The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

Yes it did.

Happy New Year to you all! May your survival game be stronger this year!

Anne Fadiman’s novel, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, was the last book I read in 2016. I found it at a thrift store near my university for less than a dollar fifty, still in great condition. At first reading it seemed like giving myself extra course work because it wasn’t hard to imagine this book being assigned to students. But I’m genuinely interested in learning about different cultures, reading sociological and anthropological narratives,and the book had such an appealing price

What actually won me over was “A Hmong Child” printed on the book’s cover. In all my life I had never consolidated the word Hmong in my head. It was a ridiculous realization and eradicated any hesitation to read this book. The other fascinating thing is that it combined Medicine and Cultural Studies and so I was extra certain this book was going to be a learning experience.

IMG_7785.jpg
My copy of the novel/ me planing out this blog post

Essentially, the book narrates the struggles the Lee family faces when they migrate to Merced, America, where their beloved child Lia falls sick. The struggles and the conflicts that come after make you sympathetic and frustrated. Additionally, the author smoothly integrates Hmong historical and cultural context (reading this novel was way more efficient than scrambling on the internet) that provides further understanding of their rituals, beliefs, migratory pushes, just to name a few.

I recall feeling a wide range of emotions with this novel. For one, frustration, especially at instances when the doctors would talk to Lia’s parents without a translator, when the Hmong Parenting style explained in the book was deemed abusive by the dominant culture, and the general sense of how the Americans reacted to the Hmong immigrants (what I read didn’t surprise me). Honestly, I feel that America would be the one who has a fit every time a new person sits at the lunch table, especially after reading the list of foreign settlers in the Central Valley and how each had difficulties settling down.

To be honest, the rumors The Hmong and Americans spread about each other were amusing, I rolled my eyes when reading the “Dumb Hmong Stories” (page 226), and was mortified when reading the acts of violence against the Hmong instigated by welfare. Only to be surprised with this:

Although on the battlefield the Hmong were known more for their fierceness than for their *long livers, in the United States many were too proud to lower themselves to the level of the petty criminals they encountered, or even to admit they had been victims – page 193

(Long Livers referring to the Hmong saying “Ua siab ntev” that describes one being patient and enduring suffering and wrong doings)

The author acknowledges the pressure on the receiving side but how does being hostile help? Do you just dub it human nature? How do you expect them to find jobs when the skills they have and value doesn’t align with paid jobs? However, the Hmong do settle down (I say this loosely) and try to get use to the system with help of clan members and brilliantly thought out loop holes.

Another point this book pushes forward is the lack of cross-cultural understanding within Western medicine. The conflict and the tension between the doctors and Hmong patients exemplify this: The cases Anne Fadiman provides in chapter 18 and ,an unforgettable moment for me, the chapter “Code X”, when Lia responds to the traditional medicine despite prior events. I found myself relieved, whispering that it was a miracle.

But now, I feel uneasy calling it a miracle.

Around this point in time, Lia’s health deteriorated so much that any mistake could cost her life and then her father, Nao Kao, springs into action, and I’m just there confused whether to root for him or not because of the fragile disposition of his daughter. Despite it all, Lia is alive by the end of the chapter.

On the surface, it seems miraculous but what holds me back is that labeling this miraculous seemingly strips away the legitimacy of the traditional medicine. In other words, that the herbs the parents use seem to become this fantastical element rather than genuine medicine. Excuse me, I may be over-analyzing but think about it whenever you read about someone drinking a homemade remedy and they claim to feel better – doesn’t your mind automatically label it as a miracle rather than medicine?

Which brings me to my issue with the dominant nature of Western Medicine. I’m in no way criticizing it’s advances in Medicine but the rhetoric it seems to carry is that there isn’t much space for legitimizing other forms of healing, i.e. the Hmong practices. This is a fairly recent secret opinion but I felt kind of reassured when I spoke to my professor when we were discussing the memoir Paper Sons and Daughters by Ufreida Ho, inspired by the author calling her grandmother’s remedies “hocus pocus”. The main idea of that conversation was the act of healing the body stems from centuries ago and from many cultures, but only Western Medicine seems to get the credit and everything else is labelled “hocus pocus”.

I feel I need to say this, I’m in no way saying you should drink green tea if your arm is cut off either. Because another thing The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down presents is the belief system that comes with their healing processes. Not a sliver of doubt is presented among The Hmong when they use their own medicine and I think that adds to my fascination with belief. Moreover, there is also compromise.Towards the end of the book, Anne Fadiman dedicates pages to initiatives that promote a more cross-cultural and compromising perspective for Medicine which is optimistic since this book  was published in 1997.

However, the one thing I didn’t really grasp was why the author ended it with the “Sacrifice” chapter. It was a very ambiguous ending. I’d like to believe that the ceremony helped Lia. What confuses me is that the author had been indirectly building up on how legitimate the Hmong healing methods were but ends the novel on a note that gives a contradictory impression.

I think this book is well-written, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in cultures or loves learning in general. To borrow the title and to expand on what I meant by “Yes it did”, It took me roughly six months to read this book .Blame my packed semester and my lack of time management. Despite that, I’m proud of myself for not giving up on it.

I’m currently reading Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.

I hope this year will not leave me or you crawling out of it by December

Happy New Year!

-MS-

The Time Traveler’s Wife

When I think of time travel, I sigh because there are a couple of things I would have done differently. Perhaps I would have even gone back to see how my parent’s first date really went because their stories don’t match.

