In November 2012, Manisha Koirala visited Norvic Hospital in Kathmandu to get herself checked by a doctor after dealing with months of bloating and abdominal pain. She was told by Dr. Madhu Ghimire that she had late-stage ovarian cancer. From Kathmandu to Mumbai and Mumbai to New York, Koirala went through many months of treatment, of chemotherapy and surgery, till doctors pronounced her cancer-free.
In her memoir Healed, co-written with Neelam Kumar, Koirala details the journey from her diagnosis to treatment to eventual triumph over the disease. She talks about the physical, emotional and spiritual transformation she experienced through the process.
The project of the book is commendable. While the cancer memoir has slowly become a genre unto itself in the West, books recounting cancer experiences by South Asians are rare and can perhaps help reduce the stigma associated with the disease as well as provide hope and solace to patients and their families. Literary critic Jane E. Schultz notes that women’s accounts are especially important, as they are “testimonies that have gone unwritten or unheeded in a climate that has equated women’s physical debility with shame and relegated their biomedical portraits to the shadows.”
According to Schultz, “the compulsion to tell holds therapeutic value for more than the teller.” If a cancer patient or survivor, or his/her caregivers can pick up Koirala’s memoir and see their experiences reflected in the book, the book has already accomplished something important in showing people that they are not alone. But despite the book’s potential social value, the reading experience it provides is thoroughly unsatisfying. It is shoddily written, chock full of clichés, and about a hundred pages too long.
The book lacks the self-knowledge and introspection that characterizes a good memoir. Koirala does not reflect on her experiences in a way that reveals much about the workings of her mind. Instead, she tells her story through poorly constructed novelistic scenes where flamingos and little girls with dolls and dark clouds in the sky represent life and fear and death. Koirala ends each scene with an epiphany (“No longer will I remain a passive observer. I will become an active participant in my treatment, I decided”) which she italicizes for effect, and about 40 pages in, it gets extremely tedious.
“Emotion, or e-motion, is energy in motion,” Koirala tells us at one point. “Allow it to come, but also allow it to drift away. Emotions like anger, jealousy and anxiety, if harbored too long in the body, make it acidic. And that’s where the problem starts.”
Koirala is committed to being helpful to the reader. It seems like she has set out to fulfill the promise made on the book cover that “through her journey she unravels cancer for us and inspires us to not buckle under its fear, but emerge alive, kicking and victorious.” There is no room to engage with the messiness of cancer when the purpose is to wring a neatly packaged life lesson (“Ladies, please cast a fond look back at your journey and pat yourself on the back right now!”) from each anecdote.
In a particularly bizarre section, Koirala tries to explain quantum physics to the reader:
In physics, this is a fundamental theory. It deals with the study of atoms and subatomic particles which are the smallest scales of energy…This science has blown away the myth of humans being the dominant creations on earth. The truth is we share the same composition at the atomic and molecular level with everything— with the tree outside our window and the insect on the grass. We are made of the same stuff… What a humbling discovery!
There is no explanation for how and why quantum physics is a useful point of discussion. Through a brief summary, Koirala tries to make the larger point about the “wholeness of being” and the “interconnectedness of human life.” The book is full of specious associations like this where an idea is put forward but not fully explored, and the result is that sections that are intended to be deep and meaningful end up looking like shallow artistic posturing.
Memoir writers are perfectly entitled to offer life advice. But much of what Koirala has to say – “Live Mindfully in the Here and Now,” “Develop an Attitude of Gratitude,” “Develop Positivity, Drop Negativity” – is so pat and bumper sticker-esque that it is difficult to take it seriously.
There are some moments of real vulnerability and insight in the book. In a powerful section, Koirala talks about seeing her body for the first time after surgery.
I let out a raspy, guttural scream the moment I saw my naked body reflected in the mirror. What had happened to my marble-white satin skin? My flesh had been ruthlessly stapled with steel pins right from below my breasts to my groin…Is this really my body?
Koirala proceeds to talk about the relationships she established with her nurses and the emotional work she needed to do in order to learn how to inhabit her new body. Her account is charming, and sometimes genuinely funny (she talks about her elaborate ploy to get the American nurses to Google her so that she could get better care for being a Bollywood celebrity).
Koirala also talks about her alcohol dependence with honesty and clarity. She reflects on the absence of solid friendships in her life, describing the ways in which cancer changed her relationship with herself and with other people, sometimes for the better.
But moments of self-examination are few and far between. Koirala’s chronicles of Nepal, in particular, are tone-deaf to the point of looking like parody. At least half a dozen times over the course of the book, Koirala, who grew up in Kathmandu, says things like “being a girl who hailed from a mountainous country, I longed to be close to nature,” or “for I hail from the mountains myself and have been an ardent nature lover all my life.” She muses that “despite the ugliness of modern construction, Nepal still remained a veritable Mother’s store…soothing, relaxing, and pure.”
“I love Nepal for its riot of colours, sights, sounds and smells, its mystic energy and its spiritually rich environment for both Hinduism and Buddhism” – this reads more like a tourist brochure than the reflections of someone who grew up in Nepal and has close family ties in the country.
Memoirs need not be expertly written, says G. Thomas Couser. He talks about the “unique democratic potential” of life-writing. Rooted in the everyday practice of telling stories about the self, life-writing is more available to amateurs than other genres. However, there is a level of polish that one expects from an extensively marketed, book-length work. Important moments in this book lose their emotional power when they are interrupted by sentences like “Beams of joy flew across the room, bounced off our faces and wrapped us in a group hug of warmth,” and “I imagined him a streak of merry breeze… a fast moving meteor in the sky.” A couple more rounds of rigorous editing would perhaps have made the book more concise and tonally consistent.
Koirala’s metaphysical musings will at least entertain if not inspire many readers. But the book does not do justice to the potentially important story that she had to tell. Readers willing to sift through the soupy platitudes might discover some gems that Koirala has to offer, but it might not be worth the effort.
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