A Memoir of Medical Bias—Bless the Blood: A Cancer Memoir by Walela Nehanda

the cover of Bless the Blood

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Bless The Blood: A Cancer Memoir is a striking book that gets under your skin and stays there for days afterward. Though billed as a YA book, the writing and story hold a depth of feeling and insight that will engage far older readers, too. Hospitals, homes, intimate relationships and even one’s own skin are explored as sites playing host to complex histories. Framed by references to Cynthia Parker Ohene and Audre Lorde, Walela Nehanda threads a poetics of class, race and gender that shows how those constructs tangibly mediate who has access to certain spaces and their attendant expectations of care.

There is wisdom in Nehanda’s depiction of the ways relationships function as spaces for the people in them. And inversely, how spaces are shaped by the connections people make there. Some books really get to the heart of that old saying “a house is not a home”—this is one of the few that goes further by suggesting that a body isn’t always a home, either.

Teeming with generational trauma and an aching love-hunger that breaks through in paragraphs and poems about sickness, recovery, affection, intimacy, and history, this is a book that refuses to be reducible to inspiration porn. There is a lot of unvarnished pain here: it beats and seeps and leaps out of the page, sinking into the sorest parts of anyone who has ever found themselves at odds with their body, anyone who has ever felt the acute violence of having their bodies treated as alienable. 

But these recollections are accompanied by memories of healing and true connection that remind me of one of my favorite aspects of queer media: the defiance of portraying communal moments of revelry and unapologetic joy. These moments offer a small antidote to the seemingly incessant indignities Nehanda encounters in trying to access care through institutions that diminish compassion into a sort of charity contingent on the seeker’s performance of acceptable respectable acquiescence to unjust norms. It is a keenly relevant story, and only becoming more so as the conversation and activism around medical bias gains momentum.

The book’s archetypal figures and icons are also from a media moment that younger readers (I’m including twenty-somethings in this), will find timely. Close readers might be left wondering why there is more “prestige” in the exploits of long-dead hellenics than Captain American or Black Panther—and how our insistence on pretending that the former are more universal than the latter only goes to show how deeply those stories have been decontextualized in service of modern myths about what is “natural” or just.

I will admit fully that I am very partial to this sort of mythic deconstruction. I appreciate authors who staunchly refuse the opiate of presumed objectivity and instead fiercely reckon with the implicit messages and specificity of our shared stories. There is a passion in these pages that I found refreshing, and which I hope this review does justice to.

Who Will Enjoy This: People who thought The Remedy was poignant, timely and want to read more deeply personal stories about the struggles of accessing care (both medical and otherwise) as a gender-expansive person of color (here, a Black person in America). People who enjoy memoirs in verse, or poetry about the poet’s relationship with their body and others. People who think “formalism” is another word for “limitation”. People who enjoy science fiction metaphors for biomedical ideas.

(Seriously, Nehanda’s description of leukemia and their body as a besieged planet is all I’ve been talking about to anyone who will listen for the past week)

Who Might Think Twice: If you’re currently dealing with healthcare bias and difficulties of your own, this book will either reassure you that you are not alone or leave you emotionally exhausted. Your miles may vary. Nehanda pulls no punches in either their remembrances of or their viscerally unflinching depiction of their pain.

LA as a Not-So-Urban Jungle: Undergrowth by Chel Hylott and Chelsea Lim

the cover of undergrowth

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Seventeen-year-old Mariam finds herself surviving a Los Angeles that has been overrun by a magic jungle of horror. Along the way, she meets a group of other survivors, and together they become a family. But Mariam has her secrets. She magically heals and cannot die thanks to a deal with the devil her father made on her behalf. And the jungle they find themselves in has been caused by her father as well. She must learn to put her faith in others and earn their trust in return to undo the mess he made.

There’s a strong sense of setting here that feels a lot like Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. The lush descriptions of an LA gone to hell under a horrific jungle and the introduction of Mariam as a tough-as-nails type make it an intriguing story and give it a strong start. Unfortunately, that doesn’t hold.

Mariam tries to keep herself emotionally distant to avoid the pain of loss but ends up getting attached to a rag-tag found family. But she still tries to hold her secrets, and that ends up hurting them. At every turn in the story when Mariam is given a chance to be honest, she chooses to lie and continues to create a rift between herself and her new family. She never seems to learn that taking this route causes more pain and danger, and so it doesn’t feel like she undergoes a major character arc.

