JANUARY 16, 2018
MIRA T. LEE did not grow up expecting, or even wanting, to be a writer. But then her mother died. Her short story “While We Waited,” a fictionalized chronicle of her mom’s final weeks, appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of The Southern Review. “It was my first published piece, and it was a story I wanted to tell,” Lee said. “After that, I started to get more familiar with storytelling and found that I enjoyed seeing things branch out further and further from my actual life. I loved being able to mold events into what I wanted them to be.”
Lee’s debut novel, Everything Here Is Beautiful, was chosen by the American Booksellers’ Association as a Top 10 Debut for Winter/Spring 2018. It’s a big book about big issues: sibling love and loyalty, mental illness, immigration, cultural displacement, marriage, childbearing and -rearing, interracial relationships, healthcare delivery, and the limits of love.
Lee sat down with me in a cafe about a mile from the Cambridge, Massachusetts, home she shares with her husband and sons to discuss mental illness, multiculturalism, and the creative evolution of Everything Here Is Beautiful.
ELEANOR J. BADER: Lucia, the younger sister in Everything Here Is Beautiful, suffers from schizoaffective disorder, and the novel tracks her many psychotic breaks with compassion, terrifying realism, and multilayered complexity. Did you know about this disorder from personal experience?
MIRA T. LEE: There is a lot of mental illness in my family, with multiple family members with schizophrenia. I’ve seen breaks from reality, psychotic behavior where people believe the TV is talking to them or that the FBI is bugging their computers. I’ve seen people stop making sense and become unable to string words together to form a sentence.
I’ve dealt with doctors, hospitals, and social workers, and I am very familiar with the frustrations involved in trying to help someone with this kind of illness, so a lot of the emotions I include in the book are emotions I’ve felt. I know what it’s like to walk on eggshells because someone is disoriented and you don’t want to make the situation worse. Manuel, the undocumented Ecuadoran immigrant Lucia lives with after she leaves her first husband, consistently tries to appease Lucia. Through him, I was able to show how scary it is to see the person you love all but disappear.
But I didn’t just rely on my own experiences. I read many memoirs and blogs about mental illness. There are so many! Just Google first-person accounts of schizophrenia and you’ll see tons of stuff written by people who’ve been there. For a while I also researched post-partum psychosis because after Lucia gives birth to daughter Esperanza she is unable to care for either herself or her newborn.
Everything Here Is Beautiful addresses mental illness from many perspectives, so readers not only watch Lucia as her toehold on reality falters, but they also see how Lucia’s older sister Miranda juggles love and frustration, how unprepared Lucia’s first husband Yonah and second husband Manuel are when she becomes psychotic, and how the medical establishment responds to an incurable illness. Was there something you wanted readers to learn from seeing schizophrenia from so many vantage points?
I wanted to present mental illness as something complex and show that there is no right way to help someone. There are often issues around medication and compliance. Anyone who has dealt with a chronic mental illness likely wishes it was simple: you take this pill and you get better. It is really hard and upsetting when you see someone who is ill and you can’t fix them. Sometimes they don’t even realize they’re sick and will rebuff your efforts.
Furthermore, I wanted to present the nuances of mental illness and depict the ways it affects whole families. I have been to support groups and know how these illnesses devastate people. Mental illness is always messy. A crisis will happen just as mom gets sick, there’s a new baby on the scene, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement has shown up to deport an undocumented family member. Mental illness can’t be compartmentalized. It happens while everyone is simply trying to live their lives and is unpredictable. A psychotic episode will happen out of nowhere, and it’s very rare that a person will just have one episode and be done with it. These illnesses typically don’t resolve, they’re lifelong. They’re scary. They’re bizarre. And they often make people — including friends, relatives, and community members — really uncomfortable.
There was another issue I wanted to highlight, as well. Fairly early on I made a decision not to make the characters white. I have yet to see a story of mental illness that does not involve white, middle-class people, so I decided to create one. I wanted to show that the disease impacts diverse racial and ethnic communities. In addition, since most accounts focus on the onset of the disease in young adults, I wanted to show that schizoaffective disorder occurs in people of all ages.
All of the characters seem like people we might encounter: they are flawed, complicated, and not always likable. Again, was this intentional?
