I first picked up Esmé Weijun Wang‘s The Border of Paradise earlier in the summer as a sample on Kindle and was immediately struck by her writing style. However, as is my habit, I set it aside for other books in my reading queue and didn’t actually read it until now. In some ways I’m glad that I waited because it just so happened that she was giving a reading a few weeks ago where I live, so I was able to hear her read some passages from the book. I think her prosody is really lovely, but I have to say that her ability to read her own work was also absolutely spectacular. Her performance of passages, particularly those from Jia-Hui/Daisy’s perspective were so evocative and moving. It’s interesting to hear how authors read their work, not only to hear the words they placed on the page come forth verbally, but also to see how they relate to their work in a performance setting — as readings are, obviously, a type of performance. Wang’s performance was affectively-charged, which should have given me a preview as to the level of affective work happening in the book itself. It’s a complex narrative that can be unpacked in numerous ways depending on where we want to place the focus, but a few things stuck out to me in the story: mental landscapes, internal worlds, and the complexities of familial relationships.
This might also go without saying but, just in case, the novel deals with suicide and mental illness, as well as some other topics that could be unsetting to some readers. My reflections on the book will also contain reflections on these topics. If that is something you do not want to encounter, then feel free to click away!
As always, I hesitate to present too much background information because I don’t want to spoil any twists and turns for those of you who want to pick up the book. However, the topics I am touching on rely quite heavily on knowing something of the plot, so there will probably be more of a spoiler-element to this post than usual. If you are thinking of reading the book first, please stop here and feel free to join me once you’ve finished the book — it would be interesting to see if what stood out to you reflects what I am about to share.
The novel itself is structured around three main sections told from multiple, shifting characters’ perspectives; sometimes these characters share their accounts of the same event and sometimes their stories spiral off into their own memories or musings. More often than not, the gradual shift in perspectives paints a broader picture of the family at the center of the novel and the various catalysts for what happens to them. The main players are David Nowak, his Taiwanese wife Jia-Hui (who he renames Daisy once they move back to the United States), and, eventually, their two children: William and Gillian. Though these four take up the bulk of our attention, there are other side-characters who step in and out of the narrative, but they are always in relation to these four.
I enjoyed Wang’s approach to the story and I thought she wove each section together so the narrative unfolded at a good pace. There was enough obscured throughout the book, by nature of the characters’ internal struggles or inability to see beyond themselves, to keep me engaged and wanting to see where things would end up or to find out why so-and-so behaved the way they did. I also thought Wang’s depiction of mental illness was smartly done, because she did not make the characters’ suffering seem fantastical or illogical. For many expressions of mental illness, there is an internal logic to behaviors and tendencies, along with an simultaneous self-awareness and self-blindness that I think she captured so well. David, for instance, is fairly aware of his mental state and his tendency to harm himself and others — but its only through the other characters’ perspectives that we see the extent of the harm he does. In many ways, it is easy to make mental illness and suicide a spectacle, but both topics were handled well in the novel.
More specifically, what I thought was really intriguing about The Border of Paradise was the way that things become monstrous or “insane” in the wrong contexts. For instance, it is easy to read Jia-Hui’s insistence on the tongyangxi relationship between William and Gillian as something horrific. Yet, in many ways that insistence is also Jia-Hui’s attempt to reconcile Gillian’s position in the family, David’s love for Gillian, and what that means for David and Daisy’s relationship; although the practice has some sort of basis in logic (but Jia-Hui agrees that it is outdated even when it is “done correctly” between adopted siblings), it becomes deeply troubling in the context of their life in California. Another element that ties in with Jia-Hui’s tongyangxi idea is the transmission of mental illness, not only in terms of direct biology, but also through the world that parents create for their children. Both William and Gillian could, perhaps, have a seed of their father’s mental illness in them by way of genetics, but their environment — the isolated home and the closeness of the family itself — also allows for a lack of external feedback to challenge the life David has constructed.
It is one thing to struggle with a mental illness that was passed down via one’s parents, but it is another thing to be trapped within another person’s madness — and being made to believe that this is how things should be. In this way, Jia-Hui is also a more sympathetic character, because much of her behavior within the novel is a response to David’s. From this tangle of relationships, it would be easy to blame David or at least be unimpressed by him as a character. But Wang begins the novel with David and provides an in-depth look at his internal workings, so we see that — as problematic and as troubled as he is — there is indeed suffering there. And the way he acts as a character stems from the need to alleviate that real suffering — though it often is at the expense of others.
As I mentioned in my last post on Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, I think a lot of what I’m reading lately has been tinged (unfortunately) with current events. So, my less-than-chipper mindset plays into why certain themes jumped out to me more than others. One of the main narrative threads in The Border of Paradise, which we get a sense of right from David’s first chapter is, broadly, mental health. One of the manifestations of this is a fraught internal landscape, punctuated by suffering that goes beyond David’s ability to act otherwise. His actions then bleed into Jia-Hui, as well the children, so the impact of his struggles echo throughout the novel even after he is gone from the page. I like that Wang is very hard-hitting in this regard, between acknowledging David’s suffering and showing how his internal world negatively impacted those around him. This is something important in mental illness and is something that can be difficult to talk about — you suffer, but you often also make others suffer, too. As painful as this discussion can be, it’s important to have, because it would be a crime to discount how William and Gillian’s lives panned out simply because David suffered, even if that something eating away at him was beyond his control. I speak of this from experience, because there was a point where I realized that if I didn’t seek help I would collapse into a black hole, consuming everyone around me in a desperate bid to “save” myself and fill the nothingness inside. I was doing that to my partner and it was the realization of what I was doing to him that snapped me into action. For me, that action was ending the relationship for a time, getting back on medication to level myself out, returning to therapy sessions, and working through the things that haunted me. Once I felt stable, we were eventually able to resume a relationship in which I was not endlessly requiring someone to fill the void for me. That was over seven years ago.
How can we talk about mental illness while holding both individuals and larger units (families, relationships, friendships, communities) gently, but firmly, as part of the discussion? How can we care for someone like David as well as those he directly impacted? Mental illness is usually not something that impacts only one person, it is something that leaves its mark on multiple people and, more often than not, requires more than one person to overcome. For example, I can’t manage my PTSD alone even now, at a point in my life where I have a lot of control over and stability in my life. I have a partner, I have my mother, I have my friends, I have my emotional support dog; all of these supports work to keep me afloat when I fall back into darker places, which inevitably happen.
I am really impressed with The Border of Paradise and the questions is raises for readers while maintaining a tenderness on the topic. This was definitely worth the read because of the thoughtfulness she presses into each page; I can’t wait until her next work The Collected Schizophrenias comes out!