The author of Everything Here is Beautiful speaks about sisterhood, refusing categorization, and writing about mental health.
February 7, 2018
Mira T. Lee’s debut novel, Everything Here Is Beautiful, begins with two sisters on a summer morning. Four-year-old Lucia points to a spider web. Eleven-year-old Miranda tells her sister not to be scared, explains how spiders use their sticky silk to catch and eat bugs. But Lucia isn’t scared. She beckons her older sister to keep looking, to see the morning light sparkling off the strands, to see its beauty.
I kept returning to this scene over and over again throughout the novel as the sisters grow older and pass through milestones in their lives—dealing with Lucia’s mental illness, meeting and loving men with cultural and ethnic backgrounds vastly different from their own Chinese American upbringing, making decisions about parenthood, moving to different countries to build lives wholly independent from each other—as the bond between them stretches thin, to the point of breaking. And as with the spider web, moments of wonder and beauty interweave with danger.
Mira and I recently became acquainted when we discovered we share the same literary agent—and subsequently, that we both attended the same college, moved to Boston afterward (though we never met), and are now both “later-in-life” writers and mothers of boys. Mira’s novel also happens to be my favorite type of read: a multi-faceted story that touches on many compelling issues that resonate with my own life, from being an Asian immigrant in the United States to trying to reconcile motherhood with a career. Maybe it’s because I’m an only child, but I’ve always been fascinated by stories of close sibling relationships, and this story of the bond and conflict between Miranda and Lucia is particularly poignant because Miranda is the only person who truly understands, and is willing to deal with, the seriousness of Lucia’s mental illness.
As an Asian American, I was struck by the multiculturalism which is fundamental to the novel: all the major characters are immigrants who end up with partners from cultures different than their own. Miranda and Lucia are from a Chinese American immigrant family, Lucia’s husband Yonah is a Russian Jew with family in Israel, and both sisters end up with men from other countries—Switzerland and Ecuador—and move to those countries. How did this come to be? Is this something you set out to do from the beginning?
Mira T. Lee
I didn’t set out to write a “multicultural” novel, but I guess it came out that way because that’s the world I know. My parents were first-generation immigrants (born in China, before moving to Hong Kong.) Growing up, I lived abroad for three years in Hong Kong and attended a British school. In my twenties, I lived with roommates from all over the place: first, with a Korean guy from Guam and a Salvadoran, then with an Israeli American and a German visiting scholar (at one point, we had thirteen Irish guys crashed out on the floor of our eleven hundred square-foot apartment!). For awhile I was obsessed with the drums; I took classes at the Berklee College of Music, and everyone I met was an international student. I spent time in NYC and everyone was an immigrant. And of course there were cross-cultural romances of every kind! None of it felt particularly unusual—this is the America I know, and my characters and plot lines grew organically from my own experiences. At one point, I did wonder, should I make my characters white? But I’m glad I stuck with my gut. My characters might appear different on the surface, but they are siblings and parents, daughters and sons, spouses and lovers, just like anyone else.
Absolutely! But apart from adding another layer to your book, which is multi-faceted in so many other ways, I think having this diverse crew of immigrants and expatriates is an interesting choice for a novel that explores mental illness. I’m a Korean immigrant, and my family (both in the US and in Korea) is highly secretive about and ashamed of mental illness of all kinds. Have you seen that in your own experience? Is this intersection of Asian/Latino culture and mental illness something you set out to explore?
Psychiatric illnesses carry an enormous amount of stigma, especially in communities of color, and I think this carries over into literature as well. We’ve seen a growing number of high-profile narratives of mental illness (both fiction and memoir) in recent years, but these have predominantly been within the context of white, middle-class families. Yet we know mental illness afflicts communities of every class and color. It’s touched my own family, too. I didn’t set out to explore mental illness in non-white cultures, but these are the worlds I inhabit, and I hope conversations around the topic become less taboo. I also think it’s important to see stories starring people of color that don’t necessarily fit into the expected frameworks, for example, of a typical “Asian American story” or a “cultural novel.”
Another aspect of mental illness that your novel does an amazing job of exploring is the extent to which it can create conflict in the relationship between the person with the illness and the primary caregiver. Is this something that you’ve experienced in your own life?
I’ve dealt with mental illness in my family, and have seen up close how terrifying psychosis can be, and how hard it is to help someone when they’re in the grips of a delusion and can’t recognize that they’re ill. This lack of insight has a clinical name: “anosognosia,” whereby a person is impaired in such a way that they cannot perceive their own illness. It can lead to a tremendous amount of conflict—around obtaining treatment, medications, compliance, follow-up care—and this can be devastating for families. I knew I’d have to educate the reader about some of these issues in order for them to better relate to my character’s frustrations, particularly those of Miranda and Manny (both called upon to be Lucia’s caregivers), but also Lucia herself.
