Back when I was doing interviews for my YA novel YOUR HEART AFTER DARK, I was constantly asked about my inspirations for the story and I distanced myself from the subject like it was COVID-19.
I’m not used to talking about myself. It makes me anxious, like I’ll accidentally reveal too much or say something that’ll attract an asteroid to my manga collection.
My teen years taught me how to function despite constant disaster and powerlessness. I had to learn how to control my reactions or else the magma of my frustrations would set me on fire. Stuff at home worthy of an Indian soap opera? Ignore it. Constantly moving around and losing all your friends? Suck it up. People from your religious community hung naked from a tree and bludgeoned to death? Cool. Cool cool cool.
I remember at my grade 8 graduation, every time a kid got on the stage to receive an award, their parents would take a photo of their smirking face. I won the English Language Arts award. When I stepped onto that huge stage and grabbed my plaque, the teacher turned to the crowd, waiting for someone to take a photo. But no flashes came. Earlier on at home, a pyrotechnic $hitshow had gone down and I had to attend my grad alone. I nearly died in that awkward silence but my friend’s mom saved the day by running up and snapping a pic. (I love you, Friend’s Mom.)
I never told people what I was going through. Not my home problems, not my spiritual bros getting constantly murdered, nada. I was used to being the strong person. I was never supposed to break down. If I did, there was no one who knew how to pick up the pieces, there was no one who could take the reigns and prevent everything from crashing and burning. My only focus was on keeping myself together. Self-preservation in systems of societal oppression and personal powerlessness meant laying low and not letting the dam of your emotional baggage break.
I’ve experienced some social & psychological stuff that has fancy names and complicated descriptions, but I always suffered in silence. I was so focused on keeping my $hit together that I never thought deeply about what it was doing to me. When you’re in the middle of a fistfight, you can’t stop to bandage your bruises. Sometimes you can’t even yell for help.
Instead of fighting a loud battle or giving up altogether, I chose to survive via endurance. I chose to fight an internal battle. I was a small boat but I was going to ride out these mother-effing waves with sheer willpower alone. I went from being Mahtab Rohan to being Mahtab Fricken Rohan, Wrangler Of Internal Demons, doer of daily Buddha-level control your mind $hit.
I was one of the lucky ones. I got through an extremely volatile period in one piece. Sometimes, I still feel like there’s something clawing at me from inside. Whether it’s a token of past experiences or perhaps just my disposition, I’m not quite sure. But regardless, I’m a survivor and I’m proud to have steered my boat out of the storm.
When I wrote YOUR HEART AFTER DARK, it was an exercise in coming to terms with a rough adolescence.
I wanted to write about people who had to make personal sacrifices, whose struggles weren’t so obvious to everyone around them. No one would give them a trophy for what they did but it would make all the difference nonetheless. They would battle the demons in their head and that was the story. And it’s actually what a lot of people go through in real life, trying to fortify their mental health on their own, trying to find that light at the end of the tunnel without anyone to guide them. Not all of us can access therapists and not all therapists can understand what it’s like to be a minority in a minority, a coloured girl, a person carrying generational trauma.
So I wrote the story. When I began querying, there was a lot of praise. People loved certain things about my writing but ultimately, they had trouble connecting with my main character. Perhaps they found her an “inactive protagonist”. Things were happening “to” her for most of the story and she wasn’t making stuff happen on her own. She wasn’t yelling at people who wronged her, she wasn’t running away from home, she wasn’t rebelling or seeking out adventure (she also wasn’t depressed by her religion or falling in love with a white savior). That outward struggle which white stories often center around wasn’t present.
When my manuscript was rejected, I decided to publish the story on my own. In hindsight, I could’ve queried wider. I could have made further revisions. I could’ve waited. But there wasn’t much point to any of that. I had already gotten what I wanted from the manuscript: the therapeutic effect of writing it. Now, I just wanted to send it out into the wild and move onto my next idea. I wasn’t going to waste more time trying to make the story palatable to white folk.
YOUR HEART AFTER DARK revealed to me the white-centric nature of traditional publishing in a way my usual stories couldn’t, and wherever I go from here, I’ll be taking those lessons with me. I’ll remember how being a writer isn’t just the simple act of writing; it’s the complicated act of retaining your integrity in an industry that seeks to fundamentally change your narrative.
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Check out my inactive protagonist here