Extending the World: An Interview with Esmé Weijun Wang
Leslie McGrath | April 2020
Esmé Weijun Wang
Esmé Weijun Wang describes herself on her website as a “friend of ambitious people living with limitations.” Since graduating from Stanford in 2006 and earning an MFA from the University of Michigan in 2010, Wang has written two very well received books. Her debut novel, The Border of Paradise, was published by Unnamed Press in 2016. NPR Books described the novel’s writing as “beautiful and restrained.”
Wang’s second book, The Collected Schizophrenias, won the 2016 Graywolf Nonfiction Prize and was published in February 2019. A New York Times bestseller, The Collected Schizophrenias looks at the history of the diagnosis and treatment of schizophrenia, our cultural biases against those who live with mental illness, and, most meaningfully, her own lived experience with psychosis, which began to manifest when she was a freshman at Yale University.
Esmé Weijun Wang was named one of the Best Young American Novelists by Granta in 2017, and she received a Whiting Award in 2018.
Leslie McGrath: The writing style of your novel, The Border of Paradise, has been described as lyric but understandable. On the first page, a schizophrenic character repeated the word “plum” until it “became nothing but sound.” Would you begin by talking about your relationship to language? It seems looser from meaning and more connected to sound, like a poet’s.
Esmé Weijun Wang: Prose and prosody are really important to me—the way lines and sentences sound are such a joy. I’m an awful poet, but I love when poets become novelists. Lauren Groff and Ocean Vuong, for example; you can tell that their prose is rooted in poetry, and that kind of ability stuns me.
McGrath: How do your workdays start? Have you developed any routines or practices to help you move from sleep to writing?
Wang: I wake up, wash up, have my coffee and medications, and pray and journal. Lately, I’ve been trying to dance to a few songs in my office. I read a few pages of something that I know is beautiful—poetry or a favorite work of fiction—and then I start to write. I try to hit at least 250 words, though I aim for more if I’m at a residency.
McGrath: You have a striking look. What is the relationship of your personal style to your identity as a writer?
Wang: I love fashion, which contributes to my sense of self in a few ways. I talk about how it serves as a form of armor with regard to disability in my new book, but it’s also a kind of creative play, as well as a way to find joy in my physical existence.
McGrath: Would you expand on the idea of how your look—blond hair, red lips, vintage clothes—functions as a form of armor? Is it connected to the thinking that those with mental disabilities don’t or can’t care for themselves?
Wang: For me, it’s connected to the idea that those with mental disabilities don’t care for themselves, or can’t be attractive or glamorous. I wrote a small piece for Elle about how, in particular, my statement lipstick is a nod to the stereotype of smeared and smudged lips as a sign of wild insanity, a lá “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” Or there’s a moment in “Perdition Days,” when I’m lost in the delusion that I’m literally in Hell, and two young men walk by—one of them turns his head to look at me, and I think to myself, “You may think I’m hot, but what you don’t know is that I’m dead. Sucks to be you, sir.” Much of the book is about trying to figure out a way to give myself the boost I need because of how stigmatized the schizophrenias are—whether that’s through education, or the way I dress, and so forth.
McGrath: How long did it take, and at what age, did you develop your personal style?
Wang: It’s forever changing, honestly. I’ve had a blond pixie haircut for about a decade, and I’ve worn red lipstick for about as long. I’ve worn vintage clothing since late high school, but in terms of what decades—that’s changed, depending. The 1930s tends to be my favorite. I love vintage cardigans with fake fur trim.
McGrath: I’ve never read anything like your new essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias, before. It’s both clinically detailed and memoiristic without the sense of shame that so often imbues the lives of those of us who live with mental difference.
Wang: That’s so kind—thank you. I think it’s interesting that you say it’s a book without a sense of shame. I do experience a fair amount of self-stigma, which I admit to in the book, but is that shame? I don’t know. I’ve been open about my diagnoses for years now, and the more open I am, the more vulnerable I’m willing to be.
McGrath: How does the self-stigma manifest, cognitively?
Wang: Self-stigma is part of my story in a number of ways, and shows up in quite a few ways in this book; much of The Collected Schizophrenias is about the longing to come across as high-functioning, which is very much about respectability, and the phrase “high-functioning” inherently stigmatizes a large swath of people.
McGrath: You are entirely forthcoming about the years when you were moving toward a harrowing diagnosis: a medication-resistant form of schizoaffective disorder. Would you describe the place schizoaffective disorder occupies with regard to mood disorders (like bipolar) and schizophrenia?
Wang: My form of schizoaffective disorder (schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type) is essentially schizophrenia with bipolar disorder in between psychotic episodes. It can also exist as schizoaffective disorder with depression.
