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Reading for Writing – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

January 14, 2022

This is one of the first books in Natalie Goldberg’s 2011 yearlong workshop called “Inside out Intensive”. As I mentioned in my 2022 goals, I will be carefully reading through this list of books in an effort to read more carefully and wholesomely. The goal is to become better at close reading and understand how authors do what they do. I’m thinking that I’ll probably do a couple of posts about each book and see what happens.

So why this book first? Well, I already had it on my shelf and have been wanting to read it for a while. It appeals to my scientific background and seemed like a good place to start looking more closely at how authors write, considering I’m very familiar with the writing styles of popular science novels.

What’s it about? Henrietta Lacks was a black woman in the 1950’s who had cervical cancer. During her treatment, doctors took and cultured cells from her tumor without her permission. The cell line turned into what we now call HeLa cells and have been used in scientific research that runs the gamut from making vaccines to cloning to gene therapy. Scientists and organizations buy, sell, and trade HeLa cells all over the world and the family of Henrietta Lacks hasn’t seen any of the money from it. The back cover description says it’s a “collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing”.

Progress? I’m only on page 48 of 310.

Observations and Thoughts about Writing?

  • The author religiously uses the language and dialects of the people she interviews in her writing. There is a note by the author at the beginning of the book saying she hoped to capture the character and language of the times and the family more faithfully by depicting the voices more honestly. This seems to me a common occurrence in fiction, to have characters with unique dialects and figures of speech. It helps create personality. I’m excited to see how it develops in a work of nonfiction.
  • There are several notes included in the first few chapters from family journals and from hospital patient notes. The stark contrast between the language in the notes (warm and descriptive vs. blunt and impersonal) immediately portrays an “us against them” escalation of the story before there is any action along those lines. It seamlessly creates an expectation from the reader that we should expect continuing escalation along these lines.

Other Thoughts and Questions?

  • The first few chapters talk a lot about Henrietta’s history and the state of medical care and racial inequity in the 1950’s. In the face of history and continued issues of racial and social inequality, I am thankful for this opportunity to reflect on my privilege racially, socially, and economically. I am hopeful that reading this book will increase my understanding of these issues and help me become a more conscientious person.
  • I’m interested in how the author switches from personal storytelling (i.e., what the family is thinking or doing) to more formal medical information. Are these divided by chapters? Transition sentences? How do these strategies help move the story further along?

Has anyone else read this book? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments!

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