Esmé Weijun Wang is a novelist and essayist. She is the author of the New York Times-bestselling essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias (2019), for which she won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize. 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. Born in the Midwest to Taiwanese parents, she lives in San Francisco, and can be found at esmewang.com and on Twitter @esmewang.
CLAIRE MULLEN: To begin, I’d like to introduce our moderator Megan Stielstra. She’s a 2020 Shearing fellow with the Black Mountain Institute and 2021 Civic Media fellow with the Annenberg Innovation Lab at USC. She’s the author of three collections: “Everyone Remained Calm”, “Once I Was Cool”, and “The Wrong Way to Save Your Life”, winner of the 2017 Book of the Year Award from the Chicago Review of Books. Her work appears in the Best American Essays, The New York Times, The Believer, Poets and Writers, Longreads, Tin House, and elsewhere. She teaches creative nonfiction at Northwestern University and is a mentor editor with the Op-Ed Project, supporting women’s voices in public discourse.
And our guest tonight is novelist and essayist Esmé Weijin Wang. She is the author of the New York Times best-selling essay collection, “The Collected Schizophrenias,” for which she won the GrayWolf Nonfiction Prize. Her debut novel, “The Border of Paradise”, was called the Best Book of 2016 by NPR and is one of the 25 Best Novels of 2016 by Electric Literature. In 2017 she was named by Granta as one of the Best of Young American novelists, and in 2018 she won the Whiting award.
In her essay collection “The Collected Schizophrenias”, Wang writes about her experience as a woman who lives with chronic illness, including physical and mental illness. Opening with the journey toward her diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, the essays in “The Collected Schizophrenias” discuss the medical community’s own disagreement about labels and procedures for diagnosing those with mental illness and examine the manifestations of schizophrenia in her own life. She describes herself as a ferociously ambitious writer and delves into the tensions that chronic illness paired with this ambition have created in her personal and professional life. Part of her work is also dedicated to providing resources for other ambitious writers living with limitations in which she focuses on key themes from her own practice: resilience, excellence, and legacy. We highly recommend supporting local bookstores like our own The Writer’s Block in Las Vegas by purchasing “The Collected Schizophrenias” through them. You can find a link to buy from The Writer’s Block in the chat. So we are very lucky and thankful to have Esmé and Megan here with us tonight. So please help us by welcoming through the chat, Esmé Weijin Wang in conversation with Megan Stielstra.
MEGAN STIELSTRA: Thank you so much. Thank you Claire and thank you to the Black Mountain Institute for hosting us tonight. We love you, Nevada! We see you; we are so proud to be here with you today and every day. I also want to give some special gratitude to Sara Ortiz, Lille Allen, and Layla Muhammad for building these spaces where we can all come together and talk about language in literature and why it so desperately matters in this very beautiful, complicated mess of a world. Just quickly I do want to acknowledge the history that is happening as we speak here tonight. There is the election, there is a public health crisis, a racial uprising centuries in the making and there are the deeply personal mountains that every single person here is moving every day. I know that some of you are involved in organizing and rapid response. Some of you are teachers or students in an impossible school year. Some of you are trying to make art, some of you are trying to make rent. Some of you are caring for others including seniors and small children and people whose health is affected by COVID and in the midst of all of this work and fear and change, I hope that you’re caring for yourself a little bit too. We so often put our own selves second or third or tenth and if you see yourself in that sentence, I invite you to take a moment and breathe. I was just thinking earlier that I don’t think I’ve exhaled in 72 hours and one of the many many things that I love about Esmé’s work is how it challenges me to listen to my own body. What makes it alive. And challenging. And unique. And mine. And deserving of care and this awareness of my own self has me thinking about other people as well, and their bodies and what that means in the work that I do. What my students carry into my classrooms, what my kid is carrying in his body and everyone who I’m walking into the voting booth for right now. So the way that we’re going to work tonight is Esmé is going to read for us and then she and I will talk for a little bit and then I’ll give her some of your questions down at the bottom of the weird and wonderful zoom space we’re in. There’s a Q&A tab, so we do invite people to jump on in there and as time allows I’ll relay those questions to Esmé. Esmé hello I’m so happy to see you!
ESMÉ WANG: So happy to see you! I feel like I just saw you not that long ago
MS: I know!
