1993 / 2月
Lin Ching-yun /tr. by Jonathan Barnard
Hsi Hsi became known to Taiwan literary circles when her story "A Woman Like Me" won the United Daily News short story prize in 1983. She has since published over 10 books here in rapid succession.
Her most recent book, Mourning My Breast, describes her battle with breast cancer three years ago, covering the whole process from discovering the cancer to surgery and treatment. Skipping from narration to explanation to free-verse poetry, she uses a number of different literary forms in the book to describe her personal struggles and hopes for life.
Mourning My Breast was widely praised as soon as it was released and placed on The China Times and United Daily News lists of the best ten books of the year. Hongkong reviews praised the book as both practical and literary. Many critics hailed it as "the most outstanding literary work" published in Taiwan last year. We have specially invited plastic surgeon Lin Ching-yun to write a review, and we have interviewed Hsi Hsi by fax in Hongkong.
Mourning My Breast is Hsi Hsi's latest work. Born in 1938 in Shanghai, she graduated from college in Hongkong and served for a time as an elementary school teacher.
At the beginning, the writer uses a fresh, bright and delicate style to describe how much she loves swimming and choosing her swimming suit, suggesting that she is a healthy woman who likes her own body.
When she is in the showers at the pool, she feels a peanut-sized lump in her breast. Three days later she goes to her family doctor for an examination and a week later has tests carried out on tissue taken from her breasts, tests that prove she has breast cancer. A week later, she has a mastectomy. Because the lymph gland is infected, she goes on to have chemotherapy and electrotherapy. Hsi Hsi structures this section as a scientific report but writes in a literary style, describing in great detail the process of her own medical treatment. The report should be of considerable use as vicarious experience for others who are ill. She also makes some well aimed criticisms of an arrogant medical system.
Medical personnel have to treat numerous patients in a single day, and too often they forget that their patients are also people. And of course they haven't the time to give patients detailed before-operation explanations or after-operation instructions on how best to care for the wounds of surgery. No wonder that after having surgery on her breast, Hsi Hsi found a drainage bag sleeping with her under the quilt, used to collect the blood that drips out after the operation. No one had explained to her its function, and so Hsi Hsi gave it a name--"blood dripper," which is what the Chinese call the flying stars used in martial arts.
After she went to the hospital to have her stitches removed, the doctor put surgical tape on the wound. Hsi Hsi writes, "Strip after strip of thin tape was applied and crossed over on the cut, as if it was a door being sealed for a case of property confiscation." The writer invests a procedure professionals regard as a medical necessity with the flavor of a drama. In so doing, she pulls the expressions of clinical seriousness off of experts like surgeons, reminding medical workers that they must understand people's feelings.
Hsi Hsi mourns over her cut-away breast and resents the scars of her operation. Quoting from the classics, she describes her own hardship and depression: "The Forbidden City's eunuchs are abominations through their lack of an organ. Yet the abomination Ssu-ma Chien wrote Records of the Grand Historian. I am a monster who lacks a breast." With a scar on her chest she can't enjoy a bath, let alone feel comfortable in a swimsuit. She suddenly has a strange idea: "Why can't surgeons sew like tailors, so that all the loose ends are folded to the inside, leaving only the smooth ironed fabric visible with the stitches and scars unseen underneath."
Undergoing radiation and chemotherapy, she finds her moods turning gloomy. From reading the classics, she discovered that the Chinese character for cancer ( 癌 ) has no particular etymology of meaning but rather is just a frightening pictograph. "The character itself terrifies people. Its center is composed of a 品 standing on the top of a mountain (山) . . . it makes one think of white bones on a desolate mountain top. I then thought that people with tuberculosis always especially elicit people's sympathies. What the ailment requires is sunlight and travel, and so it occurs in many poets and literary people. But my own sickness makes me suffer so much--it's not the slightest bit romantic." When undergoing treatment, she had no strength, and so she lost hope in life, believing that all of her former pleasures were being postponed to the indefinite future.
When her physical condition was at its worst, she imagined she wasn't a cancer patient or supposed how wonderful it would be if the doctors had diagnosed wrong, to the point even of comparing the surgeon to the butcher Pao Ting in Chuang Tzu. The butcher is also a surgeon: "In his eyes, what am I but a whole cow, or a bundle of bones, ten-dons and meat?"
But Hsi Hsi went through the entire treatment process after all. "At the end of the electrotherapy," she writes, "my energy is nearly used up. I am drained of strength. By nighttime I am like a burned-out light bulb or an electric toy with a depleted battery--I move in slow motion. At times like these, I discover that sleep is the best method for treating exhaustion. As soon as I sleep a bit, I recover my energy. If I feel sore at night, when I wake up all the soreness is gone. Animals can naturally cure themselves. I am elated to discover that I myself have this ability."
The writer mocks herself for not being able to wear a swimsuit and for wearing a strange new set of clothes--with a pop art flavor--that she can't ever take off. "It was probably designed by an artist like Dali, and the dressmaker was, of course, the surgeon."
In the book she also organizes Chinese materials about cancer, methods of calculating nutrition, breasts in art, breast cancer, etc. As far as the readers are concerned, the best possible conclusion would be that the writer buys a suitable swimsuit and takes the plunge.
Mourning My Breast cannot simply be described as the struggle of one woman against cancer. The scientific data introduced along with the elaborate language and detailed analysis of the writer's own feelings all make me feel that it is an uncommonly excellent work.
As a woman doctor in Taiwan, I have found that women here are extremely shy about their breasts. Unwilling even to talk about a small problem, they endure the hardships of breast cancer alone. I happily recommend this book. Through it, medical workers can take another step forward in understanding the feelings of patients, and the general public can study how to be good patients. Better cooperation between medical workers and patients should make it easier for patients to go through the difficult treatment process.
Author: Hsi Hsi