Tag Archives: Stitches

A Summer Reading List

A friend asked for suggestions for a booklist, so I figured I’d craft one here. This particular list focuses on historically contextualized texts and artistic representations.

Books for History of Medicine Enthusiasts:

1. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee

A comprehensive documentation of Cancer’s transformation over the years. Mukherjee skillfully weaves the narratives of patients, physicians, and researchers with the political, social, and scientific evolution of the disease.

2. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

A canonical work about the famous HeLa cells. Skloot digs deeper into the woman behind these immortal cervical cancer cells: Henrietta Lacks, who never knew that her cells were taken, grown, and sold without her consent. This book explores the racial inequities of health care in the US, and tells the story of the Lacks family and how they have been impacted by this experience.

3. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman

Another canonical book in Medical Anthropology, one that provides a more cultural spin on health disparities. Fadiman tells the story of Lia Lee, a Hmong child in California, whose severe epilepsy illuminates the cultural clashes between her Hmong family and Western doctors.

4. Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese

A gripping piece of fiction that follows the story of the Stone family over the years. With a cultural backdrop of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and a focus on the art of surgery,the reader is immersed into a different realm of medicine. 

Books for Art of Medicine Enthusiasts:

5. Stitches, David Small

A potent graphic novel set in Detroit about how cancer physically stripped Small of his voice and its psychological effects. As a talented artist himself, Small uses imagery to fill in the spaces where language falls short.

6. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (literature and film)

These works coupled together provide a good portrayal of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s experience with full body paralysis. I suggest reading the book before viewing the film to approach the viewing experience with a more authentic perspective.

Happy reading!

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Healing Wounds in David Small’s Stitches

After attending the Tell Me A Story Symposium last week that highlighted the powerful place of illustrations in storytelling, I was able to take a step back and approach David Small’s graphic novel Stitches with a more open mind. In this memoir, Small takes the reader leaping from memory to memory. He introduces his nuclear family, which consists of an overbearing to the point of violent father, a stern but silent mother, and a drumming brother. From the story’s beginning at six years of age, there is something off about Small, and his father aims to rectify his son’s character. Small recalls spending time with his abusive grandmother and the traumatizing experiences he endured both physically and mentally. Flash forward: eleven years of age. Small’s growth is discovered, but the family responds in denial and neglect. His mother initially fears the doctor’s bills more than the growth itself, and the doctor’s reassurance that it is no cause for alarm allows it to fall lower and lower on the family’s priorities. Finally, Small has not one but two surgeries; while he entered the hospital with a additional growth on his neck, he emerges with a vacancy of vocal cords replaced by nothing but stitches. Confused, Small eventually discovers that his condition had a name: cancer. His parents had chosen to keep the identity of his illness confidential from him.

Although Small’s stitches may remain in tact, his wounds reside much deeper than the surface of the skin. His life begins to unravel until a therapist, the white rabbit, opens up a space for communication that provides him with relief and allows him to address the inherent tensions with his family. As Small improves mentally, these tensions begin to take their toll on the family as his grandmother is sent to an asylum and he encounters his mother engaging in a lesbian act.  His father pulls him aside, finally admitting that Small’s cancer was a result of his own father’s radiation experimentation in his childhood. At sixteen Small is out making a name for himself as an artist, when a call informs him that his mother is dying. He visits her on her death bed, powerfully resting his hand on hers as a sign of peace.

As the first illness narrative that I have encountered in the form of a graphic novel, I found the illustrations to be particularly gripping. Not only did they really bring to life Small’s tale, especially since he hints at his artistic aspirations in the story, but also because images hold a different kind of power than words. Small’s depiction of his voiceless life was intriguing. I was also fascinated by the intertextuality of the Alice in Wonderland story and the White Rabbit’s guest appearance as a therapist. By coupling powerful language with jarring imagery, Small achieves an evocative graphic novel memoir that moves readers beyond typical limits.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What did the genre of graphic novel bring to this illness narrative?
  2. How might the genre of graphic novel affect the audience of this tale? Under what circumstances might this be a more effective medium than other genres?
  3. What were some moments when images resonated and were more powerful than their linguistic counterparts may have been?

 

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Filed under Independent Study, Literary Narratives, Visualizing Illness