EW: …in person
EW: Back when we could see one another in meet space and thank you so much for that really beautiful, kind of introduction and acknowledgment of the times that we’re in right now. I know that I have been trying really hard to not obsess over the news but it’s very difficult right now. I taught a workshop for Black Mountain earlier today and my partner came in with an index card that said Michigan was just declared [raises imaginary index card, then laughs].
MS: You were born in Michigan?
EW: I was born in Michigan. Yeah.
MS: Me too. [waves] Hi Michigan! We love you all.
EW: Oh! Hi Michigan. We love you also. So I’m uh-oh! Here’s the card [picks up index card] It’s right here. [displays index card to camera]
EW: Michigan [laughs] Michigan has been called for Biden
EW: Anyway, so I’m just gonna read a little bit from The Collective Schizophrenias. This essay is called “The Choice of Children” and is in part about camp for children with bipolar disorder and many other diagnoses that my husband and I worked at one summer. And how this impacted my decision to have or not have children.
EW: Erin was stocky with close cropped blonde hair. He liked football and rarely smiled. Julian frequently smiled and wore a green bandana around his neck. Mark wore the same clothes every day. A white t-shirt, cargo shorts, and a backward baseball cap. He collected small things like toy planes and pebbles to put in his pockets. Alex looks a lot like Julian except for the green bandana. Stewart, the smallest of the five boys was short, thin, and had his shirt perpetually tucked into his shorts with tube socks pulled up as far as they could go. As head counselor of our four counselor five boy cabins, C carried with him a massive blue binder filled with surveys. These surveys painstakingly filled out by the boy’s parents prior to coming to Camp Wish covered the basics: comorbid or multiple diagnoses, severity of bipolar disorder, food preferences, hospitalization history, medication regimen, and so forth. The surveys also covered smaller, though still essential, details. One boy could sleep at night only while listening to his iPod. All the boys had bed-wetting issues. They all enjoyed playing sports, which I dreaded. A question that I found particularly poignant in its frankness was, “How do you and your child deal with the onset of rage or mania?”
For over a decade, I have not wanted or even considered having biological children but these days I find myself frequently on the receiving end of unsurprising news, where once the announcement, “we have news!” from a couple almost inevitably meant a marriage announcement. The statement is now followed, particularly if the couple is heterosexual by: “we’re pregnant!” Though those closest to me know exactly why I am not having children and exactly why I’m not considering adopting either, I’m still asked by a healthy few if childbearing and/or child rearing is part of my life plan. If I barely know the person, I say something vague about having a severe genetic medical condition and leave it at that. If pressed further, I talk about the medications that I take, their potential detriment to a fetus, the complications that are likely to ensue postpartum, and the genetic chances of passing my disorder onto my child. And there is also the question posed to me by those who seemingly cannot bear the idea of my not having a child in my life. “But what about adoption?!” What I want to say is, I have schizoaffective disorder. I was psychotic for half of 2013, and I could be psychotic again at any moment. I don’t want to put a child through having me as a mother. I am livid at the inquiry. Once, I did want biological children, and then hours after pausing in front of a children’s clothing store in San Jose, California, I did not. It was early in my relationship with C, who was then still only a boyfriend, still in his early twenties, I watched women purchase tiny peacoats and miniature blouses with Peter Pan collars, with my own shopping bags hanging at my sides. Later, I called him and said, “I was at Gymboree earlier and I thought of you”. Though he’d spoken several times of wanting to have children with me, this was the first time that I had, however vaguely, returned the sentiment. He was quiet. “I talked to my mom”, he said. “I didn’t understand, she said that mental illness is genetic.” “Oh! Never mind then”, I said. “Forget I said anything, I didn’t mean it.” At the time, I had been diagnosed for years with Bipolar 1 Disorder, formerly known as manic depression and primarily characterized in the DSM-4, the reference in use at the time as a combination of alternating manic and depressive episodes. Symptoms of mania include a week or more of the following: grandiosity, such as believing one has magical powers, a severely decreased or non-existent need for sleep, flights of ideas erasing thoughts, risky behaviors, impairment, and in some cases, psychosis. Depression is characterized by two weeks or more of symptoms such as depressed mood, diminished interest or pleasure in nearly all activities, fatigue, and feelings of worthlessness.
