Verghese, Abraham

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Biography

Image by McJudy/CC Licensed

Image by McJudy/CC Licensed

Verghese was born in 1955 to well-educated, South Indian Christian parents who migrated to Ethiopia (See Christianity in India, Transnationalism and Globalism). After starting his medical education, Verghese was forced to leave Ethiopia in 1973 due to the unstable political situation. Upon arriving in America, he began work as an orderly. Eventually, he returned to India to finish his medical education at the Madras Medical College in India. Returning to America in 1980, Verghese entered a residency program at East Tennessee State University and later continued infectious disease training in Boston. In 1985, Verghese returned to Johnson City with his wife and two children.

When AIDS entered the local community, Verghese was branded the local AIDS expert. He experienced conflicts between his medical career and  his personal life as his patient count increased to one-hundred. He decided to leave Johnson City for a position at the University of Iowa outpatient AIDS Clinic. While in Iowa, he enrolled in the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where, under the mentorship of John Irving, Verghese began publishing short stories in The New YorkerThe North American Review, and other magazines. His experience in Iowa served as a stepping stone to his writing career. After the program, Verghese became Professor of Medicine and Chief of Infectious Disease at Texas Tech Health Sciences Center in El Paso, TX.  He began writing the story of Johnson City while in Texas and My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story was published in 1994.  Often described as combing the medical writing of Somerset Maugham and the cultural story-telling of V.S. Naipaul, the book chronicles the tragic emergence of the AIDS crisis. The book was highly acclaimed and nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

My Own Country

In My Own Country, Verghese describes the emergence of AIDS in Johnson City, Tennessee. Largely autobiographical, the book intertwines the lives of his patients and his own struggles between his personal and professional life. The story begins as sons are returning from the big city infected with AIDS, and families are forced to confront their children’s homosexuality. At the same time, Verghese realizes his ignorance about the lives of his patients. He works to bridge this gap by visiting with them and inviting them to enjoy an afternoon iced tea on the porch of their trailer home, or traveling to meet their families in order to hear their stories. The reader is left with profound images and the detailed stories of the people caught in the beginning of the AIDS crisis. Verghese’s discussion in the book leaves few stones unturned.  He uses his book to discuss the flaws in current health care delivery, the victimization of patients, the role of privacy and confidentiality between doctors and patients, ignorance and prejudice, and being foreign in America. The book is also closely tied to his own awakening of his diasporic experiences and identity. (See Mimicry, Ambivalence and Hybridity, and Representation)

Major Issues: Identity

My Own Country organizes itself around the issue of identity. It represents Verghese’s life-long struggle with his own identity. In America, foreign implies another “homeland,” an ethnic home to which one can return. Verghese struggles between multiple worlds. On the revolution in Ethiopia, he says, “It was a terrible feeling, being labeled an expatriate in your own country” (Holley 48). Verghese’s Ethiopian birth, Indian descent, and Christian faith create a complex identity. He confronts these “worlds” in his text. The migration of Indians from India to Africa is told through the story of his parents. This story continues in “the next wave on to Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, London . . . and even Johnson City, Tennessee” (Verghese 16).  Verghese connects to this tradition of displacement and migration, but does not find a sense of community there. Among the Indian families in Johnson City, Verghese is an outsider. He refuses the financial success that lies at the “root of the hierarchy” (205), and finds joy in being a “hero of sorts” amongst the children (206). Within the larger community, Verghese is aware of his status as a “foreign doctor.”   However, his anger is directed against his fellow professionals, not the community: “Sometimes I felt that I was accepted only as long as they [medical community]  needed me, as long as I could be of service to them” (308). In such explorations, he shows what it means to be at once a skilled professional and ethnic or racial outsider in a closely knit community, town, or profession.

My Own Country also describes the identities of those suffering with AIDS. Verghese explores how easy it is for society to give a disease an identity, but it is impossible for those affected by the disease to refuse that identity (See Essentialism). In Johnson City, as in many places at the outset of the AIDS crisis, gay men were seen as “deserving” AIDS, while others are described as “innocent victims.” In the book, a heterosexual man contracts AIDS from a blood transfusion and passes it on to his wife.  His struggle to keep his condition a secret from his community, friends, and family illustrates how they “believed the ugly metaphors of AIDS: AIDS = gay, AIDS = sin. They could not get past what it seemed to imply about lifestyle and morality” (291). They had so deeply internalized what society said it meant to have AIDS that they could not see that they were in a position to dispel the myth and their story illustrates ways in which identity is formed as much from the (mis-)conceptions of others as it is a matter of individuals coming to terms with themselves.

Narrative and Otherness

The power of telling a story is central to Verghese’s relation to his patients. A story can serve to either save an individual’s dignity or deny them their right to it. The stories Verghese extracts from his patients are integral to his ability to treat them. Verghese sees this process as a lost art in medicine. The necessity to perform a billable procedure overrides the ability to hear the story the patient is telling and the disease they are experiencing. In this process, Verghese extracts something therapeutic from narrative and blends his roles as author and doctor. In a sense, we come to learn in My Own Country how stories get woven together, as his patients’ stories become part of the fabric of Verghese’s life, and what he gains, either professionally or personally, from listening to others’ stories in the process of telling his own. Stories, then, become an ethical concern of understanding oneself as well as others. (See Orientalism and Gayatri Spivak)

Verghese represents the “other” in many ways. He is the “other” doctor, foreign and from another place. People can trust him because he does not have the face of a minister, father, or social authority. Verghese is also made an “other” by the way he practices medicine. His eagerness to work with AIDS patients and the care and time he puts into each individual, makes him an “other” to the rest of the medical community. Finally, there is his personal” otherness.” Verghese lacks a home or a place to identify himself. It is Frank’s question which concerns Verghese: “What is ‘home’ but a place without Otherness, where all are part of the One?” (58).

Bibliography

  • Holley, Joe. “The Doctor Is In.”  Texas Monthly. June 1997: 48-53.
  • Klass, Perri. “AIDS in the Heartland.” The New York Times Book Review. 28 Aug. 1994: 1-21.
  • Frank, Arthur W. “Cancer in the Community: Class and Medical Authority.” Second Opinion. July 1995: 53-59.
  • Verghese, Abraham. Interview. All Things Considered. Natl. Public Radio. 16 May 1994.

Books by Abraham Verghese

  • Verghese, Abraham. My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story. New York: Vintage, 1994.
  • —. The Tennis Partner: A Story of Friendship and Loss. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999.
  • —. Cutting for Stone. New York: Knopf, 2009.

Verghese has also written many essays and articles. For a comprehensive list, please see: http://www.abrahamverghese.com/

Author: Nishu Shah, Spring 1998
Last edited: May 2017

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