Hollay Ghadery is one busy writer, and in her debut memoir Fuse (Guernica Editions, 2021) draws own experiences as a woman of Iranian and British Isle descent, diving into conflicts and uncertainty surrounding the biracial female body and identity.
From the blurb by Nila Gupta, author of The Sherpa and Other Fictions, which was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers Prize:
“A searing account of the impact of toxic masculinity on a vulnerable young girl’s psyche. Hollay, born to an Iranian father and a White mother, explodes onto the page with her coming of age story. Told with wit and verve, Hollay zig zags through the minefield of familial and cultural expectations set for girl children in the 1980’s and ’90s, all the while battling an inherited vulnerability to mental illness. Hollay’s heroic story to find her authentic self is, at turns, zany, heart-breaking, and profound. A must-read.”
Recently appointed the new reviews editor at the Minona Review, she lives in small-town Ontario. She has her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Her fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and reviews have been published in various literary journals, including The Malahat Review, Room, Grain, CAROUSEL, and The Fiddlehead. Her personal essays have also appeared on CBC Parents and LadyLatitudes.
Why was this the time to release your memoir Fuse?
The short answer is because this is when I finished it. I’d been trying to wrap up Fuse for years but my mental health wasn’t the best and I was really struggling to make it through the day-to-day. I was definitely trying to write it during this difficult time—and many of the rawest parts of the book were written at my lowest points—but I didn’t have the focus to finish the project then.
I managed to pull it all together once I was a few months sober.
For many mental health is a mystery or it has a particularly negative stigma. What were some of your early experiences with stigma?
Quiet conversations and back-channel talk: A great uncle who served in WWII and was never quite the same after, or my paternal grandfather, who may or may not have had a problem with alcohol and who may or may not have died as a direct or indirect result of it. There were dozens of half-shadowed stories like this growing up, and no one really talked about it. And the parts of the stories that were talked about were always changing, depending on when, where and who was there.
I get that this narrative transmutation is a trait of all storytelling—especially verbal story-telling—that we always, to an extent, perform for our audience and since that audience changes, so too do the stories. But what really stands out about the stories about mental illness is not just how hushed they were; how illicit. It was clear that while people were speaking of mental illness, they also felt they shouldn’t be. More specifically, they shouldn’t have to. It was shameful and taboo, yes, but more than that, these stories—and by extension, the people living them—were a burden. If only they’d just go away…
The quality I’m describing here is hardly unique to my family. As I grew up, I saw this same sentiment reflected elsewhere; in other families, as well as in the media. So, obviously, when I became aware that I had a mental illness (although I didn’t think of it in those terms then; I just thought there was something wrong with me) I didn’t feel like I should talk about it. And it certainly didn’t occur to me to ask for help.
What do initiatives such as BIPOC mental health month (July) mean to you?
I think it’s good that this intersection is being acknowledged. It’s long overdue and the mental health issues that face BIPOC individuals can be quite singular. On a personal level, however, I always feel like an imposter applying the BIPOC term to myself, even though I understand I can and often do. It boils down to my continuing to feel conflicted about being mixed race—specifically mixed with white, like having that white in me cancels out my also being West Asian.
How pigmented does a person of colour have to be to qualify? I never asked myself this sort of question before I wrote Fuse, but after I wrote it, a smattering of people questioned my right to consider myself a person of colour because they considered me white passing—a confounding notion because I have been discriminated against precisely because to many people, I do not present as white. Obviously, this criticism stems from a highly colourized, subjective and narrow notion of race, but it shook me and made me feel like I wasn’t “other” enough to be “other” and not white enough to be white.
Fuse is highly personal. What was the hardest part of putting it down on paper?
“I wasn’t as worried about what the general public would think as I was—and to an extent, continue to be—concerned about offending my family, who features largely in my book. But how does one talk about who they are without talking about where they came from? How does one speak to where they came from without talking about their family?
I couldn’t, so I didn’t. I did do my best to remain compassionate and (I know it sounds corny) lead with love. I also made sure to stay focused on my story and not venture into other people’s stories when it wasn’t immediately relevant to me. And even then, I really thought about my motivations for including something: If I was including something because I was working through unresolved feelings or felt any anger, I scrapped the section. The sections that are included serve as springboards for the reader to reflect and have conservations in their own life, and (I hope) they don’t feel muddled by resentment. I feel none.
How do you talk to children about mental health? Tips?
I don’t profess to be an expert on talking to kids about mental health, but with my kids, we talk about it openly and without judgement. I think discussions about mental health should be as prevalent as talking to kids about their physical health. Like understanding internal cues for their hunger, I encourage my kids to recognize when they are feeling something uncomfortable or distressing. Most of all, I encourage them not to bury their feelings or feel ashamed of them. I continue to make it clear to my children that I’m always here to listen to them and that no feeling—no random, nattering, scary, persistent, unsettling thought—is unnatural. If it is bothering them, it’s important.
“Feel the feels and talk it out when you’re ready,” is a constant refrain around our house.
Another is, “You’re allowed to be in a bad mood. You’re not allowed to take it out on everyone else.” This is a reminder for them to both honour what they’re feeling and respect other people, which can be difficult for kids (and adults for that matter) when they’re really struggling through something.
The pace of Fuse is impressive: the way in which you move from the present to internal memories of your mother’s face, its similarity – at times – to your own is quite effective. What was the editing process like?
Oof. It was a trip. In fact, in the early edits, a good chunk of the feedback revolved around providing transitional cues to the reader in certain spots. My mind—like the minds of many people—jumps around a lot and the connections I was making were clear to me but to someone trying to follow along, it would have been frustrating. So, I had to make sure I cued the reader a little more. It didn’t take much: readers are smart, but I did need to learn to be a better guide throughout my story.
In the essay Good Breeding, a family (yours) is discussing a family member’s drinking problem, while the conversation turns to possible societal stigma your parents may have faced for being from two different ethnic backgrounds. Do you feel that your thoroughness in exploring intergenerational conflict, solidarity and support has exhausted you from any further familial writing?
For now, maybe, but probably not for good. Family stories and relationships are more fluid than perhaps people think—they’re not quite so fixed. Yes, I am definitely exhausted from writing about family at the moment, but I think there will always be something new to explore as I get older and my family gets older and relationships ebb and flow. Already, I see different ways I could have looked at some of the situations about which I wrote. The conclusions I draw now are similar to the ones I drew in the book but the way into the narrative would have been different, and this would have shown something different—something new—about me, my family and my understanding of the world.
This said, while I am fine writing more about my children and partner (because they are fine with it too), I am uneasy writing more about my birth family: my parents and brothers. I am thankful that no one outright objected to my writing Fuse, but I gather this book being out there is a little unsettling for them. I get it. I’m unsettled by it too, but I think that the issues I attempt to unpack are important and need space. I think we have to learn to be okay with discomfort to move past it enough to heal and grow.
What has been the most encouraging reader reaction so far since publishing Fuse?
There hasn’t really been one reader with a reaction that stands out to me more than any other, but there has been one reaction from multiple readers that never ceases to encourage me: when readers tell me they feel seen. Writing Fuse was one thing (part of me never expected it to be published), but signing the contract with Guernica and sharing it with others proved to be a pretty terrifying privilege.
So, whenever a reader tells me that Fuse resonated with them—whether it’s because they’re biracial too, or have experienced cultural clashes, or suffer from mental illness, or don’t check off all the neat little boxes that make someone a “good parent” or whatever—I feel this teary-eyed swell of accomplishment and relief. I wrote Fuse to make people feel less alone, and in reaching out to let me know that Fuse resonated, these readers make me feel less alone too.