However, no textbook description of bipolar disorder can match the experience of the disorder itself. Kay Redfield Jamison writes, “There is a particular kind of pain, elation, loneliness and terror involved in this kind of madness.” I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder immediately prior to my freshman year at Yale University, twelve years before schizoaffective disorder made it onto the page. At 6 o’clock, I watched Stuart eat. He was on a restricted diet and seemed sullen about it. The other boys chatted about their first day, which had been fairly normal. There was some aggressive behavior, mild arguing, and a few mood swings here and there, though running around after the boys had not been as bad as I’d feared. In fact, I’d been quite cheerful looking at the wild turkeys with Julian while the others played soccer. But I worried about Stuart. “How many gallons are in a liter?” he shouted in a robotic monotone. The boys looked at him confused. “0.264, what’s the largest dinosaur?” Aaron snickered. “Argentinosaurus. Why are you asking us trivia questions?” Alice asked. “They’re not trivia questions!” Stuart says stonily. “They’re science facts!” Both Mark and Stuart had PDDs alongside their bipolar diagnoses. The most well-known PDD is autism. All PDDs involve delays in social interaction and communication. Mark had Asperger’s, commonly referred to as a more high functioning form of autism.
Stuart had PDD-NOS or PDD-NOT, otherwise specified. Mark however was far more high-functioning than Stuart who seemed unable to carry on a conversation unless it involved shouting science facts or reciting in savant-like detail the plots of the Harry Potter movies. Aaron was the first to point this out. “Stuart’s a retard!”, he sang out as we bussed our dishes. “Stop it!” Stuart said. Reddening, “isn’t he a retard? Retard! Retard! And a crybaby!” Most of the temper tantrums that day had been Stuart’s, usually due to a spat over game roles. He enjoyed playing games but exploded whenever a rule did not act in his favor.
The other boy sensing that Aaron had become the alpha male joined in the mockery. We counselors jumped in, “Hey that’s not cool!” but it wasn’t enough. And even now I am not sure what I, as unprepared and unskilled as I was, should have done. My younger brother and his wife had a child last year. I am now an aunt and C is an uncle. We met our niece on the day she was born, arriving at the luxurious hospital room to take photographs and coo over the newborn. I did not hold her. I still have not held her. She knows who I am and will smile and wave when she sees me, her nose crinkling up as her eyes narrow with pleasure. I love her more as time passes and she grows increasingly autonomous, becomes a person.
Kay’s entrance into the world fills me with gut-churning anxiety. The world is in chaos. Earlier this year, our president, whose platform rode on xenophobia and racism was inaugurated. I also fear that Kay will, as my brother’s daughter, inherit the genes that initiated me into the schizophrenias. I once read that to have a child is to be forever afraid, though that attitude may be applicable only to a certain type of parent. As Kay’s aunt, I feel I must be vigilant when it comes to her mental health. Someday if we are lucky she will be a teenager. She will likely be feisty. At the same time, we know absolutely nothing about who she will end up becoming.
MS: [brings hands together; shakes hands] I’m in my brain! There’s rapturous applause happening.
MS: Thank you for that. I was hoping you could just even…maybe as a place to start thinking about this piece specifically. In it so since the book is an essay collection, when in the process of it did you make a decision that this particular…like the choice of children specifically was something that you wanted to address? Was it or was the piece made before you were already putting the book together? I’m wondering about the process of it.
EW: Yeah…I feel like the choice of children was actually pretty early on in the process even before I knew I was going to write an essay collection. It was actually something that I wrote before I knew that I could write nonfiction. It was something that I wanted to write about. It was something that I wanted to try and write about. It was something that really bothered me. It used to be called “13 Times” because I had read this article in Salon about how somebody with bipolar disorder, even if it’s only one parent is 13 times more likely to have a child who has bipolar disorder or something like that. And that statistic really stuck with me, especially because I went through all the comments which you know is not advisable. I read so many comments that were from people who had parents who had bipolar disorder and so that was a different kind of pain for me.
