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.


HB: Letting narrative convey it all is a better way to do it, don't you think?

AF: It's the only way I can. Even those articles for life tackle single examples, then back away to look at the larger issue.

I find I'm doing the same thing with The American Scholar. I have a column there called "At Large and at Small," so I have a choice of being either large or small. So far I've chosen to be small more often, partly because so many other writers at The Scholar, are large. I feel it's more appropriate, as editor, to stay a little bit in the background. And I am unable to see large issues unless I can get there through small individual cases. Maybe it's an essential women's need to get at the big through the small.

And writing "The Spirit Catches You" was exciting but incredibly strenuous, unfamiliar and sad. The culture of medicine and the culture of Hmong were both so difficult that my head would ache. So I'd take two weeks out of every eight and write a little essay, about 1,800 words, no reporting, just about me, my family and my friends. It was like being in the Peace Corps in some exciting but difficult country and coming home for two weeks out of every eight. I had to make those essays small, familiar, and cozy, otherwise they wouldn't have allowed me to recover from the bigger book.

HB: There's something useful about doing occasional writing, with a clear deadline and a well-defined audience, while doing a larger project.

AF: Yes. I'd been working on "Spirit" for so many years I'd begun to forget I'd ever been a writer who would actually publish. The sense of contacting and being contacted by readers was important to me. And these essays were easy. I was never blocked writing them.

Writing "Spirit" was like climbing a high mountain where you get a view you could never get at home but you also get hypothermia and altitude sickness. Writing "Ex Libris" was like coming home shivering from that mountain and snuggling up in a cozy armchair with your grandmother's afghan and a book.

HB: You convey a great deal of context and information by way of the narrative in "Spirit".

AF: I deliberately didn't read anthropology while I working on it. I wanted to have no models for the book except Hmong folk tales, which are structured in a nonlinear fashion. They tend to tell the story and then digress for a while, and you wonder where the hell the digression is going. Then, at the end, all of the threads are miraculously tied up, and you find the digression helped you understand the main point.

HB: "The Spirit Catches You" does adhere to a chronological structure.

AF: Yes, and departs from it. The odd numbered chapters are about Lia Lee, and the even numbered chapters are background material, with background material defined as whatever either side didn't know that would have helped them deal with the other side. It was what the Hmong didn't know about their doctors' perceptions of them, and what the doctors didn't know about Hmong culture.

HB: So you had a sense of that alternating structure at the outset.

AF: I had used that technique in some of my pieces for Life. It has to do with my being interested, perhaps in a dilettantish way, in many things, but not having a mind capacious enough to be able to focus on more than one simultaneously. Other writers are very good at drawing background material into the main narrative. Along with a sentence about the main character, there'll be background right in the same paragraph. I have a hard time doing that. I like to focus on task A, complete it, then focus fully on task B.

I need to present the material sequentially rather than simultaneously. So I would talk about my main character, completely stop, provide background material, completely stop, then go back to my main character. As soon as I started work on "Spirit" it seemed obvious that the reason fate had made me muck around with such structures in my reporting was that I was in training for this book. The technique was tailor-made for "Spirit." It allowed me very early on to create an outline that was remarkably close to what the finished book ended up being.

"Spirit" was so big. I had file cabinets full of stuff, folders full of material on Hmong music or the war in Laos or medical terms, neurology, epilepsy treatment. I would have been buried under the mountain of material had I not been able to break it down into bite-sized portions. I didn't meet Lia until she was in a vegetative state, and in that sense "Spirit" was like writing a biography of someone who is dead. Yet she has affected my life profoundly, and I feel I know her deeply though we've never been able to speak. I had so much material on her from hundreds of hours with her family, her social worker, the doctors, and thousands of pages of her medical and social work records, that the only way I could break the stuff down was to type everything -- hundreds and hundreds of pages -- into my computer and rearrange it all by theme. There were a series of huge notebooks divided into about fifty different phases of Lia's life. So, for example, there'd be a whole category called, "Getting an IV into Lia". When I needed to write one paragraph about getting an IV into Lia, everything about it was already pre-assembled.

HB: That was your data base.

AF: That was my database, and I had to organize it thematically before I could start writing because my momentum in writing gets ruined when I have to look up too many things in the middle of a sentence. It took me much much longer to create those notebooks than it did to write the book. Writing the book was easy by comparison.

HB: In computer science there's the maxim that the more sophisticated the data structure, the simpler the code.

AF: That's a great metaphor.

HB: You had a very good data structure so the code could be relatively straightforward.

AF: The code was easy. If you can't access the data you gather, what use is it? Sometimes people do wonderful research but their book doesn't have an exciting, syncretizing feel because you know they got one page entirely from a single source. In "Spirit" there might be fifty sources gathered on one page. I didn't have to occupy any neural space with remembrance because I knew that my folders would remember it for me.

HB: It seems that the computer was crucial. One of the things that stands out in "Ex Libris" is how open you are to technology, unlike other writers who focus on the experience of reading.

AF: I could not have done "Spirit" without the computer. I would have done something, but it wouldn't have been that book, and it would have been less good.

When I look at passages of "Spirit" written before using a computer, some were perhaps better written because I wrote more slowly. However, structurally they were not as good as what I wrote with the computer. The very prospect of scissoring a manuscript, reassembling it, and, if that didn't work, putting it back together again, was so exhausting that it generated an unconscious barrier against the thought of radical restructuring. The computer gave me the ability not only to move blocks of text around and put them back if I wanted to, but to easily save successive drafts. That enabled me to be much more daring with form than I had been previously. The ability to revise makes me likely to go through more revision.

