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Never Been Better: Author Leanne Toshiko Simpson Uses Romantic Comedy to Explore Mental Illness

Author Leanne Toshiko Simpson. Photo credit: Soko Negash.

TORONTO — Author Leanne Toshiko Simpson’s offbeat and big-hearted romantic comedy, Never Been Better, follows Dee on her sometimes misguided journey for love. With her rambunctious sister in tow, Dee is ready to confess her love for her friend Matt during a lush, tropical destination wedding. But there’s one hiccup—Matt is marrying her other friend, Misa.

The three friends have an unconventional origin story, meeting in a psychiatric ward to treat bipolar disorder. A year later, Matt and Misa are getting married at a fancy Turks and Caicos resort filled with wedding guests who have no idea how they met, which doesn’t sit right with Dee. But exposing the truth and confessing her feelings will blow up her support system and derail her best friends’ wedding.

The cover of Leanne Toshiko Simpson’s debut novel, Never Been Better. Photo credit: HarperCollins Canada.

Never Been Better is Simpson’s debut novel, launching on March 5. Simpson is a Yonsei mixed-race writer, educator, and psychiatric survivor from Toronto. Currently completing a doctorate in Social Justice Education at the University of Toronto, Simpson is a co-founder of a reflective writing program at Canada’s largest mental health centre and of Mata Ashita, an intergenerational Nikkei writing group.

While a deliciously fun novel filled with humour and heart, Simpson does not shy away from difficult topics such as mental illness and intergenerational trauma. Never Been Better was inspired by Simpson’s own experiences with a bipolar diagnosis in her teens, a psych ward stay in her early 20s, and the community she found through mental health advocacy work post-institutionalization.

“I tried to write a more straightforward memoir book about mental health many times, and I never was able to finish it because it was very personally difficult to have to think about some of the darker things that had happened in my life,” Simpson tells Nikkei Voice in an interview.

Exploring her experiences through a fictional story and characters provided separation from writing about herself and the people in her life. Writing a romantic comedy also offers readers an accessible entry point to explore difficult topics.

“[Readers] know the tone is going to be fun, they know that everything is going to work out in a way, and I think that kind of structure has so much comfort in it and helps make topics like mental illness, helps make topics like internment, more accessible,” says Simpson.

Often, stories about mental illness focus on moments of crisis, but Simpson wanted to explore how people live with mental illness in everyday life and the non-linear path of recovery.

Dee, Misa, and Matt all live with bipolar disorder, are at different points in their recovery and manage (or neglect) their mental health in differently. Each of their families and friends handle their mental illnesses differently—some more helpful than others—shaped by their backgrounds and experiences.

“We all bring our different histories and experiences into this conversation. We don’t have the same starting point, but I hope that a book like this can help give people a point to begin the conversations they need to have,” says Simpson. “When I was diagnosed in 2010, a lot of the mental health books were very, very white. There weren’t a lot of intercultural perspectives, and I was really glad that I was able to do that in my book in a way that I hope people find helpful.”

Simpson grew up watching late 90s and early 2000s rom-coms but realized there was not a lot of Asian representation in these stories. Similarly, today, there is not a lot of consideration of the experiences of racialized people in stories about mental illness in mainstream media.

Often Asian perspectives and, particularly, Asian women, are mischaracterized and misrepresented. This story is narrated by Dee, a Caucasian woman who often misunderstands the intentions of Misa, a Yonsei Japanese Canadian.

“I wanted to write through whiteness to show how much is missed in the conversations we’re having around mental health and responsibility and advocacy. So by having Dee be an unreliable narrator, you see Misa one way in the opening of the book, but as the book goes on, you see that there’s so much more to her, so much nuance and context that Dee is missing,” says Simpson.

Through the character of Misa, surrounded by her Japanese Canadian family at her wedding, readers see how the lasting legacy of the internment trickles through the generations. Through Simpson’s doctoral work, she has researched the impacts and lasting legacy of intergenerational trauma.

Including this history in the book also honours her Obachan, who lived through Japanese Canadian incarceration during the Second World War. The only character based on a real person in the book is Misa’s Obachan, based on Simpson’s Obachan, who would visit her in the psychiatric ward, bringing her snacks, playing board games and puzzles, and sharing conversations.

“In many ways [the book is] just a way of holding on to her memory,” says Simpson. “I want people to learn about internment. I want to talk about intergenerational trauma, but also, I just really love my grandmother, and I think that’s a good enough reason to have her history in this.”

Working with Mata Ashita, an intergenerational writers’ circle for Japanese Canadians, also helped shape this book, particularly with the editing process. Meeting and hearing the voices and experiences of other Nikkei writers helped her find her narrative voice as a Japanese Canadian. Simpson came to a more confident understanding of her Japanese Canadian identity and how that identity is constantly evolving.

“It really helped me in being more confident in writing Misa in particular, and her character grew a lot through later edits because I got braver to embrace my own experiences, embrace my family’s history, so I’m really grateful to Mata Ashita,” says Simpson. “Everyone who ever came out and shared space with us, that helped me finish this book and feel comfortable putting this book out.”

For Simpson, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2010, this is a book she wishes she could have read a decade ago. The book captures the ups and downs of living with bipolar disorder and that there’s never one “big fix” or simple solution. Instead, it is small steps forward that accumulate over time, says Simpson.

“I was hospitalized over 10 years ago, in a lot of ways it can be tempting for me to [say], ‘Well, everything I went through is worth it because I wrote this book’,” says Simpson. “A lot of the wins that really, really mattered were being more open with my family, finding a routine that worked for me, finding a way to work sustainably without making myself sick again. Even though those aren’t as glamorous, those are really important things I never could’ve imagined 10 years ago. I’m excited to help other people, but I think the writing of this book, even if I never published it, would have been healing.”

To learn more about Leanne Toshiko Simpson visit:


*This article was originally published in The Nikkei Voice on March 2024 issue.


© 2024 Kelly Fleck

authors comedy fiction generational trauma generations Japanese Canadians Leanne Toshiko Simpson literature mental health Never Been Better (book) novels romances writers Yonsei
About the Author

Kelly Fleck is the editor of the Nikkei Voice, a Japanese-Canadian national newspaper. A recent graduate of Carleton University's journalism and communication program, she volunteered with the paper for years before taking on the job. Working at Nikkei Voice, Fleck has her finger on the pulse of Japanese Canadian culture and community.

Updated July 2018

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