Jean-Sim Ashman is an Arab-American poet and scriptwriter, currently living and working in California. Her recent poetry collection, titled ‘Cathartic Pillow Talk’ is available to buy now, and you can view her work within the film industry by watching animated films The Star (2017) and Ralph Breaks The Internet (2018). As a recently published poet and established scriptwriter, Jean-Sim Ashman is undoubtedly a powerhouse within the creative industries. In this conversation with her, she delves into topics such as mental health stigma, turning negative feelings into art and the reality of being a woman working within Hollywood.
Q When writing your poetry collection Cathartic Pillow Talk, did you intend for it to be read by others? Or was it originally something written for your eyes only?
A Definitely not! When I first wrote my poetry collection, it was merely a way for me to get my thoughts out of my head. It was a process which involved me writing down what and how I felt, with particular attention to my mental health and other experiences I was facing.
Q Why did you find yourself turning to the page to detail your experiences, as well as your mental health?
A It seemed like a safe space to purge my feelings – writing allowed me to share my feelings with myself. Sometimes, when we are experiencing certain emotions, we aren’t completely ourselves. When I was in a state like that. I would write down how I felt [in the form of poetry] and after a few days I would read what I had written, and this allowed me to contemplate why I may have been feeling this way.
Q So, would you say that you faced considerate stigma towards your mental ill-health and your feelings in general?
A Yes, I definitely experienced stigma with regard to my mental health, and I believe this also led my mental health to worsen. People would dismiss my feelings or try to tell me how I felt. For example, people would suggest that “maybe I was just tired” and this was just counterproductive.
Q Clearly, many people in your life showed a lot of ignorance towards the experiences of mental ill-health. Was this a large factor in causing you to turn to writing as your means of “opening up” instead?
A Yes, that’s a reason why I turned to writing. The idea of being able to write what I want, when I wanted to was absolutely amazing to me. Also, it was a wholly cathartic experience – I no longer had to worry what people would say: writing allowed me to be my authentic self.
Q I assume that writing poetry has always been something you’ve enjoyed. However, do you think your experiences with mental ill-health brought out a new wave of creativity within you?
A Yes, I’ve always enjoyed writing, and have written from a young age. I was really good at it too and teaches picked up on this. In regard to a new wave of creativity…I think that the phase in my life when I wrote poetry about my mental health definitely brought out a new sense of authenticity and realism within my work.
Q Do you have any words of advice for those experiencing similar stigma in their lives? Would you also consider turning feelings into art an effective coping mechanism?
A I believe turning to art is an effective coping mechanism, but I don’t believe it should be used as the only coping mechanism in someone’s life. I think my battle with mental health was prolonged because I was using writing as my sole coping mechanism. I believe that if I was able to use another coping mechanism, such as therapy, my mental health journey would have been easier and shorter. My advice would be to try an array of different coping mechanisms until you find the one that works best for you. And remember – it can take time, but its so worth it.
Q Thank you so much for telling me about the process of writing your book! Moving on from that, can you tell me more about what led you to the film industry?
A I wrote and co-directed a film for an international film festival. Unfortunately, we didn’t win, but it was a great networking experience. I met some Hollywood producers and told them that I wanted to gain more experience, and that I would be willing to gain experience in any capacity I could.
Q It was this networking that led you to working within Hollywood?
A Yes, after following up with them, I was eventually able to work in Hollywood. For me, just being able to be around Hollywood film professionals was amazing, and the fact I got to work alongside them was quite an experience. But that experience wasn’t all that it seemed to be.
Q Are you referencing the current gender inequalities within Hollywood?
A Definitely. It became very obvious that I was treated differently to my male counterparts. When it comes to working behind the camera, women in the film industry are seldom…I think there definitely needs to be more women working behind the cameras. We see these kinds of gender disparities in Hollywood all the time, like at award ceremonies where most of the nominees are male. And being around that kind of [misogynistic] energy was emotionally draining. Once I finished working on The Star and Ralph Breaks the Internet, I had to leave Hollywood because I felt myself getting to a really bad place mentally. It’s certainly heart breaking when you work to hard and you just aren’t appreciated the way you deserve to be.
Q That’s harrowing to hear, and certainly points out a need for structural change within the mainstream film industry. Leading on from this, do you have anything you want to say to women and minorities wanting to break into the film industry, or indeed the publishing industry?
A Unfortunately, from my experience, women and minorities have to work 10 times harder to make it in the film industry – or indeed any creative industry. That’s just how it is right now, and I can’t lie about it. But I definitely think we need more women and minorities to break into the creative industries, in order to be the change and to pave the way for future generations. Despite all the negativity, I do think we are very slowly moving in a more positive direction.
Where to find Jean-Sim Ashman:
You can also purchase a copy of her recent book here.