EW: There were comments like, “I know I’m not supposed to say this but my mother has bipolar disorder and so I have bipolar disorder and I wish I weren’t alive” or they would say like, “I have a parent who has bipolar disorder, and I had a horrible childhood.” These people who had these stories [gestures hand towards the camera] and I just—there were stories that I couldn’t take away from them, because it was their lives and it was different from having these mean comments that you see on like other kinds of other kinds of articles where people are just saying jerky things… because these people had like their personal issues in them. I read every single comment and I- my heart just broke for all of these people who were suffering and had suffered and…and felt like they had inherited this terrible burden. I don’t think I read a single one that was like, [upbeat tone] “I’m glad I was born!” you know? Like I—you know I’m glad that my parent decided to have me, even though they have bipolar disorder. And so that really stuck with me and so that—that kind of got me thinking about this essay and I talk about this in the essay but we were counselors at this camp and it was really difficult, like I really fell in love with the Stuart kid I ended up becoming like his sole minder. But it was so difficult. He was so difficult and you know, he had a single mom and I remember just driving home with C and we were driving home in silence. Utter silence, as we were going home from the camp, and I think one of us said like “we could have a kid like that” and that was just kind of like [shakes head]
MS: [nods in understanding]
EW: “…yeah” [laughs]
MS: Did the writing about it do something for your heart at all? Did that allow you to put some of that down, do you think? Or…?
EW: Well, kind of but not really. Because what ended up happening is that I’d written this one version of the book and or [corrects self] or one version of the essay and it just kind of ended with like…you know I decided I didn’t want to have kids and this is why and like it ended like that but I found myself really struggling with that, with the complications of that because and in part which I mentioned at the end of the essay like I kept it ended up being more complicated than I thought it was and I even ended up taking this class called, “Maybe Baby” It’s like this kind of life-coaching class taught by this person named Randy Buckley. I’m not sure if she still teaches it but it’s for people who are who feel very ambivalent about whether or not to have children and and I felt very confused because on one hand I was like, “I don’t think I want to have children” but I had had a lot of kind of issues with my ovaries…and I’d had a lot of surgery and like…I kept being told that like as I was coming out of the anesthesia that I kept asking like, “Is my ovary okay? Is my ovary okay?” [wryly laughs] and like I didn’t remember. And when I was actually awake, I would say like, “Is my ovary okay?” and they would say like “yeah, that was the first thing you asked, like when you were coming out of it” and so I felt like there were complications and I still feel like I am still you know…pretty sure that I’m not going to have kids and I’m like I’m 37 and you know it’s not impossible that I could have biological children or adopt a child but I think that there’s always going to be a part of me that really struggles with that the kind of complexities of that, you know?
MS: [nods] Mhm. Yeah, I think it’s a conversation that I’ve been having with a lot of my girlfriends recently just I mean again, I’m gesturing wildly at the world here right?
MS: It’s an important question for us all to be asking ourselves and, I want more human beings asking themselves these questions before they make the choice to to bring a child into the world. A thing that I find really fascinating about essay collections, kind of versus a memoir is when you sit down to read the forward moving memoir you’re engaging with the whole book. And so often when we come to an essay collection, we’ve read one of the pieces somewhere else right? So we always step into the text already with an idea and so the first piece that I read from this book maybe some of you listening had a similar experience was the piece that was in The Believer. [waves hand] Hello to the Believer, here at the Mountain Institute
MS: It’s towards the pathology of the possessed, which is the second essay in here and it’s so deeply researched, so deeply scientific, and when I stepped into the book, that is what I thought it was going to be arriving to. So to have a piece like that next to a piece so deeply personal, like you put your heart on a piece of paper and gave it to us was just a really kind of profound reading experience for me that had my body and my brain kind of moving on a lot of cylinders. And just not here to blow smoke up your ass for an hour. Although I’d be happy to do that too. I’m wondering how you arrive at these decisions, like when is research going to carry the work? When is the autobiographical moment going to carry the work? How does that kind of come into the discussion that you have?
EW: Yeah like I was…I actually was talking about that in the workshop that I did with you all this earlier today with some of the students because I never intended to write nonfiction, like I was my first book was a novel, I focused in fiction in my MFA program. I took one nonfiction class. I entirely wrote like a memoir in that class, and so when I thought about submitting something to The Believer back then when I wrote Toward the Pathology of the Possessed, I saw you know…no personal essays and so… Toward the Pathology of the Possessed is in some ways, a personal essay, but it has a lot of that you know research and you know, I had to do a lot of interviews and things like that. And that essay is actually how I taught myself to do all of that stuff.
I became interested in an intellectual way about just the question of “why does schizophrenia…why is schizophrenia seen as something that is like possession?” As opposed to so many other forms of mental illness like depression or you know, anxiety or whatever and I started to look into these examples of things that kind of gave me examples of people who had experienced schizophrenia and then you know, the one that I focus on in the beginning of that essay is the story of Malcolm Tay, who was murdered by his sister and mother, because he was so terrifying to them. You know, he would loom over their bed and say like, the devil, like you know, “the devil is like is taking you over and like I need to like do something” and so, I became really interested in the idea of possession and as a metaphor for schizophrenia and how that metaphor allows us to treat people with schizophrenia in different ways than we do people with depression or anxiety or you know, various other forms of mental illness.
