A Conversation with Topaz Winters
Conducted by Emily Yin
Emily Yin: To start, can you tell us a bit about your disabilities?
Topaz Winters: Of course. My disabilities are of the mental rather than physical sort—I have depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and hyperacusis.
EY: You mentioned on your blog, Six Impossible Things, that mental illness is more often an “undertone” than the focus of your poems. Even so, does it become manifest in the expression of certain themes or sentiments throughout your work?
TW: It certainly does. I’ve noticed that even when I don’t set out to write about mental illness, it permeates through everything I create—readers with mental disorders have shared with me on multiple occasions that they identify deeply with pieces that, to me, were not at all about mental illness in the first place. It is so intrinsically part of my life at this point, though, that I believe it tends to weave through all that I write as well, even when it does not show up overtly. I’m learning to make peace with that, though it bothered me somewhat in the beginning. Mental illness is such a great part of my life that it deserves the place it has in my work. It deserves to be explored and processed through art.
EY: You shared your own experiences during the “Shattering Stigmas” event to break the silence (and stigma) surrounding mental illness. What would you say to those who wish to open up but have a hard time reconciling themselves with the possibility of judgment?
TW: We speak of our mental illnesses for no one else but ourselves. There is judgement out there always, but I am learning to move past and ignore it. When I open up and share my experiences, it is as much to help myself as it is to educate and inform others. I would say this: if one wishes to share one’s experiences but shies away from doing so for fear of prejudice, it is perhaps worthwhile to remind oneself that all of this is, at heart, a method of healing. It has never been for those who judge and scorn, but rather, for the cleansing of our own lovely souls. There will always be the ignorant ones waiting to pounce, but we do not create for them. It is for us and those who endure the same struggles that we do. It is for the ones who understand.
EY: Is your best work usually a spontaneous reaction to an event or moment about which you strongly felt, or is it something which you deliberately set out to write?
TW: To be honest, it is a rare moment when I deliberately set out to write something. Rather, I write because I cannot help but do it. Because to not write is something unfathomable. And so, I think that my best work does tend to be more of a spontaneous thing, flowing from whatever feelings haunt me on a particular day, whatever images and themes and experiences refuse to leave me alone. I try not to force myself to write; I find that if ever I do, the words come out stilted, halting. It is instead, for me, about capturing emotion as truthfully as I can on the page.
EY: What is something that you have always wanted to, but have never been able to write about?
TW: Hmm, nothing seems to come to mind at the moment. Writing is the only way I know how to capture and pin down thoughts and emotions—I can’t think of anything that I do not write about. Every soft, visceral, uncertain, beautiful, painful thing I have ever experienced has gone on the page. There is, I must confess, nothing much that I do not write about.
EY: What advice do you have for people who want to write about their “invisible” illness(es)?
TW: I cannot reiterate this enough: though our illnesses may be invisible, they are as real and as stabbing as any other disability. I suppose my greatest advice would be to keep that in mind, no matter how much the world seems bent on proving you otherwise. It does not matter if our illnesses reside only in our heads: they are valid and worth writing about, worth exploring and creating for. Know that the art you make in tribute to or in defiance of your illnesses is a bright, sharp, real thing. Hold that knowledge to your chest. Let it warm you on aching nights. Do not ever let it go.
EY: The resolute tone (“I will turn sorry into/Profanity”) of your poem “Story,” the fact that it is more apologia than apology, really resonated with me. That said, if one becomes defiant in order to survive, how does one prevent gentleness and empathy from becoming casualties of that fight?
TW: I have to believe that fierceness and softness can coexist. I truly dislike the idea that they are mutually exclusive—and indeed, I think that when one is battling mental illness, it is the endlessly shifting push-and-pull of the two that keeps one alive. The war happens both in gentleness and resoluteness. They are not enemies but rather sisters, holding each other up, fighting the same fight. There is a defiance, a profanity, a revolution in remaining soft. They are endlessly intertwining. There are no casualties in this battle.
EY: Lastly, you talk about monsters, and your desire to “bring [them] to light”—but what, exactly, does monsterhood mean to you?
TW: I am learning to think of monsterhood as something to be proud of rather than to fear. It is a long process, and one that I am nowhere near the end of—but for too long I was ashamed of my mental illnesses, and I am so tired of constantly hiding them. Instead I am learning to hold them up and to honour them. Monsters protect, they shield, they fight for us as much as they terrify us. Healing is a matter of examining them, of understanding them. And of making the choice to embrace them as part of us. I see monsterhood as a badge to wear with pride. A celebration of the ways in which we shed our fears and thrive despite and because of them.
EY: Topaz, thank you so much for speaking with Monstering!
TW: It’s been an honour. Thank you so much for the opportunity.
TOPAZ WINTERS is a writer in a raining city. Her poems, essays, and short stories have been published in WILDNESS Magazine, Hypertrophic Literary, Sapphic Swan Zine, and The Best Teen Writing of 2015 anthology, and commended by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and the Jane Goodall Institute, among others. Her début poetry chapbook, Heaven or This, has been downloaded over 15,000 times. She resides in Singapore and at topazwinters.com. Mostly she enjoys crystals, coffee, softness, and the sea.