Tuesday, 23 October 2012


Hi guys! Happy Tuesday to all. I'm working on a reader question post for Thursday, but today I felt it was a good time to unearth an essay that I wrote last year (mainly because I've come across yet another review which raised the same issues). So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ranty stylings of:


Over the weekend I got a Google Alert to tell me that an early review of Shadows on the Moon had appeared on a blog. I checked it out and the review was generally positive and had lots of nice things to say about the book, but despite this it caused me to nearly fall off the sofa in utter horror at two issues the reviewer raised.

I'm not going to name the blog or provide a link. For a start, I don't want to cause a dogpile. More importantly, I know that the reviewer has the absolute right to think and say whatever she wants. In many ways, her opinion on my book is none of my business. I have no problem with her at all, and I don't take issue with her review.

My horror had its origin in the sudden sinking sensation that the points the blogger raised were going to come up again. And again. And yet again. We live in a prejudiced world full of unfair assumptions and privilege, and when I wrote Shadows on the Moon I didn't think about any of that. I just wrote what I wanted and needed to write. My horror came from the realisation that we live in a world where people can still make statements which I feel betray a terrible lack of understanding for those different from them, without any apparent consciousness of the fact. If these points are going to end up being common in the discussion of the book - and I feel worried that they will - then I really want to make a definitive statement about them now.

The first thing that slapped me in the face was the language used to describe Otieno, the male main character in the story. Otieno is a member of a diplomatic party visiting the heroine's country from a foreign land. He's highly educated, softly spoken, funny and intelligent. He is emotionally articulate, polite, loves music and is an accomplished archer. The reviewer acknowledged much of this. Yet they still used the terms 'exotic' and 'savage' to describe him.


I bet you've already guessed. Otieno is black.

I think any regular reader of the blog will know how I feel about writing books that reflect the beautiful diversity of the real world, especially in fantasy (if not, go here, you'll soon get it). Shadows on the Moon is set in a faerytale version of Japan, so the vast majority of the characters are what we in the Western world would describe as 'Asian' in appearance. I created Otieno and his family to provide a contrast to this mono-ethnic world. I also created them to provide a contrast to the heroine Suzume's repressed, rigid, emotionally barren life. Otieno is, in many ways, the heroine's moral compass within the story.

I want to make it clear: Otieno is not 'savage'. Animals are savage. He is not exotic. Fruit is 'exotic'. Those terms are what is known as 'othering' language - language which isolates and alienates people, which subtly portrays them as less human, just because they are different to you. This is not okay. When you discuss characters of colour, please consider this.

Now we come to the second point which disturbed me: the attitude to mental illness.

The blogger very rightly picked up on the fact that Suzume suffers with depression throughout most of the book, and her ways of dealing with this are often self-destructive. No one who had been through the ordeal the heroine had by the age of fourteen could escape without suffering deep emotional trauma. Especially not if they had any vestiges of control wrenched out of their hands and were then forced to repress all their emotions about what had happened. I think it's also clear that Suzume's mother had depressive tendencies and passed these onto her daughter (just as my mother passed depressive tendencies onto me, and her mother passed them to her). To be fair, the reviewer had no problem with this.

What she did have a problem with? Was that Suzume was not cured of this depression by the end of the book. The blogger said she found it hard to believe in Suzume's future happiness because her depression was not fully 'addressed'. She wanted to know that Suzume would 'prevail' over her self destructive behaviour.

Look. This...I don't even know how to express how wrong this is. But it is sadly representative of a strong underlying assumption made by many neurotypical people (and, in fact, many people who themselves have mental health problems): that mental illness is a kind of fatal flaw in the personality, a stain on the character, an inescapable shadow on the life of the afflicted person. That it must surely be impossible for anyone to live a normal life if they're, you know, a bit cuckoo, and that in order for a fictional character to complete their story arc, they must throw off their mental illness and take their place among the normal people.



There is no cure for depression - not even in this day and age. Sometimes it goes away on its own, and sometimes you suffer with it periodically for your whole life. Sometimes it's as mild as feeling sad and low for no reason and sometimes it's as extreme as feeling that all you want is to kill yourself. And guess what? Millions of people live with it. I do. That doesn't mean we can't be happy, or that we need to be in limbo until we somehow figure out a way to escape from our mental illness. It doesn't mean the only worthwhile stories about us need to be stories of finding a mythical cure for the way our brains work instead of stories of having adventures *despite* our mental health issues.

And here's another fact: people who self harm also deserve happy endings. They can HAVE a happy ending even if, now and again, they may revert to self-harming again during times of stress.

