What a year. When it comes to traumas we’re spoiled for choice, but as Amnesty International and Greenpeace remind us, 2016 also brought many victories for humanity and the planet. Here at home, I’ve been celebrating the official All Clear, which clear as a bell, arrived with impeccable timing on Dec 23rd. I’ve still got follow-treatments to come, but to bid farewell to cancer, I’m looking back on ten books that have enriched my journey thus far through the ‘kingdom of the sick’. What should you read during chemotherapy? I like to laugh, sure, but in my frail state I also wanted to see my suffering and that of the world reflected with compassion and insight. Thus the themes of illness, migration and climate change flow through this list of poetry, essays and fiction.
Of Mutability by Jo Shapcott (Faber and Faber, 2011). Spending five months on the strongest drugs Western medicine has to offer, it was hard to concentrate sometimes, but I took as my motto a line from Julia Darling’s poem ‘Chemotherapy’: ‘I have learned to drift and sip’. And thus in the stark nights of chemic insomnia I read poetry, sipping of its beauty and truth. This Costa Award-winning collection treats subjects ranging through breast cancer, war and modern architecture, Shapcott’s deft allusive touch encompassing the world with airy room for the imagination to fly. The wonderful extended metaphor of ‘Uncertainty is a Not a Good Dog’ – no, it rushes ahead and rolls in the mud! – helped me accept the new psychological terrain I had just entered. I can get a little frustrated (understatement!) with English understatement, but sometimes the problem is with readers, not the poet. The Guardian reviewer didn’t get the answer to Shapcott’s ‘Riddle’, which you didn’t need to have had chemotherapy to solve – it was placed opposite a poem called ‘Bald’.
Excisions by Clare Best (Waterloo Press, 2011). Aware she was carrying the gene for breast cancer, Clare Best had an elective double mastectomy in her forties and declined reconstruction. Instead, tracing her journey in graceful, lucid poems, while fully acknowledging her grief at losing her ‘sentenced flesh’, she embraced the opportunity to lie closer to the earth, and feel her heart beat closer to her husband’s. I helped edit this book for Waterloo Press, and had seen photographs of Clare’s serene new shape. Having the imprint of her experience in my mind helped me to accept the possibility of mastectomy, and I turned again to the book immediately after my diagnosis. I can’t quote more because I recently gave my copy away to another woman contemplating elective surgery, but writing this blog reminds me to reorder it for myself – an essential title for my library.
Writing My Way Through Cancer by Myra Schneider (Jessica Kingsley, 2003). Combining a journal of the author’s experience with breast cancer with her own poems and writing exercises, this sensitive and rakingly honest book helped calm my own struggles with anxiety, and encouraged me to move between experience and vision in my own poems about the illness. Although I didn’t in the end need a mastectomy, it was encouraging to read of Schneider’s journey to acceptance of her new ‘Amazon’ shape. And I loved her poem ‘Choosing Yellow’, which in ranging the spectrum of this colour of sunshine and jaundice, gloriously evokes the paradox of coping with cancer: ‘a bittersweet colour / which feeds emptiness in the middle of the night, / a state of mind that refuses fear.’
The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde (Aunt Lute Books, 2007) This collection of essays by the late African-American poet Audre Lorde, who died of breast cancer in 1992 fourteen years after her diagnosis, was invigorating, bracing and sobering to read. Lorde, like my late mother (who died of colon cancer in 1992) had a mastectomy but refused chemotherapy: while I respect everyone’s right to choose their own treatment, as someone who was helped far more than harmed by chemo I can’t help but wonder if, even though far more arduous in the nineties, it might have helped them both survive. But cancer is a personal journey, and seeking alternative treatment in Germany, Lorde trod her path with famous dignity, eloquence and leadership. Refusing reconstruction because she didn’t want to deny her encounter with mortality, or conform to cultural norms of female beauty she didn’t, as a Black Lesbian identify with, Lorde challenged the medical establishment in important ways. When being prepped for a possible mastectomy, I’d been told that silicon implants can impede the effectiveness of breast cancer drugs, and when I read that Lorde was told by a nurse to wear a softie next time she came to the clinic because the sight of her asymmetry was ‘bad for morale’, I completely felt her rage. I also fully understood how her decision to own her scar empowered her: “Yet once I face death as a life process,’ she wrote, ‘what is there possibly left for me to fear? Who can ever really have power over me again?”
Becoming Earth by Eva Saulitis (Boreal Books, 2016). These autobiographical essays by a marine biologist about breast cancer and nature were another difficult read at times: knowing that the book didn’t have a happy ending, and being unsure what direction my own treatment was taking me in, I had to take long breaks between sections. But I was always drawn back to Saulitis’s fiercely delicate reflections, ranging from her youth in her home state of Michigan, where she grew up feasting on pesticide-coated fruit; and her work in Alaska, where she and husband observed a pod of orcas that hasn’t calved since the Exxon Valdez oil spill; to her own body in its state of rapid decay. Thanks perhaps to Saulitis’s involvement with Buddhism, the dominant mood is not anger, though, but elegy and acceptance. Whatever its cause, cancer, an overgrowth of cells, is not itself a pollutant but an entirely natural process – an insight Saulitis evokes in the image of a glut of dead salmon. “We have no dominion over what the world will do to us,” she wrote. “We have no dominion over the wild darkness that surrounds us.… Death is nature. Nature is far from over . . . In the end—I must believe it—just like a salmon, I will know how to die, and though I die, though I lose my life, nature wins. Nature endures. It is strange, and it is hard, but it’s comfort, and I’ll take it.”
