Mira T. Lee’s debut novel, EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL, is a complex and engrossing cross-cultural family drama that tackles big issues: in addition to themes of immigration, identity, and parenthood, it takes a 360-degree look at mental illness. The story follows the life of Lucia, a vibrant young Chinese-American woman with schizophrenia, as well as the lives of Lucia’s protective older sister, her Swiss doctor husband, a charismatic Israeli shopkeeper, and the young, undocumented Ecuadorian immigrant who fathers Lucia’s child.
The author was gracious to participate in a Q&A with me.
Q: Your novel deals with what it’s like to have a mental illness, as well as what it’s like to love someone with a mental illness. Why this approach?
A: An illness like schizophrenia affects everyone in its wake. In recent years, we’ve seen more and more narratives about these illnesses, but they are usually memoirs told from one person’s point of view, and most often in the context of white, middle-class families. I wanted to portray mental illness from several different perspectives, and to place the illness squarely in the context of people’s lives. Lives are chaotic and messy, and I wanted to explore the conflicts these illnesses can amplify in families – in this case, a cobbled-together, unconventional family of immigrants from diverse ethnic/cultural backgrounds, but a family that is trying its hardest to love each other nonetheless.
Q: Have you had personal experience with mental illness?
A: Yes, I’ve seen members of my own family struggle with this illness. I’ve seen psychotic episodes up close, those breaks from reality where people may become convinced the TV is sending them secret messages, or the FBI has planted a bug in their head. It sounds silly, almost, but when it’s someone you love, and they can’t be swayed, and you’re watching them transform before your eyes into someone you don’t understand anymore — it feels both terrifying and incomprehensible. It can also be extremely difficult to know what to do – if your loved one lacks insight (the clinical term is “anosognosia”) and doesn’t acknowledge that they’re ill, it’s almost impossible to find help for them.
I’ve also dealt with the mental health care system, and am familiar with how frustrating it can be to finally get your loved one to a hospital, only to have them turned away because they’re not “an imminent danger.” So often, in dealing with these illnesses, family members end up feeling powerless and paralyzed.
Q: Lucia, the protagonist, is a fascinating character. She’s radiant, impulsive, quirky, yearning. What was writing her character like?
A: Lucia was tricky to write – yes, she has an illness, which surfaces from time to time, but she’s also still so much herself, brilliant and perceptive and full of dreams and passions. I wanted readers to relate to her as a modern woman – someone yearning for love, family, career, a sense of belonging – and to also learn something about her illness, and be able to sympathize. But at the same time her illness could not entirely let her off the hook for her actions and choices. She had to be a nuanced, fully three-dimensional character, with both strengths and flaws. And the reader would have to decide for themselves what they might’ve done in her position, or in the position of one of her family members. That was my goal for her, and the book – to have readers disagree over what each character should’ve done.
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
A: I hope they’ll gain a sense of the issues surrounding schizophrenia, which is perhaps still the most severe and stigmatized of all the mental illnesses, but one deserving of just as much compassion. We shouldn’t need celebrities to tell us it’s okay to struggle before we accept that as the truth. I also hope people see that these illnesses are only one component of a person’s life, and can relate to the humanity at the core of each of my many characters – as sisters, mothers, husbands, lovers, as modern women, as flawed human beings who yearn for love and belonging. Finding empathy for people in situations unlike our own – I think that’s a hugely important reason to read fiction.