Suffering in Story

Bringing us inside the complexity and the experience of mental illness, Meghan Hubley and Anna Quon are remarkable advocates for mental health.
2009 Performance of Meghan Hubley's Honey, Winnipeg. Photo by Janet Shum
2009 Performance of Meghan Hubley’s Honey and Jupiter, Winnipeg. Photo by Janet Shum

Nova Scotia writers explore explore psychological suffering with depth and resolution

Mental health is being discussed and represented in popular media more and more; anti-stigma and mental-illness awareness campaigns abound. But in an age of sound bytes, tweets and internet memes, how many of us actually have an understanding of the experience of mental illness?

There are personal and social implications and identity politics associate with mental illness. There are also misunderstandings and incidents of discrimination faced by numerous individuals every day in our communities.

It is perhaps our storytellers – our novelists, playwrights, poets and screenwriters – who are most willing to explore psychological suffering with the level of depth and resolution required to elicit empathy and understanding.

This past Mental Health Week (May 1-7), I had the privilege of speaking with two Halifax-based writers who approach this important topic from their own lived experience.

Low by Anna QuonAnna Quon is the author of two novels, and six poetry collections. Her book Low tells the story of young Adriana Song as she navigates her life in and out of the Nova Scotia Hospital – a hospital where Quon herself has received treatment. While a psychiatric ward is the setting for her novel, Quon is quick to explain that the book is not a mental health story, as much as it is a character-driven exploration of human beings who just happen to be marginalized.

Although she hopes to offer readers a window into the experiences of her characters, who suffer from mental illness, Quon says she never writes with a political agenda. Through her role as storyteller, she aspires to tell stories that reveal the truth of her own experience – that the greatest gifts and insights often come from discarded members of our communities.

Low also explores the idea that we are creatures of habit – that our individual thought patterns make up our identities, and that psychological healing can come from expanding the vision of ourselves in our lives.

Quon, who has begun to identify more recently with the Mad Pride movement, is currently writing her third novel.

Meghan Hubley is a playwright and an active blogger and theatre reviewer. Her play, Honey and Jupiter, follows the relationship between a teenage girl and her eating disorder, and will soon be shown to young audiences across Nova Scotia. Her newest theatrical work is called TreeGirl. It is a poetic piece of magical realism that explores themes of suicide and what experiencing a depressive episode can feel like.

Hubley, who has her own relationship with depression, has been grappling with how to accurately depict the static and immobile aspects of the experience, while still engaging her audiences. She strives to create the real “feeling” of depression, so that her audiences can empathize and identify with her story – whether or not they have an intimacy with the subject matter.

For the playwright, it is important to stay truthful to the real, human aspects of mental illness. This sometimes means tapping into her own personal history. The memory and the sensation of her experiences with depression and eating disorders provide the seed, and Hubley’s creativity and courage work to nurture and shape these experiences into theatre that is as intimate and personal as it is poetic.

Hubley aspires for people with mental illness to see themselves represented in her work, and to legitimize these types of experiences in our popular discourse.

For both writers, there is a desire to open up a conversation about mental illness, to normalize it and to promote understanding. But despite their chosen subject matter, both Quon and Hubley transcend the standard educational or “issue” piece. Their work is not simply about mental illness, as much as it is about capturing the universal aspects of emotional suffering. As artists, they both succeed at connecting us to the hardship, and the beauty, of the humans they choose to portray.

The most important contributions to the mental health awareness movement, are perhaps made by those who do not write in order to be political. These two Atlantic writers aim to tell good stories and to make meaningful art.

And they do this with sensitivity and skill. But by bringing us inside the complexity and the experience of mental illness, Meghan Hubley and Anna Quon are also remarkable advocates for mental health.

Written By

Laura Burke is a poet, playwright, actor, drama therapist, researcher, mental health advocate and public speaker. She lives in Halifax with a community of good friends and 5 urban chickens.

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