Authors have discussed the importance of perspectives on mental health when considering diversity and inclusion with one writer Rose Cartwright revealing how she walked away from a traditional publishing deal for fear of being “compromised”.
At The Bookseller’s 10th FutureBook conference on 25th November in London’s 155 Bishopsgate, Derek Owusu spoke of how he first started writing whilst receiving treatment in a mental health unit. “I started writing when I was in a mental health facility, trying to make sense of how I got there, the series of events in my life which led me there.” He went on to describe how his experience influenced his novel-in-verse That Reminds Me (#Merky Books). “Because of where I was… I just wanted to be as raw and honest as possible… there a couple of passages in the book which people have told me are difficult to read but once you get past them, hopefully you can emphathise with the character.”
The session, Change Up: How to think and publish differently’, took place minutes after the screen deal of Owusu’s forthcoming second title for #Merky Books, Teaching My Brother to Read, was announced - with the TV and film rights bought by Idris Elba’s production company, Green Door.
Crystal Mahey-Morgan, who was chairing the panel, suggested there should be more consideration of the range of mental health experiences in regards to diversity and inclusion in publishing. Mahey-Morgan, who heads up publisher, agency and lifestyle brand OWN IT!, said: “When we are talking diversity it is interesting to me how we define that. We generally don’t think about mental health when we talk about this, we talk about BAME. Is there a problem in our very non-diverse conversation about diversity which means we’re losing out on stories and therefore audiences and money?”
Poet MC Angel told the panel how she became “physically sick” while writing her book and revisiting her traumatic experiences. She emphasised the need to write about difficult times to help others who are also struggling. “It is so important to write about them because what about people who have had a similar life. I hope that as someone that there is someone who can pick up my book and say ‘there is someone who has been through this too’.”
The writer and activist warned against believing the sanitised versions of individuals presented through social media. “If I tried to do the sugar-coated version of it, how would they ever understand that there are other people who are experiencing this same spectrum of emotion, they just wouldn’t understand, it would feel like the Hollywood, dressed-up version of something, like fake sex on TV – it looks so nice but in real life you are falling out of your trousers and can’t get your bra off… it’s embarrassing at times. But that’s mental health – the raw element, the pure gritty pain – it can be hard to admit that to others because we’re always supposed to present the perfect part of ourselves, especially on social media.” She added: “That’s the pure honesty of writing, it’s the who and where you are, it’s the pure beauty.”
She urged attendees to create space, celebrating a range of voices, rather than aligning with traditional models. “It’s like if you’re at a dinner party and someone’s trying to be real and everyone is being fake,” she said. “It’s breaking the mould. If everyone’s playing the same game… I’ll go and create that space and stand up and be in it, and then people will be like ‘Finally! I’ve been dying for something so human in such a long time.’ The opportunities for writers and publishers have to be – what am I taking a risk on and how can I change the narrative? How can I make more space for more people?’ The more we make more space for everyone, the better.”
Rose Cartwright echoed this, in describing her publishing journey – with her memoir, Pure (Unbound), detailing her OCD, after she had concerns about the traditional process. “I was not prepared to sugar coat either, I had this raw, defiant energy. I thought ‘F**k you’, I have been experiencing this for my whole life. I thought I am going to blow the roof off this.I thought [about my OCD previously] if I tell anyone I will go to prison. That was the level of shame.”
She walked away from a corporate publishing deal. “I had one traditional publishing offer and I just thought there was a tonality to the conversation where I thought ‘I’m going to get compromised here and they’re going to try and turn it into something that I don’t want it to be'.’”
Cartwright said: “The context of mental health is that, publishers will tell you as I got told, ‘I don’t know where that audience is,’ or ‘there’s no audience is’. I’m telling you, ‘I know the audience is there, it’s just that they’re hiding,’ so that’s a big problem and that’s why you need independent voices to come and say ‘I exist’. There’s a massive problem with that. Because there’s limited space on the bookshelf and people don’t know what to do with those kind of stories – well, just give them space and let them be.”