Friday, May 1, 1998

Q&A Anne Fadiman: Essays & Epic


Originally appeared in The Boston Book Review

Anne Fadiman, author of "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures" (1997), is editor of The American Scholar. Her new book, "Ex Libris", is a compilation of essays she wrote for Civilization Magazine.


I like shorelines, weather fronts, international borders. There are interesting fractions and incongruities in these places, and often, if you stand at the point of tangency, you can see both sides better than if you were in the middle of either one. This is especially true, I think, when the apposition is cultural.
        "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures"

HB: In "Ex Libris" you write: "I was small and compulsive; I was not suited to the epic or to free verse; in work as in life, I was fated to devote myself not to the grand scheme but to the lapidary detail." But you wrote that after you'd already written a rather epic book. How can one trust such a self-assessment after "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down"?

AF: The two were not written one after the other; they were written simultaneously. I wrote the essays in "Ex Libris" for Civilization during my last two years of working on "The Spirit Catches You". So when I wrote the essay you quote, "Spirit" was a pile of pages sitting on my desk, whereas the essays were coming out every two months in Civilization. They were the present me, publicly displayed.

It's true that when I worked for Life Magazine, I wrote plenty of pieces on big depressing subjects -- "Suicide for the Elderly," "A week in the Life of a Homeless Family." But I do feel my approach has always been microcosmic rather than the macroscopic. I wrote "Spirit" not about cross-cultural medicine but about a single epileptic Hmong toddler.