The Rumpus Book Club chats with Esmé Weijun Wang about her new essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias (Graywolf Press, February 2019), choosing what to share when writing about our personal lives, and the importance of allowing marginalized groups to speak for themselves.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include T Kira Madden, Michele Filgate, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Elissa Washuta, Trisha Low, Ayse Papatya Bucak, Leigh Camacho Rourks, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi Esmé! Thanks so much for joining us tonight for The Rumpus Book Club discussion of The Collected Schizophrenias!
Esmé Weijun Wang: It’s a pleasure!
Marisa: How has this week been, having the book out in the world finally?
Esmé Weijun Wang: It’s been exhausting, but also a bit of a relief. I was so anxious in the months leading up to the pub date that the actual pub date was much less anxiety-making than I expected. But it’s all really just beginning, I suppose.
Marisa: I have so many questions, but to start with: I wondered throughout the book how chose what to reveal to the public about your illnesses? Was anything categorically off limits? This is an intensely personal book in many ways, and offers us so much insight into your life.
Esmé Weijun Wang: I’ve said in older interviews that I didn’t want to talk about my marriage, and yet this is a book that says a lot about C and my marriage. I maintain that there are things about him, and about us, that are off-limits. Mostly, though, I tried to keep what I revealed within the scope of my own stuff. There are family secrets that I didn’t share. I also tried to not be specific about my medical treatment.
Marisa: That makes sense. I was diagnosed decades ago with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and have been in therapy since, and I wondered if you also talked with your therapist and doctors about the writing you’d be sharing?
Esmé Weijun Wang: I didn’t, actually. They knew I was writing a book, and they will be reading it, but I didn’t tell them what I’d include.
Marisa: Can you talk a little bit about the importance of mental health issues being written about by people who have those conditions, rather than appearing as characters (or caricatures) in writing by those who haven’t experienced those issues firsthand? Was that an impetus for you?
Esmé Weijun Wang: Marginalized groups have been written about by people who are outside of those groups for a long time, and that’s been something that can be frustrating; the depictions that result from those writings are often lacking in depth and truth. I talked about this with a bit of sass in a recent interview, but there are a particularly large number of books written by relatives of people with disabilities. While I was working on this book, Pulitzer-prize winner Ron Powers published a tome about schizophrenia, and I was so nervous about it; I thought his book would render mine useless. But it was mostly about his experience with his son, and I realized it was another in a long line of similar books.
He can certainly write his book. He can certainly publish his giant book about having a son with schizophrenia. But my book is not his book, and I’m taking on a different project.
Marisa: Absolutely. I think the sass is warranted!
Eva Woods: Esmé I think that’s a great point, and it reminded me of Nicole Chung‘s similar feelings about adoption and how often it’s written about by families who adopt and not adoptees
Esmé Weijun Wang: Eva, yes! I was thinking of Nicole’s book as well.
Eva Woods: What feels different about promoting this book from promoting a novel? I’m sure both have good parts, but this seems so much scarier!
Esmé Weijun Wang: I’m not exactly sure. It’s so different, but I think this is largely different because it’s my second book, and because way more people know who I am than they did when my first book came out. My first book, The Border of Paradise, was with a tiny press, and it wasn’t on any of the Most Anticipated lists of that year. This book… this book has far more expected of it. That’s the biggest difference.
Eva Woods: The hype has been so real!
Ann Beman: I’d also like to know what’s the difference in your writing process between essay collection and novel?
Esmé Weijun Wang: My writing process for this book vs. a novel is very different. The left-brained/right-brained thing has been a bit debunked, but I still think of the process in that way. Writing this book was very mathematical—I used index cards and had a structured process. Fiction is much more exploratory and creative, for me.
Nicole G: I just wanted to say how much I loved this book. As a parent of a child who struggles with her mental health, I think it is something that could be very helpful. Your stories were honest, occasionally heartbreaking, but equally inspiring. How hard was it to write?
Esmé Weijun Wang: Thank you, Nicole G. It was hard to write! But I also think it might’ve been a bit easier to write than my novel.
Eva Woods: The subject of motherhood, both in relation to your mom and your own possible motherhood, was such a strong theme in the book. Did you find the writing of it revealed thoughts about that you hadn’t explored fully before? Or did you have your views sort of squared away before you began?
Marisa: I wondered that, too, Eva! The chapter on deciding whether to become a parent might be the chapter that hit closest to home for me, as I struggled a lot with passing on certain genetics from my own and my partner’s families when deciding to have a child.
Esmé Weijun Wang: The process of writing ended up revealing far more questions than I began with. I never had my views squared away when I started out—and I probably don’t even have my views squared away now that I’ve finished the book.
Nicole G: Heck. I’m a mother, and I’m STILL not sure how I feel about it!!
Marisa: For whatever it’s worth, my kid is four years old and I still don’t have my views squared away, and will always be worried.
Eva Woods: Yeah, mine is thirteen and I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out that I have a child by now but that’s it.
Marisa: There is a lot of research presented in this collection alongside the personal. How did you strike the balance? Is that something that came up when working with your editor(s)?
Esmé Weijun Wang: That’s an interesting question, Marisa. I don’t think I ever questioned the balance, and my editor never did, either. I just took it as it came; I saw both (research, personal) as tools, and deployed them accordingly.
Ann Beman: Regarding that balance between research and personal: that’s what made the book so compelling for me. I was riveted.
