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About the author
Leila Tualla is a Filipino-American poet and author. Leila’s books include a YA contemporary romance called Letters to Lenora and a memoir/poetry collection called Storm of Hope: God, Preeclampsia, Depression and me. Her poetry is featured in several mental health anthologies and she is currently working on a poetry collection based on Asian American stereotypes and identities.
Content note: Mentions of depression, anxiety about death during childbirth, managing stress with food
Dianna Gunn: Hello and welcome to the Spoonie Authors Podcast, a podcast where we explore the life and stories of disabled authors. I’m your host, Dianna Gunn, and joining us today is Leila Tualla. Leila Tualla is a Filipino American poet and author. Leila’s books include a YA contemporary romance called Letters to Lenora and a memoir/poetry collection called A Storm of Hope: God, Preeclampsia, Depression and Me. Her poetry is featured in several mental health anthologies, and she is currently working on a poetry collection based on Asian American stereotypes and identities. Hello, Leila.
Leila Tualla: Hello, thank you so much for having me today.
Dianna Gunn: Thanks for joining me, I’m really excited to chat with you. And I would love to start by learning more about your recent novella, Letters to Lenora?
Leila Tualla: Um, yeah, sure. So, in my novella, it’s about this 18-year-old, Lenora. She received a box of letters and mementos that her mom had gifted her before she had died. So, she gets it on her 18th birthday. And in it, she finds these three letters that her mom had written. One is called “The one about faith”, “The one about love” and “The one about forgiveness.” And as she’s reading, she’s finding out more about who her mom was because her mom passed away, and she was really young. And what her choices her mom had to make a guess in order to be who she was at that time in her life. And it’s just, she’s on this cusp, right of going to college and being a new person and figuring out who she is. And then she gets these, these letters. That’s not necessarily godsent, but it’s like, wow, there’s a story of my mom that I didn’t know.
Dianna Gunn: That’s beautiful. I, I actually lost my dad when I was 12. [Leila says, “Oh no!”] And I gotta say, if I had received a box like that, when I turned 18, it would have meant a lot to me.
Leila Tualla: Yeah, I’m so sorry.
Dianna Gunn: [Laughs] Not to weigh anything down or anything. But I was just getting kind of teary-eyed listening to that, like, aw, that-that’s beautiful, that would have been beautiful. So, what inspired you to write this project?
Leila Tualla: [laughs] So um, so actually, I was in a really bad place. I had preeclampsia. And then I had depression during my—right after my second child was born, actually, let’s back up. It was… So, I had a really bad first pregnancy, and my daughter came out early; she had had to stay in the NICU for a few weeks. And that really messed me up [nervous laugh] really badly. [Dianna says, “I bet!”] So, the first year of her life, I, I was just going on adrenaline, and I didn’t really process what was happening to me emotionally and mentally. And then when, when I found out I was pregnant, my first thought, I mean, I know it’s gonna sound so awful, that my first thought was: I’m just gonna die. I don’t know what— I’m not gonna go back to her, like, this is it! The first pregnancy? For some reason, I was spared, but like, I’m not coming out of this alive. So, I am… I thought, well, she’s only four. Um, what would I? What? What would I give, you know, leave behind, I guess is what I was thinking in that moment. So, I wrote goodbye letters. And I know, that’s awful. So that was a little bit of a very sad [laughs], and, you know, twist to that, that I did. It was, I was in a really bad place. And I thought if I left, for whatever reason, I want her to know how much I loved her. And so I wrote, you know, the three letters aren’t the ones that I wrote my daughter, obviously. But there were just a few things that I want to leave her like, you know, stay strong in who you are, as a person, if you want to be faithful that this is it, like, there’s no blueprint or anything, or guidebook to anything. And then this is how your mom and dad fell in love. And then for everything, make sure you’re the first one to not quick to judge and forgive but like, you know, take a step back. Maybe the other person isn’t… I guess good person gives the other person grace and give yourself grace that maybe they’re also doing something hard and difficult, and that’s why they lashed out. So, it’s a little bit about forgiveness, but also like, let’s just pause, and let’s take a step back about the situation. So those were the three letters that inspired me to write but again, it I mean, that would be kind of morbid to include the letters I wrote to my daughter in this novella, but…
Dianna Gunn: You say that it’s awful, but it sounds like a beautiful way of coping to me. It’s certainly a lot less harmful than a lot of other ways people cope with mental health.
