Teaching Creative Non-Fiction with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I’m teaching a creative non-fiction course this fall, and students will be reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, among other texts. If you aren’t familiar with the book, read my summary first.

This post describes how The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks aids our study of several sub-genres of creative non-fiction, including science writing. Rebecca Skloot’s book also illuminates some key craft issues that will help my beginning creative non-fiction writers hone their craft. As an added bonus, the book’s content likely will spark heated discussion about medical ethics and race, to name only a few topics.

CC-licensed photo by flickr user quinn.anya

CC-licensed photo by flickr user quinn.anya

Genre

Meticulously researched and written in an easy-to-follow style, Skloot’s book is an excellent example of science writing, an observation echoed by several reviews excerpted at the beginning of my copy (a paperback purchased in 2011). Consider, for instance:

“Skloot is a terrific popularizer of medical science, guiding readers through this dense material with a light and entertaining touch.” –The Globe and Mail (Canada)

“Blows away the notion that science writing must be the literary equivalent of Ambien.” –Chicago Tribune

“Illuminates what happens when medical research is conducted within an unequal health-care system and delivers an American narrative fraught with intrigue, tragedy, triumph, pathos, and redemption.” –Ms.

Skloot’s skillful communication of complex biological concepts and medical issues to lay audiences, in particular, provides an excellent model for beginning students who are learning about science and even technology writing. Namely, I’m hoping that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will help us discuss (1) levels of language and knowledge, and (2) metaphor’s ability to mediate—or misconstrue—highly technical topics.

CC-licensed photo by flickr user Enokson

CC-licensed photo by flickr user Enokson

In fact, the communication of technical medical or biological issues to the public is central to my work in the medical humanities.  That is, I’m interested in both the language and images  or “symbols” used by experts to inform, educate, persuade, or otherwise connect with public populations.  What tone is used, and how might this reveal certain beliefs or expectations about the audience? What terms are used in place of jargon, and what knowledge or literacy is presumed by such vocabulary choices? When metaphor is used to enhance the communication of medical or biological topics, what images are used—and why? Often, such metaphors are culturally specific and historically rooted, but they can change shape or disappear over time and as a consequence of advances in science. As Susan Sontag explains in Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors, medical metaphors often are destructive, especially to patients, as they are laden with implications regarding sexuality, race, gender, class.  But as I argued in my dissertation, metaphors of illness also can be empowering.

I’m hoping that my expertise and interest in this aspect of the medical humanities will enhance our discussion of both science/medical writing, in general, as well as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

While Skloot’s book is an excellent example of science writing, it isn’t purely one genre, either.  Interestingly, the reviews included in my copy of the book also support this claim. Some deem the book “medical journalism,” “investigative journalism,” “biography,” “historical biography,” “narrative nonfiction,” or even—plainly—“nonfiction.” The generic hybridity of and difficulty with which readers have classified The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will provide a great platform for students to tackle an important, over-arching inquiry question for our course: What exactly is creative non-fiction? What commonalities are shared by sub-genres in this field, and what elements might set sub-genres apart from one another?

Craft

The mix of genres in the book could help us consider craft issues, as well. In mixing  genres, Skloot juxtaposes vastly disparate discussions. How does she maintain narrative unity and help the reader understand how all of the vignettes are linked? Furthermore, does Skloot narrate this story of discovery and reverberation chronologically? If she moves back and forth along the chronological timeline, how does she keep the reader oriented?

Although students will attend to craft issues while reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, they won’t try their hand at science writing, given the nature of the course and the fact it enrolls students of all academic majors. However,  students will complete exercises associated with the craft issues we study so that they can apply their skills to other genres.  Thus, students will craft metaphors of various lengths. How does one explain a thing (and in this case, not necessarily a “science” thing) by describing it as something else?

CC-licensed photo by flickr user GibZilla

CC-licensed photo by flickr user GibZilla

Another craft issue we’ll discuss involves the point at which the author and his or her act of writing becomes part of the story. Indeed, Henrietta’s story opens the first few chapters of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. However, the author’s first time hearing about HeLa initiates the book, as it is a large part of the prologue. In fact, Skloot’s role in the stories of Henrietta, the Lacks family, and HeLa continually reasserts itself throughout the book.

Content

When planning a course—even a composition or creative writing course—I try to think about issues and questions that are central to students’ lives. Today’s students often are intrigued by the concept of agency, or the ability to control our own destinies, and more concretely, our own bodies. The notion that we—even as Americans living in a purported democracy—might be constrained by factors beyond our control is unfamiliar and unfathomable to many students. Skloot writes extensively about patient’s rights, informed consent, and ownership of biological materials in the latter half of her book. These discussion essentially ask us to consider: At what point do we as a society (or must we) place less emphasis on individual agency and patients’ rights for the greater good? And for that matter, how do we even define “the greater good”?

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks addresses race and its influence on access to medical care, patient rights, and informed consent. This narrative angle is likely to generate meaningful, significant dialogue as well. Indeed, consider that Henrietta and her family’s story, at least as it is narrated by Skloot, addresses the legacy of segregation. The book bears witness to the ways that long-standing structural inequalities continue to shape access to not only health care, but also living and working conditions, which themselves are linked to matters of health.

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Posted in Books, Creative Non-Fiction, Medical Humanities

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Dr. Amy Rubens
I'm an "ambulant scholar," and I move among several worlds. As a professor of English, I research and write for audiences within and outside of academia. As a teacher of writing, literature, and culture, I facilitate learning. As a blogger, I critique, question, and reflect. Learn more about this blog and the work I do as a professor and workplace writing consultant.

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