A few weeks ago, we got the wonderful opportunity to interview Akemi Dawn Bowman, author of debut novel, Starfish. It’s a beautifully written book which has difficult and heavy themes, such as abuse and mental health struggles. It also features some wonderfully positive relationships too however. I absolutely fell in love with the book when I read it and it is definitely one of my all time favourites. This is the transcript of the interview!
Why did you choose art as the main focus?
Art’s something I’ve always loved and wished I was better at because I’m not very good at drawing! For Kiko, because she has social anxiety, that was such an important way for her to express herself. She uses her art as a way to communicate and to sort through the emotions she’s feeling with the kind of household she is trying to navigate.
How important was it to show Kiko’s complex feelings about her Japanese background as well as her brothers’ feelings about that too?
Really, really important. I’m half Asian in real life…well, obviously in real life, you know what I mean!
(Akemi herself and everyone else in the room started laughing at this and the funniest thing was that she accidentally said it again in the panel talk later!)
A lot of the micro-aggressions she deals with in the book are things that I’ve heard and that is really hard to sort through, especially when you’re younger because you don’t have the life experience of being like ‘Oh, this is racism’. In your head you’re thinking, ‘Well what’s wrong with me? Why are people saying this stuff?’ I know that’s not everybody’s experience or it’s not the same way that people react, so for her brothers, they react to stuff differently and deal with it differently and I wanted to show that there is a variety; it’s not just one experience.
Why do you think it’s important to write YA books with quite dark and heavy themes?
I guess for me, I didn’t want to shy away from it because, without being too specific, I dealt with a lot of that and it was heavy. I didn’t want to sugar coat it, I didn’t want to write a book that was just brushing over abuse, do you know what I mean? I wanted to be very honest about it and what it feels like when you’re going through it so yeah, I felt like that was important, I didn’t want to make light of it, if that makes sense.
Sarah: It feels like when people write adult novels and they focus on it really heavily; this feels like that but about a teenager and it’s really realistic.
Sophie: You’d find those themes in an adult book but not in YA and I find that quite interesting because obviously teenagers struggle with it too.
I think with the abuse in this too because it comes from her mum, I think people going through that, especially when you’re a teenager, there is the thing of not wanting your parents to be mad at you. You feel like you can’t talk about it and that can make it even worse and even more lonely so that’s why I really wanted to write that book so that teens might pick that up and be like ‘this is how I feel, this is what it’s like’ and just feel like somebody gets it and that they’re not alone because I felt like that was important.
The relationship Kiko has with her brothers is very complicated and I thought it was really realistic – there is a quote about being a third of a person and they are all one third of a whole person – and I thought that was really cool. Do you think this is a significant side to her character?
Yeah, she feels specifically like she, looking back in hindsight, thinks that they all have pieces of something which if you put them all together, she might have dealt with things better. You know, because she has social anxiety whereas her brothers, especially Taro, doesn’t and he doesn’t take offence to the abuse in the same way because he kind of just lets it roll over him. People have different personalities and people react differently so yeah that was kind of important to show. I think with siblings, every kid is different and I think sometimes that parents try to raise their kids the exact same way for every kid and it doesn’t work because you have to parent differently for each kid and I think that’s an important thing. Obviously, that’s a more adult theme maybe but to see the effects of that as a kid who didn’t get the mother that she needed.
(We had a conversation here about siblings and how Sarah doesn’t have any but has read a lot of YA lately which has the message of ‘siblings are your best friends’ but this isnt like that. I have two siblings, and I said I think that the way you love a sibling is very different to anyone else and it isn’t the same as a friend, even if you are friends. Akemi then said the quote below, which I adore.)
Sometimes they [siblings] can feel like a stranger that you still love; you still care about them.
Side characters, like Jamie and Emery, support Kiko’s mental health issues; do you think this is reflective of the younger generation today and that this generation is more accepting?
I think people are a lot more aware nowadays and even the people who don’t know…are trying to know more which I think is the important part – that people keep trying. Never think that you know everything and never think that you can’t stop learning stuff because I think everybody has stuff that they can always continue learning. For her [Kiko], she’s got social anxiety and Emery is a lot more understanding and sort of becomes a person who holds her up, whereas Jamie doesn’t really know how to deal with it but he still tries and I think that was important to show too. Not everybody knows everything but as long as you’re trying to understand the people you care about, I think that’s most important.
How did you find getting your first novel published?
Really, really cool and really, really terrifying! That made my anxiety like a thousand times worse! I am honestly trying to forget the last year and for the next book coming out, I’ve got better armour on because I was not prepared for it but yeah, it is very cool too!
Why do you think this story is important to tell?
Because it deals with so many intersections of race, mental health and even the abuse and stuff like that. It’s a very specific narrative and I do know that and I know that some people won’t really get it or they’ll be like ‘this doesn’t make sense to me’ but the people who it will make sense to, I feel like they really need to see themselves in books and that’s why.
(We then had a little chat about how me and Sarah found the mental health to be really relatable and well written and the parts that we can’t relate to from experience were still really brilliant to read and I felt like I understood certain things better.)
I want to give a massive thank you to the lovely Akemi for letting us interview her and get to know more about her amazing book, Starfish. Of course, as always, we owe a big thank you to Kimi from Manchester Deansgate Waterstones, the head of Teensgate Bloggers, for helping us get this brilliant opportunity and others like it.
I wholeheartedly recommend that you get your hands on a copy of Starfish. It deserves absolutely every bit of praise and hype it already is and should be getting. If you haven’t already realised from this post, I fell in love with this book and will be recommending it for a long, long time.