Mira T. Lee read a few chapters from her critically acclaimed debut novel, “Everything is Beautiful,” at Brandeis this week. Lee’s book illustrates a young woman’s descent into psychosis from multiple perspectives, including first and third person narration, such as a chapter written from the perspective of a health behavioral psychology ward. The reader sees the woman, Lucia, from the outside for the first third of the novel, beginning to judge her the way outsiders judge mental illness. The reader tries to be patient with her, tries to understand her, but the reader begins to feel like they don’t want to deal with it anymore. That is, until Lee draws the reader into Lucia’s head so that they can see the mental illness from the inside.
Lee said on her motivation for writing the novel, “What I have always been drawn to are questions that have no right or wrong answer…what emerged was this big messy cross-cultural family drama about two sisters and how their lifelong bond has been put to the test as the younger Lucia struggles with a difficult mental illness.” Lee writes from multiple perspectives because she “wanted to take a 360 degree look at mental illness and its ripple effects,” but what her book really ends up being about is “relationships. And family. And how tricky it can be to do right by the people we love most.”
The diverse cast of characters, including Asian Americans, Jewish and Latino men, were consciously written in because Lee said, “it does happen to be my world. My parents were first generation immigrants. I lived abroad, and there definitely have been moments where I’ve felt like everyone around me was some kind of immigrant entangled in some kind of highly unlikely cross-cultural romance.”
Lee reads a chapter from the point of view of a Latino male, saying, “Carlos said, no wonder we get along, Chinos and Latinos, inside we are the same, full of rice.” On her hesitance to write about characters that aren’t from her background, Lee says “[as writers] we have to write what feels true. And secondly, we have to write our characters as individuals. Not as representatives of some group. And we need to explore the full range of our character’s humanities.”
Her novel is mostly drawn from her own experience. “I have seen [mental illness] up close in my own family, and I have seen how scary psychosis can be. I have watched a loved one transform from being the person I’ve known my whole life into someone we would call crazy,” she said.
“I’ve also dealt with hospitals and doctors and social workers and I’ve known the feelings of frustration and powerlessness that so often accompany these illnesses. And the chaos they wreak on families.”
In the book, the author also gets into the head of Lucia, even though she has a mental illness Lee has never had. Lee says she “thought of [Lucia] as being smarter than me, quirkier than me, more perceptive, funnier, more attitude, and [asks herself] how do you write somebody who’s just more than you are? It’s hard, and I really had to stretch myself to do it. But again, I knew that in order to tell the story truthfully, I had to tell all sides.” Exemplifying Lucia’s unique voice, Lee reads from Lucia, “The first thing I noticed about Manny, the mole on his left cheek. A perfect circle, the size of a dime, and smack middle like a doorbell.”
Lee said that “More than anything I wanted [Lucia] to have agency. And she was going to do everything in her power not to be defined by her illness. I wanted this to be a book about her life.”
Her character Lucia writes, “When Esperanza was born, a pair of serpents lived inside my head. Her job was to warn me of the dangers of motherhood, which boiled down to this; if you touch your baby, she will die.” The reader sees how Lucia’s illness and her truth battle in her inner turmoil. Read from the perspective of Lucia, “so I wore thin cotton socks over my hands, dressed my baby in layers, cocooned her in blankets, avoided her skin coming into contact with mine. If I did as I was told, I hoped they might spare her. But, it was hard to be a good mother like that.”
Lee’s characters all really try to do the right thing. She says, “The commonality among human beings is emotion, and the only way we can bridge our vast discrepancies in experience is through what we feel. Let us be humbled in the knowledge that one may never fully understand the interior lives of others. But let us continue to care.”