The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta LacksIn the same way we sometimes debate whether the story should be seen as an entirely separate entity to the writer, so too scientists perceive a sample of cell tissue as separate to the human body it was extracted from.

Except that it is not possible to extract a story from a writer’s imagination without their consent. 

Henrietta Lacks was a young mother in her early thirties when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer that would quickly take her life. She was fortunate to live close to John Hopkins hospital, built in 1889 as a charity hospital for the sick and poor, to ensure equal access to medical care for all, no matter their race, status, income or any other characteristic that might have otherwise given cause to discriminate in many of the hospitals at the time.

Before undergoing treatment, one of the Doctors took a tissue sample of both her healthy cells and the cancerous cells, as he had been doing to most patients, in an effort to try to find cells that would continue to replicate without dying – searching for the elusive “immortal” cell. It had never been done successfully with human cells.

He succeeded and the cells became known the world over – as he gave them away freely – as HeLa cells, immortal human cells that never died and could be used over and over to test for cures to disease and to observe how cells react to numerous variables, furthering science in ways unimaginable previously.

‘In culture, cancer cells can go on dividing indefinitely, if they have a continual supply of nutrients, and thus are said to be “immortal”. A striking example  is a cell line that has been reproducing in culture since 1951. (Cells of this line are called HeLa cells because their original source was a tumour removed from a woman called Henrietta Lacks.)’

Few paused to ask about the woman behind these cells, what was her story, how her family felt about the multi million dollar research industry that made great strides in science , yes, but also made entrepreneurial types wealthy in the process.

Rebecca Skloot first heard of the HeLa cells in 1988, she was 16-years-old, sitting in her biology class listening to a lecture on cell culture by her instructor Donald Defler. He described the many things that have been learned by being able to grow cells in culture, indicating that much we knew today was due to the proliferation of cells made available thanks to Henrietta Lacks.

‘HeLa cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years, ” Defler said.

Henrietta_LacksSkloot made Henrietta the subject of her research for 10 years in the creation of this thorough, respectful account of the life of Henrietta Lacks and her journey to uncover the events of the time within the context of what was the norm in her day.

In much of her location research, when she travelled to meet and interview people, she was accompanied by Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, a passionate woman, unable to find peace in her own life, until she had helped bring her mother’s story to light.

Henrietta Lacks was born in Roanoke, Virginia in August 1920, in a small shack overlooking a busy train depot, where freight cars constantly shunted to and fro. She lived there with her parents and 8 older siblings until 1924, when her mother died giving birth to her tenth child.

Her father lacked the patience for raising children, so took them all to his family in Clover, Virginia, where they farmed tobacco and split the children between those who could take them. Henrietta went to live with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks and her nine-year-old-cousin Day, left there after his birth, by his mother.

‘A twelve year old cousin and midwife named Munchie delivered him, blue as a stormy sky and not breathing. A white doctor came to the home-house with his derby and walking stick, wrote “stillborn” on Day’s birth certificate, then drove his horse-drawn buggy back to town, leaving a cloud of red dust behind.’

Their life there, became one filled with chores, waking at 4 o’clock in the morning, feeding animals, tending the family garden and then off to the tobacco fields to work.

Skloot finds out about her childhood, her marriage to Day, the 10 years they were married and had their children and the diagnosis that she kept from everyone, until it became obvious she was going to die.

It is tragic, sad and yet also a brilliant and informative story and piece of scientific medical history that reads like a novel and brings our awareness to the many who unknowingly make sacrifices for the better of others and that always present aspect of commercial vultures, hovering in the wings, recognising an opportunity to profit.

It rightly reveals and celebrates the life of the little-known woman behind those cells, Henrietta Lacks, who died at a young age from a ravaging cervical cancer, her children’s struggle, the family’s history and all that is kept from them in the name of science.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was one of my Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2015.

Tales From The Heart, True Stories From My Childhood by Maryse Condé

I came across Maryse Condé recently via the Man Booker International Prize 2015 list of 10 nominated authors. She is third from the left in the picture below.

FinalistsNot a book prize as such, it is an award conferred on an author who has a significant body of published work, regardless of the original language it was written in, though some of it must have been translated into English.

It is from such long lists the gems are found I say, and having read about all 10 thanks to this excellent Interview: The Finalists Speak in The Guardian, I spotted my potential winner immediately. A winner in the sense that I intend to read a few of their books. The Indian writer Amitav Ghosh was the only author I’d read on this list.

One writer jumped out at me straight away and I pursued her works with little consideration for the pending award result. Maryse Condé didn’t win the prize, the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai did, a writer whose books intellectuals rave about, but who I’m not sure I’m ready for yet.

Tales Maryse CondéSo I took Maryse Condé’s advice and started by reading this slim volume of essays of her childhood in Guadeloupe, Tales From the Heart, True Stories From My Childhood.

She takes us right back to the beginning, to the day of her birth. Being the youngest of 8 children, the family possessed an extended collective memory and she was fortunate to have heard the story of her birth from other perspectives.

