Saturday, December 7, 2013

Healing through stories?

Image from William Carlos Williams site. "The poem springs from the half spoken words of the patient," says the plaque. This great American poet was a physician.

In our time, interesting parallels connect the works of three doctor novelists. Dr. Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul and spent his boyhood in Afghanistan. The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns portray courage in the face of suffering by Afghan people over the past thirty years of war and occupation.

Dr. Vincent Lam is descended from ethnic Chinese who lived through the Vietnam war. His recent novel, The Headmaster's Wager, is set at the time of the Tet Offensive. In writing it, he drew from the real life experience of his grandfather, who had left China for Vietnam long before the war broke out.

Dr. Daniel Kalla has written two connected novels about Jews fleeing Europe for Japanese-occupied Shanghai after Europeans turned against them on Kristallnacht, just before WWII. His novel The Far Side of the Sky came out in 2011 and was followed this year by Rising Sun, Falling Shadow. Both were published by HarperCollins.

All three of these doctor novelists portray the pain of people who have been displaced and whose lives have been made chaotic by war. All three also deal with themes of feudal culture, as well as ethnic identity and the damage done by xenophobic bias.

The three men's medical careers have followed different tracks, however. Hosseini used to get up at 4:30 to write, and then go to work at his medical practice. However, as he explained to Marsha Lederman in his recent Vancouver appearance, he stopped practicing medicine once his storytelling career was launched. When his patients began to talk more about his novels than about their medical conditions, he thought it was time to turn his full attention to his first calling: healing through stories.

Lam, on the other hand, has kept his day job as an emergency physician in a Toronto hospital, and also does some teaching at the U of T. In a reading from The Headmaster's Wager at the Surrey Central Library in the summer, he explained that he loves both jobs but keeps them separate. On the days he treats patients, he does not write, and conversely, when he does write, he devotes entire days exclusively to that pursuit.

Kalla, who heads the emergency team at a downtown Vancouver hospital, also continues to practice medicine and write. Like Lam (Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, 2006, made into a film series),  he was inspired to write by the 2003 SARS crisis, in Kalla's case a thriller called Pandemic. He is also an assistant clinical professor at UBC, his medical alma mater. He devotes time to public speaking on various topics too.

Clearly, at least for these three writers, there is some sort of connection between stories and healing.

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