Nicole G: It’s SUCH a personal journey. Were you ever worried about exposing so much of yourself?
Esmé Weijun Wang: I did worry, particularly with the “John Doe, Psychosis” essay. As it turns out, John recently moved to my city. And many publications wanted to excerpt that essay in the run-up to publication, which terrified me.
Nicole G: Oh God, I’m sure. You are a wonderfully brave person.
Marisa: Esmé, was that the first time you’d written about John Doe in an essay? I could almost feel that he was a topic you might have considered “off-limits” in the past when I was reading (also totally possible I was just projecting).
Esmé Weijun Wang: Marisa: yes, it was. And there were tricky things about it, which you can probably tell in reading the essay—my editor, for example, asked me why I didn’t describe the rape, and I had to figure out how to speak to that in a way that felt right to me.
Eva Woods: Wow, how did that question feel?
Esmé Weijun Wang: To be honest, I was angry! I love my editor, but he is also a straight cis white male, and I really felt that in that moment.
Marisa: It felt like you were walking a tightrope of what you could share, both for practical reasons of safety and also for your own emotional safety. Which definitely makes sense to me, and I’m sure to any woman that’s experienced sexual assault. But I’m glad that essay was included, and thank you for writing it.
Eva Woods: I would have been livid! The consumption of female pain, especially in women’s essays, is something I think about a lot.
Esmé Weijun Wang: *nods* There is a lot more that didn’t get included in that essay. John has had a new girlfriend for years, and I’ve been tempted to write about that. But it also doesn’t feel appropriate for me to include her in my story.
Eva Woods: I know tightrope walking is the metaphor we always use for this but WOW WHAT A TIGHTROPE.
Marisa: That’s a great point about the consumption of female pain. And, also, about what we have the right to include in our stories. I think anyone who writes personal essays or memoir struggles with that, but here it seems especially fraught. It’s like you were navigating a maze to get these essays out into the world.
Marisa: I’m wondering how you decided when and what extent to bring race into the conversation around mental illness and sexual assault?
Esmé Weijun Wang: It felt really important to bring that in because it just WAS such a huge part of my experience, particularly with my mother. And at the same time, I had to be so careful about what I could say about my mother’s experience, which, again, is not mine to use. Actually, I almost wrote an essay recently about my experience with rape and her experience with abuse, and I asked for her permission; she said no. So I am not writing that essay. It’s a really humbling thing, being a writer! I feel like it’s so important to make sure I’m not fucking up.
But what was my experience, with race, was culture and how that impacted how I received treatment for mental illness, or how cultural stigma impacted my treatment. So I included that in the book.
Marisa:It’s always reassuring to know that successful, published authors worry about fucking up just like the rest of us.
Esmé Weijun Wang: Always!
Eva Woods: What has been the most fun part of the process of this book so far?
Esmé Weijun Wang: The most fun part of the process… gosh. Stuff like this! I love talking to people. I love hearing what people think. It’s so enlightening and humbling and lovely.
Eva Woods: That’s awesome; I love being the fun part of things! I have to run and make West Coast supper time but thank you for your time!
Esmé Weijun Wang: Have a good supper!
Marisa: How do you draw boundaries around engaging with readers and doing book tour events, knowing that it will affect your health to be traveling and just generally being much more active? I am good at boundaries most of the time, but struggle with saying “no” to opportunities as a writer/editor even when I know it will impact my anxiety significantly.
Esmé Weijun Wang: A big one: I know I can’t be anyone’s therapist. That’s particularly important with a book like this. People do try to use me as a therapist because of the book’s content, and I just cannot, both for my health and for the safety of the people involved.
Marisa: That is very true, and I imagine people will be sharing their personal experiences with you even more now.
Esmé Weijun Wang: Ever since I became more disabled due to Lyme, I’ve gotten better at drawing boundaries out of necessity. I just can’t say yes to all of the things.
Marisa: We’ve just got a few minutes left, and I wanted to ask you what books and writers you feel most influenced by. And whether any writers/books were especially influential to this collection?
Esmé Weijun Wang: Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life was influential to this book. So was Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon. Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass. Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp: A Solider’s Exorcism. Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land.
I’m influenced by so many books and writers! I’m so bad at answering that question. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Anna Karenina. I’m also reading a lot of galleys, and I’m blown away by so many new writers. Literature is blessed these days.
Marisa: That is a really excellent reading list! What are you reading now/what’s on the top of your book pile(s)? Anything in that collection of new galleys we should be on the look out for?
Esmé Weijun Wang: Right now I’m reading Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End, which is so spare and sad and gorgeous. I also have a million galleys that I need to read and blurb. I’m in a bit of a reading dry spell—all of this book publicity has me finding it hard to read, so I’m really glad for Where Reasons End.
Marisa: Thank you, Esmé! It was really a pleasure to talk with you, and I am so glad this book is out there for others to read. Thanks to everyone for joining in, too! Have a good night!
Ann Beman: Thank you, Esmé, for spending this time with us. Your book is remarkable. I learned so much from it.
Darcy: Thank you, Esmé. Your work is truly remarkable. I hope that you have an incredibly uplifting book tour, if that’s possible. You have much to celebrate.
Esmé Weijun Wang: Thank you so much for having me! It’s been a pleasure!
Photograph of Esmé Weijun Wang © Kristin Cofer.