Taking Clouds and Putting Them In A Jar: A Conversation with Esmé Weijun Wang
On the importance of comfort, the wisdom of dogs, and how to live with an unreliable body and mind
Intimate conversations with our greatest heart-centered minds.
Hello Beyonders!is now on Substack. How lucky are we! As a gesture toward welcoming Esmé, and because there are so many new subscribers, I’m lifting the paywall on this beautiful interview with her for the week. Enjoy!
Esmé Weijun Wang has one of the most brilliant minds and beautiful hearts that I’ve ever encountered. And her writing is breathtakingly graceful whilst also laser sharp. She can somehow make thorough often clinical examinations of mental illness read like a poem.
I first read Esmé’s remarkable novel The Border of Paradise in which a half brother and sister are groomed by the brother’s mother to become lovers and eventually marry. It’s a painful, tragic story. Each member of the family is given the opportunity to guide us through their version of these precarious lives; fraught with sorrow and sometimes horror there is also whispering hope.
Esmé’s second book, The Collected Schizophrenias (winner of the prestigious Graywolf Nonfiction Prize), is a collection of essays about Esmé’s journey with schizoaffective disorder and compounding factors such as PTSD and Lyme disease. Yes, her writing often focuses on mental and chronic illnesses, but at heart it’s a meticulous, tender, reverential recording of the fragility and tremendous buoyancy of being human. Esmé writes about living through hallucinations, delusions, believing she was dead, being institutionalized all whilst trying to keep up with school work, and so much more with the curious instincts of a clinician (she was once a lab researcher at Stanford) and with the gentle empathy and wisdom of someone who has lived through hell and is here to tell about it. This book changed me. It will change you.
Esmé graduated from Stanford with a BA in psychology and holds an MFA in writing from the University of Michigan. She was named by Granta as one of the “Best of Young American Novelists” on its decennial list in 2017 and won the Whiting Award in 2018. She’s even been a question on the New York Times crossword puzzle. Born in the Midwest to Taiwanese parents, she’s the founder of The Unexpected Shape™ Writing Academy for ambitious writers living with limitations. I highly recommend following her on Instagram. It’s not easy to live with chronic health challenges. Yet her posts are open, honest, smart, thoughtful, and uplifting.
I hope you enjoy!
Can you talk us through a day? I know each day can be quite different, but what are some of the throughlines? I think people who haven't lived with chronic illness, don't really understand how second by second it can be.
I'm very aware of time passing; I feel like I'm running on a treadmill that's going a little too fast. When it reaches, say, noon, I think, “Oh my gosh, I’ve gotten to twelve o'clock, let's see if I can get to one o'clock, two o'clock.”
I would rather not go through the days this way. But because so much of my time is spent being uncomfortable the hours are weighted in a way that they wouldn't be otherwise. I know I'm having a good health day if time passes and I don't have to put a little checkmark on it with my mind.
In terms of concrete details: what time do I wake up, what do I eat, and all that stuff, it does vary quite a bit. For the last two and a half weeks, I've been waking up at one or two am and not being able to go back to sleep. So I've been pretty tired. I've been dealing with some health things over the last few months. We can look at certain years in our lives as being harder or easier in terms of health and I think this year has been a little bit mediocre.
Are there favorite foods or places to sit or anything that you rely on for comfort?