Academic journal article CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture

Introduction to Voices of Life, Illness and Disabilities in Life Writing and Medical Narratives

Academic journal article CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture

Introduction to Voices of Life, Illness and Disabilities in Life Writing and Medical Narratives

Article excerpt

Life writing is a genre, a critical practice and a kind of narrative that recounts personal or collective experiences (Kadar 5-10). Life writing is a way to represent a life, to portray the self, and to decode an aesthetic of consciousness that involves personal or human values, addressing issues on memories, affect, and cultural aspects of identity formation. Moreover, life writing is a narrative and discourse on the self from social, psychological and biographical perspectives. Recurrent themes in life writing include migration, medical narratives and cultural memories, in which voices of life, illness, suffering, and disabilities not only question a traditional sense of self but also provoke further debates on human values and facets of identity formation. In the field of psychological sciences, life writing also serves as "scriptotherapy" (Henke xi) and "self-spatialization" (Green 50). Whereas the narratives of migration represent affective dimensions of place-making and historiographical contexts, medical narratives provide models for self-reflection, empathy and challenges as related to illness and psychological issues that individuals or communities have confronted. The healing power of self-narrative may help not just to foster self-awareness but also to help traumatized subjects and patients tackle the unspeakable past, interact with physical and emotional changes or modify their identities. Life writing can be accounts about notable figures, lived experiences of obscure individuals and memories of a collective past. Autobiographical works, letters, diaries and memoirs are all forms of self-expression, self-reflection, or self-discovery. Moments of pain, intensities of desire and suffering as well as the ways of living through times of crisis are motifs in literature. Life writing is a broad topic. For this thematic issue, the topics of the articles range from the voices of life, disability, illness, ageing, depression, healing, and recovery to issues such as displacement, fear, masculinity, cultural conflicts, and social construction of illness. Contributors to this issue discuss the voices of health in various genres and related fields in the context of comparative cultural studies.

Descriptions of illness in world history and literature are almost inexhaustible. One of the earliest examples of such a description is the account of the plague in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, which killed nearly one third of the Athenian population (Garza 14). Epidemics such as the plague, tuberculosis and smallpox are used as background and major motifs in many narratives. Boccaccio's Decameron, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Joannes Leo Africanus's Description of Africa and Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year combine medical and migration narratives in the form of diaries, travel writings and correspondence in different periods of literature. Queen Elizabeth had a severe attack of smallpox in 1562 and in a letter to George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, dated 1572, she revealed the malady that her retinue had encountered: "there began to appear certain red spots in some part of our face, likely to prove the smallpox; but thanked be God, contrary to the expectation of our physicians and all others about us, the same so vanished away" (214). Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) wrote about a technique of vaccination from Turkey, and George Washington (1732-1799) expressed his experience of being stricken by smallpox, while Marie Bashkirtseff (1858-1884) and Emily Shore (1819-1839) described their chronic illnesses caused by tuberculosis. Personal observations at hospitals also contribute to quite a few nineteenth century writings. Readers can discover the physical and mental sufferings represented by writers such as Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), Emile Zola (1840-1902), and Franz Kafka (1883-1924). Mary Rowlandson (c. 1637-1711), Mary Jemison (1743-1833) and Sarah Wakefield (1828-1908), who provide in their captivity narratives significant accounts of cross-cultural experience in which Aboriginal people's perspectives toward life. …

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