Yes. I wanted the characters to be both sympathetic and imperfect. Lucia is just a person. She is impulsive and she is creative and she is smart. She also has schizoaffective disorder, but that does not change her character in fundamental ways. Likewise, Miranda is doing her best. She could give up her life and stick around to care for Lucia. Her choices are not clear-cut. Should she have stuck closer to home? Was it okay for her to move to Switzerland to be with the man she loves? Her Swiss husband doesn’t know how to help her. Should he tell her to go the United States and support her sister, or to stay in Switzerland and take care of herself?
Yonah, Lucia’s Israeli first husband, is brash. He doesn’t quite get her illness, but he is good at being warm and loving. He has great intentions, but did he hurt Lucia in the long run? It’s not straightforward. What’s evident is that there is no one way to love someone well.
For her part, Lucia wants to be a good mother. She wants it all. She wants romance, a lot of family around her, and a satisfying work life. She wonders what’s best for Esperanza. Once she stops feeling fulfilled by staying home with her child, what should she do? In creating these people, what mattered to me most was that they were rounded and real. I hope I succeeded.
Multiculturalism is writ large in Everything Here Is Beautiful. All of the characters are in relationships with people who are different from them. Miranda and Lucia were born in China and came to the United States as children. Yonah is from Israel and Manuel, the father of Lucia’s daughter Esperanza, is from Ecuador. Like does not attract like in the novel. What were you trying to say?
This was actually based on my own experience with the people who’ve moved in and out of my life. It’s true to my world. Everyone I know who is in a relationship is with someone from somewhere else or is in an interracial pairing. For Lucia, relationships with Yonah and Manuel made sense; both fit her character. It also fit Miranda to marry a Swiss man. This is who they are as women.
Immigration, both legal and not, is a theme throughout the book, and readers see this issue from several angles. Yonah and Manuel are newcomers to the United States and Lucia is an American in Ecuador. Did you anticipate this being such a timely issue?
No. I developed the characters a long time ago and had no idea what the political climate would be like when the book was published. I certainly hope readers will view the struggles the characters go through with empathy and compassion.
Manhattan’s East Village, the Hudson Valley in upstate New York, and Cuenca in Ecuador are vividly presented. Are these places you’ve lived or known?
I lived in New York City from 1999 to 2000 and spent a lot of time there before and after so it’s a place I know. I never lived in the Hudson Valley but at different phases of my life I’ve spent time with friends who have settled in that area. These places were drawn based on my own connection to them. I traveled to Ecuador before I started writing the book but that was not enough so I read a lot of travel blogs. They were incredibly helpful to me in creating towns and villages I did not know particularly well. Thankfully, there are many American expats in Ecuador who blog about living there.
Did the book go through many revisions?
I started writing Everything Here Is Beautiful in 2013 and did four drafts in two and a half years. Once I got an agent and the book was sold, the editors at Viking asked for revisions, which I spent a year on.
It’s been an interesting process. Lucia and Miranda did not start off Chinese, and the mental-illness piece was initially a lesser theme. My first draft told the story of a woman who went to Ecuador with a guy, had a baby with him, and found herself becoming dissatisfied with the life she was living. One of my first readers asked me how this was different from other books that told a similar story. She urged me to focus more on Lucia’s mental illness and ethnicity. Even though this is not a book about race, the main characters are Chinese; the story is about who these women happen to be.
There was also less of Miranda in early drafts. She was peripheral when the book started out and her character developed as I revised the novel. The backstory about their mother’s life in China was also added later because my editor thought readers needed to know about the sisters’ earliest years and emigration to the United States.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
I want readers to understand the complexity of taking care of someone with a mental illness and see that mental illnesses occur in nonwhite populations. I also hope the book reaches people who might not read a memoir, news story, or blog post about mental illness and break through the shame, stigma, and silence that persist in many cultures when someone suffers from a psychological disorder.
Then there is an issue that has nothing to do with mental illness. I want people to see having relationships that mix ethnicity and class as desirable and possible. Usually, when a story focuses on Asian-American characters, the narrative is kept within the frame of an “Asian story.” There are not a lot of stories or novels with interracial couples or people who live in a totally mixed community. My world is filled with all kinds of cultural mixing, and not seeing this depicted in fiction is weird and troubling.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on bits and pieces of a lot of different things and doing some graphic design work, which has been my day job for many years. I’m thinking about a lot of stuff and would like to write another novel. It is really satisfying to be in the middle of creating something large and new.
Read more LARB pieces related to mental health and illness here.