I like to believe that most people love the idea of having the chance to re-do their past mistakes because no matter how hard we try to forget, some come back in different manifestations to haunt us. But I think the romanticization of time traveling dwindles the more you watch or read works that revolve around it. For example: Steins Gate, BBC’s Doctor Who, all time favorite Back to the Future, and many more.

It’s obvious that time travel is central to this novel but what sets Audrey Niffenegger’s novel from all those works is that she brings this grand theme close to home. Her story isn’t profoundly science fiction and doesn’t revolve around great adventures or the end of the world due to the butterfly effect but rather creates a narrative that makes time travel more tangible  with a balanced blend of science, art, and normality. Niffenegger’s form of time travel is also unique because she uses biology to explain how our main character can go back in time. Don’t worry, if you’ve done high school biology you’ll be fine. If you have no background knowledge on the natural science then google is your friend.

IMG_3625

The way she arranges the events needed a few minutes to adjust to. However, the more I talk to people about the book, the more I realize the adjustment period varies. Even if it takes you a couple of hours, you’ll eventually adapt to the shifts in time period. Don’t let it discourage you!

Our main couple meet for the first time in a peculiar way – the kind of way I think most people don’t want to meet anyone for the first time. If you read the book, you’ll know why her form of time travel always left Henry in awkward situations. Henry, our time traveler, is passionate about art, literature, and can’t handle stress at all. Clare, our artist, smart, talented, and strong. Both love each other very much – physically and emotionally.

Niffenegger provides both protagonist perspectives, reflected in the change of tone and style of writing. Frankly I enjoyed Henry’s parts more; the words flowed more and there were so many times I genuinely laughed. Love and loss are very strong themes in this story. Not only because it is a love story between Claire and Henry but other forms of love are explored – familial love and unrequited love. A pair also engage in a parasitic relationship – is that still called love?

Specific to familial love, parents are not perfect beings and sometimes you have to reach a certain level of maturity and empathy to see that they actually do love you. Often, you gotta peel of the layers of their actions to hear those three words.  It’s rarely said in my household but actions speak louder than words. Claire and her mother’s relationship exemplify this and I believe the quote below supports my point nicely:

(From Henry’s perspective and Lucille is Claire’s mother)

“…satisfied, for a moment, that her mother really did love her. I think about my mother singing lieder after lunch on a summer afternoon…She loved me. I never questioned her love. Lucille was changeable as wind. The poem Clare holds is evidence, immutable, undeniable, a snapshot of an emotion.” – The Time Traveler’s Wife

For the theme loss, I think of all the things Henry misses out on and the two chapters, Baby Dreams and Feet Dreams. If you find yourself skimming through the pages both these chapters will recapture your focus. The disrupted flow of the story gives space to exploring the heaviness of the events that take place to inspire these dreams. I can’t recall  ever reading such detailed writing of dreams, filled with symbolism and reflecting one the most distressful times for our characters. It’s been a while since I finished reading the book and there is a passage in Baby Dreams that comes to mind as an image that I would like to paint someday.

When I just started reading, there were a lot of times where I questioned the title since Henry possessed the ability. Why pay homage to Claire? I think it is a way to always remember her. Time Travel is such a overwhelming theme that it’s easy to forget those who don’t possess the ability. Moreover, how many can really stay with a being that can disappear at any moment. It also makes you wonder what kind of person would marry a time traveler. According to Niffenegger, it’s Claire. However, she certainly doesn’t match everyone’s “Time Traveler’s Wife” criteria but it’s a conversation starter.

Rather than turning into a story filled with adventure, you witness the unfolding of these two characters relationship – from when they meet till old age. On the surface, Time Traveling appears to be gift but the price to pay outweighs it and Niffeneger brilliantly lays it out as we read. The loss, the pain,the loneliness but at the same time a lot of love comes out of it.

It was a bittersweet adventure with this book.

-SB-

 

Quote Boat: The Time Traveler’s Wife

I’m about halfway through The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and a couple of days ago I came across the following quote

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 8.00.56 PM

Context: Claire’s grandma finds out about Henry and tries to caution Claire about the potential life she will live with him.


 

It instantly got me thinking about mothers in fairy tales. Since I only remember these stories vaguely, I could only come up with a generalization: Rarely, do mothers take an active role in fairy tales.

I say rarely because I am presently unaware of any fairy tale that contradicts this. For all I know, there could be a few that contradict my generalization.

I couldn’t shake it off. I wanted to know more. I was confident that I would find an article or a blog post exploring this theme.

I found an article on the website, For Book’s Sake and it provided a nice over view of the different females and their roles in fairy tales. Specifically on Mothers:

Mothers are never protagonists. Goldilocks, Jack and Red Riding Hood have mamas who embody a child’s-eye view of a parent – the big someone who tells you to do the right thing, a straw doll; set up to be gleefully smashed down.“-Vanessa Woolf-Hoyle

This other blogpost I read seems to justify how Mother’s are presented in fairy tales. That, in order for the protagonist to grow they need to, more or less, go out into the world. And of course a caring mother wouldn’t want her child to be doing something potentially dangerous.

Although it makes sense, that kind of perspective paints a general picture that Mothers are more of an obstacle than a person/ character who can potentially function in various ways in a story. And perhaps it varies from culture to culture. The fairy tales I grew up with (and I feel are more widespread) are predominantly Western.

I’m pretty sure more critical writing has been done on this subject. Something I’ll be looking into in the future.

What do you think?

-M-