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UCLA student authors book covering themes of mental health and identity

Third-year English student Hannah Lin Kernal’s novel, “We Pretend They’re Fireworks,” is a young adult book exploring the intersections of mental health, identity and ethnicity. (Tess Horowitz/Daily Bruin)

By Yasmin Madjidi

January 26, 2020 11:41 pm

Hannah Lin Kernal’s spooky short story about Halloween sparked a passion for her debut novel, “We Pretend They’re Fireworks.”

The third-year English student published her young adult dystopian novel about mental health – and its intersections of identity and ethnicity – in December. Kernal said the combination of wanting to be politically active and create more representation for Asian American women in writing drove her novel. Her own history with mental health set the scene for the major themes of the novel, Kernal said. Setting her story as fiction gave her the liberty to expand and include other experiences apart from her own, as Kernal said she wants to destigmatize discussing and living with mental illness.

“I feel like a lot of people are not aware of what different mental health can look like, and the effects it can have if things go unaddressed,” Kernal said. “The book tries to delve into the potential effects on a bigger level if things go unchecked.”

[Related: Student self-publishes children’s book to broaden Asian American representation]

The book is narrated by Lacey Matthews, who is described as a “half-white and half-Asian girl,” and begins with her friend’s suicide attempt. In a society that only accepts positive emotions, she must navigate her mental health on top of an onslaught of other issues that arise in the plot, Kernal said, including a sexual assault scene in the middle of the novel.

In covering a broad range of themes, Kernal said she tried to focalize them around a person dealing with mental illness to emphasize the spectrum of experiences. She said tackling such a hot topic, along with navigating a way to make it uncontroversial, wound up reflecting a lot of her own personal struggles.

“Sometimes people don’t know they are dealing with something because they don’t know what it is like, so they assume it is normal,” Kernal said. “There is a place for me to have a voice in this particular niche, and I’m going to step up and take it.”

Kernal was given the opportunity to express her voice when she was recruited by publishers at New Degree Press in January 2019 but said that she started drafting and outlining the book in her sophomore year of high school. Balancing book deadlines along with essays, midterms and friendship drama was admittedly difficult, Kernal said, but it fulfilled a dream of hers.

Brian Bies, the head of publishing at New Degree Press, worked closely with Kernal on her book to fully understand the impact she wants her book to have – initiating more open dialogue on mental health. He said her book is written as if the reader is sitting down and having a conversation with a friend, as it fosters a new dialogue about mental health and identity in pop culture.

[Related: Author Ben Lerner discusses role of fractured narratives in ‘The Topeka School’]

Bies said although navigating a book about mental health is tricky in that it tends to be glorified in the media, Kernal’s confident ability to face it head-on and accept how sometimes it can be complicated makes her book compelling. Bies said the story is presented in a way that acknowledges that everyone experiences issues in their own way and urges people to reflect on their own mental health.

“What I really appreciated and loved in reading her book and working with her to publish her book was how it grappled with the theme of mental health and identity in such a real, personal, tangible way,” Bies said.

Third-year Asian humanities student Kalani Newman, who is mentioned in the book’s dedication, said he is one of Kernal’s main support systems in life. While she wrote her novel, he said he encouraged her as she was dealing with her own mental health throughout her writing process. Newman said discussing and showing the hardships of mental health are the most important messages in the novel.

“I think the more open we are now and more we discuss about it we can further help people and help free people,” Newman said. “I believe that everyone deserves to know it is going to be okay.”

Kernal said she sees her own experiences with depression and anxiety reflected in the book and was relieved to find the right people to discuss them with. While she will not be writing a sequel to “We Pretend They’re Fireworks,” she said she is toying around with blending political- and heritage-related themes for her next book.

“I wanted to make sure (that) anyone who was reading it knew that mental health issues are things that can be managed in a healthy way,” Kernal said. “While a lot of the time it does inhibit you for a while, there is a point where you can manage it and you can be strong and live your version of a normal life.”

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Yasmin Madjidi | Assistant Arts editor
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