Jennifer Yu spent months trying to avoid focusing on fiction in college.
“I tried my hardest not to be a creative writing major. That’s not on the short list of acceptable majors for Asian Americans,” Yu, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania last year, told NBC News. “I was pre-med when I started school and then I did economics for a bit and then pre-law. I tried everything.”
Her creative nature, however, eventually won out and she decided to major in English with a concentration in creative writing. It was during a class on writing for children and young adults that she completed what would become her first book "Five Weeks, Four People."
The young adult novel, which is scheduled to hit shelves on May 2, follows the lives of four teens as they attend a therapeutic wilderness camp during their summer break to receive treatment for issues like obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, and anxiety.
Yu said she got the idea for her debut novel after she asked a friend for a writing prompt. “And he said, ‘Hey, I really want you to write this story about a camp told from alternating points of view,’” she recalled. “And I was like, ‘what?’ When I give someone a writing prompt it’s usually one word like ‘leaf.’”
The idea of five teens bonding during camp clicked with Yu and she began working on her manuscript during the summer of 2013. But it was not until she was enrolled in her children’s literature class the following year that she began seriously developing her story and eventually completed her first draft. As a child who always loved Nancy Drew mysteries and Lois Lowry classics, she knew she was drawn to stories about strong girls doing, as she described it, “kickass things.” Despite that, she initially did not expect anyone to read her book.
“In classic writerly fashion, I left it on my hard drive for over two years. Writing is one of those things that allowed me to be braver than I really am,” she said. “Plus, it’s fiction so it’s not really about you. It was just a safe and authentic and very personal way to process my feelings.”
Part of the reason Yu says she was unsure about how her manuscript would be received was because of how personal the experience of writing it was. While Yu always excelled in school throughout her teens and graduated from high school at 16, she also was diagnosed with depression and struggled with anxiety. She said now that she didn't always have the ability to talk about her struggles as a teen.
Yu’s hesitation about talking to her friends and family about mental health is common among teens of all backgrounds Suah Kim, a staff psychologist at Rutgers University’s Newark counseling center. “What is distinct [about the Asian-American experience] is the ‘model minority’ myth and this idea that we are all successful and living up to that ideal,” Kim told NBC News. “You feel that you can’t admit you aren’t doing well or can’t ask for help.”
This cultural conflict is addressed In one of the more memorable scenes in “Four Weeks, Five People.” Clarissa, the only Asian-American main character, is driving to camp with her mother and, while both mother and daughter want to talk about the situation, neither can quite find the words.
“I find Asian-American culture in my experience is not that conducive to conversations about mental health,” Yu said. “It’s not that Asian Americans don’t want their kids to be happy, it’s that there isn’t that tradition of those conversations taking place.”
Reflecting on her professional experience, Kim said many Asian-American parents may be worried about how mental health issues reflect on a family or may be reluctant to encourage their child to talk about issues that are considered private with a professional.
Yu agreed, and noted that, while she was developing her characters, she wanted to make sure that she did not present a one-dimensional way of looking at mental illness. “I’ve been in a lot of therapy, so I definitely started with my own experience,” she noted. “I also was fortunate for being in school while I was writing, so I had the benefit of psychology classes that I wasn’t taking but I was doing the reading for and I could do the research. Everyone’s experiences are different.”
But as she became more comfortable both writing about and discussing health issues like depression and anxiety, Yu now has a message for fellow aspiring writers who may just have a manuscript hidden on their computers.
“Just try [putting it out there]. You might find something that resonates with you and your friends,” she said. “For some Asian Americans, writing was never one of those things that was considered a career. But don’t let people tell you that you can’t do it.”