMER BIRD BLUE, is a gorgeous and intense exploration of grief, loss and memory. Can you explain a little bit about what brought you to writing about these issues and telling Rumi’s story?
Akemi: I feel like grief is one of those experiences that almost everyone deals with at some point in their life. And it’s one of those things that even if you haven’t had to go through it yet, you might have at least thought about it. The sad reality is that the people we love most won’t be here forever. But also, as universal as grief may be, we don’t all grieve the exact same way. And I really wanted to explore that in this book—how people love differently, and grieve differently, and remember things differently. And with the memories in particular, something I find especially heart-breaking about grief is how easy it is to focus on only the good and bad. Or sometimes even just one or the other. For some people it might be a coping mechanism, but for Rumi it’s very much about her guilt. Guilt that she survived over her sister, and guilt that she wasn’t as good of a sister as she thinks she should have been. Sibling relationships can be really complicated, and when you isolate a handful of bad moments like Rumi does, it can seem like the meanest relationship ever. But these memories are snapshots—they’re not the whole story. And for Rumi, part of healing is realizing that these memories are not the sum of her relationship with her sister. There’s the good and the bad, but also the in-between. And I think the in-between is sometimes more important. It tells the fuller story.
Tay: Something that seems to be a through-line in your books so far is teenagers navigating complicated and difficult relationships with their parents, who are suffering from their own mental health issues. Can you discuss what you find compelling or interesting about writing these kinds of relationships, where teens are tasked with not only processing their own mental health issues but those of the adults who are supposed to be there for them emotionally?
Akemi: For me, these are just real relationships. Some people may have had wonderful relationships with their parents where everything just went smoothly and they always felt safe and loved, but that is not everyone’s experience. And honestly, some of the loneliest moments in a person’s life can stem from being convinced nobody else is going through what they are going through. It’s hard to navigate, because on the outside you don’t want anyone to say anything bad about your parents. You still love them. But when there’s hurt deep down—when certain events or actions are having a negative affect on your mental health as a teen—that is a tough situation to navigate. You might not have the coping skills you would as an adult with more life experience. So it’s not that I find these relationships compelling—I find them true to life. And I want to write the stories that would have made me feel less alone as a teen.
Tay: Part of what I love about SUMMER BIRD BLUE is that it deals so much with mental health, but Rumi’s struggles don’t necessarily fit within a neat container of clinical mental illness. Can you speak a bit about writing the messiness and complicatedness of mental health and adolescence, especially for someone like Rumi who is suffering from such an unimaginable loss?
Akemi: I don’t believe mental health is ever a one-size-fits-all. I think it’s personal, and complex, and affected by so many individual experiences. You could put two people in a room who are the same age, who are grieving, and who are struggling with the loss of a sibling, and their mental health might look completely different. And that’s okay. We’re allowed to work through things differently, and mental health doesn’t have to fit in a box that someone else defined. And Rumi is a teenager. She’s young. She doesn’t have everything figured out, and she talks about this often. And she just lost her best friend. She copes with her grief with anger, and I allow her to be as angry as she wants to be because I think that’s important too sometimes—to let people react. I feel like sometimes we get so focused on the “one right way to be” that we don’t allow people to have different responses. Rumi is unapologetically angry and messy and trying to heal with the limited number of tools she’s been given. And I think that’s realistic too, for people who maybe don’t have mental health experts as parents, or who don’t have a big family unit that swoops in to take care of each other. Or even for a person that finds it more difficult to connect with people. Sometimes we just need to work through things on our own time and not feel like the world is telling us we’re doing it wrong.
Tay: Over the summer, you Tweeted at one point about not wanting to write personal stories, but also realizing that your books are essentially horcruxes. Can you discuss a bit about what it means to write personally, either from your POV and how writing is tied to mental and emotional health or from the response you’ve gotten from readers (or both!)?
Akemi: People say to “write what you know.” And even though I’m telling stories at the end of the day, I’m still writing from real emotion. I’m writing what I know. STARFISH took everything out of me, and I’ve discussed a bit about the toll it took on me. I did tell myself I’d never write anything that personal again, because the more I think you bare your soul, the harder it is to protect your heart. But the reality is that writing, for me, has always been a way of working through things. I’m working through ideas, or emotions, or trauma. Writing is my coping mechanism, and it always has been. So as I’ve written more books, I’ve realized that’s something I’ll just never be able to get away from. And to be honest, I don’t think I want to. The emotional response from readers who’ve connected with my words—who’ve told me they felt seen for the first time—it’s overwhelming. It makes me feel like sharing pieces of my soul is worth the risk of a few trolls. But I will say that I am a lot more proactive in how I take care of myself online. I have a lot of boundaries I didn’t have in my debut year, and I think that’s important for writers, particularly the ones who write personal stories. It’s not easy, but I’m working on finding a balance between writing the stories that matter to me most, and keeping my heart in a safe place so I can continue to do this job that I love so much.
