By Fan Liu
Stanford alumna Esmé Weijun Wang ’06 recently won the 2018 Whiting Award in Nonfiction, a $50,000 prize that supports ten emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and drama. Wang is the recipient of the 2016 Graywolf Nonfiction Prize and is the author of “The Border of Paradise: A Novel,” which made NPR’s Best Books of 2016 list.
Living with late-stage Lyme disease and schizoaffective disorder, Wang has drawn on her own limitations to shed light on difficult topics, such as mental illness.
In a statement released upon the announcement of the award, the Whiting Selection committee wrote, “Wang sends out revelatory dispatches from an under-mapped land, shot like arrows in all directions from a taut bow of a mind. With narrative drive and prose of confiding grace, she undertakes an investigation into life with schizoaffective disorder and chronic illness.”
The Stanford Daily (TSD): How did you feel when you won the Whiting Award award for non-fiction?
Esmé Weijun Wang (EW): It was very exciting, and I burst into tears. I had been hoping it would happen.
TSD: Can you talk to me more about your work and what are your major influences?
EW: My debut 2016 novel, “The Border of Paradise,” is a Gothic novel and multi-generational. It explores immigration in Taiwan. A lot of the book examines mental illness, which I have a personal connection with. As I was waiting for that book to find a publisher, I started writing essays and collected enough essays on schizophrenia. In 2016, I won the Graywolf Nonfiction prize and ended up publishing “The Collected Schizophrenias.”
TSD: How did you come to write about your often sensitive subject matter, mental illness?
EW: I lived with different forms of mental illness, but I did not speak and write about them for many years. It wasn’t until I finished graduate school that I wrote about mental illness. I realized that if I didn’t start writing about it, there wouldn’t be a better time. I also realized that once I started writing about mental illness publicly, people would appreciate it, especially coming from a woman of color, as I am Asian American.
TSD: How did your time at Stanford influence your decision to become a writer and explore the topics you primarily write about?
EW: I came to Stanford from Yale as a transfer student. It wasn’t until I came to Stanford that I became a member of the writing community through the Stegner Fellowship [a two-year fellowship at Stanford that supports emerging writers in the Creative Writing Program]. I ended up meeting a lot of professors and began to write more seriously. I met friends who are successful writers today.
TSD: Schizophrenia has often been stereotyped in the media. As an advocate for mental health how do you see your work addressing these stereotypes?
EW: Being able to tell my own story and letting people know that their perceived conception of schizophrenia is not the single story. For instance, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TED Talk on “The danger of a single story.” There is a danger to having a single story about mental illness and schizophrenia.
TSD: What would you like the reader to better understand while reading your work?
EW: I’d like the reader to find the humanity in experiences that often seem frightening or difficult to understand. I’d like readers to gain a more visceral understanding of confusing things like psychosis. Many of the kindest emails I’ve ever received include people whose close family members suffer from schizophrenia and never quite understood what schizophrenia meant until they read my work.
TSD: Any words of advice for an aspiring writer?
EW: I’d encourage aspiring writers to take creative writing classes, but also to read voraciously, as much as you possibly can. Reading in the beginning may be even more important than writing. Also, be patient. It takes a long time to become “successful” and not get a million rejections all the time.
TSD: Any last tidbits of advice?
EW: I touch upon this in my fourth upcoming book, but being an undergraduate is a very difficult time regarding one’s mental health/mental illness. It can be tricky to seek help as an undergraduate, especially since there are many tricky issues including involuntary leave and hospitalization. The importance of seeking help when it’s needed is incredibly important.
This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.
Contact Fan Liu at fliu6 ‘at’ stanford.edu.