Most writers can attest to the difficulty of putting the figurative pen to page. I often rationalize it as the byproduct of our quirky charm, our heads perennially in the clouds, capable of performing ten, twenty easier tasks rather than hammering out a piece of semi-coherent writing. So when an author overcomes a series of obstacles aside from the usual distractions we’ve all come to know and loathe, it makes this reader stand up and take notice.
While her website is a beacon of advocacy for mental health awareness and practical tips for all struggling artists, Esmé Weijun Wang’s first novel, The Border of Paradise, is a dark exploration of a multi-generational new American family. The stark contrast between her activism and her writing is evident in both the characters’ self-imposed isolated existence and their desire to truly belong in a world that seems doomed to disappoint them.
The book materialized amidst what many would consider a debilitating double diagnosis of chronic illnesses. However, the soft-spoken and thoughtful Wang continued to write, little by little, often reaching out to friends and followers on Twitter for words of encouragement. Our bicoastal conversation touched on the steps to overcoming these various ailments, but more importantly, assessed the similarity between the anticipation and anxiety surrounding a laborious debut work.
The Rumpus: This is your debut novel, so a major congrats on churning it out! How has the release and everything been for you so far?
Esmé Weijun Wang: Having the book come out and its release and interviews and talking to people who have read the book is all so much richer than I had anticipated. I started having friends go through the process when I was in my early twenties. It’s very different to go through it myself. There’s something about the excitement and anxiety and stress of the whole thing that I could have never really imagined. And in some ways certain things that I thought would be the most exciting are tempered by other things.
Rumpus: What kinds of things? Like meeting people or interviews or traveling?
Wang: I think that there’s a lot of excitement surrounding the idea of a publication date, and the pub date is seen almost like your book’s birthday. But prior to that actually arriving, there are so many things you have to think of, like interviews, writing essays to promote the book, and worrying about whether or not the book will actually come out once it’s in its final form the way that you hoped that it would. I remember watching friends be very stressed out when they were coming up on their pub dates and I remember thinking to myself, this is such an exciting thing. Why are my friends so freaked out? Doesn’t the book coming out overcome all of that other anxiety? It wasn’t until it happened to me that I realized, oh there is a lot. It was also a good opportunity for me to realize how closely related anxiety and excitement are. They’re very similar physical sensations, so it remains important for me to remind myself that the physical sensations that I’m having might also be excitement.
Rumpus: From your website and other writing, it seems as if this is a very personal and hard-wrought work for you. How did the story come together and evolve into the final product?
Wang: It’s interesting because I’m working on an essay collection right now for Graywolf and that, so far, has been a very different experience. There’s so much for me about writing a novel that is about the unknown and about discovery. I cannot write by outlines. That is not interesting to me. I like to kind of wander around in the dark and see where things go. And that ends up meaning I go down a lot of paths that don’t end up going anywhere. The first chunk of the book that I wrote was my MFA thesis at the University of Michigan. That is now William’s chapter “The Arrangement.” That took about a year and a half to write, and was about one hundred pages. So not only did I have to figure out, “Okay, what am I writing about? Who is this character?” etcetera, but after I had finished, if I was going to keep going and turn that hundred pages into a full book, then there were things that I was going to have to grapple with. For example, coming to terms with the fact that William would actually not make a very good character for a full novel. His voice and his point of view are incredibly bombastic and can be annoying in large chunks, at least from my perspective. I just didn’t think it would make for a good three hundred page read. And there were so many questions that ended up coming up after I finished writing his section. That turned into going backwards and writing the stories of David and Daisy—his parents.
Rumpus: You’re not the first person I’ve talked to, and self included, who starts writing and then ends up going backwards in what seems like the opposite direction than you should. But I find that it often works a lot better than working from a certain point of time into the future.
Wang: I don’t know if it would end up happening again for whatever next novel I end up writing. For all I know, the next novel could be a completely linear experience from beginning to end, but in this particular case I did end up writing that chunk and then going backwards and writing from a different beginning.
Rumpus: From the start, you don’t shy away from the fact that this book probably isn’t going to be the most uplifting or comforting in terms of subject matter. Why was it important to you to immediately frame the story in this shroud of impending suicide and mental illness?