Additionally, the pacing happens too fast to feel like her attachments are believable. Her crush on Camila quickly evolves into a deep connection between the two girls, but it doesn’t seem organic. Despite this, the relationship that starts to blossom between them is sweet, and it adds a sense of levity to the apocalyptic situation.

Throughout the novel, the author sprinkles details about Mariam’s cultural heritage, with tidbits like talking about her Ramadan dinners and the names she calls her family by. Readers can appreciate the subtle way Mariam’s background comes to light, giving her some depth without overexplaining everything.

There is also a transgender character, Hana, whose identity is revealed in a moment when her hair has to be cut because of lice. It adds another interesting layer to the story without turning into a teaching moment. The author writes many of these character revelations well, showing representations of body dysmorphia and disability in the middle of the end of the world.

As the novel ends, it all happens rather fast and feels like it gets tied up in a neat bow, considering the situation. There is a lack of satisfaction with so many unanswered questions about the world itself. It’s never discussed exactly how long the jungle apocalypse occurred until the very end. The story never shows how the world outside of LA coped or reacted to the events outside of a few glimmers of a military scene at the beginning.

Overall, none of the characters have much development, especially not Mariam or her dad, the villain. But it does get a happily ever after for her and Camila, and it was a fun adventure.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Advice I Ignored: Stories and Wisdom From a Formerly Depressed Teenager by Ruby Walker

Ruby Walker’s Advice I Ignored offers exactly that: good advice that so often gets ignored. It didn’t happen only to her. She recognizes it happens to all of us. I’m personally not much of a self-help book type of reader, so I entered this one with some hesitance. But I found I rather enjoyed Walker’s brand of sarcasm, wit, and heartwarming compassion.

There’s nothing revelatory about the advice Walker gives. It’s all practical. It’s all practicable. And it’s all been said before. What makes her approach different is how she makes it relatable and teaches you how to practice it. That latter part is often the missing piece of the formula when well-intentioned people dole out good advice.

She structures the book like this: advice, personal anecdote, tips to get started. The pattern never breaks throughout the chapters. This consistency is part of Walker’s strategy in offering her wisdom. No matter what the advice, a key component is to keep practicing it. Practice is repetition. Structuring her book like this makes it a brilliant example of how to take the advice and run with it.

Walker’s attention to detail stands out when she describes her relationship with her body and her body’s relationship to nature around her. She speaks a great deal about the physical difficulties that depression causes, and how she eventually gets herself out of those slumps. It doesn’t come without its strife, but she ensures the reader they are not alone, and that it’s possible to come out the other side.

Certain lines illustrate with spectacular accuracy the way the mind works, like this on about trying to listen to music while running:

“My mind just felt crowded when I tried playing some aloud.”

This description of the inability to focus on the sounds coming from one’s headphones or earbuds while engaging in exercise speaks to a greater issue: the inability to be alone with one’s thoughts. She addresses this issue in different ways throughout the book, and of course some solid advice on how to deal with it.

Walker delves into the danger of self-deprecating humor. She recognizes this “fatalistic streak” brand of humor is synonymous with certain generations. There’s a fine line between self-deprecating jokes and bullying one’s self. Walker takes the reader through that gray area, as some people often blur the two.

Throughout Advice I Ignored, Walker includes sketches and drawings to coincide with the topic. Sometimes they add a sense of levity and shine a light on her sardonic humor. Other times they illustrate what words alone cannot convey for the heaviest emotions. No matter what, they add another dimension to her voice that compliments the written content.

While as a whole the advice and wisdom in the book are nothing new, at certain points, Walker hits a note so right that it feels like a revelation, like when she talks about how people change:

“Lasting recovery means changing a little bit every moment you’re alive.”

This statement speaks to how change doesn’t happen like in the movies. There isn’t necessarily a dramatic, defining moment that becomes a turning point. Rather, it’s a winding path of quieter moments that turn into gradual change.

Some moments Walker could take the easy way out and write about mental health from a “general” point of view. But she doesn’t. She acknowledges a great deal of what influences mental health stems from systemic issues in society that cause harm to marginalized communities. Walker writes to her experiences as a lesbian woman, but she knows she doesn’t speak for all individuals that come from oppressed communities.

So many different aspects of the book spark a great deal of thought. The biggest message to take away is that change is possible, and it happens one step at a time. Most importantly, showing compassion and patience with yourself is key when you don’t get it right the first time.