A Rope to Grab in the Chaos: Talking with Esmé Weijun Wang
In late June, when I saw that Esmé Weijun Wang was going to be the guest writer featured in Jami Attenberg’s #1000wordsofsummer daily email, I was ecstatic. I was in the process of interviewing Wang over email, having recently read her phenomenal essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias. I was not disappointed. I had been caught up in whether or not anyone would ever want to read the particular project I was working on and her words were a balm. In the newsletter, Wang shared advice based on a conversation with a writer friend who said that she had written her first book by pretending that she would never finish. Wang wrote:
This made a kind of sense to me. While immersed in the writing, I could enjoy the writing. I didn’t have to worry about who would eventually read it, whether or not I’d be able to find an agent, or whether or not that agent would be able to sell it. Under the pretense given to me by my friend, the process of writing was potentially, pleasurably endless.
Not only was this advice I needed to hear, it also reminded me of what I love about established writers like Wang who are eager to share their own experiences to support and encourage other writers. That Wang chose to include another writer’s advice to her was particularly poignant; she has never been shy about exposing her own writing challenges in the service of helping others. If you follow Wang on Twitter, you know this, and you also know that this has been an incredible year for her. Wang’s essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias, was published in February 2019 by Graywolf Press and became an instant New York Times bestseller. The book, which she says “almost didn’t get published,” was a departure for Wang, who primarily considers herself a novelist. Her debut novel, The Border of Paradise, was called a Best Book of 2016 by NPR and one of the 25 Best Novels of 2016 by Electric Literature. She was named by Granta as one of the “Best of Young American Novelists” in 2017 and won the Whiting Award in 2018.
Over email, Wang talked to me about writing a book shaped like a funnel, the way faith and mysticism has influenced her writing, and the tenacity it took for her to reach this moment in her career.
The Rumpus: First, let me just say that this is my favorite kind of essay collection. It’s full of essays that are personal but also incredibly well-researched and grounded in critical inquiry; they speak to a very specific human experience but also traffic in the concerns and anxieties that so many of us have: Who am I? What are the limits of what I can know, what I can believe?
As you say at the end of your first chapter, “What on earth do I do now?” The flexibility this collection has with genre seems fitting; so much of the book is about the inability of labels and boxes to describe or contain your lived experience. Did you always intend for it to turn out that way or did it evolve as you realized what exactly you needed to say—and how you needed to say it—in order to tell this story?
Esmé Weijun Wang: Thank you very much for the kind words. If I’m interpreting your question correctly, the answer is yes—I mean, I couldn’t talk about this subject in any other way. I have another idea for a nonfiction book right now that’s a real door-stopper, one of those books that takes twenty years to write and is a thousand pages and is much more declarative, but it’s likely that this kind of book, a kind of book that asks more questions than gives answers, is more my style. I never wanted to be a pundit, and I think this book reflects that.
Rumpus: To dwell on categorization just a bit longer, I appreciated how you gently present the ways in which Western and Eastern medicine, astrology, and the sacred arts all try to categorize people in some way, to place them into a particular box (such as schizophrenia, Fire typology, etc.). But in the end, the book seems to reject any one category and instead suggests that it is a combination of medical, spiritual, and cultural approaches that derive from those boxes that help you, as you say, “live with a slippery mind.” Did this conclusion motivate the writing of this book or is it one you arrived at through the writing? I’m always interested in an essayist’s process.
Wang: I often talk about the book as being shaped like a funnel: you start at one end, which is the narrow end, and which has the more “concrete” knowledge—the DSM, genetics, etiology, and so forth—and then the book opens up further and further until you’re at the widest end. Eventually you’re busy asking questions about all of the possible things that could be applicable to the schizophrenias—mysticism, autoimmune disorders, and so forth. The arc travels from the fewest number of questions to the greatest numbers of questions, for me, at least. And I want the reader to be included in that question-asking.
