Anyway. I'm Naseem, and I'm very Persian, very queer, very trans, and very happy to tell you about my manuscript, Neverland's Children. CN here for mental illness (including depression), eating disorders, and abusive relationships.
Neverland's Children is the coming of age story of Leon, who lives in a boarding school called the A.L. Phillips Centre of Excellence. Set in Silsoe, England, in the late 1950s, Leon is surrounded by his foster siblings, the Boardies, all of whom are orphans like him. When a new student, Mikhail, arrives, he suddenly has to question everything he's ever know.
Why? Every Boardie has some kind of mental illness. For Leon, it's the presence of his voices and his (psychological) mutism.
At its heart, Neverland's Children is a sibling narrative. It chronicles not only Leon's relationships with his foster siblings, but his connection to Aoibhell, the oldest Boardie and the closest person Leon has to a mother. He watches Aoibhell struggle through her anorexia, chronicles Mikhail's desperate—and abusive—love for her.
In the second half of the book, Leon awakes in a hospital in London. It's three years later, and he has little memory of the space in between. ~That's when stuff gets really emotional!~ He pieces together what's happened and why he's no longer at the Centre. The problem is that he really wants to go back, and there's no way for him to do that.
Comp titles are Never Let Me Go (for basically everything), Mysterious Skin (not for subject matter, but for tone/darkness), we were liars (for the confusion of WTF is going on), The Ocean at the End of the Lane (for lyricism and memory) and The Remains of the Day (for desolation/questioning everything you knew). If you couldn't tell, Kazuo Ishiguro is my favorite author. Next to Stephen King, that is.
So that's the gist of Neverland's Children! It's not a happy story, but it's one that I've told with a lot of love. There's own voices for several of the illnesses involved and countless hours of research for the others. My goal is to portray all of it with deep compassion. Leon's mental illness is not the driving force of his character, but it affects the way he understands the world.
I wrote Neverland's Children during my last year in college. College, in general, was rough for me. I was heart-deep in an emotionally abusive friendship/pseudo-relationship and developed an eating disorder. My depression got much, much worse than it's ever been. Writing this book was a way for me to cope with a lot of what was going on.
"Are you even qualified to write this book?"
Well, I was a neuroscientist for a long time, even going so far as to starting a PhD at UPenn last fall. (I'm on a "medical leave of absence.") I studied the neural bases of mental illnesses. Also, my mother is a professor of early childhood education and child development, and I'm her editor, so I've read everything she's ever written. So, yeah, sort of.
"But you don't have any schizophrenic-like disorders, right? Isn't that betraying #ownvoices?"
Maybe. I've thought a lot about that. Is it okay to center a disorder I don't have, even if I have many of the other ones? The conclusion I've come to is that you can write identities you don't have, as long as you take steps to do it as right as possible. (See: Writing The Other.) Childhood schizophrenia is hard (and very rare). It manifests completely unlike teen-/adult-onset schizophrenia. My hope is that I've portrayed it more compassionately than the accounts I've read.
"Well, that's for the schizophrenia community to decide."
"So, Naseem, if you're so not-white, why is your main character a white, blond, blue-eyed boy?"
I'M SO GLAD YOU ASKED! Leon was designed to resemble the Little Prince. I have a little doll an ex-friend gifted me years ago that looks like him, and it just clicked.
"What, that's it?"
Yep, that's it! Also, he's agender, like me. Doesn't have a term for it, but he is! That's something that may have to come across more in (yet another) draft. Some of my readers got that he was pretty genderless, but it might not be obvious.
"Couldn't he be agender and not white?"
Yes, absolutely. My other manuscripts have more people of color than this one does—all the POC in this manuscript are not the three main characters. This troubles me, too. Will it affect the book if I make them POC? At first, I thought probably not, but then I realized that the consequences of them being POC in 1950s-60s England is that, yes, they probably do need to be white for some of the things to take place. :( The people of color in the book talk about how they're treated differently for being as such.
"Uh. That sucks. Way to contribute to the whiteness of the industry."
I know. I'm the worst. :(
"How much of yourself did you put in this book?"
More than I'd like to admit. (See: Aoibhell.)
On Instagram, a tattoo artist named Cassie Colon (Skin Deep Tattoo, Philadelphia) posted this sketch. I saw it and went, "AOIBHELL." So it's on my thigh. I definitely thought I was going to get Leon tattooed first, oops. Also, it's pronounced Ae-val. Don't worry, that's on the first page of the book.
A little about me (I debated a better picture of me cause this is really blah, but the kitten is cute):
I'm a non-binary former scientist, child to Iranian immigrants, from Chicago. I'm a gamer, cat lover, nerd, and Gryffindor. (Every sorting test I've EVER taken has put me in Gryffindor. Suck it, abusive ex who claimed I rigged the tests.) After a brief stint in Philadelphia, I moved to Reno, where my husband is a graduate student studying geology. We live with our dog and two cats. Technically three cats, but the last one has been missing for four weeks. (To help us find her, click here! Please help. I'm more devastated than I can put into words.) I'm also the associate gaming editor at Women Write About Comics (pitch me! firstname.lastname@example.org) and have written personal essays for The Rumpus, The Washington Post, Ravishly, and other sites. Also, I've got a weekly newsletter called the Tuesday Telegrams. COME TALK TO ME I LIKE FRIENDS.
ANYWAY, I am super excited to be participating in Pitch Wars for the first time. I've been really luck with the reception to Neverland's Children—a bunch of agents have really liked it—but there is something that's not working with it. Sigh. Maybe pitching it as adult instead of YA (the genre is ambiguous—adult agents say it's YA due to child protagonists, and YA agents say it's adult due to subject matter) will help. But I am really looking forward to being a mentee, even if that means throwing out a huge chunk of the book and starting over!!
Wish me luck, and good luck to everyone else participating!!!