Q&A with Sarah Toshiko Hasu
The "Megume and The Trees" author is working to end the silence around depression in LGBT teens.
Photo: Kristi Badger
With the alarmingly high depression and suicide rates among the LGBT community a new YA novel, Megume and The TreesI, offers a mirror into the lonely landscape of depression and the hopeful possibility of overcoming it. Written by lesbian author Sarah Toshiko Hasu, Megume and The Trees is rich with cultural symbolism and a plot that is as magical as it is darkly realistic. Megume finds herself lost in a strange forest where she must confront her past decisions, decide her future and find her truth all while trying to escape from the melancholy labyrinth of trees and mystery. Hasu doesn't skirt the difficult and complex topic of depression and suicide, instead offering a map and hope for those of us who've ever been lost in our own thick of trees.
Who is Megume and what inspired you to create this character?
Megume is a 15 year old girl who is lost in a metaphorical and maybe even allegorical sense and in a very literal sense as well. The book, which is told from her point of view, is about how she figures herself out in the circumstances of her making. It’s a dark book, it’s sad and I couldn’t reconcile that the same way Megume can. She made choices and unfortunately it’s not a fairytale and even though she can’t take those back she can still learn something about herself.
In the novel, Megume finds another lost woman named Kat and they seem to build a strong, even romantic relationship. What is Kat’s role in the story?
Megume falling for Kat is key to finding her truth. It’s not so much that she falls in love with a woman, it’s the act of falling in love and being in love and having someone you care about there. Having Kat and finding Kat is how Megume sort of shakes herself out of it in a sense. She realizes how important that is and that wakes her up to “Oh, there were other people I cared about and who cared about me too” that ties her to needing some sense of survival. “I can’t just be lost because I wouldn’t want Kat to be lost.” And that’s true for both of them. They don’t want each other to be where they are — in a very dark place. They want something better for each other and that makes them want something better for themselves.
Megume and The Trees deals with some very heavy topics and is really something that people of all ages can potentially relate to. So why did you choose to write it for young adults?
I didn’t specifically choose to write a book for young adults but I’ve always been very aware of how I felt when I was younger. I was not wanting to forget that because I felt like adults would forget what it was like. I spent a lot of time around adults who spent a lot of time talking about what was best for children and young adults without considering the individual and that always upset me.
Megume being 15 and the story being told in her voice, that’s what makes it young adult. I wrote a novel that was very much about being that age and having that mindset and being stuck. Because you are stuck, you have no rights or autonomy and you may genuinely know what’s best for yourself but it doesn’t matter in terms of other people getting to make those choices. We have to set up laws to protect young people but at the same time if you don’t give them any rights or any voice then you end up being in a scary situation. At least when I was a teenager, we didn’t want to go to the adults. We didn’t want our problems to be solved this way. When you have that situation--friends who are dangerously depressed or suicidal, not going to adults is not necessarily right.
I had a waking up moment when I was 20 when I just realized how dangerous our positions were. Adults who saw did nothing and we were afraid of what other adults would do and it put us in a position of making decisions about our lives and about our friend’s lives that we really didn’t have any perspective on. That’s what happens to Megume. She is making her own choices. She’s 15 but she is making choices that even the adults in her life can’t take back.
Is the story inspired by real life?
That part definitely comes from real life. I was suicidal. I was from the time I was 8 until I was 24 and you look back and say how did anyone not notice? And part of that is, we hid it very well. We didn’t want to be interfered with. Two of the people the book is dedicated to did commit suicide. And that’s why I couldn’t take a preachy tone or make it all be magically better in the end. It was a moment of a reflection of my 20’s that there was so much that they missed and there was so much that I would’ve missed between 8 and 24. I didn’t even know I was gay until I was 19, I could’ve died and not even have known myself. I wouldn’t have learned these pieces of myself that you learn as you get older. I couldn’t be inauthentic in that emotion because anyone who has ever felt that way would see through it. And it wouldn’t be helpful to them to lie or judge or pretend that it’s easy. It’s not and I know it’s not and that’s why in the back of the book I listed places like The Trevor Project and To Write Love On Her Arms. I didn’t know if people would know that those were places people could go to. They are places that didn’t exist when I was a teenager or places I wouldn’t have known about. And I remember struggling with that too — do I reach out for help or don’t I? And I never did, and I never died. But, it’s frightening to reflect on how close it was and the fact that people I loved, didn’t live.
What message are you sending in this book about dealing with depression and loss?
The message I would like to send is that, you’re not alone in it. I wrote it, in a sense having felt this way and having known people who have felt this way. But you don’t know that when you’re in that place, especially when you’re young. I know, you feel very, very alone and I just wanted to write a book where if you don’t know anyone else who has struggled with this or you don’t know who you can talk to then there’s Megume. Megume has been through this too and hopefully that gives the sense that I’ve been through this too and there are definitely places you can turn and people you can talk to. Don’t be as risky as I was. It’s perfectly okay and its good. You just have to think about the choices you make and the things you can miss and find a way to live. Kate Bornstein has this quote that I love. It’s, “Do whatever it takes to make your life more worth living, just don’t be mean.” I think that is an amazing life lesson and it’s so true. If you can just get through it and know that your feelings are legitimate and you deserve to feel the way you feel but also there’s something more beyond it. I couldn’t write the story to make everything magically get better because that’s not what happens in real life. But you have the ability to figure it out and to figure it out sooner than Megume did.
As an out lesbian who has suffered from depression before, do you feel that being LGBT makes it more difficult to reach out for help?
if you feel different from your family and friends, that’s much harder. I thought about this for such a long time because I felt like I knew myself really well and clearly I didn’t know something key about myself until I was 19. And the only thing I could think of was that my mind protected me. My mind did the only thing it could. I was already depressed, I was already suicidal, I was barely hanging on. Being that much more different, was something I couldn’t have dealt with and there’s some people who do have to deal with that. I have many loving, warm people in my life who can’t fathom how people could be so worried that everyone who’s always loved them would stop loving them because of who they are. But when you’re realizing that about yourself and your identity and you’re getting ready to come out, even if you think you know things about yourself, your family and your friends, you’re always scared that it would be different when it comes to you. You have to steel yourself against risking losing everything just to have your truth and its frightening. And sometimes it goes really well and everyone still loves you and sometimes it goes horribly wrong.
It might make it harder to think you can find help. We live in a very heterosexual mainstream world so we don’t necessarily know that the Trevor Project is there and it befalls these organizations to make themselves known that they are there and available. Anything can make it difficult and nothing should stop you from overcoming it and finding help. It’s difficult to learn that you do have to save yourself. You are the only one who decides whether you live or die in those moments. (sarahtoshikohasu.com)