WHO DESERVES A HAPPILY EVER AFTER?
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.
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.
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.
PEOPLE WITH MENTAL ILLNESS DESERVE HAPPILY EVER AFTERS.
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:
PEOPLE WITH MENTAL ILLNESS DESERVE HAPPILY EVER AFTERS.
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.