Her appearance was both a source of pride and shame for her then 43-year-old mother and 63-year-old father, proud that her body remained robust enough to support the creation of a child and shame that it publicly displayed evidence of their continued indulgence in carnal pleasures.

The first chapter Family Portrait describes her parents relationship with France:

“For them France was in no way the seat of colonial power. It was truly the Mother Country and Paris, the City of Light that lit up their lives.”

World War II wasn’t considered dark on account of all the dreadful atrocities that occurred:

“but because for seven long years they were deprived of what meant the most to them, their trips to France.”

She recounts an anecdote of a waiter in a café complimenting the family on their excellent French pronunciation, to which her parents felt indignant, considering themselves just as French as a Parisian waiter, even more so because of their higher education, manners and regular travel.

Not understanding why it mattered so, she asked her brother Sandrino:

“Could he explain my parents behaviour?” to which he replied “Papa and Maman are a pair of alienated individuals,”

a mysterious word that would rest a long time in her consciousness until she came to understand it. She realised that not only did they take no pride in their African ancestry, they knew nothing of it, however:

“They believed they were the most brilliant and most intelligent people alive, proof positive of the progress achieved by the Black Race.”

Maryse Condé

In their neighbourhood all the mothers in their circle held a profession and with it contempt for the manual work they believed had been the undoing of their own mothers. They employed a servant who, though she raised 6 children of her own would begin work at 5am to take care of the needs of the family.

We meet her best friend Yvelise, two girls who did everything together, their friendship almost destroyed by the unfortunate intervention of one of her teachers, causing a temporary rupture.

Maryse’s mother Jeanne, knew the life she didn’t wish to lead, nor her children either, she had succeeded in breaking the cycle endured by her mother and grandmother and a good education was key (and perhaps being married to a successful and much older husband). Jeanne was a school teacher, revered and feared in equal measure by those around her. Her eldest son Sandrino and her youngest child Maryse the only two children who weren’t afraid to stand up to her, the others too terrified to challenge her.

On her birthday, her favourite pupils recited compliments, gave her roses, her husband bought her jewellery and the day would culminate with a family play, a short piece of theatre written themselves, in her honour.

‘Beneath her flamboyant appearance, I imagine my mother must have been scared of life, that unbridled mare that had treated her mother and grandmother so roughly…Both of them had been abandoned with their “mountain of truth” and their two eyes to cry with.’

10-year-old Maryse asked if she could read one of her compositions for her mother’s birthday.

‘I had no idea what I wanted to write. I merely sensed that a personality such as my mother’s deserved a scribe.’

If a book of essays can reach a crescendo, this is the moment when we reach it. The moment when Maryse learns that not all lessons come from one’s parents and school teachers, some come from life itself and often when we least expect it.

In the chapter School Days , she is at school (lycée) in Paris when her French teacher asks her to present to the class a book from her island. It is a watershed moment.

‘This well intentioned proposition, however, plunged me into a deep quandary. It was, let us recall, the early fifties. Literature from the French Caribbean had not yet blossomed. Patrick Chamoiseau lay unformed in his mother’s womb and I had never heard the name Aime Césaire. Which writer from my island could I speak about? I resorted to my usual source: Sandrino.’

Sugar Cane Alley

Sugar Cane Alley

Sandrino introduces her to to a treasure. La Rue Case-Negres (Black Shack Alley) by Joseph Zobel and his hero José Hassan. It was made into an award-winning film titled Sugar Cane Alley.

It was her first introduction to a world no one up until that moment had ever mentioned; a world that highlighted slavery, the slave trade, colonial oppression, the exploitation of man by man and colour prejudice.

‘I was scared to reveal how José and I were worlds apart. In the eyes of this Communist teacher, in the eyes of the entire class, the real Caribbean was the one I was guilty of not knowing.’

These glimpses into the more significant and memorable aspects of childhood that shaped the author Maryse Condé are insightful, engaging and honest. Just as her consciousness is awakened, the vignettes finish and leave the reader desperate to know more.

I had intended to read this volume over time, but once I started reading I couldn’t stop, it is almost like reading a coming-of-age novella and at its conclusion, the writers fiction will begin. For Condé’s first novel Hérémakhonon is about a character raised in Guadeloupe, educated in Paris, who then travels to Africa in search of a recognisable past, just as she did.

‘Veronica has spent her childhood in Guadeloupe and, after a period as a student in Paris, wants to escape that island’s respectable black bourgeoisie, which she regards as secretly afraid of its own inferiority. She travels to an unnamed West African state and, while there, seeks an authentically African past with which she will be able to identify.’

Tales From The Heart is an excellent read and an intriguing introduction to the writer and her influences and will certainly make you want to read more of her work. I am very happy I have these three novels on the shelf to follow-up with only I am missing that debut novel which I really want to read now too! Very highly recommended.

