Learning to Breathe by Janice Lynn Mather

Thank you so much to Simon and Schuster for sending me an Advance Reader Copy of Learning to Breathe by Janice Lynn Mather in exchange of an honest review. 

Audience/Genre: YA/Contemporary

Summary: (From Goodreads)

Sixteen-year-old Indy struggles to conceal her pregnancy while searching for a place to belong in this stunning debut novel that’s perfect for fans of Amber Smith and Sara Zarr.

Indira Ferguson has done her best to live by her Grammy’s rules—to study hard in school, be respectful, and to never let a boy take advantage of her. But it hasn’t always been easy, especially while living in her mother’s shadow.

When Indy is sent to live with distant relatives in Nassau, trouble follows her. Now she must hide an unwanted pregnancy from her aunt, who would rather throw Indy out onto the street than see the truth.

Completely broke with only a hand-me-down pregnancy book as a resource, Indy desperately looks for a safe space to call home. After stumbling upon a yoga retreat, she wonders if perhaps she’s found the place. But Indy is about to discover that home is much bigger than just four walls and a roof—it’s about the people she chooses to share it with.

Trigger Warnings: Sexual Assault (page 11), Sexual harassment (pages 59-60, 68), Attempted Sexual Assault (pages 59-60, 241, 307), Panic attack (page 84), Pedophilia (page 68).

NOTE: I cannot speak for the representation of Bahamians in LEARNING TO BREATHE because I am not Bahamian myself. Below, I will link to any Own Voices reviews of LEARNING TO BREATHE as I find them.

NON-SPOILERY REVIEW

Sexual harassment and sexual assault in LEARNING TO BREATHE are represented very differently than what I’ve read before regarding them. For that reason, I think I’ll be processing this book for some time.

I think LEARNING TO BREATHE is a brilliant book, but I didn’t enjoy it. I don’t think anyone can really enjoy a book that deals so heavily with sexual assault and sexual harassment for good reasons. There were parts I liked, like Indy’s relationship with her Grammy, and her somewhat rocky (at first) relationship with Smiley, her friendship with Joe, Churchy and Dion, and the fact that this book doesn’t romanticize sexual assault or sexual harassment. I liked that this book was raw, and honest, and it’s something you can’t really forget. The book lingers in your mind.

I liked LEARNING TO BREATHE, but it left me broken with my own memories, and I don’t know how to rate it. I can’t bring myself to rate this book.

This was a character driven book which I think was the appropriate way to write a book like this. I also think that I got so attached to this because it was so character driven. With the exception of Indy’s mum, aunt and her half cousin, I loved every character. I think the way Janice Lynn Mather wrote even the background characters, like the other girls at Indy’s school, gave them depth and three dimensionality (is that a word?) that we rarely find in books that revolve around the teen pregnancy, sexual assault and sexual harassment of the main character.

This book was about a girl learning to breathe once again even when everyone’s mere presence around her is suffocating. She’ll have to learn how to breathe again everyday, walk herself through that process mentally, but by the end, she knows she can do it. She has hope, and that’s what mattered to her and to me.

I might still be processing this, but the one thing I can say about this book is that I am sure of is, LEARNING TO BREATHE is powerful.

SPOILERY REVIEW (to come on Tuesday, 26th June, 2018).

INTERVIEW

Hey Janice! I am Vanshika, thank you so much for doing this interview with me, I really appreciate it! 

Hi Vanshika!  Thanks so much for inviting me to take part in this interview.

1. When did you write the book? 

I wrote the very first draft of this book in 2003, in one of my first university writing classes.  I think the very last revision request went out in spring of 2018.  So this book is almost as old as Indy.  It’s definitely deepened and developed over the course of many drafts and revision, but at the core, the story has always been the same.

2. What has been your favourite and least favourite thing to write about in LEARNING TO BREATHE? 

My favourite thing to write about in LEARNING TO BREATHE was definitely the scenes where Indy’s doing yoga at the beach.  I loved being there with her as she felt herself in control of her body, her mind, and her destiny.

