“Dear Scarlet” Is a Graphical Memoir of Postpartum Depression
Teresa Wong uses visuals to convey a "silent time"—and a silent suffering
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As someone who has written extensively about mothering and mental health in Asian America and in Asia, and the outsized impact of maternal mood disorders on immigrant parents and parents of color, Dear Scarlet: The Story of My Postpartum Depression a graphic memoir by Calgary-based writer Teresa Wong hit me hard. This slim, stark and powerful volume captures both the terrors of postpartum depression and the turning points to better health.
Wong’s high-contrast, black-and-white illustrations are atmospheric and touching, and are reflective of her own highs and lows. In a particularly arresting spread, Wong is undone by a Coldplay song, and her mind begins to spiral. Literally: Wong employs circular script as well.
When I spoke to Wong we shared our experiences, and I mentioned that, as far as I knew, there were very few mainstream memoirs by Asian or Asian North American women in general — save for Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother — and none about postpartum depression more specifically, and how much that might mean to readers like us.
“I just read an article on Electric Lit about the whiteness of motherhood memoirs,” she said. “I definitely didn’t set out to fill a void, but I’m happy that my experience is adding to the plurality of voices out there.”
Pooja Makhijani: Dear Scarlet explores motherhood, mental health and community. Why a graphic novel? Why is this story best told in comic form?
Teresa Wong: I don’t know if it’s best told in this form, but it seemed like a good way to me when I first started writing it! I was pregnant with my third baby at the time, and I kept having all these flashbacks to [my first child] Scarlet’s delivery. They came as random images, which stuck in my mind. As I started to envision what the book could be, I kept going back to those images and I decided to pursue that, even though I’m a writer not an illustrator. Caring for a newborn is such a “silent” time of life — there’s nobody to talk to — and it felt like images would be a good way to convey that.
PM: Did you ever think of writing this story first, as opposed to illustrating it? You say you are not an illustrator; how did you develop the skills to tell this story in this form?
TW: I did write it first; I started with a script. I felt pretty confident that I didn’t have enough story to do a straight prose book.
I am definitely not an illustrator. I thought, for sure, I’d need to collaborate with someone to get the drawing part done. But I thought it would be helpful if I “storyboarded” the script so that I could discuss it with potential collaborators. I bought a sketchbook, cut up my script, and pasted it on the left side of each page, then sketched what I envisioned on the right side. I showed that first draft to some friends who had design and illustration backgrounds, to see what they thought. To my surprise, most of them liked my drawings! They said that the simplicity of my illustrations kind of added to the vulnerability of the story, and that it would be more powerful if I wrote and drew the book myself. I decided to do a second draft to the best of my drawing ability, and that became my manuscript.
After doing the book, I realized that I wanted to keep at it, so I started an Instagram account to continue practicing. I know I’ve gotten better, but I’m definitely not where I want to be with my art. Lynda Barry, a cartoonist, says that everyone should draw, whether they’re good at it or not. It’s a fundamental human activity, like singing or dancing.
PM: In Dear Scarlet you reference your Chinese Canadian culture throughout. How did race and culture play into your postpartum experience, and in the writing of this memoir?
TW: I love the Chinese tradition of “sitting out the month” because it meant I had no obligation to do anything but eat and sleep and recover. It was isolating, but I’m pretty sure I needed it. It made it feel like a sacred time. I know that it’s de rigueur to say that pregnancy is not an illness, but labor and delivery can be pretty traumatic. Having the time to heal and adjust is wonderful.
What’s funny is that a Chinese friend suggested that I cut out the Chinese parts of the book; she wasn’t sure others would find it interesting or relatable. But in the end, I think it’s what caught my publisher’s attention.
PM: Does how you feel about motherhood now changed from when you were writing about it?
TW: Writing about motherhood has given me a certain amount of perspective and distance that, I think, really helps with the day-to-day struggles. First, writing the book helped me work through my unresolved feelings about the postpartum experience. It made me see myself more compassionately, and it helped me understand that we are all just trying to do our best. It also reminded me of how far I’d come. I write and draw about motherhood now on Instagram and that has helped too.
The best thing that has come out of writing about my motherhood experience has been having people, sometimes strangers, reaching out to let me know they are encouraged by my work. So much of modern motherhood is done in isolation. It can be a very lonely time. It’s great to connect with others through words and drawings.
PM: There’s this old debate about whether or not making art can be healing or therapeutic. I’m curious what you think.
TW: It has been therapeutic for me. I just read a book called The Secret Life of Pronouns. In it, [the author] talked about a study in which people wrote about a traumatic event, and how writing could change their feelings about that event. The key was not to simply ruminate over the details, though, obsessively going over everything that happened. I do believe that writing and drawing are helpful ways for me to work through things. When you place yourself and your experiences within a story framework, you gain perspective. I think doing this book was what I needed to really sort through what I’d lived through. I’d had a lot of therapy too, and taken medication, but there’s something altogether different about writing it.
PM: What are you working on now?
TW: I’m currently trying (and failing spectacularly) to start a second book. It’s about my parents, who both escaped from Chinese communes during the Cultural Revolution, and also about my fraught relationship with them. I have a structure in mind, but haven’t figured out whether I can draw the thing. I do want to do another graphic novel, but I feel the limitations of my talent pretty strongly these days.