In Esmé Weijun Wang's debut novel, The Border of Paradise, the world collapses inward until all that matters is history, memory, and family. Told from seven different perspectives, the book swirls through a single family's battle with madness, dysfunction, and what it means to love.
The story of David Nowak, his wife, and their children is hauntingly beautiful. The Border of Paradise is a tale of human kindness and care in the midst of what feels like all-encompassing darkness. It has the beauty of a fairy tale steeped in the dark, unforgiving reality of generational trauma. It's the kind of novel you stay up late reading, the kind that lingers in your subconscious as if you never turned the last page.
I chatted with Esmé Weijun Wang on the phone last Thursday about mental illness, beauty, and how it feels to publish her debut novel.
Your official publication day is tomorrow, but copies of the book are already shipping. How do you feel about your book being out in the world?
I feel really good! It’s an odd experience because I think things are a little different now than they even were even five or 10 years ago in terms of pub date. My pub date isn’t until the 12th, but I’m already having people tweet at me saying, “I finished your book.” The book shipped much earlier than I thought it would. I had thought that on the pub date, I would wake up and it would be like a birthday or a holiday and I’d get to be really excited. I’d go down the street and tell everyone on the street and in the coffee shop, “Today’s my pub day.”
It reminds me of something my friend Diana says about birthdays, which is: Birthdays can be celebrated as long as there is someone who wants to celebrate it with you. She treats her birthday as this almost month-long extravaganza, so that’s kind of what I’m telling myself. Like, “Oh yeah, making a Pimms cup for myself at 4 p.m. because I’m celebrating!”
It's funny that your publication date has been dragged out since I know your path to publication was kind of the same way. Can you talk a little bit about how this book came to be?
I had the good fortune slash misfortune of coming up with a group of peers who were also writers who were very talented, and who all attained an extraordinary amount of success at a very young age. I had a very misguided perception of what selling a book would be like.
I had a friend who sold her book within 48 hours for a quarter-million dollars. It was a debut novel. I don’t think I have a single friend who had a book come out in the last ten years who didn’t get six figures for it. And so, when my agent—who I really adore— started shopping my novel around to the big publishers, I had this idea of what it might have been like, and it definitely wasn’t that.
[Placing this book] dragged out, I think, for about two years. It was rejected approximately 40 times. It ultimately was picked up by Unnamed Press, which I am so grateful for. But that was pretty much a last-ditch effort for me. I sent it unsolicited to them, and they liked it. It definitely wasn’t what I was expecting.
Do you have any idea why this book was difficult to place?
The thing I kept hearing over and over again was that it was a very bleak book, and that was making it very difficult to market and very difficult to sell. There were many editors who talked about how they loved the prose and loved the characters, but that they needed more light or more happiness. I actually think the book wasn’t as bleak as they said it was.
I completely agree. I didn't feel like this book was bleak at all. But there are definitely these very dark elements: Suicide, madness, and family trauma, to name a few. I’m so amazed that you created a world in which all of that darkness exists, but isn't overbearing, where every ounce of darkness is mixed with light.
I think the way you just described the darkness mixed with light is actually a pretty astute description of how I view the world. Living with pretty severe mental illness and also chronic illness means that there is a lot of darkness in my day-to-day life. But I also spend a lot of time really trying to look toward the light. I do a lot of photography, and something I focus on a lot is trying to find ways in which light is particularly beautiful, or ways in which light is diffused in an interesting way.
There were a couple of rolls of film I took in 2013 when I was going through one of the worst psychotic episodes I’ve ever gone through, and in looking back, I am always amazed by how many different kinds of light I was able to capture even though it was a dark and terrible time in my life.So I think that’s an aesthetic that I’m very interested in in my writing as well.
You've written non-fiction about your own experience with mental illness. How is it different working on a topic that's so personal in fiction?
I feel like with nonfiction there’s more of a responsibility to write about something very specific. For example, I never name David Nowak’s [a main character in the novel] mental illness in the novel. It’s not known whether he has bipolar disorder or schizophrenic disorder. It’s not cut and dry in that way, whereas the essays that I write very much focus on schizoaffective disorder and schizophrenia. In fiction, things are much more loosey goosey. I was able to address some thoughts I’ve had for a long time about “mental illness” and the way we look at mental illnesses.
I worked for about three to five years in a psychology lab at Stanford, and while I was there, it really became clear to me—through hundreds of hours of clinical interviews with people for experimental purposes—that looking for a “clean” subject with a certain diagnosis was very difficult. In order to have a subject in a psychological experiment who qualifies as having a disorder, they really need to fit the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] definition in specific ways. So many times, I would interview people, I would talk to them for three hours and realize they qualify in this and this way, but they ended up not qualifying for this story because they don’t quite fit in the box in the way the DSM said they should.
It was a wake-up call to me, as someone who aspired to be a research psychologist at that time, to see how much more complex mental illness was after having studied it in college. It was also very much a relief to me.
I’d been in the mental health system since I was a teenager. I had experienced lots of symptoms of lots of different potential diagnoses. At the end, I could kind of say, I apparently have six psychiatric diagnoses. Or I could say, I mostly have schizoaffective disorder, but I also have pieces of these other things, because the brain is a complicated thing. That was something that I wanted to address in The Border of Paradise that I couldn’t address in my non-fiction essays.
There are other aspects of your experience in this novel too, right? Can you tell me about your decision to write about immigration?
My parents are Taiwanese immigrants. So, I am a first-generation Taiwanese-American. There are some things that I used in the book that came from my own experience having parents from a different country. The situation that William and Gillian Nowak face in my novel is, of course, very different from the one I experienced growing up, thankfully.
There’s something that I find very interesting about the transmission of intergenerational trauma when it comes to immigration. I think there is a kind of trauma that comes with immigrating to a different country.
I know, for example, that my mother was very lonely when she came over from Taiwan. My father had convinced her to come to this new country and have her children here. I know that, for example, she only had essentially one friend while I was growing up. I could see that she had a lot of difficulty not only with English, but also with acclimating to this new culture and raising her children here.
So much of this novel, in my view, is about perception. Because you write from seven different points of view, we get to see not only how a character thinks, but how others respond to their actions. Why did you choose to tell the story this way?
I definitely did not sit down and say to myself, “Hey, I’m gonna make my debut novel have seven points of view. I think that sounds really fun.” It was a more organic process than that.
But you mentioning that actually reminds me of this series of books that I wanted to write when I was very young. I actually haven’t thought about this in a long time. I wanted to write this series of books when I was in the second or third grade. Now that I think about it, it would probably be the most boring thing ever.
I was going to write one book from one person’s perspective, and then the next book would be the exact same story but from another person’s perspective. I think back then I was interested in this question of what is it like to look at the world in different ways because you’re a different person.
In terms of The Border of Paradise, I did not sit down and figure out how to make this complicated dynamic in which one person sees something in one way, and then another character interprets that. I think I ended up just really getting into character. I ended up having lots of dreams about being the different characters. I would wake up and realize, wow, I just had an entire dream in which I was Gillian. It was really fun for me to have these different voices and put on these different hats.
Esmé Wang's debut novel The Border of Paradise is shipping now from Amazon, and officially available April 12. You can buy it on her site.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.