Teresa Wong chronicles her battle with postpartum depression in her debut graphic memoir

Teresa Wong discusses how she wrote and illustrated Dear Scarlet.
Dear Scarlet is a graphic memoir by Teresa Wong. (Arsenal Pulp Press, Ken Hurd)

In her powerful debut book, Teresa Wong writes an emotional and honest letter to her eldest child about her first months of motherhood. Dear Scarlet chronicles the writer's experiences with postpartum depression, struggling with feelings of loneliness, guilt and anxiety until managing to seek help. 

Dear Scarlet is on the Canada Reads 2020 longlist. The final five books and their champions will be revealed on Jan. 22, 2020.

Wong spoke with CBC Books about how she wrote Dear Scarlet.

Finding closure

"The idea for the memoir began when I was pregnant with my third child. I was going through the first trimester and was unable to sleep at night because I kept flashing back to the time that I had Scarlet. All these images kept flashing back in my mind. Some of them were so vivid that they made me cry. I thought, 'Well, I've got to do something with this. I need to get this story out of my head.' I'd had counseling and treatment for my postpartum depression, but this was the final piece of closure that I needed.

"There's one scene where I just had Scarlet and I had a postpartum hemorrhage. A bunch of doctors and nurses ran into the room, but I didn't see them — all I could see was my husband standing there, holding my baby and looking really scared. That's the image that was burned into my brain. I wanted to, I guess, honour that by drawing it the best that I could."

First-time artist

"I'm not an illustrator, so I decided to write all the words down and thought that I would collaborate with an illustrator afterwards. The next step I thought would be to story board my script, so I got a random sketchbook from the store and pasted bits of the script on one side and then tried to draw panels on the other side of how I saw the book coming together.

From the first draft of Dear Scarlet by Teresa Wong. (Teresa Wong)

"I started showing that first draft to some friends who were graphic designers and illustrators, asking them for advice. They all came back and said that the story was better served through my simple drawings. They thought the vulnerability of my drawings matched the personal nature of the story and that if anyone else drew it, it would feel less personal. I decided to attempt a second draft and try to make my drawings better, hoping that it would be good enough for publication.

They thought the vulnerability of my drawings matched the personal nature of the story and that if anyone else drew it, it would feel less personal.

"I was scared because I wasn't very confident in my own drawing abilities. But I thought, I can do at least 25 per cent better than what I did in the first draft. It was funny because I seriously didn't know how to do it. It's one thing to buy a sketchbook at a store and scribble in it, but then how do you make a graphic manuscript that's appropriate for printing? I did some Googling and I found a blog by the graphic novelist Raina Telgemeier. In one of her blog posts, she details her process, every single step. She wrote what kind of paper she used, what she did to do the initial drawing and then how she inked them and so on and so forth. I basically took her process the best that I could and copied it. I felt like a real hack, but somehow it all worked out!"

On the left, Teresa Wong's second draft of Dear Scarlet and on the right, an excerpt from her final book. (Teresa Wong, Arsenal Pulp Press)

"The main thing I learned was that when I first wrote the first draft, I thought I had it all down and I could see it all coming together in my head. But when I started drawing it out and putting words into the panels, I realized I had way too many words. Graphic narratives require you to choose your words carefully and to distill your story down to the essence. In a way, it feels like writing poetry instead of traditional prose."

Capturing the moment

"At one point, I drew myself taking Scarlet on an outing to the museum when she was seven or eight weeks old. At first I was daunted because up until then, I'd drawn super simple cartoons. The exhibit was called Real Life by the sculptor Ron Mueck; he does these hyper-realistic sculptures that are either super huge or super small. It's a very inspiring collection and I wanted to capture that feeling and wasn't sure that I could do it, but I'm actually proud of what the pictures turned out looking like." 

An excerpt from Dear Scarlet by Teresa Wong. (Teresa Wong, Arsenal Pulp Press)

Writing for readers

"It was a very cathartic and therapeutic experience, even just writing the words and getting the story down, start to finish. Reading it myself and editing it, I would often come to the end and feel like crying. It was like a therapy session.

"I feel good [now that it's published]. I'm surprised at how many women have told me how much they can relate. I felt alone at that time in my life. I didn't realize that so many mothers that I knew had gone through similar things and felt similar things. I am hopeful for the book. I hope that it gets out there and finds its audience because I feel like there should be more honest and real stories about motherhood.

"I like it as a graphic memoir because I don't think a lot of new mothers have a lot of time to sit down and read a full-length novel about postpartum depression. But if they can just take half an hour, or a little bit longer, to flip through some pages with pictures, it might help them. When you're in depression, you feel disconnected from people. It's very lonely and your depression keeps you from connecting with other people. I'm hoping that the book gives you a sense of connection.

Reading it myself and editing it, I would often come to the end and feel like crying. It was like a therapy session.

"[Writing it as a letter to Scarlet] started out as a writing device to get the story down. I thought it would be easier for myself to picture one reader, an audience of one, instead of a nebulous thing. After I got the words down, I felt that it worked. I thought about my daughter a lot and how she's a very sensitive girl. She's nine years old now. I thought perhaps she might go through something like this one day. It made me think, what do I really want to tell her? What kind of advice do I want to give her?

"It's not just a book for new mothers. It's for anyone who wants to understand what new motherhood feels like."

Teresa Wong's comments have been edited for length and clarity.