Leila Tualla: [Laughs] Oh yeah, that’s true. That’s very true. Yeah. [laughs]
Dianna Gunn: I mean, I’ve been smoking cigarettes on and off for over a decade. So, like, you’re doing better than I am. [laughter]
Leila Tualla: Well, I am a stress baker and a stress eater. So that is my coping skill. So, I’m like okay, like—
Dianna Gunn: You know, it’s really common among my Filipino friends [laughter]. I don’t know if it’s just my friends or if it was a larger trend within Filipino culture, because, like, a small sample size here, but I’m noticing a trend.
Leila Tualla: No, ’cause we don’t talk about mental health. We don’t talk about, “Oh, are you okay? ” so everything is related to food. Yeah.
Dianna Gunn: You don’t talk about it. It’s just everyone knows by the amount of cooking that’s going through your house. [laughs]
Leila Tualla: Yeah, exactly. And disappearing things. [laughter] Like food, you know, food wise, it’s okay.
Dianna Gunn: Wow, that sounds like a really scary and powerful experience. So how long was it between that and when you actually started working on this book?
Leila Tualla: Um, about two and a half years? Almost three. So yeah, it was— it was a while I had, thankfully, I was able to seek help. I was able to talk about it. And it wasn’t as painful, right? I mean, I was still, I was still crying through the writing process. But it wasn’t as… it wasn’t that difficult. Because in the story, it’s Lenore’s point of view, right? It’s not the mom’s point of view. Like, it’s a little bit of what she leaves behind. But to me, it was more I was focusing on: Okay. Lenora was okay. And how grateful she was, like, you had mentioned that, like, how grateful you would have been if your, your dad had left you letters, so I focused like strictly on that, like, yeah, the mom passed away. And but here is what the lessons that she us trying to give you, you know, and that she never truly left you. She was always there. It’s just more so in the background. So that was kind of [laughs] I was trying to do that way instead of, like, more bleak, I guess, because I didn’t want to be bleak.
Dianna Gunn: That makes sense.
Leila Tualla: You know, it could have been, could have been bad. But yeah, I think two and a half years, outside of that experience helps. But it also didn’t because you’re still remembering and unpacking all of that at the same time. But it was cathartic. Definitely. For me, it was just, it was hard. And I didn’t keep those letters, because I don’t know what would I… because I wrote them in that mindset. And I don’t know what I would do if my daughter sees that. Or if my son sees that, because you know, I wrote it in the middle of his pregnancy. Yeah, I’m like, oh, yeah, we’re just not going to keep them. Um, but yeah.
Dianna Gunn: Okay, so was the— was the emotional stuff the hardest part of writing this book? Or did you find something else about it challenging? I know, you usually write poetry. So I guess a novella was probably a lot to take on.
Leila Tualla: Um, yes, and no. Um, so I’ve actually written a YA romance before, like in college. And then the poetry… I wrote that because it was easier. It was a therapist who had suggested, well, if you can’t come to me and talk to me about it, just write it down and see what happens. So, the poetry came through like that, and then writing out the novella… I think it was just kind of, it was hard, in a sense, having to actually— because I hadn’t world, you know, built a world in such a long time. It’s been like, a decade. So I think that was a little challenging, and then having to figure out okay, well, I have my beginning, middle and end, but how do I, what are words? [laughs] So, it was hard to, it was hard to put them together. It took a while, definitely. But I am also an outliner. And so I outlined what I wanted to say and what I wanted her, Lenore, to do and how she would feel in these moments. And I just tried to, you know… I think the hardest part though, is, is just, like emotionally bringing myself back to that place and then try not to get sucked into that and then knowing that, okay, it’s just a book. I can walk away and then we’ll try again tomorrow when you’re having a better mental day. That makes sense?
Dianna Gunn: Yeah! It makes sense.
Leila Tualla: Because it was just hard. [laughs]
Dianna Gunn: You are wording alright, don’t worry.
Leila Tualla: Okay. [laughs]
Dianna Gunn: So along with this book, you also write a lot of poetry, and you do a lot of advocacy work for specifically maternal mental health, and how do you balance all of these with taking care of your own health, and I’m guessing you probably still have kids at home.
