In his influential work The Wounded Storyteller (1995), sociologist Arthur W. Frank makes a move that has been largely undertheorized: the application of postcolonial theory to illness narratives. “Just as political and economic colonialism took over geographic areas,” he writes, “modernist medicine claimed the body of the patients as its territory, at least for the duration of the treatment” (10). Taking his cue from postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak, who has argued that the master texts of the colonizer need the colonized without acknowledging that need, Frank sees the clinical case history and the medical research article as medical analogs of this colonial master text – they need the body of the patient, but cannot acknowledge its complete humanity and individuality. The voice of the ill person that emerges in the wake of such a medical colonization must be, in effect, a postcolonial one.
This is not to say that historians have not undertaken work to examine the problematic colonial histories of medical science itself. Megan Vaughan in Curing Their Ills (1991) and David Arnold in Colonizing the Body (1993), for instance, have explored the history of Western biomedicine in Africa and India respectively, and how the colonizer’s medical discourse both suppressed and appropriated indigenous medical knowledges. While I am interested in the practice of colonial medicine on a larger scale and its effect on the individual body, I want to theorize the postcolonial ill body’s voice in the current historical moment. End-of-life narratives that describe events in the wake of disease and medical intervention provide a great opportunity for this endeavor, especially one memoir by a pioneer of postcolonial theory: Edward Said.
Said’s memoir Out of Place (2000) reflects his later-life fascination with the aesthetics of what he called “late style,” the mode of composition he recognized in the late works of numerous writers and musicians and which he wrote about in the unfinished monograph On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain (2006)—a book that, perhaps fittingly, was published posthumously. In the first chapter of this monograph, Said outlines two kinds of lateness: one in which the aged artist exudes a hard-won wisdom about life, and the other in which they evince anger and disturbance. “It is the second type of lateness as a factor of style that I find deeply interesting,” Said writes. “I’d like to explore the experience of late style that involves a nonharmonious, nonserene tension, and above all, a sort of deliberatively unproductive productiveness going against…” (7). Said also defines late style as “self-imposed exile from what is generally acceptable” (16), and as something that has “an inherent tension…that abjures mere bourgeois aging and that insists on the sense of apartness and exile and anachronism” (17). Said’s descriptions of this style suggest a perpetual contingency and displacement – both spatial and temporal – inherent in the aesthetics of end-of-life writing, recalling Foucault’s heterotopias in “Of Other Spaces.” Far from being a quintessentially embodied experience as one would expect, Said’s late style is characterized by an intransigent urge to transcend the confines of the debilitated, aged body, to indulge discontentedly in memories of youthful times unexpectedly marked by a similar sort of bodily and sexual alterity.
Seen in this light, the significance of Said’s title becomes clear. In the preface to Out of Place Said tells us how after receiving “what seemed to be a fatal medical diagnosis” (chronic lymphocytic leukemia), his “memory proved crucial to [his] being able to function at all during periods of debilitating sickness, treatment, and anxiety.” He also reminds us: “my fascination with the subject of a book I have been writing on late style (beginning with Beethoven and Adorno) must surely have fed into this memoir surreptitiously.” Said’s memoir is emotionally fraught, resisting polite sentimentality; it openly evinces deep resentment of an overbearing father, embarrassing anecdotes of adolescent sexuality, and most importantly, feeling out of place both in his geographic milieu and in his growing body, such that his bodily insecurities become juxtaposed with the ambiguity of his national identity. Said feels out of place as a Palestinian-American growing up between Cairo and Jerusalem, and his very name suggests to him an implacable division of the self: the Anglo-Christian Edward conjoined to the Arabic Said. At the same time he is extremely insecure in his body; compared to his father’s muscular physique he sees himself as scrawny and is afflicted with numerous maladies, such that his parents took up the duty to “reform, perhaps even to remake, [his] body” (60), a policing to which he dedicates a large portion of the memoir.
Beyond his own immediate context, Said recalls other encounters with the concurrence of illness and geopolitical displacement. In his early teens he was influenced by his Aunt Nabiha, a physician conducting charity work for Palestinian refugees in Egypt. The “overall impression [he] retained of that time [was] of an ongoing state of medical emergency… so many of these Palestinian refugees seemed to have lost their health along with their country” (119). Furthermore, his family’s final emigration from Egypt to the United States aboard the Saturnia liner carries, he finds out later, the subtext of his father’s illness, as the family was actually going to America to see a world-renowned physician. The Saturnia is also an emblematic point of transition for his mother, who, although she was not an American citizen, stayed in the US to receive treatment for breast cancer and was eventually buried there when the disease relapsed. Said writes that her family and her illness made her “ineluctably bound” to the US: “All this had begun when we entered New York harbor on the Saturnia in early June 1948. Palestine had fallen, unbeknownst to us our lives were turning us toward the United States, and both my mother and I were starting the process of life and cancer that would end our lives in the New World” (131).
The Saturnia thus appears in Said’s narrative as a symbol not only of late style’s foray into the recesses of memory, but also the twin conditions of bodily and political dislocation. This ship substantiates the very heterotopic nature of late style (and we recall that Foucault calls the ship the “heterotopia par excellence”), while also linking end-of-life narratives to our current moment in postcolonial theory. Scholars’ focus has moved from the colony and plantation to the ships in which slaves and indentured servants were transported, reflecting new movements of coolitude and migritude which derive from the négritude movement of Francophone African intellectuals. In his introduction to Shailja Patel’s Migritude (2010), Vijay Prashad defines migritude as “the condition of migration…a philosophical meditation on what it means to live within the concept of Migrant” (iv). Said’s late style in Out of Place suggests just such an aesthetics of migritude that defines illness narratives, especially end-of-life writing, when the author, realizing their impending mortality and in exile from the body’s current predicament, intransigently seeks to inhabit other places in memory. This exploration of the aesthetics of end-of-life narratives—triangulating late style, heterotopias, and migritude—offers rich possibilities for interpreting more recent work, such as Oliver Sacks’s On The Move (2015), where the motorcycle replaces the ship as the migratory, heterotopic vehicle into a life of somewhat closeted homosexuality, and C. K. Williams’s Falling Ill (2017) which asks, in unpunctuated and frantic urgency, “Am I here I ask ask again am I still here” (35)?
Bassam Sidiki is a doctoral student in English at the University of Michigan with interests in postcolonial theory, illness narratives, and biopolitics. He holds an M.A. in Medical Humanities and Bioethics from Northwestern University.
Frank, Arthur W. The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness and Ethics. 2nd ed., The University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Patel, Shailja. Migritude. Kaya Press, 2010.
Said, Edward. On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain. Pantheon, 2006.
— Out of Place: A Memoir. Vintage, 2000.
Williams, C. K. Falling Ill: Last Poems. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.
 In Frank’s writing this applies to all patients, but peoples in formerly colonized countries become doubly postcolonial in their interaction with Western biomedicine, as illustrated in Franz Fanon’s essay “Medicine and Colonialism.”