Tay: In that Tweet that inspired my last question, you also mentioned that in your
upcoming 2020 release, HARLEY IN THE SKY, you write about a mood disorder. Can you explain a little bit about what that process has been like and how it differs from the experience of writing STARFISH and SUMMER BIRD BLUE?
Akemi: HARLEY IN THE SKY started off as pure indulgence, to be honest. STARFISH and SUMMER BIRD BLUE literally drained me, emotionally and mentally. I have to pull from a dark place to write authentically (personal preference, not saying everyone needs to do the same!), and by book three I just desperately needed a break. I wanted to write something more fun—something happy. And of course, circuses are my FAVORITE. But when I started revising, I realized more and more that I put my own mood disorder into Harley’s narrative without even realizing it. So with each edit, it got pulled more to the forefront. The end product means that it’s not the fluffy book I set out to write, but I think it’s something that feels more authentic to me and my style. But the heartache and struggles aren’t as all-consuming as they are in my first two books. I think it’s more subtle.
Tay: When I talk to authors in Shattering Stigmas, I often talk about the representation of mental illness in their books. However, I’m also interested in mental health in terms of self care and emotional well being from the perspective of the authors I talk to, especially since I’m sure many of my readers are also writers who might be struggling in similar ways. Can you discuss a little bit about managing the emotional stresses of being an author—what has gotten easier and what do you still find challenging?
Akemi: I have been kind of open about how NOT PREPARED I was for how emotionally and mentally exhausting having a book out in the world would be. And this isn’t me complaining—it’s AMAZING too, and I feel very, very lucky to be in the position that I am. There’s no other job I’d rather be doing, truly. But I think it’s so easy to forget that being an author is still a “public” job in a lot of ways. Because we write alone, and almost all communication is done through email. So it doesn’t feel public, at least not for me. I just feel like a weirdo making up stories on a computer that people probably won’t want to read. That hasn’t changed. And nobody really gives you a list on how to protect yourself from strangers and trolls and negative things on the internet. It sometimes feels like being locked in a glass box and people are just screaming at you from the outside and you can’t get away from it. That’s why boundaries are so important. Because if you put up walls, then people can’t get that close to the glass box, if that makes sense. My biggest challenge is knowing when and where to put up walls, and reminding myself not to feel bad about it. Because I do, often. My armor doesn’t come naturally. I have to remember to wear it, all the time.
Tay: Do you have any new mental health reads that you would recommend since we talked last year?
Akemi: I have to admit I am so massively behind on my reading list it’s not even funny. But I really loved Emily X.R. Pan’s THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER, which deals with grief and the loss of a parent who dies by suicide, as well as Beth Evans’ wonderful book I REALLY DIDN’T THINK THIS THROUGH, which talks a lot about anxiety and is just so relatable.
Tay: Finally, something I’m thinking a lot about this year with Shattering Stigmas is thinking of mental health awareness as a constantly evolving conversation that continues to develop and more forward. So, from your perspective, what’s the next step in the discussion around mental health and where would you like to see representation of mental health and illness in YA go next or develop in some way?
Akemi: I would like more nuance. I know some people use that like a buzz word, but it’s so important with mental health. Because there is not only one experience when it comes to mental health. And also, how our mental health is affected and shaped could come from a thousand different outside experiences. Those stories are important, too. And I truly believe we need to talk about the good and the bad, and let people speak candidly about their experiences. It’s really the only way to normalize discussions about mental health. If we’re only looking for stories from the “perfect” person and shun others for being messy or even having bad experiences with mental health, then we’re going to end up silencing people. I think it’s counterproductive. If we want to create environments that are healthier for people and keeping doors open to understanding, we need to talk about how our mental health affects us, but also how we affect the people we love. I know some people don’t want to hear that, but some of the hardest work I had to do in therapy was learning that just because my mental health made me feel a certain way does not make it okay to treat people in ways that aren’t healthy for them. We can want people to have empathy and understanding for us while also recognizing that we are not entitled to that if we’re hurting others. And I think sometimes in mental health spaces we don’t like to discuss that enough, because it makes us feel bad. And I get it—it’s hard. It is for me too. But sometimes things that are hard require work, and we have to work on how we treat ourselves AS WELL as how we treat others. Maybe that’s too much nuance for some people, but I truly believe this is such an important aspect of mental health that needs to be discussed more moving forward, and I say that with a lot of love.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful responses, Akemi! It’s always such a pleasure to have you on the blog.
Interested in more Shattering Stigmas posts? Check out this post that Ben, another of our amazing co-hosts, put together listing every single Shattering Stigmas guest post and giveaway so you don’t miss a thing!