Narrative medicine may take certain methodological cues from literary studies, linguistics and narrative theory, but until now it has remained firmly grounded in the health sector. It views storytelling and narrative as tools that can improve the performance of medical practitioners – first, by helping them process the confronting nature of their everyday jobs, and then by facilitating more effective communication with patients. Narrative competence thus provides an important supplement to the medical gaze, enhancing the clinical experience for practitioner and patient alike. But narrative medicine also has important implications from a literary point of view. It highlights the special position that the medical worker occupies in terms of being able to observe a cross-section of society. When a medical practitioner decides to engage not only with the scientific method of evidence-based medicine but also in the arts-based practice of narrative medicine, he or she has the opportunity to make an intervention in the broader culture. Consequently, the literature that emerges almost as an offshoot of narrative medicine is capable of creating forms of representation that more accurately reflect the heterogeneity of social conformance. It is a literature that draws attention to demographic sectors of society that might otherwise be denied mainstream representation.
This essay examines the ways in which a medical practice can inform a writing practice, and vice versa. Using the work of Chinese-Australian author Melanie Cheng as a case study, I show how narrative medicine traverses an important space between the medical gaze and the empathetic instinct. Cheng has worked as a General Practitioner (GP) for over ten years, whilst developing a parallel writing career. Her debut collection of short stories, Australia Day (2017), functions on one level as a therapeutic outlet for Cheng’s day job. In addition, by recasting the GP as a repository of secrets, her stories provide matchless insights into the lives of people from a range of different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. Cheng’s writing therefore transcends the boundaries of her own personal history and ethnicity, pointedly venturing beyond the territory expected of her as a Chinese-Australian author. Viewing Cheng’s work through the lens of her medical training shows us how the practice of medicine can work alongside that of writing to deepen our understanding of what is commonly referred to as the ‘human condition’.
"The Practice of Being Human: Narrative Medicine and Cultural Representation,"
Survive & Thrive: A Journal for Medical Humanities and Narrative as Medicine: Vol. 5:
2, Article 2.
Available at: https://repository.stcloudstate.edu/survive_thrive/vol5/iss2/2