Wang: I don’t know if it was a conscious decision in terms of wanting to put up red flags for people. I don’t think that’s what I intended beginning the book that way. Often these questions imply I had a lot more control over the process than I feel I did, looking at it in retrospect. I kind of wish I had kept a writer’s journal or something like that, because I genuinely don’t remember a lot of the motivation behind different choices or when certain things came to be a part of the book or cut out of the book. I knew from William’s chapter that he was going to have a father who had died by killing himself, but I don’t quite remember making the decision to open with David in the motel room.
Rumpus: You mentioned that you think it’s implied that you had a lot more control over the process. Do you think that in the way you write the story the characters take over and you follow their lead, or do you try to consciously plan it out and see how you can make it take shape?
Wang: I think it might seem that way because the book is now finished. It’s a complete entity outside of myself at this point. So because this book is between covers and isn’t just in my head anymore and it’s in the heads of people around the world, it’s really starting to feel as if I had nothing to do with it. It’s like realizing it has a life of its own outside of myself.
Rumpus: And you mentioned the fact that the pub date almost feels like it’s your book’s birthday. It does kind of become its own person. It comes full circle in that way.
Wang: To go along with these kind of birth metaphors, it almost reminds me of when people talk about forgetting how much the labor hurt after their baby was born. It’s almost like that for me. I know logically, and I know through my own vague sense of memory, that it was an incredibly difficult process and I threw away hundreds of pages of writing. In retrospect, it’s very difficult to fully comprehend how all that came together.
Rumpus: One of my favorite elements of the book is that two strong, seemingly opposing cultures, Polish and Taiwanese, unite in the marriage of David and Daisy. What elements of each did you want to shape these characters?
Wang: Where those two characters come together is a conflict between two people who love each other. That’s something that I still think about a lot. My parents are both Taiwanese. I am not a child of an interracial relationship, but my marriage is interracial. I am married to a white Southern man, and there are things about being in an interracial relationship that really spurred my imagination when it came to thinking about David and Daisy and what their marriage might be like. Which is not to say my marriage is a reflection of that fictional marriage, because it definitely is not, but there were so many questions that I wanted to explore in their relationship. I was really interested if Daisy would want to speak in Mandarin or Taiwanese to her children and how David would react to that. He feels excluded. There are scenes where David, who is raised Catholic, tries to take his wife and son to the local Catholic Church and it doesn’t go very well. It was interesting to try and imagine my way into that situation. There’s a part in the book after David takes his new family to church that Daisy asks him how there is so much of Jesus’s body to eat, and I wondered how would this particular person would respond to that.
Rumpus: Religion weaves in and out of the story and David has a very conflicted relationship with it. How would you say the teachings of the Catholic Church shaped the morality of these characters? Especially since it grows a more twisted and what they think is fair and right is different than at the start of the book.
Wang: The question of how structured religion shapes morality is an interesting one for me. David starts out the book as a young man in the 1940s. He’s still a churchgoing kid and the older he gets the more he distances himself from Catholicism. That thread gets picked up midway through the book when he gets reunited with a childhood friend, Marianne Orlich. And Marianne might be a more classic example of living a religious life than David—she decides to try to become a nun. And when she ends up goes against her morality, as dictated by the church, it really confuses her and in some ways ruins her life. Even David, who drifts further and further away from it, is forced to figure out how to be Catholic in a situation where it isn’t easy. His wife doesn’t understand it.
Rumpus: Do you think he passes that along to his children in the way he responds and contributes to their isolation, so that they come up with their own sense of right and wrong?
Wang: The children are living in almost complete isolation. They only have a set number of books that they are allowed and think that these are the only books that exist, and in some ways that parallels the way their morality is shaped. They believe in rightness and wrongness in the way that is modeled for them and is dictated to them by their parents, and for the most part by their mother, Daisy. She raises them in a very particular and unusual way after David dies. They don’t have anything to compare it to. So, raised in a vacuum with only a few books, they do end up developing their own sense of morality.
Rumpus: It’s often the female characters who suffer the bulk of sexual deviances or pain, but they also seem to impart the heaviest blows to their partners. The mother becomes increasingly strict, and William is completely devastated by his sister’s rejection. As a woman, do you think that was a conscious choice to have a sort of menacing matriarchy or did it develop organically?