Leila Tualla: Yes, um, five and nine. So, a lot of the times, it helps me, the more I talk about it, the less intense it is. So, I continuously tried to have talked about it, but not so much that I’m back in that same mindset. But we, I do talk to my daughter about advocating for herself and for advocates, and, you know, for her mental health, so if we all like me and her, if we have a really bad day, like for her at school for I’m feeling really anxious and overwhelmed. I let her know mommy just does not feel good. Right now, I’m going to go in the closet or in the shower, for a few minutes, and I’ll be okay. But, you know, I’m always letting her know, it’s okay, that you’re not feeling like yourself, today, you will be okay. So she actually, she’s told me that she feels anxious, and she’ll go in the closet, and she’ll find ways to kind of calm down, and she draws little comic books, and she talks about it at school with her account or school counsellor. So, I think that’s the legacy, I know, I want to leave behind that, you know, all of our mental health like that is included in our entire package. We, you know, try to teach you— not teach you, but we try to figure how to fix you physically, and I may not fix you mentally, but I will try my best to, you know, bandage you up or figure out what’s wrong. And if we can’t fix it, that’s fine, we can just talk about it and leave it out in the open because I think a lot of parents, you know, like Filipinos again, I didn’t grow up talking about it, we ate our way through it [laughter] was just, if something is wrong, you tell me and there’s no judgment, and there’s a safe… Home is our safe space. So I’m always trying to cognitive—- I’m always cognizant of the fact that we can talk about it. And if we’re having a bad day, it’s okay. It’ll be better tomorrow. But today, we’ll just take that day, will stress bake and will stress eat. That’s probably not the best coping skills I’m leaving her but um…
Dianna Gunn: I think that really just making space for it and being honest about it goes a long way with mental health. And I think that, you know, a lot of us would’ve really appreciated having more of that approach when we were young. So…
Leila Tualla: Oh yeah, definitely me too. [laughter] Like, wow! I did not do this correct. Or, you know, but our parents didn’t know. And I think now we’re more aware of it. And we’re, we’re seeing it and like, I think if we had talked about it, when we were all younger, maybe I don’t know [laughs], you know, changed? I don’t know, I just don’t want I just want her, I just want both of them to like, know that. There is help. It’s okay. As far as the mental health. So anyway, so that’s my advocacy [laughs]. The more I talk about like maternal mental health, and advocating for, for your health, whatever that looks like, I hope my kids see that. And when they get older, they can tell the doctor no, this is not right. I feel like this. So you need to tell me like how to fix it, or I’m going to go find somebody else. You know what I mean? Like, I want them to know that. You don’t have to stick with one doctor or one person’s opinion. Like, go seek the help, you’re gonna need it. If you need that.
Dianna Gunn: Yeah. You know, sometimes you will have to search a little harder, especially if you do some kind of specialized help, but there is help out there.
Leila Tualla: Exactly.
Dianna Gunn: I feel like you kind of danced around the actual question about [Leila laughs] how you actually like, balance things [laughter].
Leila Tualla: Oh my gosh, um listen, I’m done you know? [laughter] Um I said, oh, yeah, how do I balance? I’ll write a lot and I try not to stress bake [laughs] and I walk and I talk it out. There you go. [laughter]
Dianna Gunn: Fair enough. I hope you rest in there somewhere too.
Leila Tualla: I do I do. We do a lot of resting [laughs]. Right. Now have a lazy day. Just you know it’s okay. We call it lazy days at the house or like, I just don’t feel like going and being touched and seeing people and putting on a big smile; let’s just have a lazy day and that’s perfectly okay.
Dianna Gunn: I love that. I feel like there’s A lot of people in like the disabled space in the mental health space that are trying to say that like lazy isn’t a real thing. It’s just an aimless thing. But I find lazy as a word very helpful. Like, when my disability is stopping me from doing a thing that’s not a lazy day. That’s like a day of executive dysfunction or a day of pain. But a lazy day is the day when I choose. I wake up and I’m just like, “Nah, no, I’m saying my bed today.” [laughs]
Leila Tualla: Yeah, and that’s okay! There’s nothing wrong with that!
Dianna Gunn: Exactly! We need that!
Leila Tualla: And my son? He calls it regenerating. And that’s a big word for a five-year-old. He says I’m regenerating [laughter].
Dianna Gunn: I bet he’s real proud of that word too, at five?
Leila Tualla: He’s so proud of that. It’s like, “Alright, buddy, you do you man!” [laughter]
Dianna Gunn: So, what advice would you give to other disabled folks who want to get into writing and who may be balancing it with a lot of health and other stuff?
Leila Tualla: Um, I definitely think I started out small. So it wasn’t— the intent wasn’t let’s sit down and write a novel, right? [laughs] It was or a novella. It was like, “I’m just gonna write a word.” That word turns into two words. “Hey, look, I wrote a sentence.” So, I think doing it in phases, and not necessarily thinking, what is this gonna be? But I have tons of journals with— half of it is unwritten and [laughs] other pages have scribbled and random—-
Dianna Gunn: Are you even a real writer if you don’t have a bunch of half empty journals?
