20 Books of Summer, #12 and #13: Sick and Forward

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Porochista Khakpour’s Sick is ostensibly a memoir about a life lived with Lyme disease, but more broadly, it’s a memoir about self-identification as ‘sick’ and ‘well’, and how we can take each of these states of being for granted until it’s taken from us. Khakpour is not sure exactly when she contracted Lyme, a tick-born infection that can become chronic if left untreated and lead to lifelong health problems, including brain fog, persistent joint pain, insomnia and hallucinations. This memoir, then, is a disentangling of threads that can’t really be disentangled, starting in her earliest childhood. Were the ‘fits’ she had as a child the result of Lyme, or were they purely psychological? Does it matter?

Aware that she’d never felt ‘right’ in her own body, Khakpour tells us how she relied on alcohol and drugs as a student in New York, as if the lack of any reference point for what it meant to be ‘healthy’ made sobrietry almost meaningless. Even now, she finds it difficult to distinguish between symptoms caused by Lyme and the mental health problems that have resulted from such a long time living with it, although Lyme relapses eventually become unmistakeable. Such relapses, though, are often triggered by psychological threat: ‘It was no wonder to me that I would often become sick after some external political stressor, like the Paris attacks, or the election of Donald Trump… When the Muslim ban became a constant on the news in 2017, when I found my home country [Iran] rather unsurprisingly on the list of six countries that had been designated problems… I immediately had an acute plunge in health… How could my body erupt in a chaos of spirochetes [a type of bacteria] each time my mind and body suffers?… And yet we continue to find evidence of that mind and body connection.’

 Sick touches on the key issues felt by many people – often women – with chronic health conditions that present with vague symptoms and for which there is no simple test. Khakpour herself is one of the ‘lucky’ few who has an unequivocal diagnosis for Lyme, which is not always the case for those who suffer from it, but she still spent years in this limbo before getting this diagnosis. She describes how she made the doctor who finally gave her the news repeat it several times because she was so relieved to finally have a name for the health problems that had dogged her all her life. And yet, Khakpour still faces being disbelieved and belittled by doctors, especially because she is a woman of colour. Ironically, she writes, when she is at her most unwell she is also at her most ‘white’: ‘thin and pale to the point where everyone congratulates me at my sickest… Every part of me in illness became the white woman of their dreams.’

 As Sick demonstrates, drawing a neat line between physical and mental illness is impossible, and yet Khakpour and the many women (and some men) who suffer from chronic illnesses such as fibromyalgia, CFS/ME and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (to name just a few) will continue to be told it is ‘all in their heads’ because of the supposed lack of physical evidence for these diseases. Sick, as Khakpour notes in her afterword, is written in defence of those people, but it also provides an opportunity for all of us to reflect on the ‘mind and body connection’ that makes our physical and mental health inextricable.

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Lisa Maas’s Forward is only the third graphic novel I’ve ever read (the others being Evie Wyld’s Everything is Teeth and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis) but given that I’ve loved all three of them, I’ll have to seek out more in the near future. Set in Canada, Forward is the delightful, moving story of two lesbians, Rayanne and Ali, who are both unhappily single. Rayanne struggles to approach potential partners; Ali is still grieving after the death of her wife. When Rayanne and Ali meet, we spend time with each of them in turn as they wonder whether they might be able to start again with each other. What I liked most about Forward is how it tells a universal story without losing sight of the particular experience of its lesbian characters. Most people, regardless of sexuality or gender, will surely be able to identify with Rayanne and Ali as they wait fruitlessly for texts, run away from crowded parties and wonder if a new relationship is going anywhere.

However, Forward is also refreshingly free of some of the usual narratives that might shape a story about two forty-ish women looking for love; neither of our protagonists seems especially concerned about having children, or worried that they might be ‘past it’, although there’s a funny sequence where Ali accidentally starts dating a twenty-five year old. Even though Rayanne has had a number of relationships in the past, she’s still uncertain on the gay scene, calling a gig where a lesbian band is playing ‘an intimidation of lesbians’. It’s also so nice to see so many lesbian characters appearing together in one book, reflecting how both Rayanne and Ali seek out lesbian/bisexual women’s social networks, rather than the usual token lesbian or lesbian couple who often appear in fiction. In terms of the art – which I feel very ill-qualified to judge – I loved the fluidity of the layout, how the frames naturally bleed into each other, and the way Maas integrates dream and fantasy sequences, although I wished the characters’ faces had been more distinctly drawn – I found it difficult to tell most of them apart. However, Forward is both comforting and challenging, and I’ll definitely return to it.

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7 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer, #12 and #13: Sick and Forward

  1. I really like what you say about a book reflecting queer women’s social networks – you’re absolutely right, most of the non-straight people I know have at least one friendship group that’s not composed entirely of straights, which doesn’t get represented in mainstream media very much at all. It

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it’s the classic problem of having a token minority character in a book/film, but takes on a particular resonance for queer women by erasing important support networks.

      Like

  2. I had very similar thoughts on both of these. Lots of books out this year on women’s experience of chronic illness and Sick is a great example. I found it slightly repetitive in places, but mostly compelling. I believe it’s been brought out by Canongate, so it would be eligible for next year’s Wellcome Prize.

    If you’re interested in another graphic novel where the lesbian experience is the norm, try Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For series.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer: A Retrospective | Laura Tisdall

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