Teresa Wong still thinks of herself as a writer, but the Calgary-based creator just had her first graphic memoir as writer and artist published by Arsenal Pulp Press. Dear Scarlet: The Story of My Postpartum Depression is a deeply personal look at the weeks after the birth of her first child.
The text is written in the form of a letter to her daughter, but the book is unsparing in looking at the physical and emotional costs of motherhood. In recent years, the stigma around postpartum depression has lessened as more women have begun to open up about their experiences, and Dear Scarlet helps to open the conversation around motherhood and parenting in important ways.
Wong and I spoke recently about depression and how Raina Telegemier helped her make the book, and we laughed about Coldplay.
How did you come to comics?
I’ve always loved comics. As a kid I read a lot of Betty and Veronica and Peanuts and Garfield comics, and I grew up with them. When I got to high school or university I left that behind and didn’t think about comics or pursue reading them until I became an adult. About 10-15 years ago I came across Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which was the first graphic memoir I’d ever read and the first comic book I’d ever seen that tackled a real story and told a really sophisticated story. That really kickstarted my interested in graphic novels. I read whatever I could get my hands on.
When I first had the idea for my book Dear Scarlet, I thought, this could make a good graphic novel. Then I thought, I’m a writer not an illustrator, I don’t know how to make a graphic memoir. I wrote out a script and drew a storyboard and sketched it out intending to find an illustrator to collaborate with. When I started showing that first draft, many said that the story would be served better if I drew it myself because it is such a personal story. That’s how it began,
You mentioned Persepolis, and you listed that and a few other books on your website as some of your favorites. What about this story suggested that a comic would be a good way to approach and talk about these events?
I think one main thing that I thought about, and anyone who takes care of a newborn knows this, too, it’s a really quiet time in a person’s life. If you’re home alone with a baby and there’s no one else to talk to, then you spend a lot of your days in silence. I felt that a graphic would be the best way to convey that quietness and solitude.
Reading the book I kept thinking about how physical the experience was.
That’s true, too. It is. When it comes down to it, you’re completely concerned and your mind is concerned with their needs and what you need to do to meet those needs.
It’s so physical, but part of depression is this detachment, and you used the interplay between the text and the visuals really well and conveying that.
I like that about the graphic medium. You can show what someone’s looking like and undercut that or caption that with what they’re really thinking and those two things don’t always line up. When you see that presented in a comics format, it makes a lot of sense. A lot of us are unable to express exactly what we’re feeling and we present what we think is appropriate or what we think people want us to be. At the same time, there’s all these thoughts in our heads that we can’t say but they’re looming. I feel like comics is a really great way to express that.
As you were saying that, I thought of pages 38-39 and the line “We managed to keep you alive without the help of nurses and doctors.” There’s so much in that sentence even as the imagery is ordinary.
Yes. I really appreciate the comics medium for the ability to be able to do that. To show really simple, regular things happening but just under the surface there are all these other things going on.
Whether it’s postpartum or not, depression often works that way. It’s not always as dramatic as people think. People can muddle through their lives and go through the motions and still do what hey need to get done. But just under the surface there’s this whole other thing going on that they can’t express or share with other people.
It’s been a few years since these events.
Scarlet is nine years old now.
As you started thinking about this, how much was there out there about people openly talking about postpartum depression?
When I first started thinking about this, a little over five years ago, there really wasn’t much. There was one celebrity memoir written by Brooke Shields that was on people’s minds, but other than that, nothing much. I feel like in the years since I started working on this, people have started talking about it more and more. I feel like we’ve hit a cusp where women are feeling a lot less afraid and it’s becoming a lot less stigmatized. The more stories we can add to it, the better.
It does feel like there’s much more in recent years around the stigma around parenting in general. How parenting is not about how once you have a child your life makes sense and everything comes naturally and life has this golden glow. Which is not how most people experience parenting. To say nothing about the fact that you’re sleep deprived for weeks or months.
Or years. [laughs] But yeah, it’s a huge change. Especially for the mothers, but for both parents. Prior to these last few years, it felt like no one really talked about how devastating it would be to your way of living. I feel grateful that people are more open and honest about it nowawdays. That’s balanced with glossy pictures on instagram of perfectly dressed kids in great lighting. There’s always going to be people who put a real shine on it and the people who are trying to express their honest experiences as well.
