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Esme Weijun Wang and Traversing Limitations

On Friday, March 18th, 2022, CLA presented award-winning author and 2022 Lurie Distinguished Authors-in-Residence Esmé Weijun Wang. For the first time since the pandemic, we held the reading in-person! Taking place at San Jose State University’s Spartan Student Union Theater at 7 p.m., Esmé began the night reading from her debut novel, Border of Paradise, which focuses on a multi-generational Asian-American family where themes such as mental health, Asian-American identity, and coping with trauma are crucial to the work.

Even though Esmé read from a middle section of her novel, her ability to paint a clear picture of mental illness from a first-person view point was evident. Such talent was deftly noted through her controlled reading and the unique voice of her fictional character. If you have not had the chance to read Border of Paradise, we highly recommend it!

After her reading, Esmé sat down for an interview with novelist and friend Colin Winnette to discuss The Collected Schizophrenias. Colin opened the discussion asking how the author avoids romanticizing mental illness, which has become a pressing issue especially in media to which Esmé commented

“I don’t know about everyone else, but I don’t get much work done when my mental health is spiraling. Typically, I’m just trying to focus on the next five minutes.”

Esmé went on to mention that in the early 2010’s, she was contacted by several television studios who were interested in adapting The Collected Schizophrenias into a slice-of-life television show. In their pitch, studios often found tonal semblance between Esmé’s work to shows such as “Louie” or “Girls.” Esmé’ remarked on the experience simply stating

“[it] is funny to think about because both of those shows are now considered problematic.”

As the night progressed, Collin asked Esmé about her publishing journey to which she detailed being rejected by several large publishers while trying to publish Border of Paradise. Her success came by chance after sending the manuscript to friends – one of whom passed it along to an independent publisher. Esmé’s honesty and transparency offered the evening an intimacy that not only revealed the kind-heartedness of the author but demonstrated she’s an advocate for man.

Part of Esmé’s discussion focused on how she strives to create equitable access in the literary arts for those with varying needs. No stranger to the biases facing individuals with disabilities, limitations, or chronic illness, Esmé is a change agent. After a rather negative experience at a writer’s conference in tandem with other experiences, Esmé decided to create “a community for ambitious people like [her] who are living with limitations, disability, and chronic illness.” She has created online writer’s workshops, the Unexpected Shape Community last year, and this year she is launching the Unexpected Shape Writing Academy, which is an MFA alternative. For more information, click here!

During a Q&A with the audience, questions revolved around the question of how to write about traumatic subject matter in a way that is productive and meaningful without falling into a place of self-destruction. Esmé cited her craft talk, which she hosted earlier at SJSU’s Steinbeck Center. She discussed specific writing warm-ups such as making a connection between happy music and traumatic experiences as an avenue for exploring such tensions in one’s writing.

Esmé has two more books to look forward to in the future! On April 3rd, the Center for Literary Arts will be hosting its next reading and Q&A with author Torrey Peters to discuss her debut novel Detransition, Baby April 8th. We hope to see you all there!


Ryan Steel, CLA Team Member


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