And so it was through that that I was able to you know, weave in my own experiences and to talk about you know, my experiences in involuntary hospitalization and then this and Laura’s law, which was this thing that California was dealing with trying to trying to get people who were dealing with very [air quotes gesture] severe mental illness to be involuntarily hospitalized or involuntarily treated because if a person is possessed in in some way like you know, ala the exorcist or something like that, then they don’t have any autonomy, and so we should be able to hospitalize them without their consent or we should be able to…give them medication without their consent, and so it became this like bigger project, and so that was my of kind of experimenting with writing a different kind of nonfiction.
MS: Mhm okay, I have a question for you about this. But first, I just want to kind of say to the folks listening here: I know that so many of you are writers, so many of you are writing and there’s kind of always that feeling of, “I only do this genre!” “I never also work in this genre!” and it was just, I think, really powerful for me to just hear you, Esmé, say “Well I’d never written nonfiction before! I didn’t know what I was doing. I had to figure it out through the work”, right?
So…whatever it is you want to make you can find the form that that lifts it up the way that you want to lift up your ideas so what I’m saying is, don’t just say that you write novels,
just say that you write! And figure out how to make what you want to make. And Esmé, I know that right now you’re doing two books right now, right? One is a novel and another is nonfiction again. And I’m wondering what was the process before ‘novel’ and THEN The Collected Schizophrenias, right? And so I’m wondering if the two genres are talking to one another a little more this time or or how is the process now different than it was before?
EW: I am definitely focused more on the new novel because the deadline for the new novel is soon although I think I’m getting a little bit of leeway just because of all of this [gestures widely at the world].
But I find that because I have a little bit more experience with how I write nonfiction, I’ve already started to kind of make a home for my for this new nonfiction book so like I was actually just talking to the students about how like [picks up passport holder] this is my little, well this would actually be more useful if I were like, leaving the house, which I’m not. But if I were leaving the house [opens up passport holder, flicks through pages], this is like where I keep my blankets.
MS: Index cards? [puts hand on chin]
EW: Yeah, and then this is like where this is the passport holder, but it holds index cards really nicely [points out index cards]. And so these are the blank index cards and then these are the index cards where I keep notes and then when I and then I’ve all are also already transferred some index cards into this box, which will eventually be the book. And I find that, as the book expands or the you know, the more index cards I accumulate, the box will get bigger and bigger. So like, the box I have for The Collected Schizophrenias, I still have all the index cards in it [laughs]. It’s like this big [spreads out hands]. But It starts out as a small box and so it, you know, it just has like a very small number of index cards in it. So like this is- [holds passport holder and metal box] this is like the very beginning of the nonfiction book. And so, normally I would say, ‘Oh like I’m waiting until I’m done with a novel and then I’ll start working on the nonfiction book’, and I’ll start thinking about it but I find that I’m already interested in things
EW: And like I’m already paying attention to things and like they’re little things that catch my attention like…I became really intrigued by the national theater production of Angels in America from 2017-2018. And so I managed to acquire a recording of it, so I’ve been watching it over and over again and then I acquired the script for it and then I’ve just been like walking around my house like performing it and like I am trying like there are just a lot of things that I’m doing and I’m thinking a lot about Angels in America, and like what it has to do with the topic of the book and like what it has to do with how I think about illness and how I think about ambition and how I think about…it’s just all kind of moving in the back burner.
MS: [nods] Mhm.
EW: So you know, it’s…I’m not actively writing, but I’m not NOT working on it. Like I have a file that’s on my computer and I’ll like to dip into it and make little notes, but I’m mostly working on the novel.
MS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Now, you just spoke a little bit about ambition and so I would like to bring that up real quick and I’m going to kind of start working. I’m seeing all the questions coming up, so we’re going to start working on some of those as well too. But I know he nonfiction book and you are here with the Black Mountain Institute as the Breakout Nonfiction Writer and I love it, that you here as a nonfiction writer, are also speaking so wonderfully about the fiction that you make as well too. I’m also really interested in how just the mindset of that infuses in your work, like there’s a wonderful scene in The Collected Schizophrenias, where you wake up your husband and you ask him to start telling you what is really real.
