Dear Scarlet: A Review

Dear Scarlet is Teresa Wong’s first book: an intimate graphic memoir on postpartum depression. Raw but reassuring, the book is framed as a letter to her daughter, Scarlet. Wong says that when she thought about writing the book, her memories all came back to her as images. She’d spent most of those early months in silence, quietly bouncing with the baby on an exercise ball, or wordlessly changing a diaper. What better way to convey that time than through a graphic narrative?

Wong’s stark drawings capture the fear and failure she felt during  that time: she uses large swaths of black ink, and effectively uses perspective to convey the sense of imprisonment she felt. Although before Dear Scarlet, Wong considered herself an author and not an illustrator, the simply-drawn, somewhat shaky panels exude a vulnerability that matches her story.

Even in its darkness, Dear Scarlet feels brave. To talk about postpartum depression at all can feel risky for new mothers: to admit you are struggling to bond with your baby, that none of it feels right, that you are unhappy…for a person trying to survive with postpartum depression, these feelings can deepen the loneliness and guilt that is already exacerbated by the depression, and keep mothers from seeking help.

I read this slim and powerful book over the course of one glass of wine, sitting at a bar, and when the bartender (a friend of mine) noticed I had tears in my eyes, I passed him the book across the bar. It was a slow evening, and he flipped through it while we chatted.  The next morning, his wife, pregnant with her second child, emailed me asking for the title. She wrote that she’d experienced postpartum depression with her first, and had never gotten the help she needed.

Wong says that she’s been incredibly moved by the response she’s gotten from readers who see themselves in her story. Although Wong wrote the book for her own healing, it is clear that Dear Scarlet can play an important role in opening up the conversation around postpartum mental health.

In my own experience with postpartum depression, I found that connection is the only thing that can ease the profound and desperate feelings of inadequacy. Connection to other mothers who quietly admit they’ve been there, too. Connection with skilled, compassionate health care providers who recognize that the transformation into motherhood can be hugely traumatizing. Connection with family, friends, and partners who are genuinely committed to a mother’s wellness, and not just the baby’s.

Motherhood memoirs have seen a bit of a literary zeitgeist in the last decade or so, but the genre has been steeped in whiteness. A Chinese-Canadian based in Calgary, Wong’s story gives a welcome perspective on how culture and tradition can shape and bolster our experiences as new mothers. In particular, there is a Chinese tradition called “Sitting out the month,” where a new mother doesn’t leave the house for a month after the baby is born. Wong’s mother came to help her and cook her traditional healing foods during this time. While she found it isolating, Wong also saw the time as sacred, and acknowledges that having no obligations beyond eating, sleeping, and recovering was necessary for her mental recovery. Interestingly, a Chinese friend of Wong’s suggested that she cut out the parts of Dear Scarlet that focused on the Chinese traditions, arguing that readers who weren’t Chinese wouldn’t be able to relate. But Wong believes that those details were, ultimately, what caught her publisher’s attention. Although Wong didn’t set out to fill a void in postpartum memoirs by women of color, she’s glad that her voice is adding to the plurality of postpartum experience.

The rise in books about motherhood is allowing postpartum depression to slowly become destigmatized. As someone who experienced grueling and untreated postpartum depression with my first son, I am grateful for this development, and endlessly indebted to the author’s like Wong who bravely shared their own stories.

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