In October 2015, we published “Fashioning Normal,” an essay by Esmé Weijun Wang, which considers the ways a person’s sense of fashion is influenced by one’s mental health. Wang, who lives with schizoaffective disorder, examines fashion as a type of “costume” to disguise signs of distress, though with limitations. Since the publication of “Fashioning Normal,” Wang has become a regular contributor for Catapult. Her monthly column “After a Fashion” —currently on hiatus as Wang completes her next manuscript—examines particular items from her wardrobe, and tells the story behind each article of clothing. The author of the debut novel The Border of Paradise , Wang is also the winner of the 2016 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. I chatted with Wang via Google Hangouts, where we discussed the prize, writing about illness, and social media’s cathartic effect.
Mensah Demary: Your first piece with Catapult was the essay “Fashioning Normal,” which was a great intersection of fashion and mental health, how one informs and influences the other. If you don't mind, talk a little about the essay and why you wrote it.
Esmé Weijun Wang: “Fashioning Normal” started out as a blog post on my own blog, and then a mini-essay—it took a while to figure out what I wanted to say, exactly, before it made its way into your hands. A theme that runs throughout much of my writing about mental illness—schizoaffective disorder, in my case, which is characterized as a “severe” mental illness—is the idea of what it means to be ambitious and high-functioning while also being diagnosed with, and associated with, an illness with quite a bit of stigma surrounding it. Schizoaffective disorder is not as known about, but the “schizo” in there, the part that relates to the better-known “schizophrenia,” is recognized as related to one of the most stigmatized mental illnesses out there. So “Fashioning Normal” was my exploration of looking at being seen as okay, or even superlative, through clothing. I used to be a fashion blogger; I've worked at a style magazine. I've spent time thinking about how the way we dress indicates aesthetic taste, but also how it relates to status and our socioeconomic background in the ways that outfits, or costumes, function.
Mensah Demary: You've since taken the idea of fashion as a costume a step further, or maybe slightly askew, with your Catapult column “After a Fashion,” which examines articles of clothing you own and the stories behind them. Mental health isn't the main thrust of the column, but your physical health often dictates what you can or can't wear, or what is most comfortable versus what's most fashionable.
Esmé Weijun Wang: Yeah. I thought mental health was going to be my main schtick as a nonfiction writer, and it still is, but then I became very sick with late-stage Lyme disease. What I wear and how I present myself is relevant when I'm going through, say, a psychotic episode, but how I dress myself is also influenced by my physical challenges—you just mentioned some ways in which fashion can be affected by illness. If I'm having a difficult day in terms of illness, for example, it's impossible for me to wear certain fabrics without being in excruciating pain. And yesterday I wore heels out of the house, which is rare for me now because of how easily I lose physical strength.
“After a Fashion” is fun because it's a way for me to look at very specific pieces of clothing, and to think about how they help to shape or represent specific memories or life experiences.
Mensah Demary: Do you now believe that writing about illness—whether physical or mental—is your “schtick”? Whenever I read your work, it appears that you're mining your health not just for literary material, but perhaps as a means to making sense of a body that you at once inhabit and war with on a daily basis.
Esmé Weijun Wang: “Schtick” is my silly way of minimizing it, but yes, it does seem that illness is what I'm most interested in exploring with nonfiction. Part of the reason is that it—I almost used the word “interferes”—interacts with my life, and shapes my life, constantly. I'm never not thinking about it; it's said that not having to think about one's health is a luxury, and I don't have that luxury right now. It's the lens through which I view love, creativity, ambition, friendship. And so I naturally gravitate toward writing about the illness and the body.
Mensah Demary: Did you feel less free while writing your debut novel The Border of Paradise ?
Esmé Weijun Wang: Because it includes illness?
Mensah Demary: That and, being a novel, writing fiction could apply more constraints to one's writing in general.
Esmé Weijun Wang: I don't feel that way at all! Actually, I'm working on essays for my next book right now, and I miss fiction terribly. I'm doodling a bit on a short story right now to scratch that itch, in fact—to me, writing nonfiction feels like putting together a puzzle, and writing fiction feels like free-form painting. Which probably also explains why fiction takes me so much longer to create; there's just so much more clean-up and shaping that has to happen for me with fiction.
I don't know if the idea of left-brain/right-brain is still an idea that's supported by science, but I'd say that nonfiction is a fairly left-brained activity for me, whereas fiction is fairly right-brained.
Mensah Demary: Recently you were awarded the 2016 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize for The Collected Schizophrenias . Can you briefly explain the project, and what was your first, immediate reaction to the news that you had won the prize?
Esmé Weijun Wang: Thank you! The project is a collection of essays about schizophrenia, in which I look at schizophrenia historically, culturally, socially, and medically, with some personal bits included as well. Right now I have a bedrock of essays that will likely end up in the book, but the real challenge right now is figuring out how to shape the book so that it's something other than “a bunch of essays that were written and thrown into a book together”; my editor and I are discussing that as I research and write.
Finding out that I'd won the prize was fun. I received a call from a number I didn't recognize, and with all of this election stuff going on, I was pretty sure that it was going to be an election-related call. So I picked up and was told by Steve Woodward, my now-editor, that he was calling from Graywolf. Which then caused me to wonder if I was supposed to donate something. And then he told me that I'd won the prize, and for the next few minutes I couldn't say anything but “WHAT?” really loudly. I think I said it three or four times.
Mensah Demary: You have an increasingly popular Twitter account , certainly because of your writing but also because you use Twitter as a place to generate positivity and warmth, two things sometimes in short supply on the social network.
Esmé Weijun Wang: I started using Twitter when I was spending very little time outside of the house, or even out of bed; it was my way of feeling connected to the world during a scary time, and I ended up meeting a lot of wonderful people that way. I've been reconsidering how much time I spend on social media in general, particularly as I really begin to work on my new book, but in the meantime, I do try to be helpful on Twitter. I try to tell people things that I need to hear; yesterday, for example, I tweeted out an Emily McDowell image that says, “You're not a burden. You're a human,” which is something that is printed on one of her greeting cards. I tweeted it out because I wanted someone to say that to me. And as of right now, it's gotten over a hundred RTs and almost two hundred Likes, which . . . I don't know. Twitter can be a horrible place. The Support team's policies on abuse and harassment are a mess. But I've also found solace there, and it's nice to know that people can find solace from my presence.