I am nervously dressing myself to interview Esmé Weijun Wang. In her second book, the essay collection The Collected Schizophrenias (Graywolf, Feb.), she articulates how “weaponized glamour” has armed her with a socially acceptable appearance even at her most unwell; she once worked as a fashion writer and wears red lipstick under almost any conditions. As she writes in her essay “High-Functioning”: “If I skip the lipstick, that means I haven’t even made it to the bathroom mirror.” I overdress in a natty black pantsuit to meet her at the Wing, a women-only workspace in San Francisco.
The 13 essays of The Collected Schizophrenias, winner of the 2016 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, chart how uncrossable the distance from bed to mirror has sometimes been for Wang. Her medical history, extensively described in the book, includes diagnoses of schizoaffective disorder and late-stage Lyme disease, both chronic. “I live with the constant fear of a relapse or a recurrence of these things,” she tells me. “It’s not as though I can move on with my life reassured that they will never return, and that’s something that I wanted to get across in the book.”
Indeed, in resisting a more predictable recovery-memoir arc, Schizophrenias documents with clinical precision how Wang learns to live and work within the limitations of her diagnoses, while also illustrating how crucial the skilled performance of wellness has been to her survival. In “High-Functioning,” for instance, she unpacks the choice to begin a speech at a Chinatown mental health center with, “It was winter in my sophomore year at a prestigious university”—aware that the identifier “prestigious university” acts as a “signifier of worth,” as do her “kempt hair, the silk dress, my makeup, the dignified shoes.” With this preface, Wang anticipates how the other identifiers she discloses—schizophrenia, hallucination, involuntary hospitalization—will dehumanize her in her readers’ perception and presents countervailing ones to preserve her credibility and make her worthy of empathy. This conflict between the author’s externally performed and internally lived experience, perhaps the animating conceit of memoir itself, permeates Schizophrenias.
Narratively, the book paints a luminous and bracing portrait of a brilliant artist writing both about and through tremendous pain. “Perdition Days” begins with the declaration, “I write this while experiencing a strain of psychosis known as Cotard’s delusion, in which the patient believes that they are dead.” She describes living through the delusion: “Somatic details figure heavily... what I wore, what I looked like.” These details comprise a “so-called evidence of being alive,” and the reader intuits that so too does the act of writing. To write in order to create evidence that one is alive feels familiar as a motivation, but almost no one writes while actively believing that he or she is dead. That Wang manages to do so, and that the reader can witness her doing it, emerges as an arresting act of both craft and courage.
It feels loaded, however, to praise Wang for the significant achievement that is The Collected Schizophrenias when the book argues so convincingly against the toxicity of achievement culture and of notions that humans are only as worthy as their capitalist productivity. “Something that I’ve thought a lot of, especially during the years that I became more ill, has been how frustrating it is to have been raised to believe that my work ethic is one of the best things about me,” she says. “You do not get nearly as many accolades for just being a person as you do for being a person who does things.”
Though it is impressive that she’s written the book and won a competitive prize that earned it publication, perhaps Wang’s greatest achievement is the work she does to humanize the millions of people who live with mental illness. Wang exudes a resonant empathy on Instagram, Twitter, and her personal websites, which provide resources for “ambitious people living with limitations.” Her tweets are warm and anthemic, as life affirming as secular prayers or Mary Oliver poems:
How frightening every day is,
and how brilliant.
May we have what we need.
May we face our terrors head-on,
& never alone.
Eyes up. Let’s go.
For a while, Wang tells me, she was “quite evangelical” about making T-shirts and coffee mugs emblazoned with the mantra, “Write through the story.” Fundamental to her artistic and entrepreneurial personae is the wish to “encourage other people to write through their experiences.” Like the conflict between her lived and performed experience, this duality—the tension between the desire to value herself simply for being, for surviving, and the desire to offer her story as medicine for others, which requires work—seems to animate Wang. Her life force is an unceasing pursuit of empathy in both directions.
Astutely, Wang paraphrases Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay: “When you become very sick, you either become a huge asshole or incredibly compassionate.”At times when she’s afforded herself less compassion, she’s suffered for it, especially in the name of ambition and achievement. Wang is close to a group of writers that includes Alice Sola Kim, Anna North, Tony Tulathimutte, and Jenny Zhang, many of whom she befriended as a Stanford undergraduate. The gift of supremely talented friends comes with strings, though: some of the above met early success with big-name agents and “six-figure book deals, like, right away,” and Wang says this made it “doubly upsetting” when she received 41 rejections on her first book. (That novel, The Border of Paradise, found publication after an unagented submission with Unnamed Press in 2016 and was reviewed as “an extraordinary literary and gothic novel of the highest order” for NPR by Carmen Maria Machado.) Within this unusually driven and accomplished inner circle, Wang admits, “I had a very, very enormous misconception of what it was like to become a writer.”
Ours is Wang’s first interview about Schizophrenias, and she’s looking toward an upcoming multicity book tour with both excitement and trepidation: travel and public appearances come with significant challenges. “For example,” she says, “it’s a lot easier for me to read sitting on my stool than standing. I use wheelchair assistance at airports. I do much better with morning flights than evening flights.” She notes that it’s also difficult—and unfair—to manage the constant choice between asking for help and being punished by an ableist culture: “There is this big part of myself that’s like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to make trouble, I’ll just kind of suffer through it.’ ” With her agent, Jin Auh, Wang is developing what they refer to as her “rock star rider,” enumerating what accommodations she needs in order to tour.
Wang is also aware of how “people expect you to be able to give advice or give succor with nonfiction in a way that is not expected from fiction.” She’s already experienced “people coming up to me and telling me their personal stories”—often those who have “experienced very traumatic things.” Like in the work Wang once did processing intakes at the Stanford Mood and Anxiety Disorders Lab, recalled in Schizophrenias, it’s impossible to “absorb these incredibly sad and traumatic stories from people who were suffering” without being moved herself. On tour, she foretells, “I’m going to hear these stories, and I will try to listen, and I will try to offer as much as I can. But at the same time, I don’t have the answer.”
Unfortunately for Wang, I corroborate her fear: Schizophrenias is possessed of a candor and beauty likely to earn her many devoted fans. And though Wang’s essays may speak most immediately to those who live with chronic illness, her collection gives voice to a distinctly American cultural sickness that afflicts us all: the conviction that we are only worth as much as we can invoice, only as human as our ability to perform respectably. Wang has succeeded at her own dual directives to write through the story and to survive, and this too is impossible to behold without being moved. Eyes up. Let’s go.
Laura Goode is the author of the novel Sister Mischief (Candlewick) and the collection of poems Become a Name (Fathom). She lives in San Francisco.