2016 june 19 at bookcourt: esmé weijun wang (left, the border of paradise) in conversation with porochista khakpour (right, the last illusion).
(y'all should also check out esmé's site [here].)
porochista khakpour: we knew each other because of illness. we both have pretty severe lyme disease, and we were introduced on twitter.
PK: even now, it's funny because i've many friends who are novelists, but we don't talk about craft or the novel. [...] [esmé and i] kept in touch very intensely, and then esmé's book was coming out, and she suddenly was like, "oh, yeah, i have this book." [...] you always hope, when you're friends with someone, that they've written something you love. [which was the case with the border of paradise.]
PK: how did this come about? this idea of being a gothic novel and perhaps a taiwanese gothic novel -- what do you think of that?
esmé weijun wang: the very, very seed of this happened when a friend of mine said to me, "i think the most romantic thing that could happen is if a brother and sister could fall in love." so that kind of stuck in my head -- that was the seed of the novel.
EWW: the idea of this book being taiwanese is pretty up-front. the gothic part of it is something that didn't come to mind until the book came out and people started referring to it as gothic. i like the idea of the book being a gothic novel. it made a lot of sense given my literary proclivities, then and now. i was reading a lot of the southern gothic; i'm a huge fan of flannery o'connor. just the aesthetic of gothic literature has been a taste of mine.
EWW: now i feel like i need to actually explain myself. so, the first part of the book that actually existed is the chapter "the arrangement" -- that chapter was my thesis in my MFA program. that whole novel* was thrown away after reading the sound and the fury -- that novel had been about a sister who fell in love with a sister. i suppose that idea of sibling love did stick around, so the chapter "the arrangement" -- it's hard to know how much to say about the tongyangxi, but there is a semi-incestuous relationship that was a chinese tradition.
long story short -- more impoverished families would sell off their daughters to more wealthy families, and those more wealthy families would raise the daughters then later marry them off to their own sons. because there were always sons.
* her garbage can novel -- she wrote this novel after reading the sound and the fury but threw it away.
EWW: that's the thing people talk a lot about regarding faulkner, too -- how much the southern gothic genre has been passed on from the trauma of the south. when i was in grad school, i took a class on the trauma of asia. a part of the class that really stuck with me was this intergenerational transmission of trauma, this idea of trauma being carried genetically. i've also been thinking about the trauma of immigration -- i've been thinking about this more and more recently. my mom's begun texting me all these images of her journal pages from when she came to america, and i would read these pages crying because there was something so sad and harrowing about this twenty-three-year-old woman writing this journal and having a baby and saying good-bye to her parents and having to raise a child. that stuck with me a lot, thinking about my mother specifically and the trauma of traveling a great distance and building a new life.
EWW: what's the difference in writing about mental illness in non-fiction and fiction. in my non-fiction, i'm very out with talking about my mental illness. the non-fiction essays -- they have a very different purpose for me. i like doing different things with it, like with that believer piece on schizophrenia as possession. the way i wanted to approach it in the novel was to be as granular as i could be about this experience of having these experiences that most people don't have. what i wanted to do in fiction, that i think is much easier to do in fiction, is to show the reader what it is like to have a hallucination and describe it in a way that it isn't just "i thought i saw a deer! oh, it wasn't there! it must have been a hallucination." that's something that i'd like to explore more -- i feel like there's a lot of fiction out there about other mental illnesses, but i think psychosis still remains this scary, difficult to understand thing.
re: having a book out
EWW: i think it just feels like a huge relief. it's also quite a daze; i was at AWP around the time the book was coming out, and i ran into this writer, and she said to me, "the one piece of advice i want to give you is to keep a journal and write everything down because you won't remember anything." so i've been trying to do that because i've been wanting this to happen for a long time, and i've wanted to come to new york and have a reading, and it's been really wonderful.
EWW: there was always that hope with that first [novel]. but i also think there was something about that first one [where] it was definitely the one where i was figuring out what the hell i was doing. i was discovering what kind of writer i was and also just like figuring out how to make myself sit down and write everyday and how to discipline myself.
EWW: i had a professor in college in one of my advanced fiction classes, and one of her core pieces of advice for us was to set a time when we would write everyday. one of her assignments was actually to submit that time to her. i never stuck to mine.
EWW: i figured out how to discipline myself when i learned i'd have to or i'd never accomplish anything i wanted.
EWW: i actually think this [final book] is the one true draft. this is not directly related, but the book also has a little bit of an ambiguous ending, so people will ask what really happens. and i think asking that kind of question for me makes the assumption that there is one true ending.
EWW: i would show [my husband] drafts, and he'd ask, "why is the room pink?", and i'd say, "because it is," and it would bother him that i wouldn't have this intention for each of the decisions i'd made in my stories.
EWW: i didn't really start writing non-fiction until the book was mostly done. i'm trying to write both non-fiction and fiction now, and i actually find that, no, i'm not that concerned with non-fiction cannibalizing fiction or vice versa because the way i approach both is so different.
EWW: i do think that the way i have an inner monologue influences my fiction and the way that i depict the inner monologues of my characters. i am not very good at [disassociating] myself from being a person with schizoaffective disorder because i've always lived with it. i really like it when fiction can get quite granular about how psychology works because we're these meat things going around looking at other meat things and wondering what's going on inside.
EWW: i kind of feel that way [excited/proud] about the whole [book]. it took so long to write this thing, so i'm pretty proud of it.