May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month as well as Mental Health Awareness Month and I’m back with another installation of Tell Me More, the series that explores the lives and careers of minority women. I want to focus on Asian-American stories more than ever now, especially with everything that’s going on in the world right now.
I spoke with I.W. Gregorio, a practicing urologist and the author behind two great YA novels (None of the Above and This is My Brain in Love), talking about mental health, writing minority characters, and being Asian-American.
I.W. Gregorio’s latest book, This is My Brain in Love, is told from the perspective of two narrators, Jocelyn Wu and Will Domenici. Jocelyn’s family restaurant is failing and her parents are considering moving away. Moving away from everything she knows cannot be an option so Jocelyn plans to revive the restaurant. She hires Will, her half-Italian and half-Nigerian classmate, to help her out. The resulting story– one that explores mental health, food, microaggressions and being in love, is a story that many will relate to. There are small nuances of being “other” and more that many will connect and see their own experiences in.
The following is a conversation I had with IW Gregorio, edited and condensed for clarity.
What do you think we need to see more of during conversations about mental health, especially in minorities? In This is My Brain in Love, readers get to see teen mental health unfold in a really natural way amidst a larger story– fear, support, being a continual process and going towards the unknown as well as your own mental health journey in the author’s notes.
I definitely feel like a lot of the media narrative from the big YA books that have come out recently have been maybe potentially disproportionately focused on death by suicide. I really made an effort in this book to talk to not have an active suicide attempt, even though there was some small suicidal ideation. For a long time, I kind of felt like I wasn’t depressed enough and that was a barrier to getting treatment. I think that’s really important to show people that, you know, depression takes all sorts of different forms and just because you haven’t actively tried to kill yourself doesn’t mean that you’re not truly clinically depressed and in a situation where all these different types of interventions can help you. I also really just wanted to write about sort of how challenging it can be to be in love with someone with anxiety or depression, because I’ve been in both sides of the situation– both the person who’s been sad and had a partner, who doesn’t feel like they can say the right thing and also been the person pushing a loved one to try to consider therapy or consider medication because I could see them spiraling, not being able to help themselves.
I was reading interviews about how you wanted to write an #OwnVoice book and I think the first draft of This is My Brain in Love was the one that got you an agent. But then, you were told that there could only be one YA Asian American author so then you shelved it.
It’s really not that they’re the same book. I don’t want you to think this is a book that I had written before. There were parts of my first book that I definitely cannibalized to write this book in that the first book was a thinly-veiled autobiography of an Asian American woman. Yeah, that is kind of true. That’s definitely true.
I always felt like with my Chinese heritage that I was never quite good enough Asian. The people I grew up with–my grandparents were – never actually lived in China or Taiwan. They actually were part of the diaspora in South Africa, Malaysia, and Mauritius. I had a very tenuous relationship to Chinese culture.
What was the most surprising thing about writing This is My Brain in Love? I was reading a Main Line Today interview where it covers some of the publishing difficulties you went through.
I guess the most surprising thing has been the reaction of my mother, who I don’t think has read yet. She has read some of the essays I’ve written about the book and she has definitely responded with a much more open way than I would’ve feared. I also feel like one of the surprising things is that it was challenging in some way to create Will’s character, the dual narrative, which is not necessarily an #OwnVoice narrative. Even though his anxieties are similar to mine and in many respects, his socioeconomic status are more similar to mine, he was obviously a challenge to write because I have friends who are Nigerian but I am not from that community. It took a lot of research–a lot of interviewing, going to people’s homes, researching food. My entering into understanding Will’s character is partly from his struggles of anxiety, but also from his struggle as a mixed race person because I have a daughter who is mixed race. I think in many ways that sense of disassociation with your culture is very similar to people who are immigrants. I always felt like with my Chinese heritage that I was never quite good enough Asian. The people I grew up with, my grandparents, never actually lived in China or Taiwan. They actually were part of the diaspora in South Africa, Malaysia, and Mauritius. I had a very tenuous relationship to Chinese culture. Grace Lin will sometimes write stories about all these traditions. I never had those, which is ironic because Grace and I actually went to the same high school so we were part of the same community. Because of that sense of otherness, that sense of detachment, I think that I was able to read a little bit more to Will’s struggle for figuring out his place in the world.
What do you think was the biggest turning point in your life?
I mean the biggest turning point in my life, I feel like I kind of alluded to in 1 or 2 previous interviews, where I finally had a therapist who managed to break through all those years of conditioning where I felt like my sadness, my inability to control my emotions were weaknesses or character flaws. She was able to finally pound into my brain that it’s actually partially a chemical imbalance. She was like, “Ilene, why are you denying yourself these medications?” I’ve been on them but then stopped, been on them and stopped. Literally, I’ve been on and off them twice by the time I saw her and I was on a research year [during medical school]. It was a very challenging year because it was very isolating. I was stuck in a lab, decapitating rats. It was awful. It was an underground lab; you had to descend underground. Horrible. When I wasn’t doing that, I was just like making slide after slide. It was so monotonous. At that point, I saw a therapist and finally she was just like you have to realize that your brain needs serotonin so take it; don’t be afraid to take it.
What do you think is the best part about being Asian-American right now, despite everything that’s going on?
It’s been a long road but I think that the Asian American community is starting to come together in a way through things like Crazy Rich Asians and the Gold Open. The community is finally coming together around cultural events,emphasizing the role of art and the creation of the culture. For so long, a lot of us have grown up in this dichotomy where you’re either a doctor or a lawyer and you’re not of any worth [if you’re not the above]. Artistic pursuits were considered to be a hobby. I know so many Asian creators who grew up wanting to be an artist or a writer and then, suppressing that passion. The community finally started to really gather around things like Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell. [With] a lot of the books that we’re seeing these days, I’m hoping that we’re finally creating that sense of cultural identity the way that a lot of the Black community had. There’s so much Black pride– I remember, specifically, I think it was the North Texas Teen Book festival in Austin and being at a table with Jason Reynolds and Dhonielle Clayton. We’re talking and they’re going back and forth about all the things they’re proud of the community. Marie Lu and I were all kind of like, “Yeah, we never felt that way about being Asian.” It was really eye opening to question why Asian-Americans have never felt like they can be proud of their art. I have been seeing that more– Kat Cho and Ellen Oh have been really good at gathering the community together and trying to create “economies of scale”, where people are creating panels together, becoming a collective and collaborating in ways that we haven’t been in the past. It’s new to me because I grew up in a place where I was, you know, just me and one other Asian dude and of course, we didn’t want to have anything to do with each other because people were always mentally pairing us together. I never felt a sense of Asian community until junior or senior year of college.
For fun: who would you get brunch with and where would you go?
I would want it to be Michelle Obama. I have just started listening to Becoming and the depth of how she’s able to narrate her life and balance the success with the challenges that she faced growing up. I love her. We would probably go to my local Vietnamese place to get a banh mi and bubble tea.
To learn more about I.W. Gregorio, check out the following pieces:
To order I.W. Gregorio’s latest book, This is My Brain in Love, order via Bookshop.org or through your local independent bookstore. A directory of local bookstores near you and how to order can be found here.
Thank you to my brother for making the graphic and Rushi for help with the transcription.