How can these issues be addressed? How can a character prevail over their depression and their tendency to self harm? Well, they can take control of their own life as much as possible. They can isolate the things that trigger depression and work on that. They can make the decision to try to resist self-destructive behaviours. It's not a dramatic-flash-of-light-chorus-of-angels kind of thing. It's an ongoing process, and it's hard. This is what Suzume decides to do at the end of Shadows on the Moon. Because there is no super-special-awesome-sparkly cure for mental illness or self-harm. And the young adults who are going through similar trials in their own lives KNOW THIS.

How much of a cop-out would it have been for me to show my character shrugging off her trauma and suffering like an old cloak and skipping away with unalloyed, undamaged happiness at the end of all she had been through?

Just what message would that have given to anyone reading the book who has a mental illness? 'Get over it or you'll never get a happily ever after?'

You know what? Imma say it again:


So do people with scars and disabilities (which is why Zira and Sorin don't get magically healed at the end of Daughter of the Flames)! So do all kinds of people who are not perfect, normal, typical and beautiful. So do people who have made mistakes, done awful things, and hope one day to redeem themselves. So do people who are lost and lonely or isolated or 'othered' by the society where they dwell.

These are the people that Shadows on the Moon was written for. And to them I offer a big virtual hug, and a virtual cookie, and the assurance that there are people out there who do understand. You are not alone.


Jessica said...

I read a book a few years ago with made me absolutely furious. It was about eating disorders and depression. The main character suffered through most of the book and her emotions were painfully and beautifully written. Then, in the last two chapters, she suddenly had a new burst of self-esteem and was magically better overnight.

I felt it undid all the good of the rest of the book. It felt like the author was saying, "It's OK. You can completely recover if you just want to." Which makes it seem like those who struggle for years just aren't trying hard enough.

I'm OK with happy endings and optimism, but if an author makes a serious mental problem vanish it diminishes the disease.

I haven't reached the end of Shadows on the Moon yet (though given the pace I'm reading it, it won't take long) but I agree with you on this issue. I would rather read a book that honestly acknowledges the difficulties of depression and mental illness rather than whitewashing over it for the sake of a happy ending.

sarah said...

I'm trying to find the right words to describe how I felt reading this post without coming across as a complete dork for using an overabundance of superlatives. I loved everything that you said here.

Zoë Marriott said...

Jessica: Yes, that 'just pull yourself together' attitude is all too common. My mother has been depressive all her life and yet still prides herself on never having taken medication for it 'like one of those people' (I have no idea who 'those people' are!) even though her refusal to get treatment has resulted in a lot of self-destructive behaviour which has hurt her family. I think it's really important to discuss mental illness openly and try to change the way people look at it, because otherwise the stigma will never go away.

Sarah: Thank you :) I think you've expressed yourself pretty well there!

Miriam Drori said...

Well said! I have been put off novels that ended with magic cures in the past.

Zoë Marriott said...

Miriam: Thank you :) I think a lot of people are - but a significant majority still feel cheated and unsatisfied if they *don't* get one, and it's the underlying assumptions that drive their dissatisfaction which I think we need to tackle.

Unknown said...

This post is amazing Zoë! I think the fact that Suzume doesn't get over her depression makes her & the story far more realistic, since mental illness is not something you can magically get over in real life so why should it be in fiction? I suffer from mental illness myself, and I found it easy to empathise with Suzume. I feel that if she had randomly been 'healed' at the end it would have undermined her struggle, and as you said made it seem like only 'normal' people get happy endings. That's just awful logic!

Also, her condition doesn't make her any the less determined or incapable of reaching her goals, nor is she unwilling to be happy when the time comes. In that respect I think she makes a good role model.

I agree with you, everyone deserves a happy ending. It's ridiculous and narrow minded to think otherwise, as no-one on real life is perfect but we all still have chances to be happy! Stories don't have to be some ideal, fluffy little world where everything's wonderful all the time, they should be true :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Amy: Thank you! I think people with mental illness of their own do need to see a reflection of that in fiction, and role models who deal with that mental illness and find happiness despite it. If we looked in the press all we'd find is Britney Spears and Charlie Sheen, and most TV and films only bothers to show troubled geniuses like Sherlock Holmes. None of these reflect normal people like us. And I think the way this issue is discussed reflects that. That's why I wanted to bring it up again.

Laura Mary said...

I think people are confusing a 'happy ending' with a 'perfect ending'.

In my mind, a happy-ever-after is simply a promise that things will get better from now on. Not perfect, but better.

Mental illness is a very isolating thing and one of the things I have always found solace in is reading. I’m certain I am not alone in that!

Jessica – unfortunately I have read similar stories, or worse where problems like that evolved, developed and were wrapped up and cured over the course of the book.
It made me feel like a complete and utter failure. Like I was beyond repair.

Oops - didn’t mean to end on a downer there! Here Zoë – this is what your post immediately brought to mind…


Zoë Marriott said...

Laura: Maggie Stiefvater recently did a video in which she talked about the blizzards of young women between 10-13 who kept writing to her to ask her why the ending of her SHIVER trilogy wasn't 'happy'. And 'happy', according to them, would have been if the two main characters got married and had babies. At 18. Disney has a lot to answer for...

