Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer When Worlds Collide

A New Book Examines The Clash Of Asian Customs And Western Medicine

By Leonard Gill & James Busbee

OCTOBER 20, 1997: 

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
By Anne Fadiman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 327 pp., $24

Lia Lee, 14th child of Foua and Nao Kao Lee, was only a few months old when she first "seized." Her parents, in the language of the Hmong, called it qaug dab peg -- "the spirit catches you and you fall down." Doctors on October 24, 1982, in the emergency room at the Merced Community Medical Center in California's Central Valley called it epilepsy.

Seventeen hospitalizations, more than 100 outpatient visits, and two hours of uncontrollable grand mal seizures later, Lia, age 4-and-a-half, was still the beloved daughter. But in the eyes of a thoroughly exasperated staff of doctors and nurses, she was finally the perfect patient: a "perfect vegetable," but an expensive one. The child had cost California taxpayers an estimated quarter of a million dollars in services and her refugee parents a host of ritually sacrificed cows, chickens, and pigs. Anne Fadiman's prodigiously researched, equitably reported account of this complicated story is subtitled A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures.

The collision over how to treat Lia was only one in a line of collisions stretching back millennia in the lives of the mountain-loving Hmong, from their subjugation under a Chinese emperor circa 2700 B.C. to their enlistment as fighters in the CIA's "Quiet War" in Laos. Force, not common sense, has dictated Hmong history, and well-intentioned force, not common sense, marked Lia's course of Western medical treatment.

You may in these pages be inclined to see her parents as criminally negligent or see them, since one specialist did, as "either very stupid or [as] loonybird[s]." But who's the loonybird that would expect parents, tied to their own understanding of illness and unable to read even their own language, to follow in English an utterly confounding regimen of anticonvulsants, antibiotics, and antihistamines in changing combinations, changing amounts, and changing frequencies, when what those parents were left with after years of such trials -- sometimes followed, sometimes not -- was a child who still suffered terrible seizures and who appeared to suffer least when cradled in their arms?

Foua and Nao Kao, for their part, are shown here to be a determined pair -- a pair determined to hold to their customs after barely escaping Laos with their lives but also a pair just asking for what one doctor fed-up with them called "High-Velocity Transcortical Lead Therapy" (a shot to the head).

But if you expect Fadiman to target either side for Lia's vegetative state, you're in for disappointment. Undetected septic shock of unknown origin -- not the actions of doctors, not the folk rituals of loved ones -- seems to have been the lead cause for Lia's final, catastrophic seizing and, ironically, her epilepsy's end. -- Leonard Gill

Sparkman In The Sky and Other Stories
By Brian Griffin
Sarabande Books, 161 pp., $13.95

Each year, there are fewer and fewer markets for good short stories. They're money-losers, as any magazine editor or book publisher will tell you. And for emerging new writers like Brian Griffin, that's a damn shame, because Griffin has appeared on the scene in possession of a scarily powerful literary voice.

Griffin's first collection, Sparkman In The Sky & Other Stories, has the searing, potent immediacy which the best short stories always possess. Griffin, winner of the 1996 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and a professor at the University of Tennessee, has won high praise from many sources, including author Barry Hannah, who wrote the preface to Sparkman.

In Sparkman, Griffin breathes life into Bucktooth Haven, his personal postage stamp of territory in the hills near Chattanooga. Sparkman's stories all take place in the town, although often decades apart. Bucktooth Haven has its share of bizarre personalities, of course, but they're supporting players, never the main attraction. But Bucktooth Haven is no refuge from the outside world -- nuclear testing, Iwo Jima, Vietnam, and the space race all have profound effects on the town's many residents.

The desperation and longing for meaning in these stories is palpable. In the title story, a crippled man, "bent like a question mark since birth," watches local college students soar the winds on hang gliders, finally deciding to take the leap himself. In "Training To Be An Astronaut," a local thug sucks a befuddled, star-struck square into seedy sexual trysts with trailer-park whores. But instead of being the typical sadder-but-wiser coming- of-age tale, "Astronaut" ends with the astronaut wannabe quoting tired keep-your-head-up mantras, suggesting that he's learned nothing from his glimpse of the world outside his dreams of glory.

The finest story in the book is surely "A Few Casualties," in which the specter of Vietnam looms like an unseen storm over the town. The narrator and his friends talk of the Vietnam War they watch on television, seeking a taste of glory but dimly aware of its price: "We were full of talk and hope, but we really didn't believe much of what we said. Somehow we did know this -- our time would come. In whatever shape or form, we would have our war."

Sparkman In The Sky is all that's sublime about Southern fiction; it's fine stuff, and not to be missed. Griffin will be reading and signing at Burke's Books on Thursday, October 16th. -- James Busbee

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