1993 / 2月
interview by Teng Sue-feng /tr. by Jonathan Barnard
Mourning My Breast is a book that turns experience with illness into words. The writer Hsi Hsi describes the feelings of a sick person and inserts lots of information about medical treatment, calmly and sensibly describing the inexorable distance between those who are ill and those who treat them.
Many medical professionals affirm the writer's ideas about self healing and praise her as an excellent patient. But ultimately this is more than a book written as a tool for other patients. It is also the writer's record of an important stage of her life. In these sections, she uses other methods to speak of herself, her illness and her piercing insights on life.
Q: A book like this, which analyzes your own experiences with breast cancer, medical treatment and self-healing, is quite different from your earlier literary essays and works of fiction. What kind of meaning does this book have for you? And what kind of message do you wish to give the readers?
A: This book represents an important phase in my history as a writer. It's a departure both in content and writing style. Through the book, I am able to communicate with many different kinds of people, including doctors and patients. In the course of writing the book, I couldn't help but reflect on my life. I put more into it than just another writing project because it's about my true feelings. In it I'm trying to tell my readers to treasure life. In cultivating the intellect and the soul, we shouldn't overlook that the soul relies on the body as a place of dwelling and that the flesh and blood cannot be cut away from the soul.
Also, unmasking a disease is another weapon of self-healing that the ill have at their disposal. Chinese people have always preferred to conceal their ailments, always hiding away illness--especially this kind of illness. But in the end, it's not only the flesh but also the spirit that becomes ill. The method used by psychiatrists is to turn a patient's conscious attention to what were subconscious mental disorders, making the patient face and solve his problems. In publicly describing illness, I won't dare say that I am breaking a taboo, but it is indeed an effort to save myself. So called "mourning" also suggests a sense of what's gone is gone, of turning toward the future and of expecting rebirth.
Q: In the book, you mention an extremely important concept: The ancient Greeks loved intellectual civilization, but besides loving the mind, they also loved the body. The Olympics have continued down to the present. And the Chinese Confucian scholars originally emphasized the six arts of rites, music, archery, driving a chariot, learning and mathematics, stressing the importance of shooting arrows, riding a horse and driving a chariot. But this has been transformed where today we emphasize the Confucian literary tradition over its martial tradition. Why? In Chinese literature there are also few works that discuss one's own body.
A: The moral codes of the past instruct us that the flesh is immoral and shameful, and that emphasizing the body is equal to degrading the spirit. As a result, as people overcompensated, they became ashamed to face their own bodies. And they began having dirty thoughts when looking at other people's bodies.
Receiving ten plus years of education, we have all been taught to stress the importance of the mind. Upon leaving school, we often seek out spiritual sustenance, reading books, watching movies, buying books and buying records: These are all food for the brain. But our teachers never taught us what we ought to buy to eat.
Upon getting out of the hospital, it was as if I had found my body in a hospital bed, brought it home and turned to care for it. Before I wasn't really conscious of my own body. Although I had read books, those books had emphasized how to take care of one's soul, and the result was that my body had been cast to one side. The spirit didn't make any clear progress, and the body rotted away in the dark.
The body is very strange. If there are no problems with it, if it goes for a period without hurting, without giving you any sharp pains, you won't pay it any mind.
There are very few books about the body in Chinese literature because it has long been taboo. From the classics on, Chinese literature has largely been concerned with being gentle and sincere and keeping a pure mind. Secondly, tradition affirms that one's body is a physical thing given by one's parents that cannot be damaged.
Q: For this topic of breast cancer, you used such forms of writing as descriptive essay, expository essay, conversation, question and answer, a reader's journal and modern poetry. At the end of some sections, you suggest that readers skip to another page. The book's structure is very unusual. In the preface you say, "If you are a man, concentrating on yourself, you need only to read a few pages of the section 'Man.'" Do you worry about what level of acceptance men will have to a women's topic like this? Why?
A: I'd like the readers to be of both sexes, but am willing for there to be relatively more women. I don't believe that this book was written especially for women--I have written also for men who are the friends or relatives of women. In the whole web of relationships of human life, women make up at least half, possibly the better half. Not to mention that a report in the Hong Kong press said that the incidence of breast cancer among men has risen dramatically to where there are now more than 1000 cases among men.
Q: Just like you say that breast cancer doesn't happen only among women, you write that most people stress the spirit and slight the flesh, lacking an understanding of their own bodies. There's an American movie The Doctor, in which a doctor only comes to understand the feelings of an ill person when he gets throat cancer himself. If you don't have any personal experience, it's difficult to understand the depths of others' feelings and thus easy to unintentionally hurt others' feelings. Speaking from your own personal experience, do you believe that there is a way to shrink this gap of understanding.
A: There's no way I can become someone else, and another person can't become me. We all exist within the limits of time and space, and so this gap of understanding cannot be completely eliminated. Nevertheless, I still think we can have "mutual respect." Besides respecting oneself, one also must respect others. Listening to others' opinions and ways of thinking can broaden one's own knowledge. By treating people sincerely, one can perhaps shrink the distance between people.
I am quite lucky. When I was sick, my friends would understand and forgive me. For example, those who smoke wouldn't smoke in front of me. When it came to eating food, they would take care of my needs. We can also hurt others unintentionally in conversation, but if people are friends, having seen what one is normally, they ought to be able to forgive and understand.
These days, I have discovered that I have more friends than I ever thought I had. They are nicer to me than ever, caring for me and supporting me in every way--it's really very moving. Indeed, it's because of friends that I was reluctant to leave this world. I was really quite a coward, not a bit braver than anyone else. I thank my friends for giving me confidence.
Q: This book has been very well reviewed in Taiwan, to the point where some people in the medical world have read some chapters and thought they were written by a doctor with a heart. When you were writing it, did you collect a lot of information? What kind of attitude did you take toward reading these research materials?
A: I collected some of these materials and my friends collected some of these for me. In one sense, I was reading these materials as a patient, discovering that I had been too careless in the past. In another sense, I was reading them as a writer, thinking that I should write down all I know and feel.
In dealing with others and in dealing with oneself, there is always an attitude of kicking around a ball. When the cancer comes, each section of society passes the buck, and the organs inside your body pass the buck. None of them will turn around and take responsibility on themselves. In taking responsibility, what would be the reward?
In this world, what should those with cancer do? I think first and foremost, you've got to keep on living. Since October of 1989, I've become a file in a hospital. Inside are the history of my illness and the process of my treatment. This file can be used as a research material to answer any number of questions: How long can those with breast cancer live? How effective is radiation? When will the cancer reoccur? Or will there be no reoccurrence in the same place or elsewhere, with the drugs being effective and the body staying healthy?
With this file and the files of other patients, you could calculate the incidence of breast cancer in Hongkong, China and all of Asia, as well as the effectiveness of treatment and survival rates, providing these for worldwide research.
Those with cancer ought to do their best to keep on living. Effort should be spent smashing all the taboos and curing all the afflicted. If patients and doctors cooperate, it can give other cancer patients hope.