The first thing readers will notice about The Memory of Light is its tough subject: it is an unflinching look at mental illness among teens. Francisco X. Stork opens the novel as Vicky Cruz wakes up quite groggy in a mental hospital with a sore throat after her stomach has been pumped. After she reckons with her father, who’s dubious as to why she needs to stay in the hospital, Vicky has to figure out why she’s depressed in the first place, since she seems to have everything going for her. The other teens at the hospital show her the ropes—the lowdown on which kinds of patients inhabit which wings of the hospital and how to speak up in group therapy, for example. Vicky, who initially appears to have nothing to offer her fellow patients, ends up helping them in unexpected and revealing ways.
Though the book is about a hot-button topic, Stork’s attentive, detailed, knowing, funny voice (in Vicky’s first-person narration) is as memorable as the novel’s plot. That may be because Stork knows firsthand what he’s writing about, as he details in an afterword to the novel and as he talks about here.
How did you get the details of life in the psychiatric hospital and group therapy right?
A lot of the experience with depression came from my own experience. Mental illness is something that’s happened to my family. My mother was at one point at a psychiatric hospital. I had a failed suicide attempt in my 20s, so I’ve had years of trying to figure out how to continue functioning with depression. I first got interested in mental illness in young people when I was at Springhill College. I worked for the Alabama Department of Mental Health on the weekends at a home for people who were mentally ill. Then in my senior year in college, I moved permanently into a home for mentally ill people; the idea was that so-called normal people and mentally ill people could live together without distinctions between mentally ill or the staff, and we would learn from each other. You go there with this noble thought of helping people, and it turns out you end up being helped more than you help.
Are there issues and concerns that your characters have in this novel that happen because they’re Latino, or could your characters have been any ethnicity?
There are some things that happen because of their ethnicity, but most of the things I deal with are universal and they happen to everyone. The kids in the book ask the big questions and are trying to figure out what to do with their lives; those transcend ethnicity. On the other hand, there are things in The Memory of Light that are kind of particular to [Vicky’s] situation, like her father being first-generation American.
What is your perception of the We Need Diverse Books campaign?
For me, every book I’ve written has been about a Mexican-American protagonist. It comes naturally to me; it never occurred to me to write about anyone except the people I grew up with, and now that it’s been raised to a higher level of consciousness, it doesn’t really change what I’ve been doing. I think I feel more of a responsibility to mentor younger authors. That’s what I think I can contribute to this movement. The only thing I feel strongly about is that sometimes the emphasis on diversity also has to be an emphasis on how we are one with each other. Not just how different, but deep down we’re all humans, so if a white kid reads about Vicky Cruz, she’s going to see herself and forget the differences that are there.
Claiborne Smith is the editor-in-chief.