Author Debra Anderson decodes mental health in her debut novel

On March 17, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented author Debra Anderson reading from her novel Code White. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

I want to be off the ward. Not trapped in other people’s predetermined cycles of laundry, meals, fluorescent lights, fifteen-minute patient checks. I want to go outside. Sticky, freezing, wet, humid, sunny, icy, hot, stormy, grey, snowy, sweaty. And when I do, I’ll never complain about any of it.

from Code White
by Debra Anderson

On fresh spring days when the chill of winter had not yet left the air, Debra Anderson’s mother would have to force her to go outside and play. Even when outside, the self-described bookworm was always reading or pestering her friends to read the stories she had written. On March 17, students in the Canadian Writers in Person series needed no pestering to listen to the story of Anderson’s debut novel.

Left: Debra Anderson

Code White explores the experiences of Alex, a woman who is locked inside a mental institution. Anderson was concerned about the marginalization of people with mental illness, a malady that is still taboo despite its impact on all of us. Alex is also a lesbian femme, placing her one step further from the norm, even within the institution. As a misfit, Alex has a unique perspective on the world.

As the novel is written in the form of journal entries, the reader gets an unfiltered view of Alex’s thoughts and feelings, often sharply humorous and openly sexual. These elements were important to Anderson because she wanted to show that "life and desire don’t stop when you get sick." Alex’s journal becomes both a coping mechanism and an act of resistance as she tries to maintain her individuality within a dehumanizing institution.

Reading the world through Alex, the pages reveal everything in sensuous detail and vibrant colour. Yet, in the same way that it labels its patients, the institution uses colour as a code for various threats, including white for disruptive behaviour. Alarmed that much of her thought and behaviour would be considered disruptive, Alex challenges this kind of categorization: "I really don’t want to be a Code White. I don’t ever want to be a code called on this floor. To be figured out. Pinned down. Managed." By sharing her struggles in the microcosm of the mental institution, readers might re-examine the larger view of what is considered to be normal but ultimately deadening in modern life.

Anderson also described for students her development as a writer, a path that was likewise shaped by resisting conventions. She followed her passion for theatre while in high school and was initially accepted into the Faculty of Fine Arts at York. Though nobody suggested that she could be a writer, she decided to switch to the Creative Writing Program where she studied with noted authors Professors Susan Swan and Richard Teleky. She also joined a writing group called The Stern Writing Mistresses which included Caitlin Fisher and Chloe Brushwood-Rose, who are now professors at York. Here, Anderson began to develop her writing voice and the pieces that would eventually become Code White.

Written piece by piece in a non-linear fashion, it was "completely terrifying" to not know where the story was going. Yet, Anderson found that this process was also exciting and ultimately more rewarding: to be alive in the present moment was better than following an outlined future. Though Anderson’s childhood self chose to stay inside while her characters fought to get outside, writing was what kept them both sane. 

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. The series is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. In celebration of York’s 50th anniversary, all of this year’s writers have connections to the UniversityNino Ricci read from his award-winning novel Lives of the Saints on March 31. Makeda Silvera will read from her novel The Heart Does Not Bend today at 7pm.