We all make choices about what we will read, what television presentations or films we watch. In today’s world of “fake news”–almost anyone with an opinion can throw us a curve ball. FACT-CHECKING helps. If you come across something you think might be false, you can go to various sources to confirm it’s truth factor. (I’m thinking news stories–better to have a few different sources before you think Pizzagate really occurred.)
Currently, I think we need to do that a lot. When reading non-fiction that lands on the best-seller list, we are at the mercy of the author. His or her book could still be a vehicle of lies and BS. Sad but true. An Index at the back of the book often helps confirm that the author did research and what and who the author’s sources were. (Think childhood immunizations cause autism. It took a long time for those lies to be correctly challenged and disproved.) Because if the author is known for a certain stance on that subject. then you probably know what you’re getting–unless the book is a complete turnaround or includes new research.
Rebecca Skloot had credentials when she started working on the book that became THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS. She attended Portland Community College to become a Veterinary Technician and then received a BS in biological sciences from Colorado State University, and an MFA in creative nonfiction. Her education prepared her for the ten years it took her to write the book which was on the NYT Best Seller list for two years and recently made into a film that appeared on HBO this past weekend.
Oprah Winfrey played the part of Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter, whose life was shadowed by the death of her mother. Henrietta died in 1951 at the age of 31 from cervical cancer. She had five children whose lives suffered after her death. And unbeknownst to this black family, a doctor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, removed cancer cells from her cervix and these cells were able to reproduce outside the body in petri dishes at an astonishing rate. Called HeLa cells, they enabled researchers to make medical breakthroughs, one being Dr. Jonas Salk who is credited with the polio vaccine.
But there is a downside to this story–how it affected Deborah Lacks and her family. When you tell a person who is not a scientist that her mother’s cells are alive in a lab in Baltimore–complications occur. The Smithsonian writes: A postdoc called Henrietta’s husband one day…The way he understood the phone call was: “We’ve got your wife. She’s alive in a laboratory. We’ve been doing research on her for the last 25 years. And now we have to test your kids to see if they have cancer.” Which wasn’t what the researcher said at all. The scientists didn’t know that the family didn’t understand. From that point on, though, the family got sucked into this world of research they didn’t understand, and the cells, in a sense, took over their lives. Skloot in many ways was a gift to the Lacks family, explaining things as she learned them, comforting Deborah who helped Skloot with her investigation. Read the book! Watch the HBO presentation. We need more like this.
Now consider a work of fiction. Fiction, you make stuff up, right? But when an author takes on a topic that has complicated ramifications, is a topic that she does not feel she can speak to WITHOUT RESEARCH, then I applaud her for letting us know. Jodi Picoult, the author of 23 novels, did just that with her latest novel, SMALL GOOD THINGS.
The novel is about a black maternity nurse who is accused by a white supremacist for contributing to the death of his newborn son.
Picoult writes at the end of the novel: I expect pushback from this book… Believe me, I didn’t write this novel because I thought it would be fun or easy. I wrote it because I believed it was the right thing to do, and because the things that make us most uncomfortable are the things that teach us what we all need to know. In her review of SMALL GOOD THINGS Roxane Gay writes: ‘A writer is like a tuning fork: we respond when we’re struck by something…If we’re lucky we’ll transmit a strong pure note, one that isn’t ours, but which passes through us.’ To the Black people reading SMALL GREAT THINGS – I hope I listened well enough to those in your community who opened their hearts to me to be able to represent your experiences with accuracy. And to the white people reading SMALL GREAT THINGS – we are all works in progress. Personally, I don’t have the answers and I am still evolving daily.
I thought the book was well done. It was a page turner and though it tied up things a little too neatly at the end, I did trust Picoult’s research. In the back of the book, she delineates exactly who she talked to on both sides of the situation.
Roxane Gay also writes in her review: And therein lies the true challenge of writing across difference, or of writing a political novel — if the politics overcomes the prose, then it becomes something other than a novel. (Maybe that’s one way to reach an audience that needs to be reached)
Picoult writes: There is a fire raging and we have two choices: we can turn our backs, or we can try to fight it. Yes, talking about racism is hard to do, and yes, we stumble over the words—but we who are white need to have this discussion amongst ourselves. Because then, even more of us will overhear and then, I hope, the conversation will spread. (Picoult even provides her reader with a list of things you can do to get invovled.
Roxane Gay concludes: It is, in the end, the author’s note that leaves me feeling generous toward “Small Great Things” despite its shortcomings. Picoult wanted to write about race in contemporary America, and she does. The novel is messy, but so is our racial climate. I give Picoult a lot of credit for trying, and for supporting her attempt with rigorous research, good intentions and an awareness of her fallibility.
YES, again We need MORE LIKE THIS…
photo: The New York Times