'My Heart and Other Black Holes' author Jasmine Warga talks about the difficult task of tackling mental health
I’ve written a little before about my own struggles with depression, but it’s a hard subject to tackle because the experience of depression at once deeply personal and unique, but also widespread and more common than many realize, thanks to the stigma that’s often associated with discussing mental illness. When My Heart and Other Black Holes first landed on my desk, I was apprehensive to crack it open. Books about depression can be brilliant and moving, but they can also be frustrating, if not done well. Thankfully, Black Holes was the former.
The book is told in first person from the perspective of depressed teen Aysel, who has decided she wants to commit suicide, but isn’t sure she can follow through with the decision on her own. As a result, she turns to an online community for the terminally depressed and seeks a suicide partner to give her accountability. When she finds one, another teen who lives in next town over, she enters into the pact with roughly the same amount of emotion as most of us would agree to be someone’s yoga buddy. It’s not a callous depiction of depression; it’s an accurate one. Aysel is numb and despondent and, in her current state of mind, this seems like the only option. Things become complicated, however, as she grows closer to her suicide partner, Roman, who becomes the first friend she’s had in years and makes her realize that maybe there’s something worth living for after all.
I know my description of the plot sounds a little saccharine, maybe even contrived, but this is not The Fault in Our Stars meets clinical depression. My Heart and Other Black Holes succeeds where most books about depression fail in capturing the hopelessness and emptiness of depression. Through Aysel’s simple, straightforward and visceral descriptions of her emotional state (she describes depression as a “black slug” that fills her up and sucks away her motivation and ability to feel), the reader gets a glimpse at the mindset of someone struggling with depression.
I had the pleasure of discussing the book with its author, Jasmine Warga. She spoke frankly about the inspiration for the novel, her personal experiences with depression and why she chose to portray the illness the way she did in the novel.
HelloGiggles: My Heart and Other Black Holes is such a gripping portrayal of depression. Can you talk a little about what inspired you to write the novel?
Jasmine Warga: So I unexpectedly lost my best friend in January of 2013, but his death was not a suicide, so in no way is that exact strand taken. But I think it’s a combination of my own personal struggle with mental health issues and then being in that space of sort of really sheer shocking grief and the merging of those two things. I think that the book, in lots of ways, is about friendship. So I think that my friendship and deep love for him definitely were chief creative inspirations for that importance of having people in your life who see you clearly even when you might not see yourself clearly, especially since I think a big theme of the book is how depression sort of makes you an unreliable narrator of your own life. My friend that I lost was definitely one of those people that I think helped guide me in those moments when I was sort of an unreliable narrator to my own situation.
HG: Why do you think your feelings of grief manifested in this story?
JW: I think that several factors were at play, the first being that this was the first time in my adult life that I was really confronted with the reality of death, and I’ve been privileged enough that this was the first major loss in my adult life and this understanding that someone can be here one moment and gone the next. I’d actually seen my friend the day before he died and then got this phone call and I think there was a shocking quality to that grief. So I think I was just constantly thinking about death and the reality of death, and Aysel’s voice sort of came to me. At first, I was very unnerved by it, especially because some of the questions that she was asking and sort of her mental state, it was immediately clear to me that we were gonna delve into this territory that, until then, I’d been very nervous to write about.
The projects I was working on before My Heart and Other Black Holes were sort of whimsical in tone and definitely nothing like this book. And I think I was in such an overwhelming state of grief and, in that raw state, I was willing to go to this place with Aysel that I might not have been able to otherwise. I probably wouldn’t have been, I don’t know if the right word is ‘brave’ because I don’t know that it was a brave thing to do, but I might have been too scared to write about this particular topic, since I do have personal experience with depression. I also think it’s a murky topic because, from the time we’re young, we’re sort of indoctrinated with the way society treats suicide and depression and mental health issues not to want to talk about them, so it was sort of just fighting against these societal norms that I’d absorbed.
HG: What made you decide to write in just Aysel’s voice instead of third person or alternating between Aysel and Roman’s perspectives?
JW: Well, I think I’ve always loved unreliable narrators, and to me Aysel is an unreliable narrator, but not in the way we’ve classically seen. She’s not trying to purposefully manipulate the reader; it’s just that her own depression is making her not see things fully in her life and I thought that might be a satisfying reading experience if you as the reader start to slowly clue in to the fact that what she’s describing, things might not be exactly how they seem. So, I think in terms of a narrative building, I liked the idea that there would be tiny reveals in that way.
