Reading, Memoir and ‘The Big C’: An interview with Melinda Harvey

Melinda Harvey is one of our current Wheeler Centre Hot Desk fellows, supported by the Readings Foundation. She’s working on a creative non-fiction essay called ‘Lip Service’ (part memoir, part literary criticism), which will explore the experience of being pregnant and a cancer patient at the same time and ponder the truism that literature offers consolation. Since she’s taken up her fellowship, she’s been approached by publishers who are interested in her project – and in turning it into a book.

We spoke to Melinda about what she’s working on, her strange relationship with memoir, her passion for literature, and writing both within and against the ‘Big C’ genre.

'I don't agree that having an illness and emerging from an illness makes you a better person, or somehow you've tapped into the meaning of life,' says Melinda Harvey.

'I don't agree that having an illness and emerging from an illness makes you a better person, or somehow you've tapped into the meaning of life,' says Melinda Harvey.

What made you decide to write your essay?

I’ve always had a liking for the third-person essay as a genre. I like its ability to talk about a personal experience, but also the way it creates bridges that connect personal experience to bigger questions. I also like its size. I like the way that it can disappear more readily than a book: It gets published, people read it and find it, but then ..

It’s not out there on bookshop shelves for a long time.

Exactly. This is how I imagined I would deal with the bizarre set of circumstances that happened to me. I felt the need to make a private sense of it, and on a complete whim, I put this application in. I didn’t really know if I wanted to write this essay or not. Getting this fellowship gave me the incentive, and the encouragement I desperately needed, to see where it went.

The fact that my cancer diagnosis and treatment became my pregnancy; the two things have been extremely hard to separate. My experience of a pregnancy is now the experience of an illness.

What is striking me now, trying to write this essay, is how little I actually asked my doctors. Or how little I actually know about what happened to me.

I was just in a kind of shock. Maybe this leads into the difficulties of writing this essay, but I’ve been shocked at how much of a good girl I was during that time. I let the expert tell me what I needed to do and I did it.

What I’m finding, writing this essay, is that I’m actually quite bored by my own story. It’s not that I don’t want to go over it; I’m actually someone who likes to talk about things as they happen to me. I don’t feel reluctant to reveal things. But I’m bored by my own story. And I’ve also discovered I have a terrible memory. So I’m actually the worst possible person to be writing anything that involves an account of my own past. I swore off writing a diary as a teenager because I thought it was too self-indulgent.

And you’re writing a memoir?

I know! But, that said, I don’t know how much of a memoir it is. It’s an excuse to write about something I do feel rather passionate about and that is, I guess, the uses of literature in a world in which we might not think it has any anymore. I’m discovering that I’m in a genre of cancer patients who talk about reading.

You’ve read the Brenda Walker book, Reading by Moonlight?

Yes I have. I read it while I was sick. But I’ve since discovered that there are other books too. The one I’m reading right now is Susan Gubar’s book, Memoirs of a Debulked Woman. She’s a feminist literary scholar, she co-wrote The Madwoman in the Attic. She had ovarian cancer. These narratives seem to be ones of reading giving patients solace in a time of crisis. But my own experience is that it didn’t.

So, while I’m having this daily conversation with people like Brenda Walker and Susan Gubar in my head, and they’re terrific company, I feel like I might be challenging some of their assumptions about how useful reading might be.

The personal is my excuse to write about what is a challenge for me on a daily basis: to supply justifications for the place of literature in the academy where it’s getting squeezed out. This essay is a sort of a swan song, before I get kicked out of universities, because I don’t know how much longer literature’s got in these kinds of places anymore.

Because of the focus on things being directed towards finding a job afterwards?

Exactly. The discourse around universities is all around skills. Literature tries to make that argument, but that makes us no different from history or from philosophy – they’re kind of teaching very similar skills. So the specific kind of knowledge that we might be discussing or offering, not many arguments are made about that. And the ones that are made aren’t very convincing.

Is it difficult that you’re writing this to argue for the worth of literature and yet your own experience is that it wasn’t a consolation?

Yes, it is. But I think I’ve decided that the piece is more a pondering. It’s not a polemic about the use of literature. I’ll ask the question of why we think literature should have a use. And who has said that it does? And why has it worked for them? So, at the moment, the essay is structured around little scenes where I do some kind of empirical research on this theme.

One thing that I do in the essay is that I have bibliotherapy. You know, Alain De Botton’s School of Life, they offer a service, a one-on-one service where you can go and see a bibliotherapist. He or she is basically a therapist who hears about your problems, then offers you a reading list. And it costs 80 pounds. Is prescribed reading better than the kind of things you seek out for yourself?

So yes, I’m trying always to link what happened to me to something I can say about reading. And that’s the way that I am hoping that I won’t be simply navel gazing and also I won’t bore myself stupid writing my story.

Do you think you’re bored with your story because it’s the kind of experience that you do have to retell to people?

I think it’s my natural predilection not to be very interested in myself, or at least it’s a trained disinterest in myself. As a teenager, I didn’t know about Susan Sontag, but I think I had a very similar attitude to her. I think she was someone who wanted to be interested in things out there, and didn’t want to be interested in herself. There was this kind of decision not to be that kind of a woman. I think that’s why we get books like her AIDS book and her cancer book. Illness as Metaphor: she is processing her own her own illness, but at a remove.

But I do realise that what is enticing about readers for my story is not, in the first instance anyway, my thoughts on The Magic Mountain. Rather, it’s the anomalous set of circumstances I found myself in, where I got married, fell pregnant and had major surgery for cancer all in the space of just over a month.

You’ve been approached by three different publishers to turn this into a book. How did that come about?