As I read the book, I also kept thinking about the overwhelming whiteness of motherhood memoirs, which makes the book stand out.
Absolutely. Like I said I feel like we’re on the cusp. There need to be more stories out there from more points of view. I’m thrilled to have had the chance to put my story out there, but I want to see more and from people who have different backgrounds from me.
The scene where you can’t breastfeed and talking about how this means you’re not being selfless and not being willing to suffer made you a bad mother.
Currently, breastfeeding is the best thing you can do for your child, and when you can’t do that, you’re wracked with guilt. I still am sometimes. Because we’re trying to give our children natural, organic, chemical-free food and when you start your child’s life with formula, everything tells you that’s wrong. Again, it’s important to put out stories that reflect different experiences and that there isn’t only one way to be a mother or raise a child.
The scene where you break down listening to a Coldplay song, I haven’t been there, but I understood completely. [laughs]
There was an excerpt of the book published and they titled it something like, “One mother discovers she has postpartum depression when she begins to cry to Coldplay.” [laughs] I thought, I don’t know that I want to be known for that. It’s actually quite embarrassing, but it’s true. Music plays a huge role in my book, as you know. Partly because when Scarlet was a baby I really didn’t know how to talk to her so I would often just sing to her. And I’d sing songs I knew the words to. That Coldplay scene was not my best moment in life, but yeah, the words really got to me. When I heard that song I thought, I just can’t be fixed.
You mentioned you started thinking about this five years ago. What happened that made you start thinking about telling this story?
The real impetus was when I was pregnant with my third child. I was just lying in bed thinking about when Scarlet was born and I started having all these flashbacks about that time. Those images started making me cry. I’d been through all this counseling but I didn’t feel done with it. Writing helps me find closure and I thought, I’ve got to write this down. I was also very pregnant and had two little girls so there was no way I could do it then. I just didn’t have the time. It wasn’t until he was one year old and I’d gone back to work and found myself free during lunch hours at work. That’s when I started to write it out. The writing came very easily. I’d written it as a letter to Scarlet – obviously – and that helped me shape what I wanted to say. I don’t know whether she’ll have babies one day or go through postpartum depression, but she’s a sensitive girl and she might have depression one day and I wanted her to understand that I knew what that felt like.
Going from writing this as a letter to sitting down to draw and script it out, did you have a guide for how to do this?
This is also embarrassing – not as embarrassing as the Coldplay. I wrote the script and thought I needed to find an artists to collaborate with, but I would paste pieces into a sketchbook and then sketch my ideas for how the story might look as a storyboard on the other side of the page. That’s what I showed a few illustrator friends who told me that I should draw it myself. I thought, how am I going to do this? So I Googled, “How to make a graphic novel.” [laughs] I started scrolling through the results and I found a blog post by Raina Telgemeier. I’m sure the blog posts was directed at kids, but in that post she details her process down to the type of paper she buys. I thought, I’m going to do this. I literally went out and bought the same type of paper she did and a blue pencil. I worked analog and drew everything out in pencil. I couldn’t ink like she did because she uses a brush and I used a micron pen. I inked it and scanned it and that’s how I ended up with my manuscript.
I was so thankful for that. I had a chance to meet her at the Toronto Comics Arts Festival this year and thank her in person and give her a copy of my book and tell her, “This would not be possible if it weren’t for your blog post.” My work looks nothing like hers and my art isn’t on her level, but it gave me the ability to put together a polished enough manuscript to get a book.
Having finished this book, which was emotional and personal, do you want to make another book?
I would like to do it again, but I don’t know if I have the ability to do what I want to do. I’m going to spend little time trying to figure that out. I have another story that I would like to tell but it’s a lot more difficult to draw. I’d like to tell the story of my parents who both escaped from communes during the Cultural Revolution in China. I don’t know how to draw China. I don’t know if that’s a requirement. So I’m just trying to figure out what I can do to serve that story well enough with the abilities that I have, or whether I need to find a collaborator.