And in terms of not writing from Roman’s perspective, I get asked this a lot — I get lots and lots of emails from readers asking if there’ll be a story from Roman’s point of view or when we’ll get a story from Roman’s point of view — and it’s funny cause I never even really at all considered writing from his perspective. It was always gonna be Aysel’s story. While he plays a large role in that, I very much believe in her owning it and I wanted to write about specifically young female depression and from her perspective.
HG: I think it’s really interesting that both Roman and Aysel can trace their depression back to a specific event or instance because a lot of people who suffer from depression can’t. Why did you decide to give them both such apparent anchors for their emotional arcs as opposed to having one or both of them struggle with a more generalized, ambiguous form of depression?
JW: That’s a great question. I think that for me, I definitely see Aysel as someone who struggles from clinical depression and it’s exacerbated by certain situations in her life. So, obviously what happened with her father has exacerbated her depression, but I see it as something that she really struggled with her whole life and probably the sad reality is that the time when her father committed his crime was also probably around the time she was coming of age, which for a lot of people who struggle with clinical depression their whole lives, a lot of times the first onset of it is around that age. So I think that was a double whammy for her, but definitely I think her depression is more of the clinical variety and that there doesn’t have to be a certain situation that’s setting it off because depression isn’t always a logical illness. But I also think that, for a narrative and for a reader to immediately hook in, it helps probably to deepen the reader’s understand of her character to anchor that onset of her clinical depression with her father’s crime.
And as for Roman, I think that he’s definitely an example of someone who has situational depression and I really wanted to have two characters who showcased these two different forms of depression that we can see in adolescence. With Roman, it’s definitely anchored to his sister’s death and the guilt that he feels over that and, in some ways, that can even be a much like scarier form of depression in that it can grip down on you and it makes it impossible for him to see anything beyond that event. I think that when he looks at the landscape of his life, that moment with his sister is sort of the end, even though it obviously isn’t like the end the end, but in the way the depression has sort of manipulated his vision of his own life.
So, I wanted to sort of play with the contrast between situational and clinical depression and the overlap between them because I think that if you’re someone who’s prone to depression, then certain situations that oftentimes set off depression are more likely to grab onto you in the way that we see that with Aysel. I think that she’s someone that will probably struggle with depression her whole life and the hope at the end of the book is that she would be getting the proper care to manage that.
HG: Exactly and the book does end on a pretty hopeful note. Did you know going in that it would end the way it does or was there ever any thought that maybe it wouldn’t end in such a hopeful place for the characters?
JW: There was definitely a question about Roman. I knew that I wanted Aysel’s end thread to be hopeful. That was so important for me because I remember when I was younger looking for books about mental health issues, particularly suicide, and my biggest complaint was that all the books about suicide were told from the perspective of survivors of suicide — by which I mean relatives of people who had committed suicide. And the book would begin when the person had already made the decision to take their life and I really wanted to write a book that showed that you can be in that really, really dark place and really, really have thought about these things and have suicidal ideation and you can come out of it. To me, it’s very very important to convey that while depression is, I believe, as serious and real as diseases that present in a more physical way, it also doesn’t have to be a terminal disease. So it was very important for me that Aysel’s story ended on a hopeful note and, to me, Roman’s outcome rolled itself into that. I couldn’t imagine a situation where his ending wasn’t hopeful becuase I then couldn’t see her being left in a place that would be believable to the reader because of the guilt that she would have over that.
HG: I was also really impressed as I read the book with the vivid and really accurate imagery you use to describe depression. How did you got about articulating these very complex feelings and how was it for you as someone who has dealt with those feelings personally to write about. Was it cathartic? Difficult?
JW: Thank you so much. I’m glad that imagery worked for you and I think how I came up with it was I just really thought about how it feels and really tried to describe it in the most accurate way that I could. And again, I think this stemmed from a place of frustration. Maybe it’s because a lot of creative people throughout history have suffered from depression, but I think there’s a tendency to romanticize depression and describe it with this flowery, beautiful language and, you know, I love some of those lines from famous works of literature as much as anyone, especially when I was a teenager, but I really wanted to sort of flip that on its head and try to describe in the most brutal and banal way possible what depression really feels like. So, this black slug imagery came to me because I think it goes again back to the illogicalness of depression that you can sit there and know that really you shouldn’t feel the way that you do and you don’t want to feel the way that you do, but there’s this thing like a parasite that’s inside of you that is making any happy thoughts or actions feel impossible because it’s sucking all that potential for energy or happiness away from you. So I just grabbed onto that and wrote from there and came up with that image that gets repeated throughout the book, and that’s how Aysel has come to describe her own emotional state.
My Heart and Other Black Holes is available now.
(Image via HarperCollins.)