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#LoveOzYA Spotlight On: Exploring the experience of living with a mental illness through fantasy and paranormal YA

  • 20 November, 2020
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‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’

It’s a directive we hear all the time. But, whether we like it or not, every time we pick up a book, fold back the cover, and step into a narrative world, we’re entering the story with a set of expectations.

And, perhaps more than other fiction devotees, readers with a penchant for the fantastical and supernatural know what they want from a story: paranormal activity; unexplained events; a meaty mystery constructed on the blurriness between what’s real, and what’s imagined.

It’s this sweet spot of genre-based storytelling that Dr Annika Herb, of the University of Newcastle, is interested in.

In particular, she’s curious about the possibilities fantasy and paranormal young adult literature affords when it comes to exploring the lived experience of mental health, and, by extension, the way these stories can help build empathy.

It all comes down to how easily a fantasy reader accepts certain elements as part of the worldbuilding fabric, instead of immediately casting them with a pathological pall.

Think Lyra and Pantalaimon, a wardrobe leading to Narnia, or Sabriel raising a rabbit from the dead.

“We as the reader are entering these texts and we have these expectations of well, of course this is real, and we follow along with it, we have that deeper sense of reality shifting,” Annika explains.

“Because the books I’m talking about — in terms of How It Feels To Float, Whisper To Me, and 17 and Gone — have this sense of reality disrupting, and it’s a very slow progression.

“We agree with what they’re seeing, we see them as the narrator, so of course they’re telling the truth.

“Even though we understand they’re unreliable narrators . . . we do trust them, even when things start to fragment and start to fracture.”

By using elements of genre-based storytelling to build intimacy with a reader, Annika says these kinds of texts give them a sense of what someone’s first-hand experience of navigating an ambiguous reality feels like, all while reinforcing that such experiences are subjective.

“We’re playing with genre, by disrupting it, and then revealing we are in a contemporary realism narrative all along, even though we’ve been playing with these magic realism elements,” she says.

In addition to raising awareness in those who don’t have personal exposure to mental illness, Annika says these kinds of stories also offer up important, hopeful messages to those who do.

They do it in a number of ways. In the case of the three books Annika focused on for a recent paper (How It Feels To Float, Whisper To Me, and 17 and Gone), it comes across in the supportive response from loved ones, the constructive portrayal of mental health institutions, and the sense that even if the characters face an ongoing journey with their mental health, a diagnosis doesn’t exclusively define them.

“It’s this idea that it’s not the entire part of their identity, or the sole signifer of their identity,” Annika says.

“I think it really hinges on this idea of the ‘also’ — we can be more than one thing, and that rejection of labels.

“And I think it can be a really interesting standpoint to play with, this idea that people are contending with such a contentious point in their lives, where they are emerging in multiple forms of their identity.

“So they’re not just engaging with mental health. They might be engaging in first love, first crush, discovering their sexuality, discovering different forms of their gender or their identity.”

Want more? You can watch clips from an interview with Annika on the #LoveOzYA YouTube Channel.

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Written by #LoveOzYA’s Alex Patrikios