As you might expect, the scenes where Indy is on her own with Gary were difficult to be in.  They were uncomfortable, I didn’t want to be in them—but I felt they had to be part of the story, as part of Indy’s truth.  And I feel that those scenes are important—the story wouldn’t be right if I’d skirted around them.

3. What’s Indy’s favourite dish and drink? 

Ooooh.  Tough one.  Indy’s very much a down-home island girl, but she has a real soft spot for the different and unique.  She’d definitely go for food that was homemade and fresh.  I can see her face lighting up over some freshly caught fish with some roasted cassava with thyme and island sea salt.  And I think she’d take a kale salad on the side, with a mango-lime dressing, and pawpaw with coconut ice cream for dessert.  Churchy and Dion can collaborate on the harvesting and preparing of that meal.

4. If Indy had a YouTube channel, what would it be about? And if she had an Instagram, what would that be about? 

Mmm…tricky question.  If Indy had a YouTube channel…  I think it depends on where we’re finding Indy.  Thinking of Indy through much of the story, I don’t see her with a YouTube channel; I actually see Smiley as more of a YouTube channel kind of girl. Smiley would be all over her videos, and she might catch Indy sitting off to the side trying to get something done and being moderately annoyed at being in the spotlight.  I think for much of the story, Indy’s in a place of self-preservation, and she’s much more inward-focused than outward-facing.  She also has a really crappy hand-me-down cellphone that works fine for calling and texting, but I doubt it would hold up to videos.

If Indy did have a decent device, I can see her getting into Instagram more readily—she’d be capturing some of the natural surroundings at the Retreat.  I see a photograph of Grammy’s hands, a wobbly yoga pose on a rock, definitely some food photos.  She has a real value of stillness and beauty, and you’d see that reflected in the images she’d capture.

5. Indy struggles to conceal her pregnancy, so I was wondering what you felt when you were navigating that topic in the life of a black teenager when most of media attention when it comes to teen pregnancy revolves around white teens? 

Hmm.  This is an interesting question, and I think my background informs my view of this.  I’m Bahamian, and in the Bahamas, black people comprise the majority of the population.  I’ve lived in Canada for years, but having written this story from the viewpoint of where I come from and grew up, I never thought of it as a topic that the media shows as mostly revolving around white teens.  For myself, it’s always been deeply important to write about black characters—I kind of forget about other worlds in the writing process, if that makes sense.

In terms of navigating the topic of Indy concealing her pregnancy, I do think that, growing up, there was a huge sense that getting pregnant—through any means, and in any context—was about the worst thing that could happen to a girl.  I went to a Methodist school where, if a girl was found to be pregnant, she was expelled, no questions asked.  They weren’t alone in that policy.  It was quite normal—you might be asked to stay home from church, for example.

In the writing process, I think it was important for me to view what had been an unsettling but somewhat unchallenged fact of life—pregnancy equalled shame—from a different perspective.  Why was it a thing of shame?  Did the society I was in ask questions about how the pregnancy took place?  Or was the girl simply assumed to be in the wrong, by virtue of her body being the place where evidence of sex took place, with no questions asked, even a question of was it consensual?

6. LEARNING TO BREATHE deals with sexual abuse, and recently there’s been a big movement in not only Hollywood but also publishing that has brought together the communities against people in power being held accountable for their abuse of power in sexually harassing and manipulating their colleagues and teens/fans, is there anyway you addressed that movement directly or indirectly in the book? 

That’s a really interesting question.  Like I mentioned above, this story started out about fifteen years ago.  When I started writing it, I can tell you that the conversations going on around me regarding sexual harassment, sexual abuse, rape, and consent were quite a bit different.  I do know of people who, within social circles, spoke about these experiences—and I remember one or two publicized cases.  But around that time, I remember observing a strong sense of judgment against women—that things happened to you if you were a certain type of woman or girl, and that when those things happened, it was par for the course, and almost something that you deserved.  I remember a summer job I worked at when a sports personality was accused of raping a young woman.  The general conversation in the office was, she must have been asking for it.

