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The Rhetoric of Illness and Narrative

Speaking publicly about the chronic illness was not familiar until recently. The idea of illness has been misappropriated so much so that the diseased individuals and their family members feel ashamed to disclose the illness. Yet, most of the people would inevitably experience the innate human conditions of being well and ill. We consider illness as the dark side of life, an unexpected citizenship. Knowing that sooner or later we are obliged to identify ourselves as the citizens of another world of illness, we all prefer to use the passport of wellness.

It is not culturally desirable to hold oneself diseased, especially when medical science promises that all diseases can be cured. The problem arises when the citizenship of the ill, or the condition of being ill, is treated with a punitive sentiment as a stereotypical character. It becomes more complicated when the cause of a disease is not understood by doctors and treated as a mysterious disease. Consequently, any disease that is treated as mysterious, helps to form different levels of misconception and fear.

Astonishingly a large number of patients who are suffering from a disease like TB, cancer and mental disorders often find themselves being shunned by their relatives and known ones. Influence of social stigma that leads to social exclusion is common with mentally diseased individuals. Reshma Valliappan was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was 22. Later she also wrote a memoir on her schizophrenic condition. Once she was identified as ‘transvestite’ by some sadhu baba and he said, “you are a boy in a girl’s body”. This is one example of converging disability with different conditions, and there are thousands which remain unnoticed.

Susan Sontag, in her book Illness as Metaphor, has surveyed available narrations of illness from literature to culture. She has discovered that our society has developed a certain kind of mythology to cope up the illness, which often silences the truth of illness and isolate the patient. The truth regarding illness and healthiest way of being ill remains unknown because either a patient does not want to reveal it due to cultural pressure or there is stereotypical thinking already associated with illness. For instance, TB is often assumed as a disease of poverty and deprivation- of poor hygiene, inadequate food, and cancer is often associated as a disease of affluence. It is also common to conceal the identity of patients from their disease, even if doctors informed about the disease, the family members and doctors are reluctant to talk about it freely.

Over the last few decades, Illness Narratives have emerged as resistance to all the stereotypes of illness. Illness Narratives act as the preserver of truth regarding illness. Nowadays it is recognised as a genre of life writing mostly written by the patients, told as an autobiography or a life story. Beginning in the 1980s, the publication of these writings has proved remarkable in providing a better space to all those who want to tell about themselves. While publishing illness narrative in the west is a common phenomenon, in India the field of illness narrative is yet to bloom. 

Arthur W. Frank is known for giving a fundamental understanding of illness narrative. He penned The Wounded Storyteller and At the Will of The Body from his experiences who suffered for being a diseased person. He chooses to call a diseased person as a wounded storyteller- anyone who lived and suffered to tell a tale. The ill person’s stories are personal tasks, but those stories are also social. The obvious aspect of these stories makes sense of illness to potential readers. We usually find ourselves in each other’s stories.  In a similar vein, Arthur W. Frank articulates “the more stories I heard the less space my own suffering seemed to take up. I felt less alone.”  He found a place of mental peace for himself while reading and listening to the stories of other’s sufferings.

Giving space to the diseased individuals is to listen to their voices and stories of ill bodies. The stories of ill people are located in the diseased body and they need a medium to tell these stories. Unlike other fictional narratives, illness narratives convey a direct voice of a diseased body, and its relationship to the world in order to construct a new map of the unknown realm of the diseased body. Illness narratives serve as co-sufferers to feel complacent as they are in a community their own, and for all others who are not sufferers of the diseased body informed a unique world view of illness which is free from metaphor and stereotype.

The diseased body needs a voice for its suffering. Speech has the power to create an understanding compared to silence. Speaking publicly of illness is felt to be a new necessity. Illness is not only a topic of illness narratives but a condition of telling experiences through it. The insights and articulations of other ill people assure us to become aware of their relationship to the world. Understanding each other sensitively after exchanging unique experiences makes the world more humane. In order to construct a new map and an identity of ill people, we need more and more illness narratives and diseased storyteller.

About Author /

Washim Sajjad is a PhD research scholar in the department of English, Himachal Pradesh University. Washim has shown a keen interest in literature and research and has been a part of research community for last 5 years. He has worked on Dalit Literature which is still a very sensitive part of the Indian society. Washim has now been working on Disability Studies- a topic which has not yet been touched upon much in the Indian perspective. You can write to him at [email protected]

2 Comments

  • Pankaj Jagyan
    1 year ago Reply

    Absolutely nonplussed by the enriching write up!! Keep up the grit and gusto dear maestro!!🌹

  • Anamika Sharma
    1 year ago Reply

    👍👍

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