Mental Health

I Write Gory YA Fantasy to Understand My Queerness, My Anger, & My Autism

"I destroyed an “acceptable” world and woke up to what was possible."


Written by Emily Unwin.

Art by Elodie Bruel-Joncas.

Four years into a toxic hetero relationship, 21-years-old, and about to start my master’s degree, I had my first book idea: The Good Place meets museum heist, with magic, & two young women in love. I was in my parents’ guest bedroom, home to the white wicker furniture I didn’t take to college, my old twin mattress, and my mom’s collection of childhood dolls and ceramic cherubs. 

Up until then, I hadn’t considered myself a ~writer~ let alone a creative. I was the accomplish everything even if it made my hair fall out, curate the picture perfect life/boyfriend/friend group/job/grades kinda girl. Sign me up for a lifetime of depression, panic attacks, and a career in dietetics prescribing Ensure shakes on meal trays. I hadn’t thought about the possibility of being anything other than straight. I had met my then-boyfriend a month into my freshman year at Auburn University, voted the most conservative school in the country. 

The book came to me fully formed: the women loved each other, romantically. Non-negotiable.

The book came to me fully formed: the women loved each other, romantically. Non-negotiable. I outlined the characters in my Notes. Iris (the main character) was pansexual. Her love interest, Endra, was also queer and a bit “odd,” a moniker I’d been called most of my life. First my Notes, then a Word Document. I looked up from my computer and an entire day had passed. I’d written 10 pages of world building, character arcs, magic systems, and potential plot twists. I hadn’t tracked my calories, checked in with my boyfriend, or logged another hour of studying. 

Each day that summer, tucked into my parents’ house and surrounded by creepy ass dolls, I added 20+ pages to my book. It fleshed itself out as a coming-of-age Fantasy a la Hunger Games meets magical utopia. A book about a rag-tag team of outcasts bringing down a corrupt magical system. 

Primarily, though, my novel realized the extent of my anger. I loved having women murder abusive men. Loved it. Endra decides she’s going to murder her stalker. Iris helps. They do it, kill him in cold fucking blood (very modern-day “Goodbye Earl.”) and not with magic, either. Even though the characters can wield an element as simply as they wield utensils, they murder men with knives and their bare hands. 

But the world, the magic, all of it… because I’d created something so idealic, so within my own control, I could process, allow, and be fucking angry within the white and black lines of a page. I could consider, with the abusive men out of the way: What would the two main characters, two femmes, get up to? 

They would fall in love, obviously. They would pine, they would sneak glances, they would avoid eye contact. They would do all the things I’d grown up feeling confused about. Things I wanted to do but avoided like a used mask on the sidewalk. 

I destroyed an “acceptable” world and woke up to what was possible. I learned that how I was being treated was very wrong and I was very angry. 

My novel realized the extent of my anger. I loved having women murder abusive men.

Another few months passed after that first draft. I was still with my boyfriend, but I knew I was queer. The first person I came out to ended up being an editor at a writing conference. I showed her—while sweating, face to ass cheeks, from nervousness—the first few pages of my book. She wanted to see more. (Praise hands.) I sent her a follow up THANK YOU SO MUCH email that ended with, P.s. I’m queer. I haven’t said that to anyone’s face. But Ya. This story is alllllll wlw. Enjoy!

I came out to my boyfriend a few weeks after the conference. We were in the car, driving at night, in Wyoming. We had three more days together on his family’s vacation. He responded to my queerness with two statements: “You’re doing this for attention, because it’s the liberal thing to do,” and, “You’re just a confused lesbian.” I didn’t cry as I defended my sexuality. I was used to this sort of denial and stonewalling in conversations about racism, homophobia, sexism, classism, religion, war, guns, etc. 

So that night, unphased, I went back to the ranch house, got on my computer, and wrote my first queer sex scene as he drank a beer with his family downstairs. 

I wrote on possibility, the potential for anything. Not just a man, not just this man. I created and built a world where magic reigned and anything was possible. Freedom to find people that understood, instead of believing people like me existed only in my imagination.  

Even if my ex’s voice still says, “You’re confused and wrong,” my first book sits as proof of my identity, of what is possible when I’m honest about who I am.

I left him a few months after that night in Wyoming. He asked if I held anything against him; I said yes, many things. Though, a half-dozen drafts of my novel later, there’s less murder, less gore. More love, queer love, more celebration. Because even if my ex’s voice still says, “You’re confused and wrong,” my first book sits as proof of my identity, of what is possible when I’m honest about who I am. 

It served as my anchor when I received an OCD & autism diagnosis. I unlearned the piled up layers of normalness I’d stacked on top of my real personality. My big ole magic book full of gay, neurodivergent love taught me that I could use sound effects instead of words and be accepted. That my three-page long list of DSM-V criteria I’d self-titled, “Things I do & feel that are apparently not super normal,” wasn’t full of things to hide away, but parts of myself to accept and lean on.

Writing Fantasy—a world based in everything unreal and impossible, magical—uncovered the story underneath my healing. The real story: Hope, community, and a better world. It’s not impossible. It’s not a work of fiction. Quite simply, I could make a choice to begin again. I could rely on the people who loved me, and that was enough. Magical. 

About The Author

Emily Unwin (she/her) is a queer, neurodivergent writer & poet living in Athens, Georgia. She is the co-founder of Finley Light Factory & tacky! Magazine, an artists’ co-working space and a monthly zine, both serving marginalized artists. Emily has upcoming publications in The Magnolia Review and Crack the Spine.

Follow on IG: @Emily.unwin | Follow on Twitter: @EmilyUnwin2

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