Q&A with Akemi Dawn Bowman, Author of “Starfish,” “Summer Bird Blue,” “Harley in the Sky” and “The Infinity Courts”

If you’ve read any Shattering Stigmas posts in years past, you’ve probably stumbled upon one of my interviews with young adult and middle grade author Akemi Dawn Bowman. Their debut Starfish was one of the first books where I really saw my social anxiety reflected and connected me with one of my closest friends. Since then, it has been such a joy to follow Akemi’s growing career and read their words whenever they have a new book out. That’s why I’m so excited to welcome Akemi Dawn Bowman back to Shattering Stigmas today to discuss her 2020 release Harley in the Sky, her upcoming 2021 YA The Infinity Courts and more. Let’s get to it. 🙂

Taylor: In your latest young adult novel, Harley in the Sky, Harley struggles with extreme highs and lows as well as obsessive tendencies. Can you talk a bit about how you approached and shaped Harley’s character and these struggles in the book?

Cover illustrated by Sarah J. Coleman and designed by Heather Palisi-Reyes

Akemi Dawn Bowman: Harley is based around a time in my life when I didn’t have access to therapy, and was navigating how to cope with my mental health all on my own. She can be a chaotic personality at times, but she also means well, and tries really hard—even when she messes up. I wanted to really dig into the multitudes of a personality like Harley’s, and show what it can feel like. Not just the highs and lows, but also the way your own mind can make complete sense to you, but people on the outside don’t always understand it. And I think Harley is someone who really needed people to give her a chance to be her own person, while also having the kind of patience and support that says, “Hey, I see you, and I know you’re trying your best, but if you ever feel like you’re struggling, I want you to know I’m here.” Because the reality is that therapy is a privilege not everyone has. It can be expensive, and inaccessible for a lot of people. There are also cultural and family nuances that might mean therapy isn’t an option. I wanted to show a character doing what they can to manage their mood swings in a way that feels right for them, because mental health isn’t a one-size-fits all.  But I also wanted to show how having a support system can be so, so helpful and important to someone struggling with mental illness, regardless of whether therapy is the right choice for them or not.

Taylor: A fantastic and poignant part of Harley’s story for me was her struggle to fit in, whether it was within her culture, her family or the circus. Can you talk a bit about how you approached writing about Harley’s sense of belonging in these various spaces in her life?

Akemi: When I came up with the idea for this book, I really wanted it to feel magical. Harley has a romantic view of the world. She’s a dreamer, and she’s fueled with hope, but she also has a lot of tangled feelings when it comes to her culture and family. The circus, to Harley, is the one place she can be herself and find acceptance. At its core, this book is about Harley’s search for a place where she can feel like she belongs. She wants to be comfortable with herself, and who she is, but she wants to be accepted, too. And I think no matter a person’s culture or background, that’s a fairly universal experience. So I guess I wrote a story about a girl searching for magic in the real world, because sometimes a little bit of magic is what makes a place feel like home.

Taylor: Something that I love a lot in Harley in the Sky is that Harley and her mom struggle with similar mental health issues like depression and suicidal ideation and struggle to communicate about their feelings with each other. Harley’s dad also doesn’t understand depression well and struggles to help them. Can you talk a bit about how and why you wrote these family dynamics this way?

Akemi: I’m definitely not speaking for everyone here, but sometimes mental health shows patterns between family members. And sometimes even when the people closest to you love you, they don’t always know the right way to be supportive. Not everyone talks about mental health within their families, which is why it’s so important to normalize these things. I really wanted to depict a family who loved each other unconditionally, but also were reacting to mental health in their own ways with their different biases. I wanted to show the importance of supporting one another, and how sometimes it takes a few tough conversations to get to that point. Even people who mean well don’t always understand you right away. And I know that can be frustrating, as it is for Harley, but when you have people who love you, it’s often worth putting the effort in. Because all relationships take work.

Taylor: Harley’s mental health issues and personality lead to a strain on her best friendship with Chloe after she runs away to join a traveling circus and without spoilers, I loved how you showed that there were consequences for Harley’s actions there, even if she didn’t intend harm or notice she was hurting her best friend. Can you talk a bit about this friendship and why you wrote it the way you did?

Akemi: I will try my best to avoid spoilers here! It’s very easy for a person to get caught up in their own feelings, but perhaps even more so when you also have severe highs and lows the way Harley does. Harley isn’t intentionally trying to be selfish, but sometimes her brain feels like a fast-paced train, and it’s difficult to stop and see what’s happening outside of it. It’s only when the train crashes and is no longer moving that she notices, but by then there’s a lot of pieces to clean up. And I think this is something I’ve learned to manage better as I’ve gotten older, and certainly as I’ve done a lot of work on myself. But the reality is, we are still responsible for our actions. Mental illness isn’t an excuse for bad behavior. It can explain some of the reasoning behind certain actions and reactions, but it isn’t an excuse. And what I mean by that is that it doesn’t give someone a free pass to treat people badly and remain free of consequences. If we neglect our friends and their own needs for long enough, they are allowed to make the decision on whether continuing that friendship is right for them. We have to allow that to people, because everyone is entitled to the safest space for their own heart. And we have to work on ourselves, too, and manage our mental health in a way that makes sure we aren’t unintentionally causing harm to the people we love. Because that’s part of therapy, too.

