The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

I am always humbled to come across a book that speaks its own narrative, yet delves deeply into themes that are relevant to broader cultural conversations. I am forever excited about The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Ann Fadiman, a creative non-fiction novel from 1997 that continues to be a part of conversation about multiculturalism, particularly in the medical community.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is an exploration of issues of assimilation and cultural divide in the tenuous balance of the refugee immigrant experience in the United States, in a particularly nationalist and conservative time. But rather than being structured around broader macro-sociological elements, the heart of the story is Lia Lee, a young Hmong girl who develops a severe epileptic disorder, Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome, as an infant. Her life is fraught with the frustrations of both her refugee Hmong family and her white American doctors, as both parties fight for the health of this little girl. Here we see, as the subtitle calls it, “a collision of two cultures”—American and Hmong. While her doctors prescribe medication to help her symptoms, her family turns to their cultural roots to help the child, and the tension between these two lifestyles places Lia’s life in jeopardy. What I found to be most intriguing about Fadiman’s work is how she uses a multitude of voices, not just the Lee family and Lia’s doctors; cultural and medical experts, foster parents, small town Americans, Hmong refugees of the Vietnam conflict, and their American-born children all tell their own stories. Fadiman pays particular attention to details of their daily existence, such as Doctor Dan Murphy’s beard, and humanizes them in the process. With this, Fadiman encourages what she calls “Cultural Humility”, which she defines as: “‘Cultural Humility’ acknowledges [individuals] bring the baggage of their own cultures … and that these may not necessarily be superior” (295).

Knowing that her audience will most likely side with Western medical experts, Fadiman chooses to dive deeply into the Hmong culture and history in order to frame the mindset of the Lee family. The opening chapter, for example, begins with a traditional Hmong birth in Laos, the manner in which the Lee’s first twelve children were delivered. At first, it seemed to play into the stereotypes and fears of backwards living that many people harbor within themselves about the undefined other. However, Fadiman uses this moment to show Foua Lee, the family matriarch, as a pillar of strength and motherly love. Fadiman’s words breath rich life into the Hmong life and traditions, such as burying the placenta:

Soon after the birth, while the mother and baby were lying still together next to the fire pit, the father dug a hole at least 2 feet deep in the dirt floor and buried the placenta…. In the Hmong language, the word placenta means “jacket.” It is considered ones first and finest garment. When a Hmong dies, his or her soul must travel back from place to place retracing the path of its life geography until it reaches the burial place of its placental jacket, and puts it on … If the soul cannot find its jacket it is condemned to an eternity of wandering, naked and alone.

She creates this beautiful image, so that when Lia’s placenta is incinerated, because she is born in a hospital in California, that moment of mundanity tugs at the heart, echoing the pain the Lees feel at not being able to embrace their culture in this new world. The author is able to create a wonderful portrait of the culture without resorting to ugly stereotypes of orientalism. She chooses, for example, to talk about the use of the shamanism txiv neeb in a way that does not mystify the belief system by making it seem ancient, ivy-covered, or use other cloying stereotypes about eastern Asian culture. At the same time, she does not portray this belief as witch doctoring or spooky backwards superstition. She uses the txiv neeb as a beautiful focal point in her book, returning to this important cultural figure over and over again as she juxtaposes the shaman to the doctors at the hospital. Fadiman opens the floor to discussions of ambiguity, because in a similar vein, Fadiman does not vilify the doctors either. She extensively interviews the staff of Merced Community Medical Center, where Lia receives treatments, and each of them express such deep convictions about Lia’s case. Peggy Philip and Neil Ernst, her ER physicians, express such love for Lia and sorrow over her condition, going back forth about how to help her best, but at times doing harm.

The experience of this book brings a cathartic pain into the conversation about globalization. I felt the tension as the child’s life hung in the balance between these two worlds. There is no right answer of how Lia can be best helped. But more importantly, Lia’s family is left completely unprotected in a society that shuns multiculturalism in favor of assimilation. At times, I grew frustrated as a reader; small acts that should have prevented suffering, such as correct pill dosage could have easily been achieved through the use of a good interpreter or doctors learning about Hmong culture. Similarly, the Lee family’s refusal to adjust their trajectory would sometimes cause me to grow anxious for young Lia. Ultimately, I would return to the sentiment of love and compassion that all parties felt for the girl; their goals are the same, to find a cure for Lia’s epilepsy, even though their methods are disparate. Fadiman openly encourages communication between doctors and patients of different cultural backgrounds, a sentiment that I argue should be explored in all professional and personal backgrounds. Though published 20 years ago, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down and the conversation it engenders seem especially prescient in our time as much of the Western World is divided on issues of nationalism and globalization. Now more than ever, we need narratives that ask for cultural understanding to be the dialogue.


Kayla Chenault is an African American who resides in the northern Midwest region of the United States. She was published in childhood starting from age 7. She is currently completing a Master’s in Creative Writing from Eastern Michigan University.


Writer’s Block? Fire Yourself!

Courtesy of Andrews McMeel Publishing and Universal Press Syndicate

I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer who hasn’t experienced writers’ block at least once in his or her life. Unfortunately, I experience it far too often. The worst yet truest advice is: Just do it. Sit down and start writing, no matter what.

Good advice, but it has never worked for me. If I do some free writing, I’m annoyed at the waste of time. With three young kids, my time is limited and I want to spend it efficiently. I think free writing is great if you have no idea what to write, as it generates ideas for stories. But if you have something specific in mind then it just feels wrong. And when I force myself to write a specific story, then every sentence I write I go back to and read it three times over, and I’m ashamed at how bad it is.

