Academic journal article MELUS

Ethnic Outsider as the Ultimate Insider: The Paradox of Verghese's My Own Country

Academic journal article MELUS

Ethnic Outsider as the Ultimate Insider: The Paradox of Verghese's My Own Country

Article excerpt

In 1994, in the midst of the United States' painful and searching engagement with AIDS, Abraham Verghese's first memoir, My Own Country: A Doctor's Story of a Town and Its People in the Age of AIDS, was published. Note that the subtitle of Verghese's memoir calls attention to his occupation but not to his race or ethnicity. In addition, the presentation of material within the memoir is primarily focused on Verghese as doctor and less on Verghese as immigrant from Ethiopia/India, although that strand of narrative is by no means absent. Yet, as this essay argues, Verghese manipulates a central opposition of ethno-racial discourse, "insider" versus "outsider," to complicate our understanding of the relationships between ethno-racial identification on the one hand and power and access on the other. (1) In particular, the essay prompts us to consider the dimensions of social class and religion and their impact on how individuals become ethnicized, marked as "other" by the dominant group (in this case, Christian whites). (2) In his memoir, Verghese moves deftly between portrayals of himself as outsider and insider. This shifting position--in relation both to the other Indian American doctors in the region and to the Southern white community within which he lives--gives him unique access to his patients' deepest confidences. He and the AIDS-afflicted men who become his patients share the condition of being both outsiders and insiders.

Upon the publication of My Own Country, Verghese became a near celebrity, both in medical and literary circles, but, curiously, he remained for several years a virtual unknown among scholars and students of multi-ethnic literature. Verghese, currently working in San Antonio, Texas, is a physician born in Ethiopia to parents who emigrated from India to this African nation as teachers. Verghese received his medical training in Ethiopia, India, and the United States. In this book, he writes about his experiences in the small town of Johnson City, Tennessee, where he found himself quite inadvertently, in the late 1980s, becoming the local AIDS expert. The situation contains all the elements that ought to make for a rich discussion of cross-ethnic and cross-racial encounters: brown-skinned "foreign" doctor in rural Tennessee treating white men dying of AIDS. Yet, even today, almost ten years after the publication of this fine memoir, only a small handful of scholars and educators treat this text for its implications for American ethnic literature, despite the far-reaching impact of the book. (3)

True, My Own Country does not offer an obvious parade of the experiences of a particular ethnic community: there is minimal portrayal of Indian American cultural practices such as food, marriage, religious worship, celebration of festivals, and language use: Verghese does not play informant or cultural guide. His is not the voice of the minority ethnic insider presenting his fellow-ethnics to the dominant majority group (except in a rather cursory way). However, he does not reject his ethnicity as an Indian American; he recounts with fondness his attending Indian American social gatherings. The complexity of his self-positioning--as insider in certain contexts, as outsider in others makes his narrative hard to categorize. To call it an account of an Indian American doctor would be to overemphasize ethnicity: yet to say that it is primarily an account of the experiences of a doctor who happens to be Indian American is also not entirely accurate. Ethnicity may be incidental but it is not insignificant to the narrative.

The excerpt below underscores the complex interplay between insider and outsider perspectives, in this instance as they pertain to the community of Indian American doctors. Notice Verghese's use of the pronoun "they"; here, he carefully differentiates himself from the "foreign" doctors even as he acknowledges that they provided him and his wife with "a familiar and affectionate culture" (23):

   The foreign doctors--with some glaring exceptions--were well
   received. … 
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