McGrath: In your chapter on the Slenderman case, you said “One could say of my younger self that she was simply highly imaginative. Spirited. Already prone to storytelling, which would make sense for her future self… How many children really do see ghosts in their rooms that they swear are real?” You’re speaking directly to the question “Where is the line between imagination and reality, and how do children learn it?” One might think that imaginative children at some point must make the choice between accepting what everyone else says is real versus their own more extended perceptions. And that feels like loss. Have you experienced it this way? And here I’m acknowledging that many hallucinations and delusions can be terrifying.
Wang: I don’t personally experience it as loss, although from what I’ve read, I know that some people who, say, hear voices do experience it that way—some people find it comforting to have voices, and may experience the loss of them as the loss of a friend, or friends. When I lost the imaginative, extended childhood perceptions that I write about in the book, I think I did experience it as loss. I can’t remember well enough to speak to how deep that loss ran.
McGrath: Do you see your ability to write fiction as a means to engage your imagination in a way that others find acceptable?
Wang: I think that my love for fiction is related to my love for extended worlds and being able to explore realms beyond what I encounter in my day-to-day. It is a very vivid experience, writing fiction, and it’s something that I truly enjoy. In the end, that’s why I think fiction will always be my first love, whereas nonfiction is something that I engage in as a more intellectual exercise; fiction involves so much wandering in strange lands, and wandering in controlled, safe ways, to boot.
McGrath: What’s your sense of how your training as a psychological researcher allows you to pull the elements of your story together in a way that is understandable to your readers?
Wang: My experience as a psychology researcher helped me in a few ways: I learned how to do clinical interviews; I had to read and write research papers; I learned about how psychological research works; I operated an fMRI scanner and learned about the brain. All of these things contributed to research for my book, and then I tried to translate the more complicated aspects of clinical psychology into a literary work.
McGrath: I was so impressed by the clarity with which you covered the subjects of involuntary psychiatric hospitalization laws, known as 5150s. Would you talk about how you came to your thoughts about them?
Wang: Thank you. I tend to be against involuntary hospitalization, in part because my own experiences with it were so negative, and in part because my education in the psychiatric recovery movement have leaned against it. But this book—at least, in the way I see it—doesn’t offer easy answers to the questions it presents. Most of the time, I start with one question and end up with a bouquet of different questions than the one I started with. More than anything, I want the book to instigate conversation and discussion.
McGrath: You mentioned that there are parallels between involuntary psychiatric hospitalization and incarceration. Would you expend on this?
Wang: Involuntary hospitalization is a condition that creates an incredible lack of autonomy. You’re told when to wake up and when to go to sleep; you can’t be alone in your room; your phone time is usually limited to one call a day in a public space. You’re monitored by nurses 24/7. The way that lack of autonomy occurs may vary from hospital to hospital, but it remains just that—you’re trapped, and you don’t know when you’ll be able to get out. I would never venture to say I know anything about what it’s like to be incarcerated, but the one thing I can guess at is a lack of autonomy.
McGrath: Lack of autonomy and the sense that if you say and do the “right” things you’ll regain some of it?
Wang: Yes, there’s definitely the sense that if you say and do the “right” things, you’ll regain some of the autonomy you’ve lost. One of the best examples of this, from my own experience, is the use of “privileges.” Behaving in certain ways, at the first hospital in which I was committed, would allow you to move up to Level One privileges, and then Level Two privileges, and so forth. The final level of privileges meant being allowed to exit the premises for a short period of time with a chaperone. Imagine what a relief that would be—to be able to walk around in the outside world after over a week of being locked up in a hospital.
McGrath: You wrote in the book: “Involuntary commitment may sometimes be warranted but it has never felt useful to me.” If you could design your own treatment protocol in the event that you had another psychotic episode that frightened you and your loved ones, what would it look like?
Wang: I don’t know, and honestly, I think that’s something that’s far outside the scope of an interview. But I do think that it would involve a lot of comforting, soothing things, and I do think that comfort and soothing are not primary aims of hospitalization as it currently exists.
McGrath: How are you dealing with the reactions of your readers and audiences in terms of their sharing their stories? Is there a kind of approach that is easier to handle than others?
Wang: I’m so grateful for the interest and enthusiasm people have for my work, always, but I’m allowing the conversations to happen away from me. I can’t interact as deeply with readers as I might have been able to years ago; what I can do is listen, and read the emails that come in, but I don’t reply. That’s a decision I’ve made to preserve the limited energy that I have due to health issues.
McGrath: What are your hopes for The Collected Schizophrenias in terms of its impact on readers?
Wang: I hope that it helps people living with the schizophrenias to feel less alone, and that it helps people who know and love people living with the schizophrenias to better understand those people. I hope that it kickstarts conversations about how we treat people, including public policy and general human interaction. I hope that we start to talk about the questions the book brings up, and to ask even more questions still.
Leslie McGrath’s most recent poetry collection, Feminists Are Passing from Our Lives, was published by The Word Works in 2018. She writes frequently about mental difference.