'Madness,' Mental Heath, and Neurodiversity in Contemporary Fiction by Women and Non-binary Authors

deadline for submissions: 
August 16, 2020
full name / name of organization: 
NeMLA 2021
contact email: 

This panel seeks papers on narrativizations of mental health, "madness," and neurodivergence in the fiction of women and non-binary people. As Baerman, Herman et al have noted, “madness has been an important thematic pawn in many literary texts” (2009, 283). While for male characters, canonically, this has often meant deluded adventures (Quixote), revenge (Hamlet) and romantic delirium (Werther), for female characters, the narratives have often been confined to Gilbert and Gubar have theorized as the story of “maddened doubles [functioning] as asocial surrogates for docile selves” (1979, xi), wherein instead of being a mere fact about a character, madness in women becomes a way represent, question and even distract from the examination of what it means to have non-masculine gender identities under the heteropatriarchy.

In the 21st century, the discourse of mental health is more visible than ever before. So, what does it mean, right now, for women and non-binary authors to write a character who is seen, whether by others or themselves as suffering from mental illness? How does the experience of psychosocial disability intersect with gendered expectations of care? What are the politics of diagnoses and treatments within contemporary fiction? And more importantly, how are we expected to respond to these narratives as readers?

From the self-sedating protagonist of Otessa Moshfegh’s My Year in Rest and Relaxation to the Akwaeke Emezi’s Ada, in Freshwater who finds her mind split between competing spirits, contemporary fiction is full of female and non-binary characters who behave in ways that are either diagnosed and medicalized diegetically or provoke diagnoses and then transcend medicalization in important ways.

The significance of this panel lies in the fact that it facilitates discussion on the intersection of gender and mental health in 21st-century fiction, which remains under-explored within contemporary critical engagements.