Wang: It definitely developed organically. That just reminded me a line in the book when Gillian—the daughter—says something like, “In many ways I am both the strongest and the weakest person in the house.” I did not have any grand feminist agenda in creating this book. My own feminist ideas and concepts of stereotypical women’s roles and the idea of gender and such are all still developing, and I think that’s where things like stories and fiction are so useful, because I’m unable to write a manifesto but I am able to write a story. So whatever the reader is able to glean from that or whatever I as the writer am able to glean from what ends up happening in the fictional world is in some ways a thought experiment when it comes to dealing with real-life situations.
Rumpus: I do have to ask you about one of the most compelling and controversial aspects of the story, the Tongyangxi relationship. I researched a little about the practice while reading the book, how it dates back to pre-modern China, and was practiced in Taiwan up until the 1970s. How did you first learn about the tradition and what motivated you to shape the book’s sibling relationship with it in mind?
Wang: The existence of the Tongyangxi—a tradition of arranged marriage in which a family would adopt a pre-adolescent daughter as a future wife for one of their, usually infant, sons, and the children would be raised together—relationship in the book actually came about in a really bizarre way. Writing William’s chapter first, I knew that he was going to be in love with his sister and I knew that he was going to be obsessed with her in a sexually unhealthy way. When I started talking to my parents about the book as I was writing it, they were actually the ones to tell me that this was very similar to a practice that had actually existed in Chinese and Taiwanese culture. Once that happened, I was able to again go backwards and say, okay, well if Daisy knows about this practice, which she would, how would that change things? How would it be different if she purposefully raised her children with this practice in mind?
Rumpus: It’s sort of heartbreaking, because she really just wants to not be alone in this place that David has brought her. She’s not in her element, she doesn’t know anyone, but it quickly morphs into this almost sadistic way for her to control her children. It was tragic for her but I also felt horrified by what she was trying to do. I think that was the most compelling part for me with these characters.
Wang: That’s something that I think ends up being echoed throughout the book through various characters. Something that I used to say a lot to anybody who asked me what the book was about was, “People who do things out of love and end up fucking things up really badly.” And that’s definitely what ends up happening with Daisy. She does come across as kind of a monstrous figure from his and his sister’s point of view. And because I worked backwards and got to create her and explore her development as a mother and a woman, I got to see her as a more well-rounded person and imagine where she got to the point where she could be seen as a terrifying mother.
Rumpus: She herself has this shadowy mother figure. We never meet her directly, but we know that her upbringing in Taiwan was really—nontraditional. She had to develop this kind of armor around her, and it’s nice to see how she evolves, and in a way becomes her mother. Isn’t that kind of the trope, that every girl is destined to become her mother in the end?
Wang: Daisy is still very malleable when we first meet her. She’s known as an intimidating figure in Kaohsiung, where she grows up the daughter of a mamasan who owns a bar that is also a brothel. She’s beautiful and she takes it upon herself to be the one to hire girls for her mother’s bar. The other young women are intimidated by her, but also respect her. So Daisy was also kind of a badass, but you also get to see the vulnerability in those beginning chapters where she has a certain social position in life and has all of that taken away from her once she emigrates to the United States.
Rumpus: Setting in this book is so important. I enjoyed seeing how the characters, starting with David, in moving from a luxurious, upper class brownstone in Greenpoint, meets Daisy and they move through life to a cabin in the woods of California. They become less civilized and increasingly feral in their beliefs and lifestyle. Did you always know that the story would culminate with this primitive, pastoral setting?
Wang: Oddly, I had never thought of the book that way until that way until you asked that question. I’m often bewildered by how much seems to be outside of my own understanding of the book. I think a lot of our conversation today is about straddling the magical aspects of writing the book and the very real work of sitting and working for hours on end at a computer. I probably did in some subconscious way. I kind of built the book in the way that it felt right to do and it ended up going where it did.
Rumpus: I’m always interested in how writers choose their titles. For me they sometimes appear right away, and other times they take a few days and glasses of wine to figure out what the hell to call it. How did The Border of Paradise come to you and when?