Leila Tualla: Right! [laughs] That has to be a requirement. But yeah, I just think just taking it… just one little thing, it doesn’t have to be this big concept. Like, as long as you just sit down and write or storyboard or draw or, you know, something, I think that would definitely, it starts out that way. Right? It always starts out small. And that’s, you know, that’s the only advice I’ve got [laughs], because that’s, that’s what my therapist told me just write one thing at a time. It can even be as simple as here’s a freakin’ to do list, and let me check it off [laughs]. And somewhere along there, there’s poetry because you’re writing a to do list or whatever is in your purse. I did a lot of prompts that way, like, “Okay, I’m gonna write what’s in my purse,” and I got heavy as I kept writing. I was like, “Oh, wow, I’m carrying a lot of emotional and mental baggage in my purse.” [Dianna laughs] You know what I mean? But, um, yeah, just something as simple as that helped out alive. It definitely gets some creative juices flowing. But you know, whatever. Just “don’t sit down, you can take a walk.” I dictate, I mean not dictate; I record things a lot, too. But I think we talked earlier about our voices. And sometimes I don’t listen to it. And I just put it on my notes on my phone, because I just, I don’t like the sound of my voice [laughs]. But yeah…
Dianna Gunn: I relate to that. [Leila laughs] Some days, I just, I can’t. Most days, I like my voice. But some days, I’m just like, “Wait, is that what I really sound like to other people? That’s not what I sound like to me.” [Laughter]
Leila Tualla: I like your voice. You have a beautiful voice! Reminds me of like, an older… Like, when I was younger, I had a friend whose voice on a just like that. And now I’m like, wondering if she was Canadian, because I’m like, she has that? I don’t know. It’s weird. Anyways. [laughs]
Dianna Gunn: I have a very good reading voice [Leila says, “Yeah!”] that’s the thing is I have a really good like reading tone. I remember I did a video project in high school, and one of my teachers made a joke that I should become one of those like documentary narrators for National Geographic. Just saying if anyone from National Geographic is listening [Leila laughs], like hit me up, I would actually love to do that.
Leila Tualla: I can see that… I can hear that. Awesome. [laughter]
Dianna Gunn: 10 out of 10 would do. It sounds like a lot of work to try and like, eke my way in there, though. So unless one of them is listening to this podcast, that’s probably not gonna happen.
Leila Tualla: Aw!
Dianna Gunn: All right. So we have reached the end of our questions. So what are you working on next? And where can listeners go to find out more about it?
Leila Tualla: I am finishing up on a chapbook called PMDD and Me, so I also have premenstrual dysphoric disorder. Lovely. [Dianna says, “What fun.” I know so much.
Dianna Gunn: Uteruses… they’re just the gift that keeps on giving!
Leila Tualla: I know right, take you back please. Um, so that one I’m shopping for a home for it, but I wrote it. So, with PMDD, you have like your really high like great days and then right? The week before my period, it gets really heavy and dark, and I tend to spiral and get angry. And then with my period, I’m like so happy. “Oh, I feel great. Now I can start writing or I can do something.” So, I actually wrote like, within two menstrual cycles to see how my emotions were, so some of they got really heavy and some of it were really, you know light so that is finished. I’m just looking for a home and then another one I would like to revisit some of the trauma that this mama has had it, so I haven’t started yet but I already know my title is going to be like that play on that llama llama book. It’s gonna be Mama Mama and All Her Traumas. [Dianna laughs and says, “I love it!”] I’ve got that figured out— I know right? This is a great title! What do I put in it? [laughs]
Dianna Gunn: Yeah, that happens sometimes. I’ve got a couple of titles just lurking in the back of my mind waiting for the perfect story.
Leila Tualla: Yeah, hopefully that’s gonna come soon. [laughs] Yeah. But if anybody listening hears that title, and they want to write something about it, go for it, man. You’re probably finished before I do. [laughs]
Dianna Gunn: And there are lots of mamas out there with lots of traumas, so.
Leila Tualla: Yeah, exactly.
Dianna Gunn: There are many stories to be told here.
Leila Tualla: Yeah. Many stories [laughs].
Dianna Gunn: All right, well, where can people actually go to find you?
Leila Tualla: Um, they can go on my website, leilatualla.com. I’m also on Twitter, same handle, and I guess Facebook and Instagram but it’s whatever. I’ve been finding myself more on Twitter lately. But yeah, usually I’ll pay a visit to Instagram and Facebook.
Dianna Gunn: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Spoonie Authors Podcast. This podcast is part of the Spoonie Authors Network, an initiative dedicated to building community among disabled creatives. Join the community by participating in the Spoonie Author’s Chat on Twitter at 1pm EST every Sunday. Just search for the hashtag #SpoonieAuthChat. We look forward to meeting you.
Transcribed by otter.ai. Edited for clarity by Cait Gordon