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On “Seeing the Whole Humanity of Each Person”: A conversation between 2022 JBWC Fellow Angelina Tang & mentor Jessica Lowell Mason

I want you, dear reader, to better understand those who perceive the world differently from you, and kindly be able to ask them, “So, what do you think?”
—Angelina Tang

“Is the way this narrative is constructed helping or harming those within the community being represented?” This is a question I think we, as writers, especially of fiction but within any genre, should be asking ourselves.
— Jessica Lowell Mason

2022 Youth Fellow Angelina Tang & project mentor Jessica Lowell Mason

2022 JBWC Youth Fellow, Angelina Tang in conversation with project mentor Jessica Lowell Mason

Angelina’s novella tells the story of Qiūhuā, a girl with a vibrant way of seeing the world and who is diagnosed with schizophrenia. You two had some extremely insightful conversations about how to approach telling this story, in particular, about representation of people diagnosed with mental illness in writing/art. What are one or two key takeaways from your conversations that you want others (in particular writers/artists, but also the general public) to consider?

Angelina: I think the biggest thing for everyone to recognize is that having a diagnosed mental illness, especially one that is societally glorified like schizophrenia and DID, does not mean somebody is not “normal.” Sure, they do not perceive the world the same way as many other individuals, but nobody gets to define what is normal and what isn’t. If you tried to do that, then nobody is “normal,” because every single human being sees the world through a different lens. People diagnosed with mental illness are not crazy; you may not be able to relate to many of their experiences, but that statement is applicable to everyone around you. Just be nice. Be willing to listen and learn.

As for artists in particular, more diverse representation is crucial. The same narrative of mental illness diagnoses being treated as a sickness to overcome through medication or other clinical treatments is a perspective that has been promoted by the psychiatric institution, but it is not by any means representative of all diagnosis experiences. More conversations about how labels dehumanize people and how having a mental illness is not completely debilitating should be had, and I’d love to see more narratives featuring POC voices–especially Asian voices, if you can’t tell from my own work!–where the label, not one’s perception of the world, is challenged, and where the main character grows to accept their diagnosis and learn to work with it, to go through the world as their own person, not defined solely by their altered perception.

Jessica: There were many valuable takeaways to the conversations that Angelina and I had about her novella, so many that I wish I could share them all here, or work with Angelina to turn them into some kind of public lecture for, or conversation with, fiction writers who want to represent emotional distress and people with psychiatric diagnoses in their work. One of the main issues we addressed was the ways in which “mental illness” is political, in that the language that constructs it exists within our legal, criminal justice, carceral, and social systems.

But it is also personal, in that the label itself has an effect on bodies and social lives, and each person who has some kind of relationship with that phrase, “mental illness,” has their own unique perspectives on it and understanding of its effects. There are many people who identify with the label of “mental illness” and find help and solace in it, but there are also many people to whom that label has been a form of violence and led to harm, such as social ostracism and institutional dehumanization, in their lives.

For LGBTQIA2S+ and other marginalized communities, the term has often been used to couch systemic violence, such as white supremacy, colonization, patriarchy, and homo- or Trans-phobia: to blame or further marginalize those victimized by systems of violence. Those who are targeted as different from the norm or those who are disenfranchised under capitalism or violated under patriarchy or white supremacy often become labeled as “mentally ill.” It is very complicated and it is a loaded term: loaded, because it is laden with painful histories, and so to write about a character who is affected by the label and other related labels that are even more stigmatizing is tricky and requires care, for any writer of any age within any genre.

Angelina is a very astute and creatively brilliant high school student, and based on my work with her, I can attest that she is mature beyond her years. Still, there are things that people who have not been labeled with serious diagnostic labels cannot understand about the material effects of and what life can be like bearing the weight of such labels: I do not and cannot know what it is like to bear the weight of a schizophrenia diagnosis. But I can imagine relating in a unique way to language. Angelina’s work does something that I think advocates powerfully for people who have been affected by psychiatric labels and systems: she writes about differences in consciousness and expressions of language in a way that destigmatizes both. It is the loving way she represents her characters, rendering them both deeply human and atypical that assures me that her novella has something to teach us about seeing the whole humanity of each person. I believe her work contributes to efforts to combat stigma because she represents alternative states of consciousness in a way that renders them beautiful and vulnerable, rather than as phenomena to be feared.

My role in working with Angelina was to try to share some of my historical and linguistic insights, as someone whose life is steeped in working for the social liberation of people with psychiatric labels and experiences, but to do it in a way that made sense to Angelina, for whom much of what I said was new and unexpected, understandably…Part of this was introducing the field of disability studies to Angelina. It helps to consider altered states experiences within that framework as an alternative to the mental health framework because people with physical or learning disabilities, today, on the whole, are not incarcerated in institutions the way they used to be before deinstitutionalization, say, back during the days of the Willard Asylum; people with psychiatric disabilities and labels, on the other hand, still are institutionalized in carceral environments. Because I am someone who is part of and works with people who have been affected by the mental health system, especially by psychiatric diagnoses, I presented Angelina with some of my insights as well as my concerns about the need for carefulness and sensitivity in crafting a literary representation of a contested phenomenon. Even a representation of a psychiatric hospital requires careful attention because such representations can sway how readers think things work for most people: but differences in geographic location, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, and gender identity can determine the type of institution one encounters and the quality of treatment one receives or to which one is subjected.

