Esmé Weijun Wang is a novelist and essayist. She is the author of the New York Times-bestselling essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias (2019), for which she won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize. Her debut novel, The Border of Paradise, was called a Best Book of 2016 by NPR and one of the 25 Best Novels of 2016 by Electric Literature. She was named by Granta as one of the “Best of Young American Novelists” in 2017 and won the Whiting Award in 2018. Born in the Midwest to Taiwanese parents, she lives in San Francisco, and can be found at esmewang.com and on Twitter @esmewang. Here, she talks with MFA candidate Audrey Deng about cultural stigmas around mental illness, “narrative therapy,” and academia.
You write in your first essay “Diagnosis” that “A diagnosis is comforting because it provides a framework—a community, a lineage—and, if luck is afoot, a treatment or cure.” Reading this, I could not help but to draw connections between a diagnosis–its use as a frame for navigating life–and what Virginia Woolf writes about framing devices. That it is “not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” Do you think storytelling, in a framework, could also provide a treatment or cure?
That is the conceit, I believe, behind what’s called “narrative therapy,” which uses storytelling to distance a person from their experiences in order to tell a different story about their lives. Because we often are the life stories that we tell ourselves about who we are; we create the scaffolding that we hang our narratives upon. Is this a treatment? I think so. But very few things in therapy or psychiatry are cures, and narrative therapy is no exception.
Also in that essay, your mother says “No one talks about these things… No one wants to question what genetic legacies might lurk in our bloodline.” This rings so true. Many families do not want to talk about mental illness, but these conversations are a crucial part of arriving at a proper diagnosis. How have you learned to talk about these things, ask these questions?
That particular issue was heavily inflected by the cultural stigma in my family—my parents are Taiwanese immigrants, and the silence around our family’s history of mental illness made it more difficult for me to reach my initial diagnosis, and to get help in the first place. I wish I could say there was something magical that I said to my parents, and in particular my mother, to get those questions out in the open, but there wasn’t. There were lots of sobbing fits; I left the house and cried on the front steps; I locked myself in the bathroom and self-harmed while my mother banged on the door. Both of us—both my mother and myself—had to change in order for me to get the help I needed.
Let’s talk about academic institutions. There’s this wonderful paragraph about Yale in “Yale Will Not Save You” that details how Yale had arrived at its name, a name which today is eponymous with academic integrity. The paragraph parses apart the university’s connection to the Salem Witch Trials–how the very man who had supported the university had also “vigorously encouraged the Salem Witch Trials.” We place so much trust in these institutions; we trust them to give us a safe place to learn for a couple years. Unfortunately this may not always be the case. In observing this connection between violence and academia, you bring to light how these stigmas against mental illness in universities have lasted centuries. How did you come up with this connection? Could you take me through how you drew these connections between educational institutions and witches to your diagnosis of bipolar in the next paragraph?
That was one of those happy accidents that happened when I was doing research. I have an index card system of writing nonfiction that involves writing on hundreds of notecards and then arranging them in front of me, and at some point, when I was arranging the notecards for that essay, the “Salem Witch Trials” card butted up against the psychosis cards and the cards about being essentially removed from the campus. Those moments were enormously fun—discovering connections and finding ways to link things in that way was not dissimilar to writing a novel.
For those studying creative writing, particularly creative nonfiction, a main concern for students is this division or perceived division between life and the work. One fears that by writing about life in work, something is lost either by way of publication, or by putting words to experience—one loses privacy, interiority. As you’ve written both fiction and nonfiction, I was wondering if you felt any differences in loss while writing—is loss necessary in writing nonfiction? Fiction? Is loss necessary in creating art?
I don’t feel I’ve lost anything. In fact, I still consider myself a fairly private person, which might seem funny given how much of myself I’ve put out there. And I don’t feel myself to have lost anything in writing fiction, either. In fact, I feel I’ve gained a lot from both. It’s like I’ve been composting the garbage of my life and now I’m reaping the blooms.
How did you decide in which order to arrange these essays? Did you have an introduction, climax, conclusion in mind? Do essay collection, you find, need to find an underlying narrative thread?
I worked really, really hard with Steve Woodward, my editor, to order the essays. When I came into the project for Graywolf, I had about 100 pages, so we had a lot of room to play with—we talked about what essays I could write that might help the arc. We were very concerned with having an arc that felt satisfying, even if it wasn’t necessarily chronological. What I most wanted to avoid was to have a bunch of essays with the same general topic thrown into a book—and I think we succeeded. That said, I have a really hard time explaining what that arc is. I think there are a number of ways in which the book forms a satisfying shape, but I am awful at doing the elevator pitch, so to speak.
As a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, what was it like to approach yourself as a narrator in The Collected Schizophrenias?
It was fine, to be honest. I have a voice with nonfiction that is fairly natural. With fiction, I do a lot more playing around—with The Border of Paradise, for example, which has six or so distinct first-person narratives.
“Perdition Days” begins with this amazing sentence in the present tense: “I write this while experiencing a strain of psychosis known as Cotard’s delusion, in which the patient believes they are dead.” What a way to begin an essay. Could I ask you what it was like to edit and revisit this essay?
I was so sick when I drafted that essay, and that essay was such a lifeline for me. I can’t remember too much about editing and revisiting the essay. The only thing I remember, and this is so late in the game at this point, is researching Cotard’s delusion so that I could include that factual stuff, the stuff outside of my own experience.
Do you have a favorite essay in the collection? Or, rather, is there an essay which you feel might be closest to you?
This changes, but I tend to feel that “Toward the Pathology of the Possessed” is my favorite essay. I worked the hardest on it, and it was the most challenging, on a technical level. And the last paragraph still makes my husband cry, even though he’s read it a million times.
For a long time, I had a difficult time thinking of questions to ask you. I think what made it difficult for me was simply how much interiority was on the page, how porous the prose, how striking the imagery. Reading this was a visceral experience. The research, the utter thoroughness in which you write. Having known you for several years now, through social media and your essays, reading about your personal experiences here was so astounding—the clarity in your writing allowed readers to see and feel so clearly what you experienced. And simply—I hadn’t known this about you. This may be an impossible question: how did you decide to write this book and publish it?
Well, thank you so much for the kind words about the book—it’s always surprising to me when people like it, to be honest. I am always so grateful when it’s received well.
I never intended to write a nonfiction book. I took one nonfiction class in graduate school, and I didn’t really take to it; I found it difficult and not nearly as fun as fiction, which is what I was studying for my MFA. But when my psychosis was so bad at the end of 2013, I started to write “Perdition Days” to get through the story, and I also didn’t feel ready to start another novel because I hadn’t yet found a home for The Border of Paradise. I started to accumulate essays about the schizophrenias; my agent at the time, as it happens, was not interested in shopping an essay collection, and so I entered the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize as a last-ditch effort. The rest, as they say, is history.