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Upon the release of her debut novel, Esmé Weijun Wang shares the insights she gained through her own struggles with mental illness and chronic disease

Crossing borders

First-time author overcomes myriad ailments and still finds time to help others

By Alli Maloney on April 20, 2016

It took Esmé Weijun Wang five years to write her creepy multi-perspective novel The Border of Paradise, two of which were “eight-hour-stretches-at-a-time affairs” when the Midwestern-born, San Francisco-bred writer—a first-generation Taiwanese-American—was in graduate school earning her MFA. Her process was arduous and took discipline and drive, but Wang admits that being in good health was vital to the work’s completion.

Since 2012, she has been living with late-stage Lyme disease, a tick-borne bacterial infection that can affect both the heart and nervous system while inducing arthritis and extreme fatigue.

“Covering up what’s really going on with me is exhausting, not to mention boring,” Wang told Women in the World. “I’m not good at lying.”

Among the dozens of women who flesh out ideas or seek advice about money owed in the online writing group of which I am a member, she is the most vocal. She actively greets other members with affection and a good morning gif (today it’s “I Love New York” star Tiffany Pollard, thank you very much), sharing an article worth reading. On some days she laments her lack of mentorship. When the writing doesn’t come easily, Wang will ask for an accountability partner to help her tackle the day’s work: a post for her website (where she assists creatives), finishing up a non-fiction essay, as well as press for The Border of Paradise, which debuted last week on Unnamed Press to enthusiastic reviews.

(photo credit: Anna Kwon)
(photo credit: Anna Kwon)

The open nature with which she discusses her process—and its connection to her body and mind—is the result of a bad poker face. It is done to help others as much as it is self-imposed catharsis. The development of Lyme has been a “disabling, terrifying experience” but it is not the only challenge she faced while writing The Border of Paradise.

Like the book’s central character, Wang, 32, also lives with mental illness.

She cannot remember a time when it did not impact her life and work. Effects started showing at a young age: depression and anxiety by puberty, bipolar disorder just after graduating from high school, a diagnosis that shifted to bipolar-type schizoaffective disorder in her late 20s and plenty of hospitalizations throughout. After completing Paradise she began penning essays that detail living with a psychotic disorder and the mixed reactions she has received when explaining her diagnosis. “I’ve had people say amazing things to me after I’ve come out to them,” Wang said, offering, “Wow, you don’t have spasms and yell and stuff” as an example.

“Schizophrenia tends to plug into our biggest anxieties and fears about what the mind can do; it’s the psychiatric bogeyman,” she explained.

The Border of Paradise is Wang’s debut work. Through controlled prose she tells the doomy, layered story of a family’s inheritance of madness across Taiwan, Brooklyn and Northern California. The plot’s motion spins around the self-inflicted death of main character David Nowak, who suffers from an unnamed mental illness. In Taiwan, David meets Jia-Hui, a sharp-witted madame, who he weds and renames Daisy (a move in line with his underlying current of misogyny and what NPR suitably described as “soft” racism). He isolates the pair in the United States to raise their son, William, and the gutsy Gillian, his daughter from a brief affair with a childhood sweetheart Marianne, whose perspective is also pivotal to the tale, as is as that of her brother, Marty.

Secrets abound in the world David leaves behind, where sinister vibes emit from parent-prescribed incest, California forest fires, and two hyper-intelligent, isolated kids who’ve both mastered the piano. The Border of Paradise is shaped by darkness and the kind of delicious story that makes for missed train stops and bedtimes, keeping a reader up late for just one more page of dynamic character-bouncing perspective (an idea which came to Wang in dreams). It is the author’s stunning introduction to the literary world.

(photo credit: Kristin Cofer)
(photo credit: Kristin Cofer)

Rendering realistic mental illness in The Border of Paradise meant Wang had to avoid a common approach to diagnoses in fiction—an approach that sees characters’ behavior revolve around DSM-described symptoms, rather than the “gradations” that occur in real life. Because the psyche is a murky place, David’s mental condition purposefully goes unnamed.

“People rarely fit neatly into those DSM boxes,” she said.

Her own various diagnoses and years spent conducting clinical interviews as a research scientist shaped scenes within the book, like one where David comes upon a deer while walking in the woods, but the deer does not exist. It is an important moment – the reader is in David’s mind as it shifts from clarity into hallucination, providing a peak into the full life of the character and moments that happen outside of what the author offers directly. “I’m able to write about such things because I had had these experiences,” Wang disclosed. “I know how complex those experiences are.”

With Lyme disease and mental illness—and “as a neurotic person”—creative productivity can prove complicated. Wang says psychotropic medications saved her life. She feels lucky that they have not compromised her ability to write, but has spoken with enough people to recognize the dulling effect some medicines can have on inventiveness.

“Of the artists and writers I’ve known, too many struggle with emotional difficulties without tools to stabilize their creative lives,” Wang explained.

To help manage and offer guidance, she started an online business focused on building legacy and resilience for creatives, offering e-courses in guided meditation and restorative journaling for writers — telling stories about her own stories as an emerging writer living with challenges and limitations. “I want the people I can make the most difference for to know that they don’t have to be a tortured genius to let their genius thrive,” she said. Wang’s Encouragement Notes series – ten free encouraging emails – gives one taste of her attitude and are even more impactful knowing they were developed during a time when she was deep in the throes of struggle with her own health issues.

Mental illness can create a focus on suffering that leaves little room for much else. Wang’s resilience in the face of such adversity—and her ability to examine the psyche so thoughtfully across generations in The Border of Paradise—makes her an impressive force. Wang finds light in her daily quest to help others create, despite the limitations they may face.

It’s like her mother often says: “there’s no problem without a resolution.”

“She actually says this in Mandarin, so my translation has lost some of her nuance. What I like about this is its potentially fatalistic interpretation. I like that she doesn’t say that everything will end well, or everything will be okay,” Wang said.

“Everything does, however have some kind of resolution. That calms me down when I’m frantic over one thing or another.”

Follow Alli Maloney on Twitter @allimaloney.