Esmé Weijun Wang‘s novel The Border of Paradise begins in familiar territory and rapidly ventures into the uncharted. It opens with the story of David Nowak, the scion of a prosperous Polish-American family in post-World War II Brooklyn struggling with conflicts familial and internal–but soon the narrative expands to include the stories of others, including his wife Jia-Hui and their children. The plot gradually shifts into bleaker and stranger places, and the result is a novel that pushes past the tropes of traditional stories to arrive at something more unpredictable and revelatory. I spoke with Wang to learn more about the novel’s structure, its evolution over time, and its inventive use of language.
The Border of Paradise is told by a series of narrators over the course of several decades. What made you choose this approach to tell this particular story?
Multiple points-of-view wasn’t how I’d intended to tell the story—I’d initially written a hundred pages in William’s voice, which is now in the book as “The Arrangement.” My first idea was to have him narrate the entire thing, but there were a few problems with that. First: it was impossible to tell the story of how the Nowaks had gotten into their uniquely bizarre situation with William as the narrator; I needed to have either or both of his parents narrate as well. And second, William’s bombastic voice would be, I imagine, hard to swallow as an entire book. So I moved on to writing David’s section, which led to writing Jia-Hui’s section. The structure of the book, in which two alternating voices comprise each part, emerged from that.
The sections narrated by Jia-Hui are presented as translations, and they include multiple languages as well as blank spaces to represent words she was unfamiliar with at the time. How did you work out the number of linguistic layers going on for that portion of the book?
That was a fun challenge. I needed to make sure that the logic behind the linguistic layers held up—some parts are in Chinese characters, some are in pinyin (a romanization of Mandarin Chinese), some are in English or slightly “broken” English, and some are in, as you mentioned, blank spaces. In terms of working out the number of layers, I did my best to choose the linguistic mode that best matched the context and intent behind what was being said; if Jia-Hui (Daisy) was speaking in dialogue with another native Mandarin speaker, I’d include Chinese characters to signify their cultural familiarity with one another; if Jia-Hui was in conversation with her mother-in-law, I’d use blank spaces in her mother-in-law’s dialogue to represent words she was unfamiliar with. On the other hand, when Jia-Hui’s husband David says “gam bei” (a manner of toasting in Mandarin), he’s speaking with almost complete unfamiliarity with the language, and so it’s written in pinyin. Those are a few examples of linguistic layers that emerged fairly naturally as a result of what was happening in the narration.
Your novel begins by reading like a classic multigenerational family saga, and ends up shifting into something very different over the course of the book. Were you seeking to subvert expectations when you began conceiving the novel?
I didn’t set out to, no; I wanted to tell the story of a particular family. The character of David Nowak opens the novel, and even though I never intended for the entire novel to maintain his tone, which Kirkus referred to as Henry Roth-esque, a reader unfamiliar with the book’s structure could be easily fooled into thinking that he goes on to carry the entire book; or, if not David himself (since he’s on the verge of killing himself from the get-go), other narrators who create the collective voice of a classic multigenerational saga.
A large part of what inadvertently causes the sense of subversion, it seems, is the fact that the family is multiracial. Jia-Hui’s narration can’t contribute to a “classic multigenerational family saga” because those kinds of sagas are historically white, and don’t tend to include Taiwanese immigrants. The rest of the story, which becomes increasingly Gothic, leads from there.
The Border of Paradise is set in a number of very specific years, and in some very specific locations, from northern California to post-war Greenpoint. What drew you these particular times and places?
Without getting too much into every time period and location, I will say that I was particularly interested in Polk Valley, which is a fictional amalgam of two towns in Northern California called Grass Valley and Nevada City. This is where, in the book, the Nowaks eventually settle into isolation. I spent much of my adolescence in those towns and was fascinated by the extremes in their populations (poor to wealthy, extremely liberal to extremely right-wing), as well as their unique culture, which comes from the fact that they were major centers of activity during the Gold Rush. These towns preserve their bars to look like saloons. I liked the idea of a family choosing to live in seclusion, far from the closest town–especially if that town was itself a sort of self-imposed isolation.
I found that my opinion of many of the main characters, especially David, constantly shifted as I made my way through The Border of Paradise. Did you encounter something similar as you wrote the book?
I love all the characters. That didn’t change as I wrote the book, even if those characters, such as David, begin to show their uglier sides. It does interest me though, since the book’s come out and I’ve spoken to people who’ve read it, how readers respond to the characters. I think I’ve met at least one person who loves and one person who hates every single major character. One Goodreads review I read stated that the reviewer ended up loathing all of the characters but Sarah–which is hilarious, because Sarah’s a dog.
Did any of the characters change considerably from your original conception of them?
Oh, for sure. But this has more to do with the way I write–I’m a discoverer, not a planner, and so I ended up writing myself down a number of dead ends. An early draft had William as much older and something of a Lothario. Another had Gillian join a cult.
One of the things that impressed me the most was how your novel poses questions of iconoclasm. David’s defiance of tradition and decision to seek his own path early on is admirable; the isolation that his family experiences later in the book is presented as much more unsettling. Did writing this book alter your feelings on social conventions (and defying them) at all?
Writing this book made me think about the iconoclastic decisions that people make–often, or perhaps even usually, they’re made because the person making the choice believes it’s for the best. The book is full of people making various choices out of love, for those they love–unusual choices–that end up in disaster. And I see this all the time with all sorts of things outside of fiction; the first example I thought of was the anti-vaxxer movement, which defies a social agreement, but to a certain cost.
Now that your novel is out in the world, are you working on anything new?
I have an embryonic book idea that I’m excited about–I used to refer to it as “an essay collection about schizophrenia,” but the idea has grown wings and claws and will likely look very different. It’s much too early to say. I’m also working on essays for various things, including for an anthology and a series of columns.