Mental Illness in the Media: John Green’s new book and the importance of “own voices”

If you somehow haven’t heard yet, John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, is publishing a new book this fall after over a five year wait. If you’ve read my other post about John and his YouTube channel then you know I’m a pretty big fan. So, regardless of the content, I was gunna be pretty excited about the prospect of a new book, but to add a cherry on this sundae, the book is going to feature a main character with a mental illness, the same one that John himself struggles with.

Here is the video he made announcing the book. And here is the video he made about what living with OCD is like for him.

I am not exaggerating when I say that thinking about this book has moved me to tears more than once. I am so fucking excited, you guys! To have someone as high profile as John Green writing and talking about his mental illness gives me such hope for a future where our culture isn’t afraid to acknowledge the struggles we’re living with. I truly hope this helps blaze a path for others living with mental illness to find an open minded and empathetic audience for their stories.

The fact that the character has the same illness that John has makes this book an #ownvoices book. If you don’t know what that is, it’s basically a book about marginalized people, written by marginalized people. Here is a video (slightly long at 30 min) that really dives into the topic. The last half of the video is testimonials from marginalized readers who explain why seeing characters like them in books, written by authors like them is so intensely meaningful. If you have the time to watch the whole thing I highly suggest it because their stories are very touching.

As someone who is biracial and mentally ill, I can definitely attest to the lack of accurate and uplifting media available to those who fall outside the currently limited representations in our culture. It is validating and necessary to see yourself represented as the hero of the story. Sometimes you need to see someone like you do great things to know that you are indeed capable of great things yourself. And because these stories are still so few and far between, it is incredibly important where these stories come from. Writing about a marginalized identity is a difficult task because the very nature of being marginalized means that there are likely fundamental misunderstandings among the general population about said identity. The easiest way to avoid the pitfalls of relying on stereotypes is, of course, to have lived the experience you’re writing about. Even years of intense research can’t replace the advantage of years of lived experience when it comes to writing about complex topics like sexuality, race, and even mental illness. If we want to end stigma around a subject such as mental illness we need to support writers who will avoid perpetuating false notions and stigmatizing portrayals in their writing.

Besides the concerns of accuracy, the other major benefit of #ownvoices books is that it gives a platform to marginalized populations who have largely been blocked from joining the cultural conversation until now. The American literary scene has been especially homogenous throughout our history and right now we’re lucky enough to be living in a time where large swaths of the community are working very hard to change that. By supporting marginalized authors when they tell stories about their lived experiences you’re not only supporting an accurate portrayal of a marginalized identity, but also giving these authors the support they need to continue writing stories, #ownvoices and other kinds too. Prioritizing #ownvoices stories when we choose to read about marginalized characters is a very easy way to continue diversifying the industry.

I must acknowledge that John Green is able to sell his story about mental illness to a wide audience because while he is part of one marginalized community (those living with mental illness) he is also part of many, many socially included groups (white, male, Christian, etc) which has allowed him to succeed and build an expansive audience throughout his career. His character from Turtles All the Way Down will certainly be a valuable addition to the literary canon featuring mental illness, but an almost equal value will come from the door being opened for even more diverse authors to tell their stories of living with mental illness. Here’s a video with additional mental illness and #ownvoices recommendations that feature a variety of diverse authors. If you’re interested in finding more, I’ve noticed that I have better success searching with YouTube rather than Google.

And now that I’ve found those recommendations I need to get over to the library! I hope if you didn’t know about #ownvoices books before that this blog was helpful. If you read any of these books please let me know what you think! And if you’re excited for John’s new book drop a couple turtles in the comments!

Until next time,

Be well everyone.

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