Five Questions (more or less) with Anne Fadiman

1) Your name has become synonymous with the Hmong.  This book is the first of its kind to address such issues and is required reading in both Anthropology classes and classes for different medical professions.  Which do you view this book more as?  A tale of the clash of medicine vs. tradition?  Or more a book about the Hmong people?

I never wished my name to become “synonymous with the Hmong,” and I hope it hasn’t! I don’t view the book primarily as either of the options you mention. I view it as a book about cross-cultural communication and what makes it fail. Of course I’m keenly interested in both medical culture and Hmong culture, but Spirit has more in common with a (hypothetical) book on, say, a problematic legal case involving Somalian refugees than with a comprehensive anthropological study of the Hmong.

2) You say your book moved you to be a better mother but did it prompt you to become a better patient?  Did you reevaluate your stance on the traditional Western medicine techniques?

Techniques, no. Attitude, yes. When my children are ill, I don’t bring them to a Hmong txiv neeb, I bring them to a doctor, and I’m grateful that the panoply of Western knowledge and technology exists. However, American doctors could benefit greatly if they learned something from the attitude of a txiv neeb–a man who knows your family intimately, comes to your home, cares about you and your family as people. When I choose my doctors now, expertise still comes first, but it has to be accompanied by humanity. So I wouldn’t say I’m “a better patient”; I’m merely a more selective one, and, when doctors excel in both skill and compassion, a more grateful one.

3)  You shoulder a huge responsibility as being the first person to give the Hmong an “American” voice.  With articles coming out after your book was published like this one http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/20/us/20shaman.html?_r=1 and other hospitals adopting plans/programs educating and making options available to the Hmong http://www.childrensmn.org/web/clinicsanddepts/025019.asp, how big a role do you think Lia’s story (your book) have to do with those changes?  Do you think hospitals were adapting and your book just brought light to those changes?  Or do you feel Lia’s story acted as a true catalyst?

I wasn’t the first person to give the Hmong an American voice. Just look at my bibliography, which consists entirely of books, dissertations, and articles written before Spirit! But, actually, I’m not sure any of us “gave the Hmong a voice.” We wrote about the Hmong, but that’s not the same thing. Only Hmong writers can have a Hmong voice. There are now some very good ones, including Kao Kalia Yang and Mai Neng Moua, who are more than able to speak for themselves.

It’s impossible to say which changes were brought about by Spirit and which were brought about by the zeitgeist of which Spirit was merely a part. My guess is that the most significant changes came from the latter.

4)  If the Hmong didn’t have such and extravagant (to your average American) religion, do you think the culture clash would have been more minimal?  Doctor procedural shows like Grey’s Anatomy and House have profited on the sensationalism of the Hmong rituals when it comes to medicine.  Would there be such an uproar if the rituals didn’t include animal sacrifices?  Is it wrong to water down cultural beliefs to be more mainstream appropriate?  And do you feel that the Hmong should have to do that in order to “fit in”?  Lia’s sister seems to appreciate the story more when she read your book and placed the incident in the context of what she knows now, but the book has been lauded by Hmong-American’s as a true representation of the culture; “Fish Soup” is almost always the first example that strikes a chord.  Has that changed the way you write now?  Does everything now begin with the beginning for you?

Sorry, that’s just too many questions to digest! I’m not sure how they interrelate, so I’ll try to answer the first of the six. No, my guess is that those medical television shows would have paid less attention to Hmong healing rituals if they didn’t involve animal sacrifices.

5) Your other books are very much about reading and the art of the book.  I read an interview from The Atlantic Wire by Nicole Allan in 2010 where you described what you read.  You mentioned a lot of popular fiction on your nightstand at home.  As the signature question of Keepinitreal, I would ask you to name your favorite non-fiction book and why?

It would definitely be by John McPhee, the writer who introduced me to literary journalism and made me decide that’s what I wanted to spend my life doing. That first, life-changing McPhee book was Encounters with the Archdruid, and it still occupies a canonical spot not only on my shelf of most-admired works but in my life.

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