Cara M. said...

I must say that I do hate the magical happy ending myself, and I haven't read the book in question (yet). But I have to wonder if there's going to be a different perspective on things from people who only have experience with mental illness from the outside. Often I can get very close to the main character of a novel, and feel the way I do about a dear friend or relative. When my dear friend is suffering from something like this, I feel helpless, because though I can be positive and supportive and offer a refuge, it's still possible to turn around and find out that someone who was supposed to be handling it... hasn't.

I'm just saying that it's not that strange to want a fix-it story - to want to know for sure that your favorite character is safe (not that anyone is ever safe). It is, of course, a little willfully blind. But I think that telling people that they're wrong to want that story won't change anything, unless they know that there are other, more realistic, happy endings available. And that's what books like these are doing, and should continue to do, because it's important to know that there are real happy endings just as good as magic ones.

Zoë Marriott said...

Cara: That is an extremely good point. The desire to see someone you care about (fictional or real life) get better and do well is perfectly natural. I think it's so important to talk about what expectations it's reasonable to have of people who suffer with depression or other mental illnesses. The neurotypical view that in order to be happy you need to 'overcome' mental illness is still very prevalent, and it can be so counterproductive because it's a completely impossible task for many and can make their illness as well as their chance for real happiness now, as they are, worse.

Kristen Evey said...

This post brought tears to my eyes. I don't know if I could accurately convey all the things I want to say about this. So, just, thank you. This is beautiful. (Also, these two points are two of the things I loved about 'Shadows on the Moon.' One of my biggest pet peeves in books is when traumatic experiences do not affect characters, and there is a very sad lack of diversity in books. So, props to you.)

Zoë Marriott said...

Kristen: Thank you :)

Shelver 506 said...

1. Great post!

2. Is that photo true to how you picture Otieno? Wowzer. SHADOWS ON THE MOON was already on my to-read list, but I think I'll have to bump it up now. (Yes, I'm shameless when it comes to attractive males.)

3. What an interesting point to make re: the language used to describe Otieno. "Savage" made my nostrils quiver in horror, but I wouldn't have thought to be offended by "exotic." If he's meant to be a contrast to the other characters in the world, wouldn't that literally make him exotic? ("Strikingly unusual or strange in effect or appearance.")

4. THANK YOU for the points re: mental illness. Oh my gosh, I can't even...

Zoë Marriott said...

Shelver: Thanks! And yes - exotic is a troublesome word. It's very easy to use it to make someone feel 'other'. Because, after all, no one is exotic to THEMSELVES. If you say 'Oh he's exotic looking' you're holding someone up to an idea of 'normal' which is usually privileged, ie. Western and white. White people aren't referred to as 'exotic' even if we come across them in the middle of a marketplace in Marrakesh, whereas many people would be tempted to describe the wares and people and smells there as 'exotic' even though they are, in fact, homely and everyday to anyone who isn't comparing them to that same articifial, Western standard of 'normal'. When Otieno looks at himself in the mirror he sees a person - his own normal everyday self - not something striking and unusual, and certainly not something 'exotic'. And that's why it's not a good idea to describe people that way.

Nineran said...

I have issues with the Otieno thing too, but it was basically mad raving about how I wasn't aware that it wasn't a different world, so details about where he came from and how'd he get here dragged me down.
And the green eyes. The green eyes got to me.

BUT. That was really, no big deal. Two small nit-picky issues in a YA written from a different cultural perspective? I will take that and thank you and hope it's an example.

Of all the things that you've tackled in that book though, I find that your self-injury coverage was the best. It was sensitive. It didn't judge. It's not an inaccurate representation of how people live with those tendencies in them (and yes, I speak for myself) - and what I loved the best was the times when she wasn't in that place and didn't know why, and suddenly she was again, and YET the story made no moral judgements on what she SHOULD get. Perhaps I should have emphasised that, but I didn't want ... (how do I put this? I will try, and hope it comes across as I mean it.) to make that the focus of the book (review). And it would become that. It was the story of a girl. And yes, she cut herself. But the story isn't about the cutting, it's about the girl. It's more than that.

And just because I've cited my review, here's a link: link. And I would *love* to know what you opinion of that is. In your two free weeks. No pressure ;)

Zoë Marriott said...

Nineran: Oh, let me go and check it out. Before I do, though; I'm glad that you felt the self-harm element was sensitively and realistically portrayed. I drew on my own personal experience for that, but I was aware all the time that my experience wasn't universal, so there was always the chance that I would get something wrong anyway. I've generally been really pleased with the response. A few people thought reading about Suzume self-harming might encourage young people who weren't already cutting to start, but frankly that idea is so ludicrous that I couldn't even get cross about it.

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