Ugh, I'm pretty sure Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
is the best non-fiction (the most interesting, most difficult, most gutting, most enraging) I've read all year. I want to buy dozens of copies and distribute them liberally at work, to everyone I know who works cross-culturally, and to all those otherwise intelligent people (e.g. my own extended family) who like to complain about "those dole-bludging refugees." It's framed by a nuanced, beautifully empathetic account of the medical case of Lia Lee, an epileptic Hmong child who suffered a grand mal seizure at the age of four that left her in a persistent vegetative state (the news that she died this year at the age of 30
was what alerted me to the book's existence), but it's about so much more: it's about the clash of traditional beliefs and Western biomedicine; individual and institutional racism and paternalism; bodily autonomy and the rights of the child; the US's proxy war in Laos and its devastating consequences for an entire ethnic group; the erosion of freedom, identity and hope due to inescapable welfare dependence; and assimilation, multiculturalism, ethnic identity. (There are strong parallels to the Vietnamese experiences documented in SBS's Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta
, which I'm guessing isn't viewable outside Australia.) It's a hard book to read-- not because of the way it's written, which is lovely-- but because it's just so emotionally draining. I cried more than once while reading, and at one point had to run to the kacang's cot to scoop her up and reassure myself that she hadn't, you know, died while I wasn't looking, and was probably unlikely to find herself orphaned and starving to death in a landmine-filled jungle warzone.( Details )
Oh man, if I were to try and discuss every element of this book I found fascinating or thought-provoking or saddening or enraging, I'd produce a masters-length thesis. I've dog-eared practically every third page for further contemplation. Highly, highly recommended.
Bonus poll of curiosity:
Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 27
Is dog-earing a library book okay?