Author shares stories that motivated her debut novel
Author Mira T. Lee stood behind Harlan Chapel’s granite lectern, reading passages from her debut novel, “Everything is Beautiful.” Last Tuesday night, Brandeis faculty, staff and students listened to Lee share the ways her personal experiences growing up in immigrant communities and with family members suffering from schizophrenia influenced her novel. The organizers of the event placed two lamps near the front of the chapel but kept the main lights off, leaving audience members in dim lighting.
“Everything Here is Beautiful” was chosen as a “Top Winter” or “Top 2018” pick by more than 30 news outlets, according to the event description. Lee’s website notes that her short fiction has appeared in numerous national journals and that she received the Artist’s Fellowship from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
Prof. Stephen McCauley (ENG), co-director of the University’s Creative Writing program, opened the event. He said Lee’s book deals with “issues of mental health in a sensitive and poignant way.” Because one of the book’s central themes is mental health, McCauley invited Joy von Steiger, director of the Brandeis Counseling Center, to speak about University counseling resources. In addition to listing the BCC’s hours, von Steiger shared her belief that “Brandeis is filled with people who care deeply about their peers,” explaining that Brandeis students can and do support those around them.
Prof. Michelle Hoover (ENG), Brandeis’ Fannie Hurst Visiting Writer and a personal friend of Lee, expanded on McCauley’s introduction. Hoover said “Everything Here is Beautiful” highlights how society often treats mental illness.
“I found that we kind of begin to judge [the main character] the way outsiders judge mental illness,” Hoover said. Regarding the issue of mental health, as well as other aspects of the story like immigrant experiences, “we see from the outside and then [Lee] forces us to go inside.”
Lee described “Everything Here is Beautiful” as a “big messy, cross-cultural drama about two sisters and how their life-long bond is put to the test as the younger, Lucia, struggles with a mental illness.” She explained that the driving force behind her novel was making her characters grapple with moral dilemmas and exploring “those murky kind of situations that make us cringe because good people are in conflict with one another even though no one is at fault.”
She also shared that although she originally wanted to “take a 360 degree look at mental illness and its ripple effects,” the novel evolved to focusing on relationships and “how tricky it can be to do right by the people you love most.”
Lee broadens the perspective of the reader by using several narrative voices, including third person accounts from a hospital ward. During the reading, Lee read excerpts from the perspective of Miranda, the elder sister, Manny, Lucia’s second husband and father of her daughter, and Lucia herself.
Lee paused between excerpts to share insights about her thoughts and struggles from during the writing process. She told the audience that she believes writers “need to explore the full range of our characters’ humanities.” For Lee, this led her to write a book that is not “the typical Asian-American story and certainly not everyone’s version of America. But it’s mine.”
Lee took the time to share her own experience with schizophrenia with the audience, describing a time she watched a family member become convinced that secret messages were being transmitted through the microwave.
Lee explained that early drafts did not focus on Lucia’s mental illness. She began to consider weaving Lucia’s mental illness throughout the entire story after one of her early readers, a biology professor, commented that Lucia’s illness would make her story stand out.
Lee ended her reading with words about empathy that she included in the epigraph at the front of her book. She read, “Because the commonality among human beings is emotion and the only way we can bridge our vast discrepancies and 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.”