Mood Indigo by Wendy Klein (Oversteps Books, 2016). As you can imagine, I quite often wanted an escape from cancer stories, and this collection beguiled me with its tender family truths, and restful long lines. In its careful respect for a temperamentally sensitive father, there is a touch of Robert Lowell about Klein’s sequence ‘Seen From Below’. Her highly regarded political poetry is well-represented here, but poems rooted in personal history also have a global reach: ‘Tisch’ unpacks a word that will keep a family ‘. . . stuck together / when the bombs begin to fall.’ As a writer of the long poem myself, I also much admire the way Klein summons mystery from her wealth of well-orchestrated detail – keeping up a rhythmic soft-shoe between her lyric and narrative impulses.
Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen (Penguin, 2007). I wasn’t grief-stricken by Cohen’s death – he achieved a great age and had lived a charmed life. But in paying my respects and expressing my affection, I turned to his poems as well as his songs. Sometimes this book annoyed me – with his obsessive pen-and-ink self-portraits and endless lamentations over unattainable young women Cohen seemed too content to milk the myth of the solitary male genius, refusing his Muse greater empathy with a wider humanity. But then he rises to the summits of ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’, a song that always makes me think of my mother, or attains the simplicity of ‘Mission’, a poem that could be his own eulogy. Cohen being the first to ruefully acknowledge his own flaws, this book ultimately makes loneliness, baldness and poetry seem worthwhile endeavours – all very reassuring for a single writer on chemo. Plus ‘Something from the Early Seventies’ was hilarious!
White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen, translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah (Peirene Press, 2015). Emily Jeremiah, a friend from my MA I worked with at Waterloo Press on her Finnish poetry translations, achieved great success with this short novel, which was long-listed for the Man Booker International this year. It deserved it. A spare translation of a historical novel about the 1867 famine in Finland, in its harrowing portrayal of starving peasants trudging through winter toward the mirage of St Petersburg, the book evokes the determination of today’s refugees into Europe from the South – and their pain. Just when you think the agony in this book can’t get any worse, it does. Like the futuristic novel it resembles, The Road, there is redemption of sorts in the end, but no glimpse of hope can erase the ghosts of those who did not survive. Reading White Hunger, like watching the news from Syria or Calais, was a humbling experience: what was my suffering in comparison? The book was also inspiring, though: by bringing the anonymous dead to life, literature can indeed connect the reader with all of humanity.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Fourth Estate, 2014). For those lucky enough to have homes, long novels and chemo go together like sofas and snow, and this absorbing, informative, lyrical epic gave my side-effects an enormous sense of purpose. I learned a huge amount from Nigerian protagonist Ifemelu’s reflections on race in America, and was riveted by Adichie’s sharp yet compassionate eye for complexity. As plot devices Ifemelu’s pursuit of the perfect rich feminist husband, and celebrity status as a blogger had a slightly fairy-tale quality, but at the same time these dreams come under lucid scrutiny in the book. The narrative, and Ifemelu’s achievements, are also driven by trauma, and being an African woman in an individualist, racist and sexist country both gives her depression and allows her to acknowledge that mental health is not just a white Westerner’s concern. Her own well-being – and her desire to win back her remarkably patient (and married) heart-throb Obinze – demands that she return to Nigeria and create a successful life there on her own terms. Meanwhile Obinze’s sudden launch into the country’s wealthy upper echelons is shadowed by his failed attempt to live in Britain – a chapter in which Adichie makes a powerful case for emotional migration: the freedom to move where we please.
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (Penguin, orig 1924). God, I loved this book! As I faded into skin and bones, it was such an pleasure to sink into a seven-hundred and fifty page novel in which illness is the norm and self-enwrapment in blankets an art-form, or at least a Winter Olympic sport. Amused at first by young Hans Castorp’s self-regarding priggishness, I was ultimately moved by his long journey to become a sensitive mediator between his passionate friends, history and art, life and death. Like my cancer, the TB sanatorium became, for Hans, a spiritual retreat. The book also charts the build up to the first world war and although in my chemo fog I couldn’t follow all the arguments of the novel’s two voluble scholars (who between them trample the supposed differences between East and West into a bitter frenzy of intellectual envy), Mann’s nuanced portrayals of Hans’s milieu – the ‘East’ represented here by Russian and Jewish characters – throws rope bridges of humanity across politically engineered fault-lines. Finally, as a new inhabitant of the Kingdom of the Sick, I found Mann’s insights into illness still ring true; as one character opines, the awe people hold for sick people is misplaced:
For the sick was precisely that; a sick man: with the nature and modified reactions of his state. Illness so adjusted its man that it and he could come to terms; there were sensory appeasements, short circuits, a merciful narcosis; nature came to the rescue with measures of spiritual and moral adaptation and relief, which the sound person naively failed to take into account.