Local Author Showcase

Local Author Showcase spotlights Skokie-area writers and their work. This month, we talked with Paolina Milana about The S Word, her coming-of-age memoir about being a first-generation Sicilian Catholic girl in Skokie struggling to navigate a host of adult situations including keeping her mother’s schizophrenia a secret. She'll be here on Saturday, May 7.

Tell us a little bit about your book, The S-Word

The S Word is a memoir about secrets. It's my story; what I went through coming of age. I am first-generation Sicilian, so my parents were ESL (English second language). I had to do a lot of caretaking-–I was called “little mother” because of it. I don’t think I’m alone in that. A lot of kids are asked today to take on adult roles and responsibilities. As such, back then, I thought I was an adult and so I thought I could handle adult situations. I didn’t have the experience or wisdom or guidance. I think today a lot of kids are in this predicament. Add to that, being raised by a mother with paranoid schizophrenia during a time when mental illness was kept secret and/or wasn’t really understood, even by the medical profession, and my life got even more complicated. Coming of age in the middle of crazy, pretending to be an adult, and having adults around you who behave badly, taking advantage of situations and of you…well, that’s a swirl of a mess that I lived through and decided to share with others in The S Word.

Why was it important to you to tell this story?

It was important to tell this story because I believe it is a story far too common and, yet, one that continues to be shrouded in secrecy. I am hoping my story resonates with readers who have themselves experienced any of the “s” words--shame, secrets, seduction, sin, suicide, schizophrenia, etc.--we, as a society, think the “s word” has to do with sex but in reality sex is sort of like a symptom of the root cause. We like to label things or bucket them into silos, but truth is, everything in life is like a domino or an ecosystem: one thing has such impact on everything else and sex is not the driver. This story, I hope, appeals to all of us, especially young girls who are struggling with boundaries and with perceptions of what is okay for them, and for adults who are harboring secrets for whatever happened in the past that really needs to just be spilled. Secrets suffocate, and when we share those secrets, they liberate us and they help others who are experiencing the same. I hope people will take away from my story that they need to stop keeping secrets. I hope that people will take away that people are doing the best they can in the throws of the situation. I hope that people will take away that we need to stop blaming girls and hold adults accountable. I hope that people will take away that mental illness is something that impacts so much and we need to expose it and find a way to support it. I hope people-–regardless of their situations and lots in life--will come to realize the power they have within themselves to triumph. I hope.

Since it is a memoir that deals with several personal issues, how did your family feel about the book?

My family read the manuscript prior to publication and they were accepting and encouraging of the story. And then the story actually became reality and got published and got some publicity and media attention. Some of my family members have had a bit of a change of heart, and to be honest, it's stressed our relationship. On the other hand, at the book launch and other presentations/ signings, some of my family have participated in support. Writing a memoir for anyone is a very personal and emotional experience and decision. Family and others we write about may be offended and/ or may not even agree as to the events shared in the story. But it's your story and your truth to tell, and in my case, I needed to give what happened to me a voice so that all the hurt and all the bad would serve a greater purpose with a positive impact.

Can you tell us anything about your forthcoming book?

Sure, thanks for asking. The second book in the memoir series is The C
. While trying to be "normal" in college and then as a young working adult--still caretaking for my mom--my father dies unexpectedly and my younger sister has a psychotic episode and is diagnosed with the same mental illness our mom suffered with. I'm now completely alone and still keeping it all secret, stuffing down food to numb and ballooning to 365 pounds. It all takes a toll and my choices aren't the greatest. But I learn to find the strength to save myself and to realize my own self-worth.

What writers inspire you?

Martha Beck, Anne Lamott, Jay Masher, Carolyn Mackler, Joan Didion, Anne Tyler, Anita Diamant, Jennifer Weiner, Debbie Ford, Stephen King…I find inspiration in a lot of genres.