Rumpus: I was struck by the degree to which the ideas and language of religion, faith, and ritual permeate this book. You conceptualize diagnoses in almost sectarian terms as providing “a community, a lineage.” You write of “hoping to uncover an origin story,” and present the schizophrenias as almost a matter of belief since there are no blood tests or genetic markers to determine beyond a shadow of a doubt that someone is schizophrenic. But you also write about your ultimate inability to pronounce the profession of faith “in good faith” and your adoption of a spiritual practice outside of organized religion. What was helpful, to you, about faith and religion, in writing this book?
Wang: Faith and religion are a way for me to be grounded in not only a world that can be utterly ungrounded, but also with a mental disorder that regularly throws me into a state of ungroundedness. I’m constantly looking for narrative and story in order to find a rope to grab in the chaos. Is it any surprise, then, that I’m a writer? I write to make sense of amorphousness in nonfiction, and I do so in fiction as well.
Rumpus: I’m interested in the way you often return to the idea that words and stories are not enough—to not be involuntarily committed, to convey the true story of your relationship with John Doe. I’m wondering about the tension between that idea and the project of these essays, which, taken as a whole, are meant to tell a particular story. Did you worry at all that the essay collection itself would be received as “inept and poorly received testimony”?
Wang: Oh, of course. Any time a writer tells their own story, they risk not being taken seriously. Many of the reviews of The Collected Schizophrenias comment on how I’m an inherently unreliable narrator, which I find interesting—this is likely because of my mental health diagnoses, but there is also the history of how society looks at women writers, at writers of color, at queer writers, and so forth. Can we be trusted to tell our own stories? Some reviews also say that I went in the other direction, and that the book is overly polished—another criticism of the book by those who want a juicier take—but I write that way because I want to be taken seriously. Hence there is a double bind.
Rumpus: I wrote my dissertation on late medieval writing by women and I was delighted by your brief mention of Julian of Norwich, author of the earliest surviving book in the English language to be written by a woman. You mention her in a passage on your exploration of Catholicism. She was also a mystic who had visions and then wrote a whole book dissecting those visions. I’m wary of ascribing mental illness to premodern visionaries but I wonder whether you feel any kinship with her as someone whose project is in so many ways about translating and explicating for lay people a world that exists in your mind.
Wang: I do, actually. I have a silver Julian of Norwich pendant, and I’ve read Revelations of Divine Love. She was a fascinating woman, as were so many of the major female figures of Christianity. Also, I love the way you described her work, and her project.
Rumpus: In the beginning of the book, you write that you find comfort in diagnoses and that schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type is a diagnosis you’re okay with, for now. You end the book with a suggestion that the symptoms that resulted in your diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder might be traced to an autoimmune disease, but there’s nothing conclusive there. Ultimately, you’re denied that comfort. Did you struggle with how to end this book?
Wang: Sort of. This is not a hero’s journey; this isn’t a story of an illness and a cure. This book is a study, instead, of what happens when a doctor says, “There is no cure.” But I only struggled inasmuch as I knew that people would expect certain things from an illness narrative. I knew that this narrative was my own, and that I could end it with my own truth—with my own declaration of how things really are when illness oscillates and goes on and on.
Rumpus: The Collected Schizophrenias is such an important intervention in literature about mental illness, not least because it doesn’t provide the comfort of a linear sick/well narrative. But it’s also the kind of book that can be hard to sell. What would your advice be to writers who are interested in writing this kind of essay collection that blurs genre, and, you know, actually publishing it?
Wang: Write the very best book that you can. Trust in yourself. This book was almost never published—I talked about this on tour, but I don’t talk about it in interviews. All I’ll say is that the book came very, very close to not being published, and it was through my belief in the project and a last-minute submission to the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize that The Collected Schizophrenias came to be.
Honestly, my entire career to date has been like that—my first book was rejected forty-one times, and I submitted it, without an agent, to Unnamed Press, who, thankfully, took it. Now I’m in a much better place, career-wise, and because of my track record, I’ll hopefully find it easier to sell my third book. But who knows! I have to trust myself, always, and I am never far from being that woman who mass-emailed her first novel to a bunch of friends because she felt it would never be published, and because she wanted SOMEONE to read it before it died.
Photograph of Esmé Weijun Wang by Kristin Cofer.