Nelly Rosario’s speculative fiction brings medical history to life

Rosario has won a Sherwood Anderson Award in Fiction and a Creative Capital Artist Award in Literature.

So often, academia draws a hard line neatly separating hard sciences from other disciplines, with pre-med students presumed to operate on different planets from those who pursue the humanities or the arts. In reality, of course, the lines that separate knowledge into distinct categories are more constructed than essential. This was in full display at W. Ford Schumman Visiting Professor in Democratic Studies Nelly Rosario’s reading from her in-progress novel, which blends speculative fiction with medical history while centering on indigenous medical traditions from the Americas.

The reading, which took place last Thursday, was titled “How the Medicines Go Down” and supplemented samples of Rosario’s work with her own contextualization of them. She introduced her premise of a multicultural Central American medical establishment set in the near future. She also explained some of her influences, including the Taíno concept of the Caney Circle, a medicine wheel in which the four cardinal directions are associated with a color, a bird, a food and a human virtue. The North (Rakuno) is represented by white, the hummingbird, cavasa bread and wisdom; the South (Achiano) by yellow, the turkey, squash and innocence; the East (Sobaiko) by red, the hawk, maize and illumination; and the West (Koromo) by blue, the owl, black beans and introspection.

While the conventions of modern medicine would tend to dismiss such models, Rosario noted that medical science is constructed in ways that are not culturally neutral and often feature gatekeepers that reinforce biases and limit patients’ abilities to help themselves.

The confluence of medical influences is key to Rosario’s work, where indigenous traditions blend with the legacy of the Catholic Church. Historically, the Church was a major healthcare institution throughout the Americas, and this work became foundational for patron saints. The intersection of Christian religiosity and Christian medicine is another demonstration of the blurred lines between spirituality and medical practice,

In building a narrative around medicine, Rosario also noted the significance of narrative as medicine, specifically in the realm of doctor-patient communication. With so much of medicine depending on patients being able to narrate their symptoms, and doctors being able to synthesize those symptoms into diagnosis and treatment, developing communication skills on both ends becomes crucial for medical success. Patients who can convey their symptoms clearly are able to accurately paint a comprehensive picture with which to work. Doctors, on the other hand, have a responsibility to ask the right questions, follow up on appropriate threads and resist dismissing patients’ accounts in favor of interpretations fueled by their own biases – which is often a lynchpin of medical racism and other forms of institutional discrimination.

It is crucial that patients have the knowledge to keep themselves healthy on a day-to-day basis – and here is where the boundaries between medicine, culture, spirituality and art can disappear. Healthy engagement with each is potentially vital to a healthy overall lifestyle.

Rosario also discussed her own process as a storyteller, showing the audience a large journal filled to the brim with hand-written text, a clear visual representation of a writer letting ideas pour out uninhibited. Her readings flowed easily, with sharp prose and wry dialogue immersing the audience in a world surreal enough for a doctor to turn into a maggot, even as references to Big Pharma and Central and South American geopolitics grounded the narrative in real world medical history.

That political perspective serves as the overarching theme of Rosario’s work. She at one point called out the dichotomy between western and eastern medicine: the former is hailed as a legitimate science, while the latter, indigenous medicine, is derided as “magical.” Her response highlighted not only the ways that medically – sound indigenous practices are disregarded by white scientific communities out of racism, but also the ways in which western scientific miracles could be considered their own form of magic. Rather than an immaculate and objective field, medicine is deeply shaped by the history that forms it, and Rosario’s work builds on that history to imagine how it might continue.

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