Bringing teen depression home

John Robert Lee
John Robert Lee

Review: John Robert Lee

I taught children’s and young adults’ literature for several years at our Community College in St Lucia to students training as teachers. I became very interested in the genre, its wide-ranging themes, styles and popular authors.

Even then, the underlying question was about the availability of stories that spoke to and reflected the lives of our Caribbean children. In those years, the mid-eighties to nineties, it was difficult to find many. Thankfully, while there is still much to be done, the situation seems to have improved considerably.

Summer Edward, editor-in-chief of Anansesem, a Caribbean children’s literature e-zine, is today “devoted to publishing and covering Caribbean writing and illustration for children and young adults.” The Bocas Lit Fest, through its Code Burt award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature, has also ensured in recent years that this literature gets as much attention as Adult creative writing. Home Home by poet, editor and novelist Lisa Allen-Agostini of TT was a 2017 finalist in the Burt awards.

FILE: Lisa Allen-Agostini’s talks with a student at a book event. Allen-Agostini’s novel Home Home is part of an ongoing national secondary schools book tour which ends in December.
Photo courtesy Kwame Emmanuel Boatswain.

Young Adult Literature (YA Lit), catering to ages 12-18, covers many themes: “friendship, first love, relationships, identity, romantic and sexual interest, self-identity, death.” Many of the books are coming-of-age novels, taking the characters through significant life changes to some kind of resolution as they enter adulthood.

In doing some quick research recently, I did not find “adolescent depression” listed among common themes. Which is not to say that this is not written about. But if it has not been a major area of concern, then Lisa Allen-Agostini’s Home Home is set to make a mark with her well-wrought treatment of this theme in her novel.

The research indicates that “teen depression is a serious mental health problem…every 100 minutes a teen takes their own life. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for young people ages 15-24. About 20 per cent of all teens experience depression before they reach adulthood.” Serious matters indeed. And a theme and subject that deserve treatment by writers of YA Literature.

In Home Home, the lead character is a 14-year-old Trinidadian girl who lives with her aunt in Edmonton. Interestingly, and I think significantly, we don’t hear her name, Kayla, till the penultimate line of the novel.

As Kayla’s mother demonstrates, adolescent depression is still not taken as seriously and sympathetically as it ought to be in the Caribbean. It has not been recognised as a “serious mental health problem.”

Hear Kayla, “Because my mother was so ashamed of my suicide attempt and my mental illness, when she sent me away to recover it felt like she was punishing me: so penance.” Kayla speaks of her challenges as her “troubles,” and describes herself as “a Caribbean hermit in exile in Edmonton.” Her mother Cynthia, “despite all the doctors we had talked to after my pill-popping incident…wasn’t convinced I was actually ill. As far as she was concerned depression was some kind of self-induced and entirely frivolous condition. In other words, I was making all this up.”

The other complexity that Allen-Agostini treats here is the lesbian relationship between Kayla’s Aunt Jillian and her partner Julie. While the issue of depression is the main theme, the LGBT family situation is something that Caribbean people at “home home” are still generally uncomfortable with. “I squirmed a little bit when she said ‘lesbian’. I had been living with her and Julie for a couple of months and obviously I knew that they were gay but it wasn’t something I was comfortable talking about with them.” Her mother Cynthia “couldn’t separate a person from their sexual and domestic arrangements…and whose judgement was flawed regarding anything they couldn’t understand. To my mom, ‘different’ meant ‘unacceptable’.”

So this 14-year old, from Trinidad, a generally conservative Caribbean society (ironically, in spite of its love of bacchanal and Carnival in all its licentiousness), finds herself as an immigrant in a cold Canada (with the underlying racism, discrimination and sexism), with a serious problem of depression and its attendant anxiety attacks, living in an unfamiliar gay family situation, going through her adolescent uncertainties and fears.

Allen-Agostini generally handles these conflicts deftly. Her details are finely observed, are certainly very plausible, the tone of young adult character is right and in tune with the contemporary YA reality of language, concerns, music, views. Chapters 4 and 5 are central to the novel, with its close narration of Kayla’s breakdown into a bad anxiety episode. It seems to be triggered by her meeting at a restaurant table the handsome Joshua, to whom she is attracted. In Jillian and Julie she finds adults who give her the patience and understanding she needs. Cynthia “was a decent mother and not abusive or anything…yet neither by word nor deed did she show she really wanted me around.”

As Kayla recovers, and finds a new romantic interest in Joshua, her mother arrives suddenly from Trinidad to take her back. The Jamaica Kincaid-like deep tensions between this mother and child threaten to destabilise the healing situation, but a compromise is arrived at. The “home home” of Trinidad and her present domicile in Canada somehow fall together “right here.”

And with that resolution, at the very end of the novel, we hear her name for the first time, “Kayla,” representing in a sense, that a passage has been achieved, the confused personality who could never remember her bus route has been replaced by the one who destroys the printed schedules, who has gained a new confidence, who has come through a troubled stage of adolescence and for whom we can sense a real moving on from adolescent depression. A person has emerged.

In her second poetry collection, Swallowing the Sky, Allen-Agostini had written very honestly about her family, her personal experiences with love and loss. Several poems see her in a foreign city, aware that where she is “isn’t home.” One poem carries the title, “I have packed my bags for home.” So “home home”, real home, with all its varieties of pain, pleasure, confusion, seems a central thematic element of her writings.

This YA novel is well-paced, a page-turner, as her main character (accurately drawn) is presented with sensitive understanding of adolescent depression and the emotional turbulence that face the young at the barriers between youth and adulthood. The first-person narration creates a close-up intensity that should keep the rapt attention of young adults.

Kayla is very much on the frontlines of today’s issues, especially as a young Caribbean immigrant (like so many others now) in a society far more liberal than our still conservative societies “home home.” It is a novel that should find a very popular and well-referenced space on the reading shelves of youth, parents and teachers who need to better understand the digital-age issues facing our teenagers today.

Polly Pattullo and her Papillote Press with bases in Trafalgar, Dominica and London, are making a significant mark in Caribbean publishing that spans the spectrum between older classic writers like Phyllis Shand Allfrey and new talents like Allen-Agostini. Home Home should find a place alongside significant works, old and new, that reflect accurately and compassionately our lives in these islands, at “home home” and abroad in our widening diaspora.

Home Home by Lisa Allen-Agostini

Papillote Press, 2018

John Robert Lee is a St Lucian writer. His Collected Poems 1975-2017 is published by Peepal Tree (2017).

This review first appeared at and is republished courtesy the author.


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