And so you talk about, ‘okay, our house is real. The president and the vice president are real’. And I was…I just reread that line this morning-
MS: [in disbelief] …just like that should actually be fiction! And it’s not!
MS: But in thinking in terms of ambition I know that that is what the upcoming book is about and recently on Twitter, someone asked you what your TED talk would be about, and you said, “redefining ambition through the lens of limitation”.
MS: And I have read the article in ELLE that you wrote about that, and I was just really moved and challenged by it. But just the tweet, that was the first time I saw you use the word ‘redefine and I got really excited, thinking that like ‘Esmé is going to come in and like fix all of our screwed-up selves!’
MS: And what an important time right now to be talking about what ambition really looks like and I’m sure there are many people other than just me listening who have been struggling with productivity and thinking about what that means. And I was hoping you could speak a little bit to that and then I’ll pull some questions into the conversation.
EW: Yeah. I mean, well I am sorry to say that at this moment, I do not have the solution for all of our productivity anxiety and for capitalism and ambition and how all of those things work together. What I can say is that I was raised particularly as the child of immigrants to have a really strong work ethic and to be really ambitious.
EW: To look at those things as really important and so for a really long time and for a lot of my life, I saw working hard and being ambitious and always wanting to be the best as the most important things about me. I think even more than like being a kind person or being compassionate or empathetic, I think those were the things that really came to mind when like, I really thought about like, what was good about me. So that became a huge challenge when I started getting really sick and so first my mental health issues got a lot worse and I was unable to function cognitively in the way that I was accustomed to, which is really scary when you value your mind or have always been taught to value your mind. But it became really, really scary when I became really sick and really chronically sick and disabled with whatever happens. In like 2013-2014 and continues to be that the thing that I am dealing with. I’m doing a lot better now, but it was defined as a number of things I’ve received, a number of diagnoses, there was a period of time and in The Collected Schizophrenias, I talk about how chronic Lyme was, the diagnosis that I kind of attached myself to because there was no diagnosis that I could really find a way to attach myself to. And I do want to say, just really quickly, that chronic Lyme is a really controversial diagnosis. It’s not one that the CDC really takes seriously and I just want to say really quickly—I can’t speak for everyone, but I do want to get on my soapbox and say that people don’t tend to attach themselves to quackery or things that people make fun of, or alternative medicine because they want to. It’s because traditional western medicine doesn’t give them any options.
When you’ve reached the end of the line, and you go to all of these doctors and if you’re lucky enough to have health insurance and you’re able to go to traditional western medicine, and none of them are able to give you answers, you’ll just go to whoever is willing to give you an answer. And so that was basically what my life was for about four or five years.
And so now when people ask me what is [air quotes hand gesture] “wrong with me,” I just say I’m chronically ill. I don’t know what it is. I’ve gotten a lot of different answers. But anyway and then so I became disabled in a more significant way than I had before and because I was disabled, my self-esteem declined quite significantly. I think something that I had to really grapple with was just not being able to do things. The word ‘disability’ has to do with being less able to do things. I started worrying like, “Am I just lazy? Do I just not want to do things?” You know, people would tell me “oh you’re not lazy!”, like “you wrote an entire book! You wrote The Border of Paradise and like won all these things”. And I was like, “Yeah, but I haven’t written another book since I got really sick–what does that mean?” And so I started having to think about all of these things. Like what does it mean to be ambitious? Is being ambitious important? Does it—is it like, what is the relationship between disability and capitalism? I talk about this a little bit in The Collected Schizophrenias as well because a big definition of what a high-functioning person with schizophrenia is, is somebody who is able to work or have a job and that is obviously something that is directly related to capitalism, and how much money you’re able to make, how much you are able to produce. I started to have to think of myself as like, “Am I a useful person if I just lie here in bed, all day every day, and I do this for like a month. What if I do this for a year? What if I do this for like two years, three years? Am I still worth anything as a person?” And so, those were a lot of the questions that I had to think about and that’s kind of just the seed of this book that I’m working on.
MS: I feel as though there are 200 people here right now who are ready to give you their credit card for the hardcover version that where—you take your time, my friend!
