The Assay Interview Project: Esmé Weijun Wang
January 1, 2019
January 1, 2019
Esmé Weijun Wang is the author of the novel, The Border of Paradise (2016), and is the recipient of the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize for the 2019 essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias. She received a 2018 Whiting Award and was named by Granta as one of the “Best of Young American Novelists” in 2017. Born in the Midwest to Taiwanese parents, she lives in San Francisco, and can be found at esmewang.com and on Twitter @esmewang.
About The Collected Schizophrenias: An intimate, moving book written with the immediacy and directness of one who still struggles with the effects of mental and chronic illness, The Collected Schizophrenias cuts right to the core. Schizophrenia is not a single unifying diagnosis, and Esmé Weijun Wang writes not just to her fellow members of the “collected schizophrenias” but to those who wish to understand it as well. Opening with the journey toward her diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, Wang discusses the medical community’s own disagreement about labels and procedures for diagnosing those with mental illness, and then follows an arc that examines the manifestations of schizophrenia in her life. In essays that range from using fashion to present as high-functioning to the depths of a rare form of psychosis, and from the failures of the higher education system and the dangers of institutionalization to the complexity of compounding factors such as PTSD and Lyme disease, Wang’s analytical eye, honed as a former lab researcher at Stanford, allows her to balance research with personal narrative. An essay collection of undeniable power, The Collected Schizophrenias dispels misconceptions and provides insight into a condition long misunderstood.
Sonya Huber: As an author, you did not have the luxury of a blank page when you wrote The Collected Schizophrenias, as you were aware of the centuries of misinformation and stigma attached to the condition. In many instances like this, it’s natural for a writer to come out swinging, in a sense, and to give those stereotypes center stage, allowing them to shape both the work and the tone of the book. One of the many things I admire about this book is the way it is so grounded and centered in its own perspective. It takes on all of the misinformation—and all that is still unknown—but your voice and point of view remains central and clear. Did you have to write in a range of voices and emotions in order to get to this consistent voice? And is there a connection between the voice you use here and your methodology for dispelling assumptions and stereotypes?
EW: The voice I wrote in here, in this book, took some getting to—I have trouble describing the voices that came before it, but they took the form of other essays about mental illness that barely saw the light of day. Once I figured out what it felt like to say what I wanted to say, it became less of a struggle to include elements that I wanted to argue against; I could present them and they would hopefully make my case for me. An example that comes to mind is the book's epigraph, which includes a quote from the biography A Beautiful Mind that portrays schizophrenics as hopeless and helpless, and then a quote right below it from Susan Sontag that says, "How can I go on this way, and how can I not?" In that case, I'm not in the room making any argument—or, at least, I'm not visibly making any argument. The reader is able to make the connections without my narrative.
And on voice… I think many nonfiction writers struggle with conveying strong emotions in their work, and the emotion of a scene or moment might end up overwhelming the narrative and therefore the reader. Did you consciously turn toward the advice that the more heat a moment has, the cooler the tone needs to be? Do you agree with that general principal?
That advice is something that I do tend to take to heart both in my nonfiction and in my fiction—however, it seems to be more important when it comes to certain subject matter, not so much because the emotion might overwhelm the narrative/reader, but because the emotion might play into stereotypes, and is therefore taken less seriously. The few pre-publication reviews of the book have commented on the cool, clinical tone of the book as it speaks to thorny, bloody topics; one review was quite positive about this characteristic, and another thought it didn't properly work. Of course, whether or not that tone "works" is up to the reader, but I was very much responding to the stereotype of a raving madwoman as I wrote The Collected Schizophrenias. I'm a woman who has experienced psychosis, mania, and depression, but I've also worked as a laboratory researcher at a top university, and used to joke about being a "girl scientist." Many of my identifiers make me aware of what I need to do in order to be taken seriously, and that awareness leaves its fingerprints all over the book.
The combination of emotion and voice in my last two questions might make it sound as though The Collected Schizophrenias is a distant and composed book, but I enjoyed it so much because I felt a deep connection to the narrator, and the narrator felt like a vulnerable and living person who was sharing the limits of her own knowledge. In some essay collections—even those with a personal thread—the inclusion of a great deal of research somehow makes the narrator feel distant and disembodied. What’s your advice for writers who are trying to both craft vulnerable narrators and use research? Your use of research is consistent, and there’s a good deal of it, and yet it feels like the perfect amount. As you wrote these essays, what was your view of the function of the research?
I always felt that the research had to support my experience and the exploration of my experience—or, as you put it, the limits of my own knowledge. I never wanted the research to overwhelm the awareness that there was a person, or multiple people, in this narrative. My method of writing nonfiction is based in working from stacks of index cards—I write facts and anecdotes and notes on index cards, and when I want to structure an essay, I arrange those index cards in rows so that I can see what the essay might look like. It's when I see that arrangement that I can discern what research is missing: what do I need to know about this, or that? And when I do that research, I often end up finding that the structure changes as I learn. The essay sprouts branches and wings.
