There have been few upcoming releases I’ve been so excited for that I’ve started the line waiting to get a copy and meet the author more than an hour before the allotted time at BEA…and I HOPE YOU GET THIS MESSAGE by Farah Naz Rishi is one of them. I HOPE YOU GET THIS MESSAGE is out next Tuesday, October 22, and I hope each and every one of you will pre-order or buy a copy because this book is such a treat. Farah is also the sweetest human and I knew I had to get her on my blog to talk about mental health, hope and queer teens for Shattering Stigmas. You can find Farah on her website, Twitter and Instagram. You can pre-order I HOPE YOU GET THIS MESSAGE from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository and IndieBound. Please do, because I want all the books from Farah and can’t wait to see what she does next.
Taylor Tracy: Hope is such an important part of I Hope You Get This Message and not just because it’s in the title. Can you talk a bit about what makes you write about hope and the role of hope in I Hope You Get This Message?
Farah Naz Rishi: Over the course of the three years that I wrote I HOPE YOU GET THIS MESSAGE, each member of my family died, beginning with my dad, then my brother, and finally, my mom. It almost sounds unbelievable; I think even now, I’m still a little in denial. But after losing my brother, I found myself in a very, very dark place. Writing this book quickly became a way to find the words I needed to hear to save myself. It’s funny because this book was always meant to be one about finding hope in the darkness, even before I lost my family. I had set out to write a book to help others feel not so alone in a world that often feels nihilistic, in a world where, with all its human-driven environmental destruction and war, it’s almost easier to get swept up believing that nothing matters because it’s easier than fighting to survive. But I hadn’t expected it to become so incredibly personal. How was I supposed to write a book about hope when I’d completely lost mine? That was the challenge. And that was why writing this book became so integral to my own healing. By watching Jesse, Cate, and Adeem endure so much hurt in the face of a world that was literally falling apart around them, I couldn’t help but feel a little less alone. A little more inspired to keep going. My hope now is that it helps someone else, too.
Taylor: Cate’s mom has schizophrenia, and your representation of her is a woman who is sick and needs help, but who also loves her daughter. Can you talk a little bit about how you developed the relationship between Cate and her mom in the book?
Farah: Schizophrenia manifests in different ways for different people, and for my maternal grandfather, who struggled with finding the right medication for most of his life, it often resulted in anger and confusion. According to my mom, growing up, part of her resented him; she believed his disability was stopping her and her sisters from having a “normal” life. It wasn’t until she was much older that her dad finally got the help and support he needed. But when his symptoms began to improve, my mom said she almost felt frustrated, because now, in her mind, her father had two “competing” identities: the man whose psychiatric disability had often made him lash out, and this new, gentle father who just wanted to be there for his wary children. But that is precisely what my mom had to learn, or rather, unlearn: that there were no “competing identities,” and that my grandfather had always been that gentle father, one who needed a little help due to his schizophrenia. The reality is that these stigmas my mom grew up on are very much a product of a time that deeply misunderstood psychiatric disabilities–not that that’s an excuse, of course–and yet, these stigmas continue to persist. I wanted to illustrate those stigmas in Cate’s journey, and also show the genuine growth throughout her journey that makes her a better person for herself–and for her mother.
Taylor: One of my favorite relationships in I Hope You Get This Message is the one between one of the main characters, Jesse, and his crisis counselor, both of whom are queer, even if they don’t necessarily know that about each other. Can you talk a bit about that relationship and the role those characters play in the book in terms of mental health representation?
Farah: It was really important to me to portray the healthy, helpful relationship between a queer teen boy–who clearly has difficulty opening up to others–and his queer crisis counselor, because I don’t think it’s something we see enough of (though there is definitely a rise of books that do!): the normalization of seeking help, especially when young, but also the sheer difference it can make to ones’ own healing when receiving help from fellow marginalized mental health professionals. It’s hard enough being a queer kid in a rural community, but struggling with mental health on top of it all is, I think, impossible to bear alone, and I didn’t want Jesse to bear it alone, either. So who better to understand him and what he’s enduring than a counselor who has struggled with the very same things? Therapy is most successful when the patient trusts their therapist, so seeing a therapist who genuinely understands you, beyond a textbook or clinical level, can help create that immediate bridge. I want to encourage that with my writing. One of my favorite little things about Jesse is that even though he acts like his counselor is an annoyance, whenever he’s dealing with difficult emotions, his mind always trails back to her and what she might say, how she might call him out. In that way, counseling can be a powerful, introspective tool, a life raft to hold on to when you feel like you’re drowning.
Taylor: Along those lines, in I Hope You Get this Message, you also subtly explore ways that mental health resources are often spread thin. Can you talk a little bit about that aspect of the book and the role that therapy and mental support play both at the potential end of the world and not?
Farah: It wasn’t until I was looking for a therapist for myself that I realized just how bad the shortage of mental health professionals is, which is especially frightening when you consider the need for mental health professionals is only increasing–and given the state of the world, I think it’s hardly surprising. So with all this discussion about the importance of seeking help, the question then becomes, well, how do I find help when there’s hardly any out there? I don’t have an easy answer for this, but I do want to highlight this problem because without creating avenues for accessible care, we’re failing those who need help the most. Right now, we’re a country that would rather arm teachers than hire more healthcare professionals in schools. That’s messed up. And unless we as a society talk about it, and read about it, things will never change.
Taylor: What are some of your recommendations for great mental health representation, whether it’s in books, movies, TV, etc.?
Farah: Recently, I read DARIUS THE GREAT IS NOT OKAY by Adib Khorram and THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER by Emily X.R. Pan and absolutely loved them both. The first deals with the adorably awkward Darius’s depression in such a refreshingly candid way while still managing not to downplay his struggles with his mental health; the latter is a sensitive, heartbreaking story of the aftermath of suicide and trauma that read more like a sigh–of pain and relief. These two books are entirely different in tone, but I would wholeheartedly recommend each as its own masterclass in great mental health rep.
Taylor: Are there any mental health issues you wish were more widely represented in middle grade and YA, or issues you hope to write about but haven’t had the chance yet?
Farah: I’ve struggled with anxiety most of my life, and I would love to write a Muslim character dealing with anxiety, too. Soon, I hope!
Taylor: Do you have any self-care tips, tricks or secrets you’d like to share, especially for writers?
Farah: Writing can be very draining on your body, and I think there’s this unspoken pressure that your legitimacy or effectiveness as a writer is congruent with your ability to sit for hours on end and spit out thousands upon thousands of words in a single writing session. But that’s absolute garbage! I believe taking care of your body is the first step to taking care of your mind, so I recommend setting timers to ensure that you, if you can, stretch every 30 minutes. Think of it as a built-in part of your writing sessions. Back pain can be detrimental to a writer, and once it starts, it rarely just goes away. For me, yoga has been incredibly helpful in helping my back muscles and spine after a day of stiff sitting. And I’ll be honest, when I’m suffering from writer’s block, I’m gonna lie on the floor and flail around anyway, so might as well make a workout of it. Plus, yogic breathing exercises can also help with anxiety and stress. I recommend trying Yoga with Adrienne’s free yoga videos on Youtube.
Farah Naz Rishi is a Pakistani American Muslim writer and voice actor, but in another life, she’s worked stints as a lawyer, a video game journalist, and an editorial assistant. She received her BA in English from Bryn Mawr College, her JD from Lewis & Clark Law School, and her love of weaving stories from the Odyssey Writing Workshop. When she’s not writing, she’s probably hanging out with video game characters. You can find her at home in Philadelphia, or on Twitter @far_ah_way.