In our Q&A, award-winning novelist and essayist Esmé Weijun Wang (M.F.A. '10) talks about reimagining the path to her goals when faced with obstacles to her mental and physical health.
May 24, 2018
Esmé Weijun Wang is an accomplished writer for whom the journey to accomplishment has been heavily defined by her experiences with illness. Her debut novel, The Border of Paradise, grew out of her thesis project at U-M and explores the impact of a character's deteriorating mental health on a family's past and future. It was named one of NPR's Best Books of 2016, and last year she was named to Granta's Best of Young American Novelists list. Wang has also been recognized for her nonfiction writing, having won the 2016 Graywolf Nonfiction Prize and this year's Whiting Award for material that comprises her forthcoming essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias. The Whiting selection committee heralded Wang's "investigation into life with schizoaffective disorder and chronic illness: the experience of diagnosis and care, and the way popular culture misunderstands and reinforces its debilitating power." She also runs a popular website, The Unexpected Shape, that aims to help “ambitious people who are living with limitations.”
What are some of the limitations you’ve faced in your life and work, and how have they both challenged and informed your writing?
Esmé Wang: I first began to deal with mental illness when I was a pre-teen, and then was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety when I was in high school. That began my entrance into the mental healthcare system, and for many years I was experiencing different diagnoses, including bipolar disorder. Then, in 2013, I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, and around that time I was also having incredibly serious physical ailments, and it wasn’t clear what it was. I was losing a lot of weight, my blood pressure was all over the place, and it was a very scary and confusing time. But in 2015 I was finally diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease.
I found psychosis to be something that I wasn’t necessarily seeing written about in fiction or nonfiction in a way that felt true to my own experience.
So, I was dealing with serious mental illness as well as serious physical illness, and I had always been an overachiever and someone who cared a lot about work ethic and being ambitious—I had big dreams. Around that time, I had very recently graduated from my M.F.A. program at Michigan, and I wanted to be a successful writer. But once I started getting sick and was going in and out of hospitals, I really had to look at my life in a new way and start thinking about whether or not I’d be able to achieve the things I wanted to achieve while living with these new limitations.
Your novel, The Border of Paradise, deals in part with mental health, and your upcoming book of essays deals with schizophrenia. How does exploring these topics in your work relate to your own experience?
EW: I found psychosis to be something that I wasn’t necessarily seeing written about in fiction or nonfiction in a way that I could understand, or in a way that made sense to me, or in a way that felt true to my own experience. And so when I started to write The Border of Paradise, I set the goal for myself to try to depict what psychosis was like both for people who had experienced it before as well as for people who had never experienced it.
The Border of Paradise took a long time to find a home, so while my agent was shopping that around, I started writing essays. I ended up writing more essays than I ever imagined I would have, and most of them were about my experience with schizoaffective disorder. These formed the backbone of the essay collection that’s coming out in 2019.
Wang's first book of essays, The Collected Schizophrenias, will be available in February 2019.
How does the writing process differ for you with your nonfiction and fiction?
EW: I feel like it’s such a left-brained versus right-brained process, to be overly simplistic about it. With the essay collection, I have this metal box that’s full of hundreds of index cards, and on the index cards are notes and quotes and statistics. When I’m trying to put together an essay, I end up spreading the index cards all over the floor, or I pin them up on a bulletin board, or I tape them up on the wall and try to arrange the essays in a very mathematical way, almost. I look to see what’s missing, and I try to fill in those spaces.
Whereas, in working on fiction, which is what I’m doing again now for my third book, with that it’s much more about wandering into the woods and the dark and only being able to see a few feet in front of me. It's going down lots of alleys that don’t end up anywhere and writing 200 pages that I end up deleting, or deleting entire plot points and characters. The path is a lot less clear with fiction, but I do love writing fiction because of that, because it feels so organic in a different way.
Your most recent recognition came with the Whiting Award in March. What do acknowledgements like these mean to you in light of the tension between your ambitions and your limitations?
EW: I think each thing has meant something a little bit different. With the Whiting Award, I was really excited to receive it for this essay collection because after The Border of Paradise came out, I knew I needed to start working on the next book. But I was really afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do it. I was really afraid I wouldn’t be able to write another book because I had become so sick, and I used to be able to sit at my laptop and write for seven to eight hours without stopping. For most of The Collective Schizophrenias, I wrote in bed on my phone lying on my side, just tapping essays out onto a notes app. So the fact that I was able to get some acknowledgement for that book really helped—it really helped me to see that maybe I could still be a writer after all.
The path to getting what you want often doesn’t look like what you think it will look like.
Your site provides so much insight and encouragement for writers. What's one thing that you wish you would have known or considered when you were still an M.F.A. student at Michigan?
EW: I wish I had known to be more patient, and that the path to getting what you want often doesn’t look like what you think it will look like. Being in the program was such a bubble, such a bell jar, that it was very easy to feel extremely competitive and to feel so behind. I can’t remember who said this originally—it may have been Peter Ho Davies—but one of my professors told me, “Literature is not a sack race.” I wish I had been mature enough to internalize that more at the time.