MS: Like we’re ready for you, if you come out here. Okay, there are so many wonderful questions here. There are such brilliant people here with us right now. Here is one: “What is your opinion about diagnosis?” And I know that you right now, you’ve been talking about it broadly and so far as schizophrenia and also in line, but this one is pretty specific to “what is your opinion about diagnosis and the ways that people with post-traumatic stress are often diagnosed with bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and sometimes schizophrenia?”
EW: That’s a tough-y. I remember I had been diagnosed with chronic lyme for a long time, and I was really struggling with just like, all of these physical symptoms and I think my psychiatrist at the time had always wanted to say this to me, and she finally said to me, “Do you think that this is just….your PTSD?” And I remember I was so angry, I was like, “This is not just my PTSD! This is like…I am like, fainting—there are days I can’t move my arms—I was just like livid at the thought that like, that all of this could be trauma-based, and yet there’s a whole body of work about trauma, and how it affects people’s bodies and particularly women’s bodies. There is a book by Amy Berkowitz called Tender Points, which is really good. But it’s about her and fibromyalgia and how she developed fibromyalgia almost immediately after recalling this very traumatic incident in her life and… so yeah. I don’t know. Complex PTSD is one of my diagnoses. It is one of my diagnoses among many of my other diagnoses. I have been diagnosed with many of the things that you listed in that question. And I think that in some ways it’s all . . . kind of mushes together, you know? I was actually just talking about this on social media, where you know – if you look at different points in my life, you could say that I could have qualified for an OCD diagnosis and a generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis and a PTSD diagnosis. And like various other anti-social anxiety diagnoses but like, to me what so many of my diagnoses are kind of like, mush that…and this is just how I see it. It just exhibits itself in different ways, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that I define myself with all of these diagnoses, because I don’t necessarily think that it’s super useful to always like, lead the way when I introduce myself with like, “I am Esmé and these are my 14 diagnoses!” So I tend to just lead with the ones that I find most useful. I think that diagnoses in general, and I say this as someone who worked in a lab and was a lab manager and worked in a mood and anxiety disorders lab at Stanford, like diagnoses and clinical diagnoses…they’re all way more complicated and way more mushy than we would like to think.
MS: [nods] I want to build on this question here a little bit with another one from the Q&A section here to—thinking not just about like, introducing yourself through diagnosis, but it kind of gets into some other aspects of identity as well. So…”I’m interested in how the intersections of your identity (i.e. disability, being a woman of color, etc.) and how that also influences your decision to have children. Especially in a time where folks deem themselves as allies, but so often do not do the background work to help us with intersections of marginalized identities get justice.”
EW: I mean it does. I feel like there are ways in which there are certainly privileges in my life that allow me to kind of [air quotes gesture] “work around” the marginalizations in my identity. For example, having an invisible disability can let me pass in public in ways that other ones don’t. Or I identify as queer but I’m married to a man and that’s also a way that I can pass, but I think that marginalized identities and intersections of marginalized identities and the issues of discrimination and the lack of justice is perpetually an issue, including when it comes to having children. And I’m thinking just about even when it comes to having to educate your children—you know, imagine my imaginary children—about what it means to be my imaginary child, you know? What does it mean to be the child of a person like me? What does it mean when people look at mommy, who’s using a cane? What does it mean when like… mommy gets treated differently at the airport because she has to use a wheelchair? What does it mean? There’s all kinds of things that kids, even if they themselves do not have that marginalized identity get looped into because of their parents. Like I do not have the broken English of my parents, but I, as the child of parents with broken English… like that had an impact on me growing up. And I kind of… it rubbed off on me, you know? Does that make sense?
EW: So… yeah. I don’t know. It’s a complex question, but yeah. Yeah.
MS: Yeah…and I think there are many people in the comments who are interested in talking about some of these questions of identity diagnosis. There’s also a lot who are deeply interested in what you do, as a craftsperson. I want to throw this one out here: “Thank you for your work as a thought leader to concepts of mental health and chronic illness”. I want to second that to you personally. But the question, “what is the process of deciding to write fiction or nonfiction? Specifically, how do you differentiate between the genres as you process your thoughts and your best questions?”
EW: Ooh…to be completely truthful, it’s a safe space, truthful space… To be completely honest, I am my most honest in my fiction. I can hide the best when I’m writing fiction. That’s not the only difference, but it’s the one that comes to find first. Other choices that I make, I also tend to go to fiction if I want to understand another viewpoint. In a really thorny issue that I’m finding difficult to do in non-fiction. And so I’ll put myself – I’ll write something from the point of view of the person that I don’t identify with. Or that I don’t find it easy to empathize with, and then I’ll write a piece from that perspective.
