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 Eleanor J. Bader 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.
ELEANOR J. BADER: 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?
MIRA T. LEE: 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.
ELEANOR J. BADER: All of the characters seem like people we might encounter: they are flawed, complicated, and not always likable. Again, was this intentional?
MIRA T. LEE: 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?
ELEANOR J. BADER: 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?
MIRA T. LEE: 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.
ELEANOR J. BADER: 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?
MIRA T. LEE: 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.
ELEANOR J. BADER: What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
MIRA T. LEE: 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.
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