Interview by Alex Howlett
Artwork by Ana Ovilo
Rosalind Jana, only 21 years old, has already had her debut non-fiction book Notes on Being Teenage published, as well as her debut poetry collection. She has written for British Vogue, Broadly, Refinery29, Buzzfeed, BBC Radio 4, The Debrief and The Guardian. During our time on Skype, we discussed a range of important topics – from mental health to Instagram – many of which she has covered in chapters of her new book.
You express yourself in a variety of ways, but you are best known for doing so through the channels of vintage clothes and wonderful writing. What do you enjoy most about these modes of storytelling?
I especially love this question because that was something I was writing about recently – the fact that they are both means of telling stories, and especially ways for me to mark out my place in the world. I’ve been blogging for years, and writing has been one way of spinning a narrative. The great thing about clothes, if you’re approaching them playfully, is asking yourself what character you want to be on that day; what do I want to project? For me, what links them together is that they are both very creative, inventive, and part of the toolbox of negotiating my sense of self.
Why did you choose to focus on the experience of being a teenager for your new book?
The simple answer is because the publisher asked me to. The more serious answer is that it’s something I’ve been thinking about, even when this publisher got in touch. It’s such a weird, difficult, nebulous point in your life and I know that I could have done with more literature that’s honest and frank about the fact that it’s okay to be quite unnerved by what was going on. I wanted to produce a book that I could have read at 14, that would have made some difference in one way or another.
It’s a very interesting point in our lives. I think once we’re beyond it, it can feel entirely removed. I was a different person then, but I can also see how a lot of the decisions that she made and the things that happened to her continue to influence my life up to this day. Getting to interrogate that was something I really wanted to do.
It is interesting how you talk about change and about your teenage self being a separate person.
I think it happens a lot, like the person I was when I first went to university is different, as well as the person who graduated. I guess that happens over the course of your entire life, but especially when you are rapidly shifting and accumulating knowledge, experience and working things out, it inevitably feels like you are going through so many permeations of yourself.
You have mentioned that in your book you write about mental health. Why did you choose to write about it?
Big question! I hope I would have written about that anyway, but the main reason for me was because a lot of my family members and then later some friends have suffered from some quite extreme or difficult mental health problems. The opening of that chapter is me writing about my dad’s episode of depression when I was in sixth form, which was so bad he ended up in a psychiatric unit for a while, and took more than six months to recover from this. I think that opened my eyes to the language surrounding mental health; the expected narratives and prejudices around it.
The chapter, for me, was about acknowledging the complexity of mental health and opening up some conversations about it – reflecting a diversity of experience, because of course it’s not just depression and anxiety, there are lots of other conditions. I wish I had more room to write about it.
Do you think how we approach mental health is changing for the better, or that perhaps there still isn’t enough coverage in mainstream media?
I think the conversation is changing for the better, and even though I’m not a massive fan of the Royals, if Prince Harry is talking openly about mental health then that’s a good thing because we are blowing away some of the stigma. I think the problem is as much as we can have conversations about visibility, that’s also balanced up by the fact that we need to be having practical talks as well about how the NHS treats mental health, about how much of the budget is given to mental health, which is scant, or how much universities often really badly deal with the pastoral care side of things.
So I think it’s a developing conversation, and I hope one of the developments is to talk very practically about how the government responds to what is basically a crisis.
Would you agree it can be worse for men, in some ways and in some circles, since there often seems to be more of a discussion surrounding female mental health?
I have thought about this a lot recently. I was watching a series on BBC player called ‘Happy Man’, which talks about male mental health. I don’t know if the conversation is skewed one way more than the other, but I do think there has been a level of visibility surrounding our conversation about female mental health, but that has to be matched with talking about male mental health. It comes under this rubric of men not being able to talk about their sensitivities and vulnerabilities. I feel really strongly about this because of people who I know who have dealt with things that are unimaginable with grace and strength. The conversation does need to be widened.
What topics do you most enjoy writing about?
Inevitably I really enjoyed writing about clothes and the creative potential found there. Fun is maybe the wrong word, but I really enjoyed writing the chapter about body image because it gave me the chance to pull together a lot of things that have been rattling around in my head for a while. It was great to be able to sit down and have the time and the room to really push out what I had been thinking on how we talk about beauty, worth or looks. I also thought the chapter about social media was fun because it gave me the chance to chat with a lot of teenagers about their experiences with the online world, which marks the very, very quick differences that each generation of teenagers are currently experiencing.
It’s interesting how kids who are only a few years younger are experiencing social media in such a different way.
I was talking to 14 year old girls, and they were talking about the level of curating that happens on their Instagram, and I was so shocked – I was only 5 years older than them when I was writing the book. They had a sophisticated level of knowledge about this artificial online self which they were presenting. I certainly don’t think my generation had this in the same way. It actually makes me quite grateful that I grew up at the point I did, where I blogged and spent a lot of time online, but a lot of it was very creative and wasn’t automatically reliant on this notion that the only way to be noticed online is to be validated. I think the problem is when adults tend to be very rude about it, when actually it’s a landscape that can be exciting at times, but it’s also really complicated to navigate. I get quite frustrated when adults are like ‘oooh these silly teenagers with their selfies’, when actually, we should have a conversation about why teenagers feel the need to take selfies, what are the messages being pushed at them, how are they being told to define their sense of worth.
What do you think about the commodifying of feminism within fashion and celebrity culture?
First of all, we need to recognise that a select group of people have been using their voices on behalf of all of us and that needs to end because womanhood, and more generally the idea of gender, is wide and varied and full of nuance. In order to talk about that we need to make sure the voices are representative of that, and diverse. The second thing is the mainstream co-option of feminism. I don’t think it’s wholly good, or bad, there are lots of great public figures who have genuinely used their platforms to promote good.
I think the problem develops when it becomes an empty concept. When you have a t-shirt, and it was produced under conditions that are essentially slave labour, and women are being fucked over, to produce your nice feminist t-shirt – then it’s problematic. It’s something that’s developing all the time; I know the version of feminism I had when I was 16 is not the same as I have now, because I’ve listened, and done more research. It’s an ever-developing thing.
Lastly, you can spend a day out with three fictional female characters from three different novels. Which characters would you choose, and where would you go with them?
Fevvers – Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter
Orlando – Orlando: A Biography, Virginia Woolf
Sophy – The Grand Sophy, Georgette Heyer
Notes on Being Teenage, by Rosalind Jana, published by Hachette Group, £6.99.