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Mark Oshiro: Writing at the Intersections of Mental Health + Identity

One of the most common complaints I’ve heard about Anger is a Gift, my debut novel, is that the main character does not change by the end of the book. The story follows Moss Jeffries as he copes with how police violence has affected his life, both in the past and in the present, and what he decides to do when tragedy strikes his life again. It is a novel about external forces on an individual, and these external forces—namely, state-sanctioned violence perpetrated by law enforcement—still exist at the end of the novel.

That is intentional. Because white supremacy cannot be ended by an individual, and it certainly can’t be ended unless the people who wield the violence of white supremacy stop doing so.

People have complained that Moss’s mental illness—his complex PTSD, his depression, his anxiety—is not “solved” or “cured” by the end of the book either, or that he doesn’t really have a new understanding of it like in other books.

That is intentional. Because as most people dealing with mental health struggles know, we don’t experience magical or sudden cures. We deal with our illnesses or disorders for the entirety of our lives.

There’s been a brilliant, complicated, and sprawling conversation on social media about how different narrative structures—particularly those in the western world—are often wielded against people of color, queer people, disabled people, and the like. Because our stories often do not fit into these narrative frameworks, we are inherently flawed or terrible writers, and our work should be deemed as such: subpar. Worthless. Trash. We flaunt classical structures and arcs because we do not understand what literature is supposed to be.

I write about the intersection of mental illness, race, sexuality, and gender because I am externalizing the world I already know. I’m a transracial Latinx adoptee with an unknown heritage due to adoption; I have complex PTSD from child abuse and extensive mistreatment by the LAPD while I lived in Los Angeles; I’m queer, and I spent my 30s struggling with gender until I began to come out as nonbinary privately years ago. (Not so private anymore! It is a joy to live myself open and truthful.) There’s no way to separate out these things because that isn’t how it works. Each is often informed by the others, and thus, whenever I write about mental illness, I will always be writing from a place where mental illness is informed by my gender. By my sexuality. By being Latinx and an adoptee.

All of these things affect what eventually makes it to the page. I find an immense value in complication because I am a deeply complicated person. I wanted Moss Jeffries to represent that in both the literal and metaphorical sense. When it came to depicting mental health in the story, I decided to write a character who was dealing with comorbidities—the presence of more than one mental disorder at the same time. When Anger was conceived, I’d not read a book that had depicted something like that! (Which is not to suggest they didn’t exist, because they certainly did.) So I approached the book with that complication in mind.

On a structural level, though, that same intention is represented within the narrative. I wanted to deliberately frame this story without a sole antagonist, even though there are a few antagonistic characters. Instead, it’s a struggle against a system. There is a conclusion—which I won’t spoil here—but it does not involve the hero’s journey. It isn’t the traditional emotional arc wherein a character changes greatly on a personal level. Those stories sometimes don’t make sense within the framework of white supremacy and ableism. However, I believe that many readers are so used to the singular hero narrative that they expect that of every story.

But is that fair? Why should a book be held to this arbitrary standard, especially if it is deliberately trying to tell a different kind of story?

There is no way to write a story to represent the wide breadth of experiences with mental illness. What I hope is that my work can open our perceptions of how we view those dealing with such issues. Do we expect too much out of others? Do we believe that mental illness can be “cured”? Do we ignore the role that medication or psychotherapy plays in a person’s life because it doesn’t fit these preconceived notions of victory and cure? How can community provide a healing force to someone?

The actual beauty of having a rich and (truly) diverse canon of young people’s literature comes from specificity. A book like Anger is a Gift can be recommended alongside How It Went Down or The Hate U Give, but it can also be paired with Girl in Pieces or The Astonishing Color of After. None of these books are the same, and yet, the intersections of mental health with various other experiences appears in all four of these novels in some form or another.

Our canon only becomes fuller by accepting that there are endless ways in which mental health issues can manifest in a story. Stigma is not going to be reduced by demanding that stories fit into boxes that aim to make things simple or more comfortable.


Mark Oshiro is the award-winning author of ANGER IS A GIFT (2019 Schneider Family Book Award) and EACH OF US A DESERT, both with Tor Teen. Their middle grade debut, THE INSIDERS, is out on September 21, 2021. When not writing, they run the online Mark Does Stuff universe and are trying to pet every dog in the world.

IG: @MarkDoesStuff Pronouns: They/He


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