North for Sun is the book of Martha Marcelo, a Filipino-American woman with mental illness who can travel in time. Martha awaits an upcoming procedure that may affect her memory, and she decides to write a book for herself to read afterwards. She chooses the year she first recovered, when she returned to college, so she can remember how to get better. Martha chases people through the past and future, through generations of her countries, looking for somebody who will stick. North for Sun is a story about playing in time, how families filter memory and how the experience of mental illness distorts and loosens time. It asks how we want to remember ourselves, what we would keep if we had to start over. At its heart, North for Sun is the story of how a good person got better again.
Q&A: Questions I Like Answering
I had time lately, and it was very cold outside. (I live in Chicago.)
Toni Morrison saying, "If there's a book you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it" has kicked around in my head for years.
This is the book I wanted to read:
I wanted to read about a person with mental illness going on an adventure. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath was one of my favorite books when I was in high school. After a couple rounds in the hospital, I got to the last page again, and I couldn't stop thinking about what would happen to Esther and me after we got out. After a couple more rounds in the hospital, I really did wonder.
I wanted to read a book that shows many sides to the experience of mental illness, both lovely and frightening, in an intensely personal way, rather than in abstract descriptions. This story is a first-person voice of Martha's moment-to-moment experience of many moods, including the thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. My mental illness has brought me many regrets and the greatest joys, including this novel.
I wished I read more stories about Filipinos when I was growing up. Writing North for Sun, I learned about myself and my family. I wish I could have read this book earlier in my life. I'd like to write a children's book about Filipino kids someday if I can.
I wanted to read a story about recovery that shows the person's life getting bigger and bigger. Martha is trying to pull together pieces of her experience into someone she wants to be, which to me is a big task of becoming well again and again. I wanted to read about a person with mental illness learning to recognize herself in all the pieces of her life. I especially wanted to read about this integration from the perspective of a person with mental illness, rather than an empathetic outside observer. I had mixed feelings in social work school reading things like, as Bessel van der Kolk observes in The Body Keeps the Score:
"Could it be that these 'hallucinations' were in fact the fragmented memories of real experiences? Were hallucinations just the concoctions of sick brains?...Was there a clear line between creativity and pathological imagination? Between memory and imagination? These questions remain unanswered to this day..."
People love these questions. They get excited. They love to puzzle in their minds about my unanswerable, sick mind. It's all too common to get upset over anymore. I learned a lot from this book and grad school, and I'll keep learning. Still, it's a sad feeling to be left out and even a sadder feeling to have unheard answers about your own life. I've always had meanings for my life, all the time, every time, even if other people didn't listen to my meanings as answers. All of my actions and dreams came from the same places as everybody else's. But I've seen magic; it was real and whole to me, and it means something still.
I also wanted to read a book that is sometimes funny.
"If I had to give a young writer some advice I would say to write about something that has happened to him; it's always easy to tell whether a writer is writing about something that has happened to him or something he has read or been told." -Gabriel García Márquez
Map of Lake Mendota
The winter I was eighteen, I walked across frozen Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin. I walked north in a straight line from UW-Madison Student Union on Langdon Street. I ended up at Mendota Mental Health Institute on the opposite side of the lake. I've thought a lot about that walk since then, and I wanted to write about it sometime. Separately, I think about my ongoing experience of mental illness and time distortion. For the plot, I started out re-imagining that night from the perspective of a girl who can travel in time, which is what I sometimes thought happened.
I didn't know about magical realism as a genre until I had friends over for a dinner party last December. The whole thing really clicked with me for some reason. I'm not sure what magical realism is, but I have a hard time differentiating magic from reality, and I like the idea of everybody sharing that world.
I grew up, and am growing, so compelled by the People Power Revolution as told by Mom and Dad.
I tried to start college three times.
I have a terrible memory. Sometimes I mix up my dreams for my life.
I have no idea. I made this painting in an art class nine years ago, when I was deeply depressed and had dropped out of college twice.
I learned that writing and self-publishing were up there with the best times, and I want to help others share their stories. Check out my blog for everything I'm learning about my process writing and self-publishing. I tried to make it as useful as possible.
I was very lucky, at this point in my recovery, to have found writing fiction. Writing was healing for me. I built something out of my emotions, the uncomfortable stuff. I hope more people will be able to enter their lives through imagination.