Cover illustrated by Jen Bartel and designed by Cassie Gonzales

Taylor: Pivoting a bit, you have two books (The Infinity Courts, a young adult sci-fi novel, and Generation Misfits, a middle grade contemporary) out in 2021, which is so exciting. Can you talk a bit about the self care that goes into balancing life and writing deadlines?

Akemi: At the moment I feel like I’m the worst person to ask for advice on this. Truthfully, it’s all a bit chaotic. I have two kids, and multiple deadlines, and my partner often works out of the country. I’m juggling a lot, and I know other people are, too. But I’m trying to teach myself to take more breaks, particularly when I’m feeling overwhelmed. If something is taking up too much time and making me unhappy, like doom scrolling on social media, I don’t do it. Twitter doesn’t even exist on my phone, and I’ve started scheduling tweets so I don’t have to log on multiple times throughout the day. Because it’s a time suck, and I need that time to spend with my family and do my writing. And when my brain is too exhausted to work, I indulge in something that makes me happy and doesn’t take up emotional space. Lately that’s been Animal Crossing, which released at exactly the right time. And I know there’s a pandemic, and I personally have almost exclusively stayed at home since March, but I’ve been trying to remind myself to go outside, and look at the sky and the trees and the animals running around. The world is still here. Time is still rolling along. And sometimes that’s a good reminder to take a breath, and keep going.

Cover illustrated by Casey Weldon and designed by Laura Eckes

Taylor: In what I’ve seen about The Infinity Courts, it’s a book that deals with death and grief. Can you discuss a bit about how and why you worked with those themes?

Akemi: For all the book definitely deals with death (it takes place in the afterlife), I think it actually raises a lot more questions about humanity, and what it means to be a good person. Morality plays a big part in the book. I just had so many thoughts about what we consider “right” and “wrong” in this life, and how much that would change if we were all existing in a world where power and imagination aren’t limited. What kind of prejudices would people bring into the afterlife? What are the rules? But mostly, if I’m being honest, this book was just a super fun blend of my favorite things: Jane Austen, robots, and superpowers. I mean, the cover is a half-Asian girl wearing a gown and holding a dagger. This book is literally a dream come true for me, and I can’t wait to share more with readers in the coming months.

Taylor: What are some of your favorite books with mental health representation you’ve read recently and loved?

Akemi: I’m a big fan of DARIUS THE GREAT IS NOT OKAY by Adib Khorram. The sequel, DARIUS THE GREAT DESERVES BETTER, released this year and I can’t wait to start it. I also loved DON’T READ THE COMMENTS by Eric Smith, which has some really great discussions about gamer culture and how what strangers say on the internet can really take a toll on a person’s mental health.

Taylor: Lastly, do you have any self care tips and tricks you’ve been using this year and would like to share?

Akemi: Did I already mention Animal Crossing? Can I mention it again? Jokes aside, limiting my use of social media has been huge for me. It might not be for everyone, because we’re all different. But I am very in tune to how social media alters my moods these days. If I feel my heart getting too heavy, I log off. I think I used to feel so guilty, because sometimes people on the internet make you feel like if you’re not constantly talking about serious things, it must mean you don’t care, but that’s just not true. Some of us care SO MUCH and are dealing with our own challenges in real life. It’s not realistic or healthy to expect people to never take a moment to breathe. I mostly use social media these days for keeping in touch with book friends and posting silly dog photos. I’m learning to be okay with that, and to treat social media like it’s a break from the real world, and not the other way around. That helps me manage it better. I also am working really hard on reminding myself that just because someone on the internet says something hurtful doesn’t make it true. I’m trying not to take everything to heart anymore. Life is short, and my time here isn’t infinite: I’d rather spend it putting love back into the world, and leaving a footprint behind that my kids will be proud of. And sometimes that means ignoring strangers on the internet.

Thank you so much for coming back to Shattering Stigmas, Akemi! Be sure to pre-order The Infinity Courts and Generation Misfits. You can order Starfish, Summer Bird Blue and Harley in the Sky now and read them as soon as possible if you haven’t already!

Remember to enter our giveaway for three chances to win a mental health read of YOUR choice!

Photo Credit © Peter Jolly

Akemi Dawn Bowman (she/her or they/them) is a critically-acclaimed author who writes across genres. Her novels have received multiple accolades and award nominations, and her debut novel, Starfish, was a William C. Morris Award Finalist. She has a BA in social sciences from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and currently lives in Scotland with her husband and two children. She overthinks everything, including this bio. Visit Akemi online at www.AkemiDawnBowman.com, or on Instagram @AkemiDawnBowman.

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