Trans author Juno Dawson doesn’t shy away from writing about challenging topics for young readers. Laurence Barber caught up with her to talk about representation ahead of her appearances at Melbourne Writers Festival.
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“I’m on my way to therapy! How middle class is that?” Juno Dawson tells me when I call her.
Dawson’s first novel, Hollow Pike, was published in 2012, but it wasn’t until 2015 that she came out as trans.
Her upcoming trip to Australia for the Melbourne Writers Festival will be her first jaunt down under.
Clean, her latest book, is set in an exclusive rehab facility; it tackles heady themes of addiction, sexuality, and mental health.
“I see my therapist at half nine every Thursday,” she says.
“All through my teenage years I was called a real ‘worrier’. It’s only in the last four or five years that I’ve realised that someone who worries all the time about nothing – there’s a word for that, and that’s ‘anxiety’.”
One of Dawson’s non-fiction works, Mind Your Head, discusses anxiety and other mental health issues in a way designed to be accessible for teen readers – but it does bleed into her fiction as well.
“It has filtered into some of my characters, and certainly you can see it in Clean, and particularly in my next book, Meat Market, in which the main character is very like me in that she exists with just a background level of anxiety.”
Dawson’s research for Clean involved talking to young people who had gone through recovery and found that what they all had in common was that their struggle with addiction was often began as a means of coping with depression and anxiety – at as young as 12 or 13 years old.
“The statistics in the UK are really bleak,” she says of the way LGBTI youth disproportionately struggle with mental health and suicide.
“The big question is, why is it so bad and what can we do to make it better?
“I think letting young queer people see themselves in media – in films, in television, and in books – is a really good way of telling them, ‘You are just as valid as anybody else.’
“The world is telling them in lots of different ways, ‘You’re not quite normal,’ but there’s nothing more normal than seeing yourself.
“My books are the one corner of the fictional realm that I control, so I’ve always made sure my books have some sort of queer representation.”
Controversy occasionally springs up in the young adult fiction world about diversity and authors writing characters that diverge from their own experiences or identities, but Dawson says some licence is needed.
“Every time I leave the house my gender influences the way I am. I have anxiety and I worry about what people think of me, of course I will.
“That said, I think the author has one job, and that’s to imagine what it would be like to be other people.
“I don’t think anybody’s ever asked JK Rowling how she managed to write Harry Potter, and that’s because it’s very normal to be a white man because that is like, the universal, dominant experience.
“And actually, I’ve never been a white cisgender man so I can’t really speak on that… but I would be able to, I guess!”
Dawson says she’s thrilled to be coming to Australia having used social media to connect to her Australian readers for years.
“They’ve been tweeting me telling me how excited they are that I’m coming and that’s made it all worthwhile.”