One aspect of Lucia’s mental illness that intrigued me is that it feels incredibly specific, with the names of medications and symptoms, but I don’t think the actual diagnosis is ever named. Is this a choice you made, and why?
Yep, two reasons: first, diagnoses for psychotic illnesses are often unclear and evolve over time, and many experts now consider schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and bipolar with psychotic features to be in the same “spectrum” of illnesses. Second, I didn’t name Lucia’s illness because I didn’t want the book to be labeled “a schizophrenia book” or Lucia to be thought of as “that schizophrenic woman.” When there’s no clearly defined label, sometimes people are more open-minded, more willing to see the whole individual. It was important to me that Lucia be viewed as more than just her illness, and that her illness be seen in the context of her entire life (as well as in the lives of those who love her). I do hope this book might reach readers who wouldn’t normally pick up a book “about mental illness.”
The writer side of me was intrigued by your choices in narrators and points of view. We get chapters from Miranda, Lucia, Manny, and Yonah, in both third- and first-person voices, sometimes back-to-back. In addition, a few chapters are told in an omniscient point of view of a particular setting, such as a psychiatric ward and a Minnesota town. Was it difficult to go back and forth in this way, and how did you decide what chapters to tell in which POV?
Originally, I thought I’d just have each of my main characters narrate one section, four sections in all, boom, done! But yeah, that didn’t really work out. I got stuck when Lucia landed in the hospital. I tried writing from the POV of the nurse, the social worker, another patient, but none of them had a wide enough lens. So I switched to third-person omniscient and wrote something, which was better than nothing. In the next chapter, I knew Lucia had to tell her side of the story, so I switched back to first person. That was tough because I’d always envisioned her as wittier and more brilliant than I am, and for awhile, her voice felt too generic. But again, I wrote something to move the story forward. Later, there were plot points I knew I couldn’t pull off from Lucia’s POV, so I switched again to close third. I worried about breaking all these “rules,” but honestly, I just did whatever I needed to get through that first draft! Now I’m glad there are all these different voices and perspectives—it fits with the chaotic nature of Lucia’s illness, as well as the overall feeling of the book. I think lots of great things in writing happen as accidents—because you’re not transcribing something inside of your head onto paper, you’re actually creating as you go.
On that note of creating as you go, how did you come up with the title? I noticed two times when a character says “Everything here is beautiful.” Had you written those lines before you decided to make that the title, or vice versa? And what does that title mean to you?
The line was always there, but it wasn’t my original title. In fact, we rejected at least 150 titles before my editor and I agreed on that one! But once it was settled, I found lots of opportunities to enhance the images and themes of beauty throughout the manuscript, which helped the story gel as a whole. I like that it’s a bit ironic, but also optimistic. I do think it captures something of Lucia’s essence.
Earlier, we talked about the element of ethnic and racial diversity in the novel, but I think the title brings into focus the geographic breadth as well. At one point, Miranda says, “Our mother might’ve said this: that immigrants are the strongest, that we leave our homes behind and rebuild. Everywhere we go, we rebuild.” Yet this isn’t your traditional “immigrant story.” Can you talk about the role that cultural displacement plays in the novel?
I liked exploring the reasons people choose to leave their home countries, how sometimes they’re moving towards something—opportunity, promises, love, family; but sometimes they’re also running away—from their pasts, their secrets, their families, expectations. My characters all experience periods of cultural displacement, no one ever feels quite grounded—even when one character was “home,” their spouse/partner wasn’t, which set up lots of natural conflicts.
You’ve mentioned that you don’t think of this as an “Asian American story” or a “cultural novel,” but “mental illness book” or “immigrant story” don’t quite fit, either. So I wonder: how would you categorize it?
I guess I’d say it’s first and foremost a family drama, about complicated relationships, and how tricky it can be to do right by the people we love most. It may be a cobbled-together family, the main conflicts may be over mental illness, and cultural and immigration pressures may exacerbate the problems, but at its core is familial love. I wanted to explore conflicting emotions, conflicting desires, conflicting allegiances, and how we balance those—sometimes well, sometimes poorly. One of the wonders of fiction, I think, is its ability to shine a spotlight on humble, unglamorous, overlooked lives, the “underdogs” who rarely draw public attention in real life, yet whose stories exemplify our humanity. And maybe we don’t need to try to pigeon-hole stories into neat little boxes, maybe it’s okay if they’re big and messy, about lots of things all at once, kind of like… life?
What authors or books have influenced your own writing? Any books you’d recommend?
