Fictionally Nonfiction by Wynn Thanh Phi is a powerful and eye-opening autobiographical work about one girl's struggle with mental illness and journey to find her place in a confusing and chaotic world.
Family is at the heart of Wynn's story. Upon learning of the prospect of terrible news, she exclaims: “My family. My life. My everything.” Just about everything in this real-life story that is stranger than fiction revolves around Wynn and her relationship with her family members. This includes her numerous examples of mental illness including severe depression leading, apparent gender dysphoria caused by her desire to give her father the son he always wanted while wanting to appear “beautiful” for her mother, suicidal ideation, and an eating disorder likely triggered by her severe depression. Wynn also diagnoses herself with a whole lot of other things throughout the narrative, actually demonstrating an impressive understanding of psychology.
You may have guessed that this book, like Mia's Odyssey or Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops, is filled to the brim with triggering content, especially with regards to self-harm and the desire to take one's life. There are also brief instances of sexual abuse and harassment, though thankfully nowhere near the detail and apparent severity of Mia's Odyssey, Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops, or When to Run, Born Scared. These are still scarring nonetheless. You should definitely come into this braced and prepared to encounter more than a little troubling content.
This book really shines in some moments and has some moments of gold. Some of the best parts are near the beginning when you're just getting to know Wynn. Wynn, from what we gathered in the first few chapters, seems to have some sort of high-functioning autism. For that reason, she finds herself in a special needs school where she learns a very important skill that follows her throughout her life: forming relationships with people and making friends. This is easier said than done as people with her condition are notorious for being socially awkward. Wynn faces it courageously and takes it in stride, venturing out to try new things and meet new people.
Now, what's interesting about this is that Wynn continuously considers herself a “runner”--someone who runs from everything. She constantly undersells herself and underestimates her personal courage and bravery. She has a very self-defeating attitude and outlook much of the time and is often ridiculously humble. That's simultaneously one of the best and worst things about her. On one hand, she doesn't come across as arrogant or egotistical. One the other hand, her negative attitude toward herself and her situations is contagious—it really gets to the reader and eats at them. It's actually quite annoying, to be honest.
On that note, the book uses a very familiar and popular narrative method called stream of consciousness. This is when the narrator basically says everything that's on their mind all the time. And, well, Wynn basically says everything that's on her mind all the time. On one hand, this can be incredibly interesting because it gets you into the head of someone with mental illness—constantly badgered by her inner voices and her frequent self-defeating, pessimistic thoughts. You can actually put on your psychologist goggles and psychoanalyze her a bit to figure out what she has and why. That might actually be one of the best uses of this book, beside allowing for healing for those who can empathize with it (perhaps having mental illness or having a family member who does). You could write a dissertation about this book.
On the other hand, Wynn's constant war with her consciousness and subsequent rambling does bloat the length of the book and often ruin pacing. This book is surprisingly long. You might see this book and see that it's 250-something pages and say, “that's not too bad, I can do that in one sitting!” But these are 250-something THICK, LONG pages, so you better be prepared for 7-10 hours of reading.
We experienced something with this book that we don't think we've ever experienced in our history readings and reviewing hundreds of other books: we thought the book was over 1/5th of the way in. We literally read the first dozen chapters and thought the book was winding down. We thought this book was all about a young autistic Asian girl growing up and were about to tell our friends (who have autistic children) about how they might be able to relate to it. Well, boy, were we wrong about it winding down! This book just kept going and going and going. This is basically Wynn Thanh Phi's whole entire life put to paper, that's why we consider this a full-length autobiography as opposed to a memoir. This is the bildungsroman of Wynn Thanh Phi. It's 60 chapters long!
This book begins so well as you're first introduced to Wynn, but it plummets a bit as you get into the weeds of Wynn and her friends. The middle portion is far less interesting than the beginning and end of this book.
With all that said, this book really is powerful and beautiful with a lot to say. We absolutely adore the quote: “A story doesn't end with a period or with a flip of the page.” There are also moments of absolute literary gold in here. For example, beginning on page 81, there are a series of sarcastic statements that begin with the words “It's not like...” All of these statements are filled with powerful and painful ironies like “It's not like my mom hid having cancer from my family for two years.” Ouch! Those are some lines that literally jump out from the pages at you. They bite!
There's also a part that contains a series of “I am” statements including: “I am not just a female... I am not just an asian[sic]... and I AM NOT a victim... I am a self-proclaimed survivor.”
These parts are simply incredible and show just how clever, intelligent, and creative Wynn is in expressing herself. There are quite a few moments like that.
Wynn also does a good job at relating more obscure things like the ID of the subconscious or her thoughts about “strength” by relating them to things in pop culture that more people might be familiar with like Pinocchio or The Incredible Hulk.
All in all, this is an incredibly worthwhile read if you are interested in mental illness and/or reading about one girls struggle to find herself.
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