Literary Works of Maryse Condé

My Other Reviews

Victoire, My Mother’s Mother 

Segu

The Story of the Cannibal Woman

A Season in Rihata

Click Here to Buy a book by Maryse Condé

 

The Hare with Amber Eyes, A Hidden Inheritance

The Hare with Amber Eyes

What a story this hare could have told should he have possessed the gift of speech. Instead we see him hunched there, ears pinned back, quivering, stunned by the journey he has taken, the events that have occurred around him, surprised to have survived when so many of his companion artifacts, the more sturdy furnishings, grand paintings and even other ceramics, did not.

The Hare With Amber Eyes is a Japanese netsuke, a miniature sculpture (though they can be wood or ivory) invented in the 17th century, not just as an objet d’art, but a functional kind of toggle to attach to the end of a cord for a pouch that a man might carry, since most of the garments they wore did not contain pockets (the two Japanese characters ne+tsuke mean “root” and “to attach”).

The hare is part of a collection of 264 netsuke purchased by the third son of an aspiring and ambitious Jewish family, Charles Ephrussi (son of Leon).

By 1860 the family had become the greatest grain-exporters in the world. In 1857 the two elder sons were sent out from Odessa to Vienna, the capital city of the sprawling Hapsburg Empire. They bought a huge house in the city centre, and for ten years this was the home to a shifting population of grandparents, children and grandchildren as the family moved backwards and forwards between the two cities. One of the sons, my great-great grandfather Ignace, was tasked with handling Ephrussi business in the Austro-Hungarian Empire from this Vienna base. Paris came next: Leon, the older son, was tasked with establishing the family and business there.

Hare Amber EyesBeing the third son, Charles was spared the obligation of being groomed for the financial sector in the family business (though it may well be he was not cut out for it either as de Waal speculates), preferring to frequent the cafes, salons and a certain boudoir of an older, married woman, attaching himself only ever temporarily to that which he admired – having already lived in three large cities, with his languages, wealth and a passionate interest in the arts, he had plenty of time to indulge his many passions.

It was through his pursuits in the arts, the start of his own collection, mingling with artists, other collectors and art dealers, writers about the arts, that he became interested in Japonisme, a rarity when it began appearing and so desirous. He would purchase a large collection of netsuke from the Parisian art dealer Philippe Sichel who travelled to Japan in 1874.

There is a wonderful connection to Proust throughout this part of the book, one that was a pleasure to discover, without the necessity of having read him, if anything it is an interesting introduction to that group of intellectuals of the 1880’s – 1900’s, Charles Ephrussi himself one of the models for Proust’s depiction of Swann in Swann’s Way.

The author of the book, Edmund de Waal is a descendant of the Ephrussi family and has inherited the 264 netsuke. He is a ceramic potter himself and spent two years studying in Japan, after many years as an apprentice in England. It was in Tokyo, while visiting his Uncle Iggie (another Ignace) that he first laid eyes and hands on the family netsuke that would eventually become his, learning a little of their journey from Paris to Vienna, London and back to Tokyo. Eventually he would spend five years researching what would become this incredible book.

He too, is the third son, though his is no longer a global banking family with the same expectations of its protege. Although he shares similar characteristics to his ancestors, those who did manage to escape the family business and were able to develop that appreciation and eye for a work of art, going beyond casual observation; it is as if he converses with these objects and reads them as if they have living, human qualities.

DeWaalThrough this book, he traces the history of these netsuke and his family, as they rise in ascendancy and are undone by the events leading up to the second world war. We come to know many of the family members and Edmund’s grandmother Elizabeth, a poet and a lawyer is a wonderful woman to learn about, the first woman to receive a doctorate from the University of Vienna and passionate about her poetry, she corresponds regularly with Rilke.

This book was so fascinating and so sensitively handled, it was with an almost palpable sadness that I finished it and felt bereft, wondering where on earth I could go to from here, reading-wise, after such a story.

And then I remembered it has been two years since publication and so I consoled myself with following the work of De Waal, who has been rather prolific since 2010 and I was not surprised to see his recent exhibition A Thousand Hours, showing works behind vitrines, evidence of the longer term effect of his immersion into all that research and study of netsuke and other artifacts his family had preserved.

I leave a link to him commenting on that most recent exhibition and a wonderful article in the Telegraph, in which I learn that De Waal has recently returned from a trip to Jingdezhen, home of the purest clay in China, where porcelain has been made for 1,000 years. This was a research trip for his next book and for a collaboration with the Chinese porcelain collections at the Fitzwilliams Museum for an upcoming exhibition:

De Waal is animated, inspired, gesticulating with his long fingered hands; there is a hum of creativity around him. You can almost see the words fizzing in his head, feel the ideas taking root, springing up out of nothing and arranging themselves in little groups, to form stories, dramas, like his pots.

The Netsukephotos of some of the Ephrussi collection + family pictures

Article Edmund de Waal on his new exhibition, A Thousand Hours by Jessamy Calkin

Video Watch Edmund De Waal transform clay into beautiful works of art