So many! Raymond Carver, William Trevor, Elizabeth Strout, William Faulkner’s Light In August, Adam Haslett’s You Are Not A Stranger Here, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. In 2017, I loved Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, and I just started Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko and can’t wait to get back to it. For some reason I feel guilty about reading fiction when it’s light out (unless I’m on vacation)!
Me, too! I think the guilt is due to my feeling like I should be writing, not reading (which is so pleasurable). Speaking of which, have you started writing your next novel? If so, can you tell us anything about it?
I have bits and pieces of a few different projects. I might turn them into short stories. It feels less intimidating that way!
Any writerly resolutions for 2018?
Well, I definitely need to set more limits on social media, which has been sucking me into its black hole at an alarming rate! I’ve also been thinking about my new “identity” as a writer. In a profession where success is so often measured in relative terms—who’s made which list, who’s won what award, who’s selling the most copies, who has earned more stars—it’s easy to continually feel insecure and “less-than.” To that end, my resolution is to stay grounded in knowing that I wrote the book I wanted to write, and to cheer on others who are pursuing their dreams.
From Everything Here is Beautiful
Lucia said she was going to marry a one-armed Russian Jew. It came as a shock, this news, as I had met him only once before, briefly, when I was in town for a meeting with a pair of squat but handsome attorneys. His name was Yonah. He owned a health food store in the East Village, down the street from a tattoo parlor, across from City Video, next door to a Polish diner, beneath three floors of apartments that Lucia said he rented out to the yuppies who would soon take over the neighborhood. He had offered me tea, and I took peppermint green, and he scurried around, mashing Swiss chard and kale in a loud, industrial blender, barking orders to his nephews, or maybe they were second or third cousins (I never knew, there were so many), because they were sluggish in their work of unloading organic produce off the delivery trucks. He yelled often. I thought, This Yonah is quite a rough man.
He dusted the wine, mopped the floor, restocked packages of dried figs and goji berries and ginseng snacks on the shelves. He was industrious, I could see, intent on making his fortune as immigrants do. Lucia said he played chess. I’d never known my sister to play chess, though she was always excellent at puzzles as a child. Yonah didn’t seem to me the kind to play chess either, nor to drink sulfite-free organic wine or eat goji berries. But as they say, love is strange. And I wouldn’t begrudge my sister love, nor any stranger, not even one who smoked, and was the kind of man who looked disheveled even fresh after a shower, and would leave his camo briefs lying around on the bathroom floor. I admit I was disturbed, creeped out, by his prosthetic arm, which he wore sometimes, though more often I’d find it sitting by itself in a chair.
Lucia brought him to visit our mother, who was dying. Our mother was tilted back in a green suede recliner, wrapped in cotton blankets, watching the Three Tenors video we’d given her the previous year. She took a long look at this man—his workingman’s shoulders, his dark-stubbled jaw, his wide, flat nose. Her Yoni had the essence of a duck, Lucia said (endearingly), or maybe a platypus, though she’d never seen one up close. My sister liked to discern people’s animal and vegetable essences. In fact, she was usually right.
Our mother winced as her gaze settled upon his left arm, a pale, peachy shade that did not match the rest of him.
“What happened to your arm?” she said.
“An accident, when I was twenty-one.” He said it quietly, but without any shame.
“In Soviet Union?”
“In Israel. I moved there when I was teenager.”
“You are divorced,” she said, and I tried to read his thoughts in the fluttering of his blue-gray eyes. I wondered if Lucia had warned him that our mother was like that. I wondered what had been shared, what omitted, when the two of them exchanged stories over chess, over wine. I wished to say to this man: Do you really think you now know our Lucia?
“Thirteen years,” he said. “I have been divorced for thirteen years.” Our mother winced again, though it could’ve been from the pain shooting through her bowels, or her bones, or her chest.
“You are Jewish,” she said. “Jewish are so aggressive. You have children?”
“Two,” he said. “They are with their mother, in Israel.”
At the mention of the other woman, our mother spat. Once, I suppose, she would have wanted to know more, like what did he do, or how old were the children, or what were their names, or did they play musical instruments, and we might have told him that Lucia could recite twenty Chinese poems by the time she was three, or that she was a real talent on the violin, or that she’d suffered a terrible bout of meningitis at age six and nearly died.
“Why are you divorced?” she asked.
“We were married too young,” he said. The skin of his face seemed to hang off his cheekbones. A basset hound, I later said to Lucia.
“This is life,” he said to our mother.
She did not seem quite satisfied with this answer, though she nodded, expelled a heavy sigh. “Take care of my daughter,” she said.
But she was not looking at him. She was looking at me. She fell asleep. Two weeks later, she was gone.
Excerpted from Everything Here Is Beautiful, published by Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Mira T. Lee, 2018.