Esmé Weijun Wang’s debut book of nonfiction, “The Collected Schizophrenias,” forms a layered web of research, reporting and personal experience to expansively challenge stigmas around mental illness. The book, a winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, is transformative in its attention to the schizophrenias, winding through Wang’s own diagnoses of schizoaffective disorder and late-stage Lyme disease to dig into topics in orbit around each other, including the language surrounding diagnoses, the experience of involuntary hospitalization and spiritual frameworks from which to view mental illness. Of the collection of 13 essays, M. Milks of The Seattle Times wrote that “though its volume is relatively slim at just over 200 pages, ‘The Collected Schizophrenias’ is, in its achievements, a big book.”
As Wang writes in the book’s first essay, “The Collected Schizophrenias” is the uncovering of an origin story and the evolving sets of question marks, the gray areas, the complexities and the vast contradictions that swirl around wider experiences of mental illness: “Some people dislike diagnoses, disagreeably calling them labels and boxes, but I’ve always found comfort in pre-existing conditions. I like to know that I’m not pioneering an inexplicable experience.” Wang’s first book was a novel, “The Border of Paradise” (2016), and she was the winner of the 2018 Whiting Award. Ahead of the Arkansas Literary Festival, we sat down to speak about her research and writing process, navigating between fiction and nonfiction, and creative sources.
This book weaves through so many themes, starting with defining diagnoses, laying out language and debunking the stigmas around what society tells us schizophrenia is. Could you speak a little bit about your thinking behind the chronology of the book and writing process?
I want to start out by saying that I never intended for this to be a memoir. I have nothing against memoirs, but I just did not want to write one. This was always meant to be an essay collection. When I approached Gray Wolf for the Gray Wolf Nonfiction Prize, I had about 100 pages of essays about schizophrenia. So then, I was working with Steve Woodward, my editor. Our big task was to create a book with 100 pages as a jumping-off point, to create a book that wasn’t just a bunch of essays about roughly the same topic thrown into one book. That was, above all, what we most wanted to avoid. So even though I still have a lot of trouble actually expressing what that thread or arc is, I do feel that there is quite a strong narrative arc or semantic arc in the book. … It’s actually quite neat for me to hear or read interviewers or reviewers discover these arcs and describe them to me. One of the fun things of putting out a book and having it become something other than oneself, it becomes part of the world and part of the reader’s experience and interpretation.
You said in an interview on the podcast “Call Your Girlfriend” that you view healing as a spiral. You keep coming back to the same spot, but you’re a little bit further out on the spiral. How do you see your book reflecting that idea?
Yeah, exactly. I love that spiral image and I think that the way the book reflects that is so much rooted in the idea of “no cure.” It would be one thing if the schizophrenias were something that was curable, if it were, say, like a broken leg where you just put on a cast and have some physical therapy. That would not look so much like a spiral. But the schizophrenias are not, as far as we know, curable. My former psychiatrist described it as going through oscillations.
Right now I am currently stable but it’s something that I can never take for granted, because I never know what will set off an episode, so I can always get back to finding myself on a different part of that spiral again, a part of that spiral that is perhaps not a part that I want to be on particularly. Some parts of the book are about the more high-functioning aspects of my life and putting on a good face, whether through makeup or
Were there any parts of the research process that unearthed new ways of approaching this body of work?
I have this process for nonfiction writing where I write pieces of information or quotes from interviews on a index card. I have this massive metal box filled with index cards that are divided by these markers, so while I was working on structuring these essays, I would put the index cards on the wall or on the floor in front of me and just arrange them in a way that I thought would make sense structurally. It was really great because then I would see what was missing in those essays. So then, that would mean that I would often have index cards with research that I had gleaned from psychology papers or newspaper articles, these kind of dry facts, but they would butt up against these phrases or sentences that I had jotted down from my own experience or quotes from interviews I’d done with people about different things, and that was where the fun was happening. … I think it was very akin to the kind of joy that happens in writing fiction where the characters kind of run away with you and you don’t know what they’re doing almost, they kind of take over. In those moments in nonfiction, it’s just so beautiful, when things just link together and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I love this, the way these things are coming together. I couldn’t make this up.” It’s just working. It always feels so satisfying.
Your first book, “The Border of Paradise,” is a novel that seems to touch on some of your family’s history and experiences. What was it like for you to move between writing fiction and creative nonfiction?
I do have to say that “The Border of Paradise” is so different from my real life. There are shadows or imprints from my own experience, but the parts that are most true of my own experience in “The Border of Paradise” are the emotional truths, which I think is almost always true of my fiction. My fiction tends to be very unhooked to my own life, but very closely hooked to my emotional experience. When I was writing “The Border of Paradise,” I never thought I would write nonfiction, so I threw in as much stuff about the visceral experience of psychosis as I could because I wanted to be able to write something that could convey that experience in a way that I hadn’t seen in literature before.
Was there a section or essay that you felt that you’re most proud of or you feel like particularly captures the tensions or arcs of the book?
There are a lot of essays that I feel proud of but for different reasons. “Perdition Days” was one of the first essays that I wrote and was I think the first essay that was published in The Toast, (rest in peace Toast), that was the first essay that made me think like oh wow, maybe people do care about this topic and maybe I should write more about it, and it also helped in a little bit of a way to help to save my life, and to write my way through that horrible winter. “Toward the Pathology of the Possessed,” was the essay where I was cutting my teeth on learning how to do a little bit of journalism, and where I learned to put an essay together and discover the magical ways in which research could fit together with personal experience, and that was really fun and I’m still really proud of that essay. “On the Ward,” I’m proud of for a lot of reasons but one is that, Steve [Woodward, Wang’s editor] and I just really struggled with that essay, that is one of the essays that I think of as Frankenstein’s monster, parts of four different essays stuffed together, and ended up being one of my favorite essays. It’s largely about involuntary hospitalization and involuntary treatment, but I was really proud of the final product. All of the essays are my babies and I’m pretty proud of all of them.
Was there anything that surprised you about the topics or yourself as a writer that will shape your process going forward?
All of it was new to me. I never planned on writing nonfiction let alone an entire book of nonfiction so everything was a learning process. If I were to write another book of essays, hopefully this will have helped pave the way for an easier time with the next one, I don’t know if that actually is true, but yeah, in terms of what I learned, or if I learned anything specific, everything was really discovery. But one quote on quote discovery was how many questions I still have. I feel like when you start the book the book starts out with this certain series of given questions you kind of go down this flow chart of more and more questions, and instead of giving you answers, I kind of open doors into more questions. and I’ll give you information to kind of make up your mind or to provide you with resources to figure out what you think, in the end, there is just a whole bouquet of questions.