Writing, which is my hobby, becomes torture instead of joy. And that defeats the purpose of a hobby.

This week I read an article in the New York Times by Carl Richards, which may – hopefully – help me.

I need to fire myself!

No, not as a writer. It didn’t encourage me to quit. However, it advises you to fire yourself as a critic of your own work.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to matter, as your job now officially has nothing to do with deciding if the work is good. Your job is to do the work, put it out there and let the world decide.

So the old-age advice of just do it needs an amendment. Just write and stop critiquing.

I recommend reading the entire article: Free Yourself of Your Harshest Critic, and Plow Ahead.

Vanessa Deij

Raping Africa

Chinweizu is a powerful and persuasive writer, and his views on Afrocentrism are extreme—as they rightfully should be. But for those who know little of this vociferous person and his singling out and attacking Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka’s Eurocentric Africanism, here is an excerpt from a poem of his (in the anthology that he also edited: Voices from Twentieth Century Africa):

Ah, this land

This black whore

This manacled bitch

Tied to a post and raped

By every passing white dog

The dog of the crescent sword

The dog of the militant cross

The dog of the red star!

Listen! Listen to the pack

Of scavenger dogs from white heartlands

Snarling in their gang rape of Africa!

excerpt: Admonition to the Black World

This anthology contains gems of African writing that are difficult to come by, including oratory tales, folktales, poetry, excerpts from translated novels and so on. Highly recommended for any avid reader of African literature.


Samir Rawas Sarayji

The Black Voice on Being a Public Text

I had the opportunity to attend a reading done by Roxanne Gay for her new memoir, Hunger. She began with this explanation of the book’s origin: “When you are fat, especially when you are fat and black, your body becomes a public text.” It resonated with me, as I was steeped in my own otherness at all times, held up to a harsh light and appraised from every angle through a loupe. The black writer knows that our otherness defines us, and that otherness creates our public text persona. The way we might talk about a new film with friends and strangers alike, the way we might have a roundtable discussion about a classic work of literature or a salient opinion piece, the black body must survive in that space. We are personified in all forms of media, and yet our own selves remain a mystery. It is tenuous place between the realm of being unknown and being constantly seen; a driving force in much of African American literature is the liminality of this running commentary. I would like to examine two poetry texts that really dig into this notion, but I would argue many texts talk about the running commentary of the white imagination placed upon African Americans, works as diverse as Kevin Young’s essay “Blacker than Thou,” the classic novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and even the hip-hop album To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar. The anxieties and pressure of being a public text are found within these texts, but by focusing on Citizen by Claudia Rankine and There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker, I hope to illuminate how the African American writer uses their work to reconstruct life underneath this microscope. Read More

Discovering a New Library

I moved house this year, and I only just managed to get to the central library of my new home city. I was stunned when I walked through the doors. The setting is really impressive. I did a quick Google check when I got home and learned that it is considered to be one of the best libraries in the Netherlands.

Here a few pictures to give you an impression:


















Personally, I prefer old-fashioned libraries with spiral staircases, rusty ladders to access the top shelves and lots of areas for private reading. But this space does inspire too. It’s huge and even when it’s full, it’s quiet. Books and writing are central—everyone working independently on a common love.

I think I can do some writing here.

Vanessa Deij

(All photos courtesy of Bibliotheek Eemhuis, the Netherlands)

How to Read More Books

StockSnap_T4W98A54R5“I havent read a book in over two years,” I found myself saying to anyone who asked me what I was reading at the moment. Two whole years and 0 books. I went from reading (or listening to) about 5 to 10 books a month to 0 books. How did this happen, considering how much I love reading? Well in the space of two years, I went from having a lot of time on my hands to having two children. Lots of people have children and read you might say. But, for me, it was impossible. I just couldn’t find the mental space to do it.

Bear in mind that I didnt stop reading everything, I read short articles on the internet, Buzzfeed is a wealth of information you never knew you were interested to know. But most of the information is fluff and none of them were stories or novels.

Once my second child turned one, the crazy nights and utter exhaustion started to wane. Yet I still didn’t read books. I think that the time in which I read before having children was now taken up by other things. I had convinced myself that I had no time to read, because I had to care for the children, do household chores, and prepare for the classes I teach. Read More

Quote of the Day

All of our days are numbered. We cannot afford to be idle. To act on a bad idea is better than to not act at all, because the worth of the idea never becomes apparent until you do it.

—Nick Cave, 20,000 Days on Earth


Learning to Accept Critique

Anne made up her mind that the next time she wrote a story she wouldn’t ask anybody to criticize it. It was too discouraging. (…) In imagination Anne saw herself reading a story out of a magazine to Marilla, entrapping her into praise of it – for in imagination all things are possible – and then triumphantly announcing herself the author. 

– Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery

I love how Anne imagines being a published author and the struggles she encounters to become one, in the series Anne of Green Gables. One of her struggles is dealing with critique—people who ‘don’t get it’; people who have nothing positive to say; people who have a vague comment like ‘I didn’t like that bit’ without explaining why. It can indeed be very discouraging.

That doesn’t mean that as a professional writer you can do without critique. The right people – usually other writers – can help you see the flaws in the language and in the story. But finding the right critics is only half the battle. Most beginning writers have to learn to accept critique. No story – however good you are as a writer – is flawless after the first draft. Read More