Esmé Weijun Wang is the author of the essay collection The Collected Schizophrenias and the novel The Border of Paradise. She received a 2018 Whiting Award, was named by Granta as one of the “Best of Young American Novelists” in 2017, and is the recipient of the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize in 2016. Born in the Midwest to Taiwanese parents, Esmé lives in San Francisco, and can be found at esmewang.com and on Twitter @esmewang.
I was very fortunate to spend time talking with Esme Weijun Wang about her latest essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias, which won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and a Whiting Award. The powerful essays detail Wang’s experiences with schizoaffective disorder complicated by PTSD and late-stage Lyme disease. Her strong and observant voice guides the reader through the confusion of a world in which specialists don’t even agree on diagnosis and/or treatment.
Meredith Doench: I was immediately drawn into The Collected Schizophrenias in large part because of the relatable and knowledgeable voice that really shines through in this collection. I was even more taken once the narrator wrote of personal experience with schizophrenia, PTSD, and hospitalizations. The experiences shared in the book are so personal and raw. How difficult was it to reveal these kinds of details about your life on the page? Did you find the experience painful or freeing as you revisited those memories?
Esmé Weijun Wang: There were definitely parts of this project that were much more difficult to write than others. There was a part of me that thought that because I wasn’t writing a straight memoir, it would be a lot less difficult; I thought that since I wasn’t writing a straight memoir, it wouldn’t be so gut-wrenching. Boy, was I wrong. One way I dealt with this is by talking to a lot of friends who were either writing or had written memoirs. For example, Blair Braverman, the author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, was helpful to speak to about the difficulty of writing about trauma.
And there was, of course, a reliving of the trauma I experienced. I was my own primary source, and I had thousands of journal pages to review for the book to get an accurate timeline, particularly the ones that were a little bit closer to the bone. I found myself having physical responses; I would get physically sick as I wrote. I also have PTSD, so I had nightmares as well.
I like to think that I don’t have to necessarily hide things anymore unless I really want to. I haven’t always felt this way; there was definitely a time where I didn’t even feel like I could write about having mental illness. So the experience was both painful and freeing for me.
MD: I imagine this collection took a good deal of time to put together. Was there a time when you thought about approaching this project as a memoir rather than a collection of essays? How did you go about organizing your material and determining what should or should not be included in the collection?
EWW: There was never a time when I was interested in writing a memoir. I have nothing against them, and I like to read memoirs, too. I just didn’t have any interest in writing one myself.
The first part of the book that came to be was the essay “Perdition Days,” which is, honestly, the most memoiristic essay of the collection, and I got a bigger response to it than I expected to get. People were interested in what I was writing about—schizophrenia and psychotic disorders—and that inspired me to write other essays, which eventually took a turn toward topics that were more research-heavy and less about me.
MD: I was so taken with C.’s portrayal and the solid support of your relationship. Did C. have any misgivings about the book and its subject matter or concerns about appearing in the collection?
EWW: C. has always been really supportive of my writing since we started dating—we’ve been together for 17 years now. For this book, he copy-edited for me after the Graywolf team did that initial work; so that he would have fresh eyes on the manuscript, I made sure he didn’t read the book as a draft until that stage. I felt fairly confident that everything I said in the book would be something that C. would approve of. I didn’t really think that there was anything that would offend him or bother him there, but if he did come across something that bothered him, I would have changed it.
My best friend Miriam is one of my primary readers—she’s my first and last reader. After I had her read the whole book for the first time, she said the book was really, in a lot of ways, a love letter to C. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but that perspective makes sense to me. I met him when I was 18 and he was barely 20. I was still living with a bipolar diagnosis and hadn’t even really started to have symptoms of psychosis. In many ways, so much of this book is about C. and I growing up together. A lot of this is about him caring for me and being there. I have been so lucky. I’m really, really grateful for him.
MD: I was particularly drawn to the essay “The Choice of Children.” I loved the way the narrator grappled with the central question throughout the narrative: “Would mental illness preclude me from being a good mother?” Both sides of this argument are weighed so carefully with the experiences you had at Camp Wish. It ends without any real resolution to this question. Have your thoughts changed or evolved on this topic since you wrote the essay?
EWW: “The Choice of Children” is one of the earliest essays written for the collection. I’ve added to it a lot over the years because my feelings of ambiguity about motherhood started to crop up as I got older. My brother had my niece, who is now three, and that has made things more complicated in a lot of interesting ways. As I get older, more of my friends are having children, and that, too, has complicated my feelings on the subject. I purposefully wanted the essay to show the complicated, ambiguous feelings I felt when I came out of pelvic surgery and immediately asked about my ovary; I think this sums up how confused I’ve felt about the subject.
But when it really comes down to it, I would say that now I am fairly certain I’m not going to have children. It’s something that C. and I talked about a lot, especially with our niece having arrived in our lives. We spend a lot of time with her and spoil her rotten, but in terms of how we live our lives, and especially with my physical disability, it just seems really hard to think of having children. So my thoughts have not particularly changed or evolved. In some ways, they have, but not in terms of what the consequences of those thoughts look like in my life.
MD: As someone who deals with a chronic autoimmune disorder, I was fascinated to read about the theory that schizophrenia may be traced to an autoimmune disorder. I immediately thought of your Lyme disease diagnosis. While Lyme is not an autoimmune disorder in and of itself, it may trigger them. Do you think your experience with Lyme disease played any role in your schizophrenia diagnosis? What are your thoughts on the way physical illness works with (or against) mental illness?
EWW: It’s all very interesting, as well as mysterious and confusing. When I started serious treatment for Lyme disease, my schizoaffective disorder started calming down—does that mean something? I don’t know. It’s even more complicated because, as I say in the book, even the diagnosis of chronic Lyme disease is very controversial. I’ve recently experienced a very intense psychotic episode that surprised me. I certainly didn’t think that part of my life was over, but it hadn’t cropped up in so long that I was really surprised by it. My physical disability and chronic illness, as well as my schizoaffective disorder—all of it can come up at anytime. Right now I’m looking at my January through April wall calendar and I have all of these tour dates. I’m like, How am I going to do this? I’m really hoping it’ll be okay and that my body can hold up; I’m hoping that I don’t have some kind of terrible psychotic episode. All I can do is take care of myself and hope for the best.
MD: In the essay “Reality, On Screen,” you dissect the ways in which schizoid disorders are portrayed in film. It shows, among other insights, how stereotypes are perpetuated and ways in which Hollywood is sometimes very far off the mark in their representations of living with schizophrenia. How can film, media, writers, etc do a better job with its portrayal and spreading awareness of these types of disorders?
EWW: Hollywood could do a better job! Most of the time, they are way off, but occasionally I will see schizophrenia portrayed in a TV show or on film that’s quite decent. I find myself making excuses for the bad portrayals, though. There’s an impulse to over-dramatize the schizophrenias; I give them a little bit of leeway and try to remember artistic license. But just like with any kind of marginalized identities or conditions, we need more portrayals that are created by people who live with those identities, who actually know what they’re talking about. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I am saying that realistic portrayals are possible.
MD: What is the best way for readers to keep up with your tour dates and upcoming publications?
EWW: Please visit my website (http://www.esmewang.com), which I’ve worked hard on and really love, and subscribe to my newsletter (http://www.esmewang.com/subscribe). This will keep readers up to date on all my appearances and writing events.