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Health and medicine in literature

A guide for finding and understanding medical themes in books and poetry.

Stories can teach us how other people experience the world.

This guide is intended to provide an introduction to reading literature, particularly for people studying science or medicine. Reading fiction, memoirs and poetry can provide insights into how other people experience the world. Listening to others experience is particularly important in the context of medicine, as many people experience bias or feel misunderstood. The stories collected here are diverse and in many cases, reflect the personal experiences of the authors. Many of the authors here have had negative experiences of the medical establishment. 
The guide is arranged into several sections.
Why do we tell stories? brings together articles about why people write and read literature. It also contains a section about the impact of biases in medicine. 
Poetry and Cancer is a good place to start to learn more about understanding literal and abstract meanings. Poems are short but contain many themes and ideas. This section provides links to resources about how to read poetry, as well as introducing the work of two Australian poets who dealt with cancer. Reading and listening to their work gives a sense of the different ways people understand and deal with a terminal illness.
Culture and Health brings together books, poetry and oral history written by Indigenous peoples. Some texts deal with Indigenous languages, others deal with spirituality. In both cases, the different ways characters and authors build their understanding of their ancestral knowledge contributes to healing. This section also includes additional resources which give context to the discussion surrounding language revitalization, cultural knowledge, and health outcomes.
Memoirs contains a list of books written by people whose bodies have been altered by illness or trauma. In each of the books collected here, the authors are grappling with experiences which cannot be 'cured'. 
More Themes provides more books which have themes related to Grief and Loss, Medical Ethics, and Illness in Horror.
Finding more provides links of places to find more information, including a list of open-access medical journals which publish articles about the humanities. 

 

Highlights

Freshwater

Human flesh is not made to hold god spirits. 

In this debut work of autobiographic fiction, Emezi traces the life of Ada. Ada shares her mind with Ogbanje, god spirits who want to return to the spirit world. From her childhood in Nigeria to her life in the United States, her growing understanding of Igbo ontology is the only thing that can keep her alive. 

Taboo

Noongar people return to the site of a massacre. 

In this novel, Noongar people return to their lands and a young Noongar girl returns to her people. This is a land drenched in violence and trauma. Kim Scott explores the power of Indigenous Language and Law to heal.

Her Body and Other Parties

There are things scarier than death.

This chilling collection of short stories contain a litany of contagions which tear apart the lives of the characters within. Drawing on gothic horror, fairytales, and feminism, Carmen Maria Machado pulls together a compelling world of dread.

Hunger

The story of an unruly body.

In this sharp memoir, Roxane Gay shares the history of her body. From a horrific trauma suffered in childhood to an eating disorder, to a career as a successful novelist, Gay traces the ways her body has impacted her life.

Murmur

How does one survive a body that is betraying them?

As Alec Pryor undergoes chemical castration, a punishment for homosexuality, he attempts to decode his hallucinations and grow to understand human consciousness in the face of injustice. Based on the life of Alan Turing.