Moss’s panic attacks were always part of the book. Even when ANGER was a much different story early on in the drafting process, that element was always there. I knew that I wanted to address my own struggles with it after experiencing trauma because of interactions with the police. It was a specific enough intersection that I had seen very little representations of it in media, and this provided me a chance to be honest and vulnerable about various forms of mental illness.
In your book, Moss has a family that supports him with his anxiety and he also attends therapy. Do you think it is an important part of his story to show him receiving support for his mental health?
The story in ANGER isn’t representative of everyone, and I know from experience that many kids of color do not have access to therapy or to loving, supportive families. Part of the reason that he’s got such a huge support network was to prevent the book from feeling so dire that it was unreadable. I needed to show the positive aspects so that Moss always had some sort of hope on the horizon. It’s a form of fantasizing, in that sense, because it’s what I wanted as a teenager: to have people in my life who listened to me and understood that the thorny parts of me were due to what was going on in my head. So, I don’t think EVERY story needs to show this, but I felt this one HAD to.
Moss is black, gay, and neurodiverse. His character, along with the rest of your cast, cause the book to be incredibly intersectional. How did you go about crafting that intersectionality in your story?
It takes a lot of work, and it’s work that doesn’t end. When the paperback comes out, I’m hoping I get a chance to do another pass to further improve the book along other lines. (With regards to Reg, specifically, who is one of Moss’s best friends and deals with chronic pain.) I say that because while I’m proud of the book, I know it’s not flawless or perfectly representational of every community that is part of the story. I started from a place of realism: I wanted to depict West Oakland as it looked like, and many characters are based on people I met during the five years I lived there. But even then, that’s not enough. I had critique partners give me feedback; I had four sensitivity readers; I kept revising and revising, cutting things out or adding more texture. So, it’s part intention—you really have to WANT to represent a diverse world—but the majority of the work is craft. It’s writing people with empathy. It’s understanding the limitations and prejudices you have as a creator, and not getting defensive when people point out those limitations.
Did you ever face challenges in the publishing process due to the intersectionality and heavy topics within your book?
Lord, so many! Over a decade ago, I tried to get published with a Latinx-inspired fantasy novel, and I was repeatedly told that the main character could not be gay, and that having him be Latinx was “too confusing.” We Need Diverse Books had not been started, and many of us were routinely pushed out of the industry because our identities were considered “niche.” I had some trouble finding an agent because I was so open about wanting a diverse, complicated book. When I finally got an agent, we heard some real interesting things from editors who got ANGER on submission. I got a sense that there was pushback because Moss was not “likable” or “relatable” enough, and the fact that he was written as a depressed, anxious kid makes me think that people wanted him to be presented in a more comfortable way. Ultimately, I’m glad I never got edited by anyone like this, and my editor at Tor Teen (Miriam Weinberg) encouraged me to explore Moss’s story with honesty.
One of the goals of the Shattering Stigmas event is to work towards overcoming and erasing the stigmas associated with mental illness. What do you think the reading and publishing communities can be doing to help erase this stigma?
The industry can start by perhaps being a lot more sympathetic to people with mental illnesses. The way schedules work out for authors can be chaotic, hectic, and unpredictable, and they are generally not at all accommodating to us. The industry AND the reading community at-large can also be more accepting of the fact that there is not one narrative for mental illness. I want there to be tons of books published with all sorts of representations of mental illness. Part of that comes with understanding that a story or character can contain a narrative of mental illness that does not match my own experience; that doesn’t make it less valid. I see this a lot from readers and reviewers, and it isn’t helping, especially when someone calls rep “unbelievable,” despite that it is exactly how I and others experience it. On a larger note, I’d love to do away with stories where those with mental illnesses are merely the villain or are nothing but antagonistic without any context. Mental illness isn’t pretty or neat, and we should celebrate characters who are not easy to be around, who are difficult, who require nuance and support. But when they only exist just to be evil? No thanks.
Does the stigma associated with mental illness change when it comes to mental illness within communities of color and queer communities? What do people need to be aware of about mental health topics in those communities?
So, I mostly chose to avoid this topic in ANGER because I wasn’t sure it was something that I felt comfortable enough talking about. It probably isn’t surprising that both communities have their own stigmas to deal with, and being a queer person of color means that a lot of the problems with mental illness growing up were… complicated. But I used to hear one specific thing a lot, and not just growing up: Mental illness was a “white” problem. It’s not exactly a helpful thing to hear when you’re brown and you know there’s something going on in your head. I don’t know that there’s a single thing to be aware of because so many non-white communities have specific issues within their spaces, and a lot of queer people have mental illnesses that are often BECAUSE they are forced to deal with homophobia and toxic environments. So I feel like the only simple answer I can give is that if you are not a part of these groups, please be wary about making absolute statements about how mental illness operates within them. It makes matters more complicated, yes, but we need that honesty and nuance.
Anger is a Gift started out as a science fiction novel before it became a contemporary and you have mentioned that you are now writing in several other genres. Do you think the genre of the story you are writing changes how you approach important topics like mental illness?
Wow, this is a great question and not something I’d ever really thought about. Part of the reason I ended up changing the genre of the book was because my original idea led to a very crowded manuscript. There was simply too much going on, and there wasn’t enough space for the story to grow, to feel real and organic. Once I pared it down to a standalone in the contemporary genre, it allowed me to really get inside Moss’s head. My work with Miriam on our edits helped me to flesh out Moss’s life, the support system he had, and the focus on the ways that his mental illness manifested in his life. In short: I was doing less sci-fi plotting, and it gave me the space to build up Moss’s complex existence.
A lot of topics in your book deal with real issues that are effecting marginalized youth in America and the story can be incredibly heavy at times. How did you approach writing these topics so that readers were left with hope are the end of the story?
There’s some levity in the friend group, and, as I had mentioned earlier, I deliberately gave Moss a beautiful support system so that for every difficult scene, there was something tender and fluffy that followed it. But once the story moved to a much darker place, I found that challenge harder to accomplish. It’s a craft thing, too. How can you write about depression and grief without succumbing to it? There were a lot of difficult scenes I wrote that even drained ME. So how could I craft a book that wouldn’t drain the reader? I’m not sure I did that, but my technique was all community: there are always outside forces in Moss’s life to counter the dark thoughts he has. I think that’s one of the most effective ways to maintain hope in a personal sense, so I hope it’s reflected in the book.
In addition to writing Anger is a Gift, you are also known for Mark Does Stuff where you review books and shows. During your experience as a reviewer, has anything stuck out to you about the current state of mental illness representation in media?
It’s just so much better! Both in the number of characters with mental illness and the quality of those depictions. I’m still blown away by the (at times) brutal honesty of CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND, for example, or shows like IN THE FLESH or LADY DYNAMITE. Of course, I’d love to see more queerness or non-white depictions of mental illness on television and in books.
What are some of your favorite books that tackle topics of mental health?
THE REST OF US JUST LIVE HERE by Patrick Ness
LITTLE AND LION by Brandy Colbert
THE MEMORY OF LIGHT by Francisco X. Stork
THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER by Emily X.R. Pan
HOLD STILL by Nina LaCour
DARIUS THE GREAT IS NOT OKAY by Adib Khorram
Check out my twitter giveaway for two signed mental health reads!
Want to see a complete list of the Shattering Stigmas event posts? Check out Ben's blog!