I think it’s because the Wheeler Centre put something on their website, because I have not approached anybody. My friends know what’s happened to me, but I’m not out there in the world telling people about it or what I am writing.

Have you read the Joshua Cody memoir, [sic]?

Yes, I read it while I was sick, actually. I liked it because I liked how aggressively he was trying to run against some of the usual tropes of the Big C genre. So it did appeal to me at the time.

I wished I could have been as wild as him. Being pregnant and also the particular nature of my cancer – having surgery on your lip doesn’t allow you to have much intimacy, not spoken intimacy, not physical intimacy either. I had to learn to talk again. And to eat again and drink again. I was almost jealous because his cancer was hidden.

This is a theme of what I’m writing: the visibility of what happened to me. People tell me ‘it’s not that bad, you’d never notice if you didn’t look closely’. I know that. But tomorrow is exactly a year since my last surgery. It looked a lot fiercer than this for a long time; there were a lot of bandages. I didn’t know whether I was going to be stuck inside my house for the rest of my life or not.

So I was jealous of him. I thought, you have what I have, but you go out in the world and nobody knows that you do.

So it was both about the visibility of it and the fact that it was impeding how you communicated with people.

What I’ve noticed while writing this essay is that what I’m totally hung up on (and was during my pregnancy too) is the disfigurement my cancer has caused. That I was told that I’d potentially have a brain tumour within months was nothing! Compared with the thought that I would forever be marked by this experience.

Which is why having a baby at the same time was so strange. Pregnancy is marked on my body forever, but in the most bizarre kind of a way. It’s on my face. I find that I always tell people immediately, so they’re not wondering what has happened to me. I confess immediately.

And going back to Joshua Cody, I was pleased to be reading something that doesn’t make the ill person a saint who learns something through their experiences.

I don’t agree that having an illness and emerging from an illness makes you a better person, or somehow you’re more tapped in to the meaning of life. In fact, for me, the opposite has happened. I feel an even stronger sense that life is absurd. And that there are no reasons for things.

I feel confirmed in my earlier opinion, which is sort of an ancient Greek one. What does Shakespeare say in King Lear? ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport.’

I never had a problem with the question why me? I thought, why not me? Bad things happen to good people all the time – in fact, worse things happen.

I guess the thing is that there’s not a universal experience of illness, or of any kind of disaster that happens to you. You bring who you are to any experience. So, if you’re a religious person or a person who thinks everything happens for a reason, maybe you’re going to be more confirmed in that. Whereas for you, if you already had that belief that was the opposite, maybe it’s natural that you were confirmed in that?

You’re further forged in the fire of whatever it is that you are? Yes.

I never read memoir. It wasn’t a genre I particularly liked. I believed in fiction. I thought people should make up more stuff and stop putting their lives out there. I saw that interview with Chris Flynn, where he said, you should only write a memoir if you’ve gone to the moon or climbed a mountain legless. That was me. I read that interview really guiltily, thinking he’s saying exactly what I used to believe. And I still kind of believe it.

And yet?

One of the things I noticed about my reading habits when I was sick was that fiction didn’t do it for me anymore. I wanted fact suddenly. I was certainly looking for things that would talk to my experience and I couldn’t find anything. My doctors couldn’t point to someone of my age who has had what I had. Old men get it.

Memoir, I wasn’t interested in it and didn’t read it, so this has been a huge learning curve for me.

When you say you were drawn to fact, were you drawn to looking at memoirs then?

Any kind of fact. I was online, looking for accounts … listservs and discussion boards. Anyone who had this kind of experience. Reading blogs by people who had things taken off their face. But also doing really morbid stuff as well, like fixating on acid victims. Feeling like their stories were the stuff I needed to be reading right then.

Because you were in the world of your experience, so you didn’t feel you needed to escape somewhere else, you needed to understand what you were going through?

I tried to escape but I couldn’t. The book I tried to escape with was The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst. These people, with names like Daphne and Cecil, I couldn’t do it. That’s one of the things I’m interested in. Why is it, when we’re going through something, we want to hear or read stuff that is the same? Why don’t we want to disappear in something that will get us out of our experience? Why do we want to remain in it?

That is interesting. I wonder if that’s partly about wanting to feel not alone. And seeing how other people deal with experiences. Maybe you might see something you haven’t thought of – so you might learn something. Or that you’ll find something that is exactly what happened to you, so you won’t feel weird or alone. What do you think?

Yes. It’s a return to adolescent reading in a way. As a teenager, you’re looking for stuff that will tell you you’re not mad. Or you might be the black sheep in your family, but you’re not weird. In tutorials, I say to my students, who say things like ‘I don’t like the character’, that that’s juvenile, that’s not what reading is about. You don’t only read to find yourself; reading can do other things. But in illness, or extreme situations, that’s exactly what you’re doing. You’re reading to find yourself again.

It’s a different kind of reading, isn’t it? It is reading for a purpose. Have you read the Maria Tumarkin essay in Meanjin, on reading for a purpose?

Yes. I’m hoping to talk to her one day. I like that piece a lot, but I think I’m arguing against her, and that’s fine.

I’m curious. What is it you’re arguing against?

I read that essay, and have read other things that have shown me that people in dire situations have found reading to be quite helpful. But for me, it wasn’t – even though I’m someone who should find literature helpful in such a situation.

Even though I should know my way around a bookshelf enough to choose the right things to read, I found that I didn’t. I’m wondering why we think it should. Why do we think that literature should serve that purpose? Why make that argument?

It’s interesting that you say that, but you did look for consolation in literature.

I did, yes. But I didn’t find it.

In the stage of recovery I’m in now, it’s helpful. But just in that moment, the moment of crisis, it does not help. It did not help me.