Posted in Shattering Stigmas

Q&A with Em Ali

One of the joys about Shattering Stigmas to me is the chance to hear about mental health and mental wellness from so many different perspectives. Today I am so happy to welcome Em to the blog, who I talked to about writing anxiety, mental health recs and more. You can find Em on Twitter

Tay: In your book Soft on Soft, you include mental illness (anxiety) representation in a fluffy book. Can you talk a bit about your decision to include that representation and why it was important for you to include?

Em: It was more of instinct than decision that made me write June (the main character of Soft on Soft) as anxious. I felt like I had to portray my own experience with anxiety especially relating to June’s feelings concerning how social media has made so much of her life public even if she didn’t want a certain aspect to be so. I wanted to portray how some people like June who are comfortable with their sexualities, comfortable with their bodies, might still be extremely uncomfortable with sharing their lives with people online. That’s how I felt sometimes whenever I’d share something that’d get any kind of negative reaction.

Tay: Can you talk a bit more about managing your own mental health as a writer? How do you decide how personal to get when writing about mental health issues and how do you navigate the stresses of mental illness with the stress of being creative?

Em: Honestly, my mental health has taken a dip since the release of the book. Anxiety quite literally made me so unsatisfied with Soft on Soft that after four days of releasing it I thought to delete it. I wanted to refund people (which I have; in a moment of panic) and to disappear. This wasn’t because I was defensive but because I had extreme negative thoughts about my writing. Voicing these issues is extremely personal to me and I’m extremely cautious not to over-share on Twitter. As you have read, I don’t really know how to be creative and mentally unstable. I definitely am looking towards a solution, though.

As for writing about mental health issues…It’s just always going to be something I will do. I want to share the troubles people like me face. People who live in negative environments that don’t support them. People who can’t share who they are, whether it’s expressing their sexuality or gender. My people, who have to rely on social media to find validation. Who need books in which the characters share those anxieties and troubles. But I also decided that I won’t let mental health issues be the sole representation I give to people who read my words. I want to give them a happy ending no matter how unrealistic it might seem to people. I want to give them close to no conflict. I want to send a message of: your mental health issue should never be a problem for a significant other.

Tay: You’re a huge fan of romance books. Can you talk a bit about representation of mental illness in romance books that you’ve read, what you’ve liked and didn’t like?

Em: The very first time I read a depressed heroine, who is also a woman of color (Hawaiian-Japanese), I cried. Her name is Livvy and she’s the heroine of Alisha Rai’s Hate to Want You. Livvy’s struggle with depression, how it shaped her decisions and her life and ultimately what stirred her to snatch her happily ever after, resonated with me.

Another representation of depression I recently read and loved is Hannah of Talia Hibbert’s Untouchable. It’s Hannah’s anger and negative feelings that would surface through her mind and coat her tongue with all the negative things she couldn’t let in. It’s Hannah’s need to control so much of her life just to feel a semblance of stability.

Other romance books with mental illness representation I loved are Wrapped by Rebekah Weatherspoon (anxiety), The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli (anxiety), and Mr. Hotshot CEO by Jackie Lau (depression.)

*Note: I know the questions asks about ones I didn’t like but I honestly don’t bother reading books without content warnings and if someone tells me MI is used as a tool to further the plot or to magically disappear when the big ILY moment happens, I don’t read it. So, I am glad I don’t have books like that.

Tay: Shattering Stigmas is an event centered on continuing conversations around mental illness to debunk the stigmas around it. Why is talking about mental health important to you? 

Em: Because I can’t pray away depression. I can’t just casually wake up at 7 am and work a 9 – 5 job. Because mental health has made feel alone and only talking about it opened the door for friends and family to reach out and help me.

Tay: What types of mental health issues or mental illnesses would you like to see more widely or better represented in books?

Em: I would like to see intersectionality when it comes to representation of mental illness. I want LGBTQIAP+ people to see that developing mental health issues is totally not something bad. I want Arab people to know that they can and should seek out help and that praying five times a day shouldn’t be their only way of finding peace. I want marginalized people to know they are not weaker for being mentally ill.

Tay: What mental health/mental illness tropes are you tired of seeing in books?

Em: If I’m talking romance, it’s definitely the way romance idealists think finding a partner erases mental illness, that “if you can’t love yourself you can’t love anyone else,” which is such a wrong statement, and the fact that people in relationships might even think that just because they’re in a relationship means they should be “happy.” Mental illness doesn’t disappear if someone finds companionship.

Tay: What do you wish bloggers did to make the bookish online a community a better place re: discussing mental illness?

Em: Definitely allowing space for mentally ill bloggers who aren’t white allo cis het to express their anger, their bitterness, their negativity. Let’s be real, we don’t really like talking about negative things when it comes to mental illness. I want bloggers to know that they are allowed the range of emotion and not fear that people will judge them for it.

Tay: What are your top self care tips, tricks and secrets?

Em: Sleep is my automatic response to a depressive episode. Also, crying. I’ve found that once I released my emotions whether talking about what’s bothering me or just crying over a sad line in a song (hello, Nobody by Mitski will give you a good cry,) always helps. I also like to ease myself into a good mood with the use of a good book. Sometimes I’d re-read an old favorite fanfic or short story.

Thank you so much, Em!

Enter our *international* giveaway for a mental health read of your choice!

Interested in more Shattering Stigmas posts? Check out this post that Ben, one of our amazing co-hosts, put together listing every single Shattering Stigmas guest post and giveaway so you don’t miss a thing!

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