Illness narratives. First stop: Biographical Literature Works

A conversation with Amandeep Sandhu on »Sepia Leaves«

After writing the first entry for Narrative Anatomy, I got a message from Amandeep Sandhu, a former fellow of the Akademie Schloss Solitude, telling me that he’d left a novel he wrote on mental disability in the library. I was intrigued by the reaction my article got and also by the coincidence. Telling my story got me to another story. The next day I got Sepia Leaves and I read it almost without putting it down. It is a powerful novel, inspired by Amandeep’s own life, which questions many common assumptions on mental illness. The novel gives voice to a young boy turning into a man, while having, in the forefront rather than in the background, all the challenges coming from his mother having Schizophrenia.

The novel touched me deeply and so I decided to ask Amandeep if he would be interested to answer a few questions on his writing, regarding the meaning and lesson of illness in his life, the process, the effects and the message of his writing. He kindly accepted and for this I am very grateful. His answers are rich, beautiful and full of hope. They shed a new light on my research on illness narratives.

What is illness for you?

Illness is a disruption from life which, upon reflection, shows us life. We all like to belong – to some place, to some friends and families and societies, to some identity, to some language, to some ways of being. The greatest belonging we seek is to stories, to the logic of our life stories. Illness disrupts these stories. Interrogating illness is like looking into a rarefied mirror, it shows us what really matters in life and what does not.

I was born into a family living under the shadow of Schizophrenia. As an infant I thought of my family as my story. I realized how my family was different from others only when I stepped into the world outside my home or when the outside world invaded my home. In the outside world people pitied me, saw me through the lens of stigma. Mental illness became the condition which defined what is normal and what is not, what is acceptable to society and what is not.

While physical illness hampers people, you can still measure it. It is quantifiable. I have been interested in those illnesses which can’t be measured, which inhibit our functioning, yet we normally do not talk about them because we either do not have the language or the resources to talk about them – mental illnesses.

What did illness teach you?

Illness is now a framework through which I see the world, a personal barometer.

Every instance of mental illness is a site of contest between the individual and the society. While the causes of mental illness are biological and environmental, as societies we simply fail to empathize with them and understand those roots. We either deny them or stigmatize the sufferers. So, like any site of contest, this is where stakeholders play power games.

The relationship between the stakeholders in mental illness is lopsided: the sufferer (whose self-evaluation is subjective), the caregiver (who suffers by association and responsibility), and the doctor (who has the power to diagnose and label). Each of them are prisoners of their circumstances. They constantly game each other to create situations where neither truth nor morality applies. The site of conflict becomes a pre-civilizational stage where there is no higher appeal to particular ways of being. This is why I like studying the world through the prism of mental illness. It opens up society to me in its primary state and I can understand its power structures.

I am also deeply cognizant of my own walking on the razor’s edge of mental illness. Whether it was the fear of illness in my life because I am a son of a Schizophrenic mother and father who suffered early Dementia, or being bewildered by the double-bind of a civil war during my adolescence, or an extended and brutal phase of care giving in my life, I have lost my nerve a couple of times and sought treatment. I have learnt to recognize my depressions and call them periods of dark curtains on the stage of my mind. As of now, I have learnt to handle illness. Yet, I know I can slip. It keeps me alert.

Do you have a story in particular that you think people need or could hear in order to change their perspective on illness?

The particular stories are my two autobiographical fiction novels. However, now, as explained above, mental illness is a prism through which I witness the world and talk about it. In fact, the word ‘witness’ is one sided and evokes the function of seeing. The right word, I recently learnt is the German term Zeitzeuge – contemporary witness. In my current non-fiction project I am trying to be a contemporary witness to the land I belong to so that I can tell the story.

I do wonder if my telling stories will change how people see the world. As a writer my attempt is to tackle the silences around illness, the unspoken. There is a lot of that in all societies.

What was the effect of telling/writing the story of illness on yourself?

I cure myself through writing. I am not denying the role of doctors, friends, books, art, medicines, sex, but for all of those I am a consumer. It is really writing that allows me to share, to connect with expressing myself, to find myself. It is a daily discovery and it helps me sleep easy.

How was the process of writing the story of illness and then sharing it with the world?

Writing took a long time from when I tried to write as an adolescent and sat crying in front of blank pages. I am also a very slow and clumsy writer. My drafts are very long, they ramble a lot. I am very critical of myself.

I wrote Sepia Leaves over seven years. I wrote it to investigate my father’s guilt. My question was: why did he stay married to my mother? Why could he not walk out? Writing the book allowed me to step into his shoes and see the world from his perspective. It showed me he did not operate from guilt but from a sense of calling. The calling imprisoned him, robbed him, but it was his choice to perform his calling. The greatest reward I have received from readers is them saying to me, »We did not know we had a story. Thank you.« I am satisfied that I could help my readers know that their lives are stories and they can take ownership of these stories. That they belong to their stories.

What is the message of your novel? What does it stand for?

Self-reflection, hopefully.