President's Bookshelf: November 2010

For many years, I have been intrigued by what happens when two cultures meet and their basic teachings about human nature, our place in the world and the reality of the natural world are mutually incomprehensible.

My latest exploration of this difficult theme actually started a few years ago when I was a Fulbright Scholar in Australia. As I tried to learn about aboriginal traditions of health and sickness and the role of healers as part of my work with the partnership between Deakin University and the Victorian Health and Human Services Office in Geelong, I began to realize how incomprehensible Aboriginal Australia must have been to the first settlers, the early white explorers and the scholars who followed them into the bush. In turn, how incomprehensible these strange newcomers must have been to the aboriginal custodians of the land. If you are a westerner, how do you respond to a people who experience themselves as a part of the land? How can you understand a tradition that calls the people to keep that spiritual truth alive through the constant telling stories about the land? How do you relate to a people who believe their country is simply the physical reflection of those underlying stories? If you were aboriginal, how could you possibly understand a culture built on domination of the land and the bending of nature to human will? For one people, human beings are part of the land. For the other, the land serves at the pleasure of human beings. As you experience both cultures, how do you reconcile them? In a world of climate change, we better learn how to draw from these other traditions. If you are curious about this question, try reading Treading Lightly: The Hidden Wisdom of the World’s Oldest People by Karl-Erik Sveiby and Tex Skuthorpe.

During my stay in Australia, I read Kate Grenville’s story of those first encounters in her historical novel, The Lieutenant. Her lead character, Daniel Rooke, is based on a member of the First Fleet that landed on Australia’s shores in 1788. The model for Lt. Rooke was a little known junior officer named William Dawes who had a love of the stars, an appreciation for the new and beautiful landscape, and a natural talent for languages. The story is worth reading as a good yarn in its own right, but what really struck me was the way in which a few scraps of historical evidence could, in the hands of an imaginative author, turn into the fabric of a compelling story of two cultures slowly and painfully learning about each other.

My intense curiosity about cultures in collision was fed again by Winona State’s Common Book last year, The Latehomecomer, A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang. Yang told the story of her family’s flight from war-torn Laos across the Mekong River to the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in Thailand and finally to resettlement in Minneapolis. This story of a journey through time, through space and across the boundaries of two completely different understandings of life and the land has stayed with me and has reappeared in one way or another often since then. In a desire to explore that theme further, I picked up a copy of Anne Fadiman’s book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Published in 1997, the book tells the story of a young Hmong child named Lia Lee who had a serious form of epilepsy. Her encounters with western medicine reveal a tragic story of misunderstanding and confusion. The Hmong family and the doctors who treated Lia had totally different ideas about the nature of health, sickness and the practice of the healing arts that were incomprehensible to each other. Her doctors were trying to treat her epilepsy with appropriate anticonvulsant drugs. Her parents thought that Lia’s seizures were the result of an evil spirit that had grabbed her soul, and they thought that what they needed to do was to fool the spirit and coax Lia’s soul back into her body.  

I continue to think about how little we often understand the lives and traditions of people who are unlike us and how tragic the results of that misunderstanding can be. This question has been a persistent theme in my thinking for so long. I wonder how it will show up next.

Judith A. Ramaley
November's Books