Jasmine Warga’s debut novel, My Heart and Other Black Holes, follows sixteen-year-old Aysel, who’s obsessed with plotting her own death. There’s only one problem: she’s not sure she can do it alone. Once she discovers a website with a section called Suicide Partners, Aysel’s convinced she’s found her solution—Roman, a teenage boy haunted by a family tragedy, is looking for a partner. Even though Aysel and Roman have nothing in common, they slowly start to fill in each other’s broken lives. But as their pact becomes more concrete, Aysel begins to question whether she really wants to go through with it.
We asked Jasmine about the importance of talking about mental illness in YA books. Here’s what she had to say:
One of the questions you get asked most frequently when you have a book coming out is “So what’s it about?” This question always gives me pause. Sets me on edge. You see, the simplest way to summarize My Heart and Other Black Holes is to say it’s a book about a teenage suicide pact, and whenever I announce that, I usually make the asker of the question very uncomfortable. And I also get uncomfortable.
But my discomfort brings me back to why I wanted to write the book in the first place. According to the Suicide Prevention Education Alliance, one in five high school youth seriously consider suicide, yet as a society, we are very uncomfortable discussing suicidal ideation and depression. It’s treated as something that should be swept under the rug, as if talking about it makes it infectious. I think, however, it’s actually the exact opposite. Not talking about depression and suicidal ideation helps to stigmatize mental illness, it makes those struggling with dark thoughts embarrassed by them, and thus less likely to seek help.
Depression is a disease that preys on isolation. Your mind becomes your own worst enemy. It convinces you that you are worthless, alone, undeserving of love. And worse, since depression usually does not present with physical identifiers, i.e. you don’t lose your hair, you don’t develop large bruises, you don’t have a fever, it can be very hard for your friends and loved ones to detect. Which brings me to what I think is the most maddening aspect of depression—while connecting with others and talking about what is going on inside your head can be the key to surviving depression, the disease oftentimes makes it almost impossible to do just that. That’s why I think it’s so important to encourage those suffering from depression not to further isolate themselves, but instead try and find a way to connect with others.
YA books that deal with mental illness can help to jump start these necessary, but oftentimes difficult, conversations. It is my hope that these books can help build a better understanding of depression amongst the general population—an understanding that depression is a real and serious disease, but not a disease that has to be terminal. And that one of the most effective ways to battle depression is to have open and honest conversations about it. So that’s what I find to be most special about YA books that authentically and courageously discuss mental illness—they help build connections and awareness. They let us know we aren’t alone.
Jasmine Warga grew up outside of Cincinnati, Ohio. Before becoming a full-time writer, she briefly worked as a science teacher. My Heart and Other Black Holes is her first novel. One of our most anticipated reads this year, it is gorgeously written and compulsively readable.