Wang: The book had a number of different titles in its lifetime. It went out to publishers under the title “Delusions” for the first year or so, and at some point my agent and I ended up discussing the idea of changing the title. I remember doing a kind of ad hoc writers retreat with a friend of mine and it was my job to do a lot of revision and editing but also to come up with a new title for this thing, and I just remember sending my agent lists of titles. I’ve known writers for whom titling is very natural to them and they can come up with these beautiful titles with five different meanings that are all entirely resonant to the work, but that’s not the way I am. So I remember going through poems and trying to find phrases and going through the Bible and trying to find phrases, and I would email off these lists and she would be like, “Nope, none of these are good.” I don’t remember having a big “a-ha” moment about The Border of Paradise. I think it came to mind because of the idea of how the family’s isolation ends up feeling like a kind of paradise even though there is so much wrong with it. And I was very interested in the idea of what the physical and figurative border of paradise actually looks like, whether you’re coming or going, and so that ended up being on one of the lists.
Rumpus: You mention on your website that there are three things on the forefront of your mind- creativity, legacy and resilience. Can you elaborate how you utilize these in your work and if they were involved in the process of creating this book as well?
Wang: So creativity and legacy have been a part of my thought process about life for a while now. Creativity has expressed itself mostly through writing, but also through photography and other forms of art that I enjoy. Legacy is something that I started thinking about once I realized that life is so ephemeral and fragile and what is it that we leave behind. The conversation about resilience didn’t actually start until I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in 2013, but remained very physically ill with a mysterious malady, and I was diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease in 2015. In those years, I ended up facing a lot of new limitations. I ended up having to leave my full-time job because I was too sick to work, and there were periods in my life when I was suddenly and frighteningly not be able to walk or speak or lift my arms. That was before we figured out what the problem was. And chronic Lyme disease is a very controversial diagnosis. It’s still not well-understood. It’s not acknowledged by the CDC, but that is what I am being treated for now. I still dream about going into remission someday and having a fully healthy life, but in the meantime, I’ve spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be an ambitious person who runs up against a lot of limitations. So resilience has been really important to me, and thinking about how resilience helps a person endure when one is suffering. A lot of my writing, in both essay form and writing on the blog, has been how to live with limitations and how to enhance one’s resilience.
Rumpus: Your website also promotes a section titled, “Rawness of Remembering: Restorative Journaling Through Difficult Times,” which advocates journal writing as a way to deal with grief, chronic health conditions and building self-esteem. I love the concept of encouraging even non-writers to journal and self-reflect as a means of coping. Why did you begin this course and what do you ultimately hope to accomplish with it?
Wang: I started creating the materials for that course, which was originally an online course that happens live, back in 2013. I started teaching it because I realized how much journaling was a helpful tool for me when I was going through really difficult times. I see a lot of writing about the journaling habit. There’s Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, which encourages people to do three pages of journaling every day, just kind of dumping whatever is on your mind onto paper. I do think that there is some value to that, but the purpose of creating “Rawness of Remembering” was to share specific journaling tools that helped me and continue to help me. One of them is this really simple thing called “The Things I Did Today” list. It’s helpful for me because if I’m depressed or if I’m feeling really sick because of chronic illness, it becomes really easy for me to think about how useless I am and how I never do anything or achieve anything or accomplish anything. And the idea with the list is just to get down on paper everything I have accomplished, no matter how small. Things like, “ate breakfast” or “answered an email to so and so.” Being able to mark down those things, even if in the moment they don’t seem like much, really does help me, and I’ve heard from a lot of people for whom it has helped as well. It is so easy for days to just kind of go by in a haze and sink deeper and deeper into despair.
Rumpus: Yeah, you stop thinking that these things that you accomplish mean anything at all, when actually some days are really hard and you have to remember that you are surviving.
Wang: You are surviving and life is challenging. A saying that started as a little note for my office back in graduate school has become a mantra for myself is, “keep going, you’re doing great.” I just really like to say it to people, because life is hard. Everybody has challenges, everybody has limitations, and the fact that you wake up in the morning and you do the things you need to do, whether that’s taking care of yourself and resting or taking care of your children who need you or getting your work done. All of that is amazing. That’s where the mantra comes in, because I want people to know that they really are doing great.