Angelina did a marvelous job engaging with heavy and hard questions; she did not shirk or shy away from any of the issues and questions we discussed, and I was amazed to see how she was able to incorporate the history, theory, and questions I presented her with into the prose she was crafting, in the most subtle and delicate of ways. Angelina has a very perceptive, creative, and loving way of thinking about psychiatric diagnoses, differences in behaviors and consciousness styles, and emotional distress, or emotionality. Just as I asked Angelina to consider the very personal politics of language, I would ask other writers who are writing about labels they have not carried or experiences that are not their own to do so. “Is the way this moment is constructed, and the way this narrative is constructed, helping or harming those within the community being represented?” This is a question I think we, as writers, especially of fiction but within any genre, should be asking ourselves.

Language, the words we use, has such sway over how we perceive others. What did you two discuss in terms of how to adjust certain words/phrasing/language when it comes to talking about mental health?

Angelina: …A human being is more than their diagnosis or illness…Institutionalization promotes clinical language, viewing altered perception as illnesses and labeling people as their diagnosis through the use of “schizophrenic,” “depressed,” etc. This creates stigma; we are given the impression that people with these diagnoses are sick and must be treated and “fixed” until they are “normal” again. Intentionally or not, this actively diminishes our empathy for the very people we wish to help, and I want to stress that the best way to help people is by stopping the use of such subtle, yet profound, phrases. By viewing diagnosed peoples as human beings with their own voices instead of as patients, we take an important step towards magnifying the voices of accounts of people with altered perceptions. Their stories and their language, which are so heavily stifled by institutionalization, are something that we must embrace in order to truly understand them.

Jessica: I am going to echo part of what Angelina said: indeed, language is so important– yes, the mental health field and the function of its apparatus is reliant on it; but also more globally: language is the foundation of social existence. Language is life, and just as there are many forms of life, there are many manifestations of language for which we should be making more, not less, room. Schizophrenia, in particular, is a psychiatric label that deals with the power and politics of language. Those who receive the language of a schizophrenia diagnosis receive it because of the non-normative ways in which they use language, or communicate. The diagnosis is one that targets unusual language practices that follow certain communicative patterns in people. There is a politics here, for many reasons, one of which is that the diagnosis historically was a manifestation of racism that particularly targeted men of color by white supremacist systems of authority and carcerality. A writer such as Angelina or myself or a fellow poet or writer might be praised and receive recognition for atypical linguistic configurations of creative expression on the page, but when uses of language manifest in spoken language and in the world of gesture (and are deemed unfamiliar or non-normative and, therefore, aberrant and dangerous), our society pathologizes them and seeks to isolate and eliminate them.

This is all part of what I would call the “politics of legibility”: not being understood is political; it has dire material consequences in our social world, on rights and on the survival of bodies. What is linguistically incomprehensible to the majority becomes read as a violation of social norms and, in essence, is ushered into systems designed to maintain social order, such as stigma, diagnosis, and treatment. Marginalized styles of communication and language practices are connected with marginalized identities and histories. Because I, myself, use language in unusual ways on the page, and because Angelina’s novella shows that she does, as well, this is something we, and other writers, need to think about. This has everything to do with language and the mental health system, but it goes beyond institutions to institutionality, to the ways in which systems of violence use language and weaponize illegibility, and the ways in which those working for liberation use language to liberate bodies by validating what is cast off as illegible as, instead, a form of othered and marginalized legibility. How are we, as writers, implicated in this politics of legibility?

I’ve heard many writers talk about how one of the goals of their stories is to explore and examine important questions our society should be asking. What questions do you hope Autumn Flowers will help us ask?

Angelina: I hope that Autumn Flowers can open up discussion on mental illness and coexisting with it in life rather than viewing it as a wholly negative addition. I want readers to wonder, “Why don’t we treat people labeled as mentally ill the same way we treat everyone else?” I want readers to consider their reasons and see the lack of logic and empathy in them. But most of all, I want people who live with these diagnoses to be treated as equally human as the rest of society. I want you, dear reader, to better understand those who perceive the world differently from you, and kindly be able to ask them, “So, what do you think?”

Jessica: This, I think, is primarily a question for Angelina to answer, because the novella is hers and is a rendering of her intellectual and spiritual relationship with language. Having read and engaged with Autumn Flowers, infused with all of its poetic richness and soulful perceptiveness, my hope is that it will urge readers to encounter and see the worth in a greater and more vast spectrum of humanity and consciousness: to witness and internalize a sense of the beauty and validity in people experiencing consciousness differently. You don’t have to understand someone to empathize with them and accept them– Angelina’s work sends out this important message. I believe that Angelina’s novella has the power of eliciting empathy, and empathy is what we need more of to shift away from and transform the fear, ignorance, and hatred that separate us. I love and second Angelina’s question for her reader, which urges us to turn our open and listening hearts toward, not away from, those we don’t understand. Just Buffalo Literary Center did just that by asking me to serve as a mentor to Angelina.

Angelina Tang is an avid prose writer from Buffalo and a junior in high school. She is planning on self-publishing her first novel, Birds Playing God, next year. If ever found without a pen in hand, she’s likely busy grappling with violin and piano, sewing clothes from scratch, or contemplating her own writing again. Read excerpts from her 2022 Fellow Project, Autumn Flowers, here.

Jessica Lowell Mason is a Ph.D. candidate and teaching assistant in the Global Gender and Sexuality Studies Department at the University at Buffalo. She is the author of Woman in Disguise (Saltfire Press, 2013) and Straight Jacket (Finishing Line Press, 2019), as well as the co-editor of Madwomen in Social Justice Literatures, Movements, and Art (Vernon Press, 2023). She is the co-founder of Madwomen in the Attic, a feminist mental health literacy organization in Buffalo, NY and is the co-facilitator of an ongoing weekly writing workshop in partnership between MITA and the Herstory Writing Workshop, titled “Memoirs to (Re)Imagine Mental Healthcare.”


Interview conducted by Just Buffalo Writing Center Coordinator Robin Lee Jordan.