I like to write on the computer but I don't like to read on it. I don't think the book is going to be replaced by CD ROM. For me, reading is a tactile experience. "Ex Libris" is so much about the sensory experience of reading, about holding a book, the differences between old and new books, the differences between clean books and books smudged with fingerprints and full of marginalia, the smell of books, the look of books on the bookcases you've had for years. So there my endorsement of electronic media switches to a halt.

HB: People say that because writers now use computers we won't have access to original manuscripts and versions. On the other hand, we might have access to the data structures a writer uses. Writers might make their personal way of organizing material available to the public.

AF: It could be interesting. I like to take things that are extremely disparate and pull them together. The World Wide Web being structured like a web -- what a Hmong-like idea -- is ideally suited to that. One thing I do as an editor of The American Scholar is put things next to each other that never would have been next to each other before, and that's exactly how I write.

HB: What kept you going with "Spirit" for eight years?

AF: It started off as a New Yorker piece but then Bob Gottleib, who assigned it, was fired, and Tina Brown was not interested in a three-part series on the Hmong. So I had a hundred page manuscript on my desk, too long to run in any other magazine and too short to be a book. It sat there for more than a year while I tried to decide what to do with it. I wasn't certain I was able to dive back in. But after a period of looking at that file on my desk every day, I realized I couldn't let it go to waste. I was too deeply cathected to the material, too deeply involved with both the Lees and Neil and Peggy to have taken their time for nothing. My time in the Hmong community and in the medical community had changed my life. I realized I would be doing an amputation on myself if I never finished the project. So after it had sat for about a year and a half, I sent it to Farrar, Straus and Giroux and heard back from Jonathan Gelassi almost immediately.

HB: You said "Spirit" changed your life. How?

AF: It affected me most of all in my own mothering. I had never spent as much time in a family with small children as I had with the Lees. When I first met them I didn't have children of my own, and wasn't married. Foua picked up her children, never just let them cry, and they did not turn out to be spoiled. So I learned a lot about the kind of mother I wanted to be from Foua.

And seeing the medical system from the Hmong point of view changed my view of doctors. I became less tolerant of the chilly, sterile, surgical techno-wizard than I had been before. And there was a third effect. I was raised as the ultimate rationalist, a splitter rather than a lumper, that is, someone who parsed reality by making distinctions rather than making connections. I think that still is the kind of person I am at bottom. But spending so much time with the Hmong who are the ultimate lumpers, who understand reality by making connections rather than distinctions, had an absolutely huge effect on me. I saw how rich that mode could be. The Hmong world view had been extraordinarily effective in helping them deal with the ordeals they had encountered in their history and continue to encounter in the United States.

Hmong social structure has that lumping mode. The group is more important than the individual. This means idiosyncratic individuals sometimes have a hard time but it also means that no Hmong would ever let another Hmong starve. And the Hmong didn't divide science and religion into two categories. Medicine wasn't off in some corner divorced from spiritual life. That chipped away at some of my hard edged rationalism.

HB: There are few villains in "Spirit".

AF: That wasn't just my narrative choice. It was the luck of the draw. The Lees happened to be exceptionally nice people. Neil and Peggy, the doctors, happened to be exceptionally nice people. The book ended up being more interesting because I had two sets of well-intentioned, intelligent and compassionate people. Both sides made severe errors and Lia ended up caught in the middle.

HB: "Spirit" courts dislocation and liminality. Once again, "Ex Libris" is the opposite.

AF: "Ex Libris" was a form of coming home. The period of literature with which I am most at home is nineteenth century British, and most of the examples in "Ex Libris" come from the period. "Ex Libris" a book about being at home with books.

HB: About being snug.

AF: Very very snug. However, the book was not without emotional risk. My father was an essayist, and it took a while to get the confidence to write personal essays because I knew I'd never be as good as he was. So though the essays seem very safe and familiar, the very genre was frightening to me -- and gave me nothing to fall back on other than my own life. I'm at the core of the essays, and I wasn't sure I was an interesting enough character to sustain them. I had no doubts about epileptic Hmong toddlers in a vegetative state. I had less confidence about myself.

HB: Will the essays you write for The American Scholar be in that mode?

AF: I wanted a wider purview for The American Scholar, particularly because so many of the other people who write for it write about literary topics. This column allows me to write about anything I'm interested in, which is both a frighteningly large prospect and a liberating one. I write my essay after the rest of the issue is put to bed, and usually pick my topic based on the mix of the rest of the issue. The autumn issue was quite heavy so I chose the lightest topic I've been thinking about, ice cream.

And I was exhausted by writing my two books, and very happy to become mostly an editor working with other writers, many of whom are much better writers than I am. When my children are older and my husband finishes his next book, which he's now working on, there may be another book.

HB: What do you want The American Scholar to be?

AF: Essays. I want this to be the most open and comfortable home for the essay it could possibly be. I want it to be a place where the best writers in America know they can write on weird, untimely topics at whatever length they want to write.

HB: You start "Ex Libris" by quoting a novelist who, as a child, was so thoroughly absorbed in reading that to stop reading was to "wake out of the book," Do kids read like that any more?

AF: My daughter does. Susanna completely enters the world of the book and has to be awakened from it. The big thing in our family is how to get her to stop reading at the dinner table, and whether, indeed, we should. If she's reading a Narnia book and is, say, ten pages from the end, I know the pull of that book is much stronger and much more important than chicken and mash potatoes could ever be.

HB: Do you still read at that depth?

AF: No. I don't think anyone can but children. The reason I wrote so often about my childhood in "Ex Libris" is to recall that sense of being lost in a book. "Ex Libris" is a kind of love letter to books we can hold and fondle but also to the kind of pure experience of reading some children have, which we never lose entirely but which everyone loses partially as an adult.

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