Uitgeverij HetMoet’s outstanding collection titled On Being Ill was published in 2021 taking its name from Virginia Woolf’s essay from 1926. Apart from Woolf and Audre Lorde’s writings, the anthology includes works by Deryn Rees-Jones, Lieke Marsman, Lucia Osborne-Crowley, Mieke van Zonneveld, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Nadia de Vries, Jameisha Prescod and Sinead Gleeson. The texts which were written in Dutch were wonderfully translated into the English language by Sophie Collins.
While reading Dubravka Ugresic’s newest publication issued by MoMa Zagreb containing a brief preface to an interview conducted with the author in which she discusses one for her most famous female characters, Stefica Cvek, Ugresic mentions the idea of writing a patchwork novel employing the bodies of different genres and forms of writing, which made me think of the temporal aspect of this collection whose strength, I dare say, lies precisely in the success of combining two pivotal writings concerning illness: Woolf’s mentioned essay (with which it opens), and the introduction to Audre Lorde’s cancer journals (which ends the anthology) with contemporary writers’ outlooks on illness and its politics. For those who’ve pondered over the writings found in this collection long after finishing it, like I have, I’d also like to recommend Susan Sontag’s writings in which she elaborates on these matters, as well as Anne Boyer’s The Undying, as two additional non-fiction pinnacles of dissecting illness and its manifold societal facets.
It truly comes as no surprise that the publisher Elte Rauch opted to include these particular texts written by contemporary authors, for they provide stellar insight into what suffering from an illness entails, as well as into what it means to be a writer with an illness, topics which both Woolf and Lorde discuss in their works included in the anthology. Not only does the collection tie past with current elaborations on illness, but it was also published in a time of a global health crisis. Finding ourselves caught up amidst the Covid 19 pandemic, we all came to realize how acutely tuned to one’s own inwardness we get once our health gets threatened from the outside. These authors discuss what having illness entails in the modern world and problematize the way society and health institutions deal with the matter at hand, which we, too, have come to witness during the Covid pandemic. Our attention gets also brought up to the ways in which skin colour can influence the way hospitals and healthcare workers deal with patients, a matter worthy of being given more space in contemporary narratives.
I also loved the inclusion of Silvia Plath’s “The Tulips” in the preface, where Deryn Rees-Jones discusses how flowers become a complex metaphor symbolizing Plath’s body (it being one of the many symbols), for it made me think of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, an analogy I simply cannot evade mentioning, because Gilman also employs the use of an object (the wallpaper on the wall) to problematize the protagonist’s illness and the way society deals with it.
It becomes obvious that the collection brings up a myriad of issues, which yet again affirms my somewhat postmodern viewpoint, that there are no final resolutions or answers to be found, and that by discussing and elaborating on matters which should be more publicized and explained, we are at least getting one step closer towards achieving a better understanding of all that’s occurring in our immediate environment, particularly if it has not happened to us directly. Suffering from no chronic illness, I could not say that these facets were familiar to me, but I’ve had a great opportunity to place myself in someone else’s shoes, which, if you may remember Harper Lee’s wise words from To Kill a Mockingbird, might be the only way to get truly acquainted with any matter.
On Being Ill is Anglozine’s pick for the best publication of 2021 – let us know what you think.
Published in 2021 by Uitgeverij HetMoet
Book design by Armee de Verre Bookdesign, Ghent, Belgium
Printed in the Netherlands by Patria, Amersfoort