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. I don’t like inviting people into the sometimes dark, always cautious personal space of my mind.
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, a token of having lived with severe anxiety. But 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 what I had been through.
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 the concept, the setting, my writing. But alas, no one loved my “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).
When my manuscript was widely rejected, I decided to publish the story on my own. Some people say I made a mistake. I should have queried wider. I should have revised the story more and waited. But I know how to read the room and I’m not an “inactive protagonist” anymore, and I had already gotten what I wanted from the manuscript: the therapeutic effect of writing it.
YOUR HEART AFTER DARK was an experiment for me and far-removed from my usual writing style, but it revealed to me the whitewashed nature of traditional publishing in a way my usual stories couldn’t.
I’m now working on a Kashmir-inspired YA fantasy, which I know will be more palatable than a paranormal story about Muslim kids pained by something other than religion. But no matter how things go, I’ve seen the traditional publishing industry for what it is and I won’t let it colonize my writing.
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Check out my inactive protagonist here