MS: Mhm. Yeah. I wanna… [pretends to tie a ribbon] tie a couple together here right now. “I’m an Asian-American prose writer with Bipolar I disorder, and my question for you is, how do you manage depression or mania during the winter and stay positive so that you can work on your creative writing projects?” And then I think there’s also another question later on that I’d just like to add to this, about if that question was “how do you keep going in the winter?”, this other question is: “how do you keep going right now, like in the…in this current political climate?” I’m editorializing a very long comment right now just because I have one eye on the clock. But how do you keep going?
EW: The first thing that comes to mind is something that my therapist used to talk to me about when I was dealing with a great amount of physical pain. And I bring this up because when I started to deal a lot with chronic pain, I realized that so much of it also could apply to mental suffering …and she told me this story about a woman that she knew who was enduring a night of very, very terrible physical pain. Just awful, awful, awful suffering and she could not bear to think of making it through the entire night. And so instead of thinking, “I gotta make it through this entire night”, or even, “I gotta make it through the next hour.” Or even, “I gotta make it through the next half an hour” or even ‘I gotta…make it through the next 15 minutes or the next 10 minutes or the next five minutes or the next 30 seconds’, she would tell herself “I gotta make it through the next 10 seconds.” And then she would just get through the next 10 seconds, and NOT look past that 10 seconds. And then when she got past that next 10, that 10 seconds… then she’d get past the next 10 seconds and NOT look past that next 10 seconds. Not think like, “Okay, I got this 10 seconds after that…and then I got to do this other 10 seconds. So this whole night is gonna be made up of like 10 second increments. It’s gonna be forever! No. Just 10 seconds and then [brief pause] then when you’re done with that, the next 10 seconds. And that really, really, really stuck with me. It stuck with me through mental suffering. It stuck with me through physical suffering. And I just… [shrugs] I don’t know, that’s… that’s the best advice I have… is to just… get through the 10 seconds.
MS: On this day, four years ago, I was teaching a creative nonfiction class and I emailed everybody and said that they didn’t have to come to class today, but that I was going to go there and I was going to read, if anybody wanted to come. And everyone in the class came. There were 13 writers. And two of them were guys and then the other 11 were young women. And remember, about a month before that the Access Hollywood tapes had come out and that day… a lot of the young women in the class were telling stories about sexual assault. On that day, after the election, those two guys completely, independently of each other, brought in something for each one of the young women in the class and me. One of them brought 12 cupcakes
MS: …and one of them brought in like a bouquet of flowers and gave each one a flower and we were like, “dude!” like, “dudes…why? Why?” And they said that their first thought on hearing that Trump was the president was of the women in class and the stories that they told.
EW: [puts hand on chest]
MS: And that moment on that day was really huge for me, about… thinking about the work that we do in the world and so I think about where those two guys are gonna end up. Like maybe they’ll be in the Senate, who knows? But those stories mattered. And I think about what your work does in helping us see people with mental health differences and that’s I think why…why we do this work in the world. And I am very, very grateful to you for what you have taught, for what you have taught me specifically. [pauses] All right!
EW: Thank you so much!
MS: You’re welcome! We can keep going with thousands and thousands of questions. But I do have one eyeball on the clock. Claire, what are you thinking? Should we…[Claire Mullen enters the chat]
MS: …should we close our time here?
CM: I’m not…I am happy to keep going. I think it’s either however you want, if you want to ask another—yeah I’m not sure how are you feeling about that?
MS: Okay. I think it’s…I think we have until 8, right?
MS: Okay. All right. Thank you very much, Esmé.
CM: [nods approvingly]
EW: Thank you. [smiles] Thank you everybody.
CM: Great! Thank you everyone for being here. Thanks to our guest, Esmé Weijun Wang, and our moderator, Megan Stielstra. And thank you to all of the attendees in Vegas and Reno and beyond for being here tonight! And again, please support our indie bookstore, The Writer’s Block, by purchasing The Collected Schizophrenias from them.
MS: [excitedly waves] The Writer’s Block!
CM: Yeah! There’s a link in the chat to do so. So thank you everyone for being here and you have a good evening!
EW & MS: [waves]
EW: Have a good evening!
Transcribed by Chrystalle Lloren