This beautiful collection of essays has a natural flow to it, and I know that the construction of such a structure is usually hard-won. Did you have multiple ideas for the arrangement of the individual essays, and did the essays as they accumulated influence the creation of others? Did you envision this as a linked essay collection?
The collection's structure was one of the biggest challenges heading into the project—I won the Graywolf Nonfiction Contest with only one hundred pages of essays, so my editor Steve [Woodward] and I immediately began to talk about what the shape of the book might look like, and what the arc of the narrative could be. What we most wanted to avoid was to have a book that felt like a bunch of essays thrown together into a collection, with no particular rhyme or reason to them.
So first we looked at the essays that existed, and then we talked about what I might write about next—once those essays were written, the collection started to take on a discernible shape, and we could concretely discuss not only what the order of the essays might be, but also what the remaining unwritten essays might be about. Or how we might combine certain essays.
As to the question of whether I see this book as a collection of linked essays—I'm not 100% sure how to answer that, but I think that ideally, I do. For example, "Diagnosis," which is the first essay in the collection, was originally something like three separate essays, and was somewhere in the middle of the book. It was originally about etiology, and also about the conflict surrounding the DSM 5. I was reading Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon, which is a nonfiction book, and not an essay collection, a lot at the time for inspiration; that helped me to realize that I wanted something like "Diagnosis" to be at the beginning, so that I could set the stage.
Here’s a huge question: what do you think is the purpose or role of the essay?
Oh, wow. I'm sure books about the essay—I can see the John D'Agata series from where I write this—have a pat answer. Or I could ask my husband, who teaches high school English, what they tell their kids.
I happen to write novels and short stories as well, and so if I'm writing an essay, it's because I want to use nonfiction to inquire after something that I'd rather not do with fiction; often, it's because there's something about certain facts, sometimes about my own life (because I tend to write personal essays), that I believe carry their own particular weight. I use facts to make an inquiry, and then I argue with myself using research and other information that I hunt for in life or in books or papers. Essays, for me, are a way to explore ideas in a deliberate way.
I was struck, in reading these essays, in at least two places where I was reminded of Pain Woman, my essay collection on chronic pain. We both take selfies when we are at points that seem to be farthest away from “normal,” whatever that might be. There’s a lot of time travel in this book, and the photos you write about in “L’Appel du Vide” seem like a kind of “note to self,” an attempt to remember something about the specific experience that seems to defy description. Why do you think writers turn to photos of the face in these extreme states?
Yes, I noticed that when I read Pain Woman! I think there's a way in which illness is profoundly ungrounding, and/or dissociative, and there is something about self-portraits that attempt to ground the self in reality again—here I am, here is proof that I exist despite the pain, or the psychosis (which is a kind of psychic pain).
As a fiction writer, what from the process of writing fiction transfers into nonfiction? How do you see overlaps in the process, and what about writing fiction has made you a stronger nonfiction writer? Or do you see the work of producing text in two genres to be distinct from each other?
The biggest thing that I carry from my fiction writing to my nonfiction writing is an attention to prose style. When it comes to structure and content, however, I go about the two very differently. I write fiction with a lot of garbage exploration, in which I don't know where I'm going and throw out most of it; I write nonfiction in a highly structured way, with hundreds of notecards and outlines.
The two final essays in the book touch on spirituality in a very searching and open-ended way that I found so human and vulnerable. The idea of suffering being of use is beautiful to me as a chronic-pain person, even as I reject the notion that it’s a simple equation like putting pain in a bank account to cash in for salvation. Given that so many of the early essays are grounded in scientific research, did you worry about the sweep of subject matter, or was this epistemological sweep from what can be known to what cannot be known part of the underlying design of the book?
Oh, that was very deliberate, though I agree with you that the notion of exchanging pain for salvation is a highly problematic idea, and I hope that the book doesn't come across as coming down on the side of disability equating sainthood.
Earlier we were talking about the structure of the book, or the question of narrative arcs, and I think this is one of them—I was, for a number of years, a researcher in a brain imaging lab with my name on scientific papers and such, and back then I didn't think at all about spirituality or religion. It's a stereotypical situation, I know, to "find God" upon falling ill—and I haven't, not in a conventional way—but the book does play with the ideas of science and spirituality as they relate to illness—not "what can be known" to "what cannot be known," but "what we act as though can be known" to "what we are a bit more humble about regarding what can be known." Because if working in science taught me anything, it's that we know almost nothing, in the grand scheme of things, particularly when it comes to the brain. So the trajectory of the book from the scientific to the spiritual is, to me, more of a 360-degree arc. I'm just seeking in a different way now.
Sonya Huber is the author of five books, including the essay collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. Her other books include Opa Nobody, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton and a textbook, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, and other outlets. She teaches at Fairfield University and directs Fairfield’s Low-Residency MFA Program.
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