I didn’t address the movement, and at the same time, I did.  I didn’t consciously address it, because for much of the time when the story was coming together and being worked on, the important public conversation, and the overwhelming movement of responsibility and accountability simply wasn’t going on in the way that it has been over the past, say, year.  But from the many stories that we’ve been hearing about in Hollywood, in publishing—and, I find, in conversations people are having in online communities, at work, even in closer relationships—it’s clear that what’s new about this movement is  publicly speaking out, and about powerful perpetrators actually being held accountable.  The assaults are as old as time.  It’s just happened to be a fluke of timing that LEARNING TO BREATHE is being released amidst these important conversations.  I’ve known for some time that the struggle Indy faces is, unfortunately, relevant, but I could never have anticipated that this particular story would be as timely and as topical as it is.

7. Going back to that, what have you been thinking of the movement? What are your feelings about the movement? 

Wow.  It’s stunning.  It’s frightening.  It’s sad.  It’s refreshing.  Growing up, I was much more on the Smiley side of the fence.  Like Indy’s pretty naïve younger cousin, I honestly had little concept of sexual assault even existing, when I was a child, preteen, and teenager.  I heard little whispers in my mid-teens, but for the most part it was a hazy reality.  I started to gain a deeper awareness of what was going on in my community, in communities around the world, when I was about sixteen—pretty much Indy’s age.  That awareness deepened.

The movement, the publicity and news events over the past several months, continues to deepen my awareness of the prevalence of sexual assault, sexual harassment, sexual manipulation, misuse of power.  I still find it stunning, I still find it frightening to know how common an experience it is to have to move through the world having been raped, fearing you’ll be raped again.

It’s such an important conversation.  I’m relieved that it’s being discussed openly.  I’m relieved that it’s being discussed in large numbers, that the conversation has shifted.  I’m waiting to see—what next.  What will change?  Will prevalence decrease?

8. Sexual abuse is an extremely fragile topic, which I’m sure you’re well aware of, so if a reader was to ask you for a list of content warnings, what would you tell them to be aware of? 

Readers should be aware that the story addresses rape.  What was important in the writing process was to be true to Indy’s experience—not to be graphic or create a spectacle.

9. Were you able to get sensitivity readers for LEARNING TO BREATHE before or after your book was acquire by an editor at Simon and Schuster? If yes, how was your experience? If no, would you like to do that in the future with another book?

I actually didn’t get sensitivity readers for LEARNING TO BREATHE.  I had the opportunity to get a variety of readers’ opinions about the book, as I had it workshopped in writing classes, and had readers who I trust read the story as a whole, in later incarnations.

I feel like it’s my job as an author to treat my characters with dignity, respect, and accuracy—and then to step away from the story, give it a little space to settle, and then come back to it with editorial eyes for a second, fourth, tenth look.  I think my job is to get it right.  I think, as writers, we know when there’s a character or a scene that doesn’t feel authentic or true or respectful of the character and the story—and all those whose real-life stories that fiction is somehow tied to.  We know when something’s wrong, or we should.

Would I do it with a future book?  Maybe indirectly.  I have some highly trusted and highly critical folks in my social circle who I value as readers, and who I trust to tell me the truth about whether a scene is too much, or not right.  That being said, writing can take us into unexpected territories, and I would be open to working with a professional sensitivity reader in the future, if I felt a project really needed it.

Thank you again for doing this interview! Discussing LEARNING TO BREATHE with you has been absolutely wonderful.

GIVEAWAY

Prize: 

  • 1 winner will win a finished copy of LEARNING TO BREATHE by Janice Lynn Mather.

Rules:

  1. Must be 18 years of age, or have written consent from your parents to share your address.
  2. Follow me on Twitter (@VanshikaPrusty), and Simon and Schuster Canada on Twitter (@SimonTeenCa).
  3. Must be a Canadian resident (CA only, sorry!).
  4. BONUS: Comment below with whether you’d live by the beach or by the mountains.

Giveaway ends on Monday, 2nd July, 2018.

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