Hiram College

By Jory Gomes ’18

Hiram College’s Center for Literature and Medicine is hosting its first Graphic Medicine Competition, with both students and members of the public being encouraged to participate. Ahead of this competition, I spoke with Biomedical Humanities Professors Erin Lamb, Ph.D, and Emily Waples, Ph.D., to talk about teaching graphic narrative and their usefulness in the health professions. Graphic narratives as a genre of writing are becoming more and more popular, with graphic medicine in particular rising into prominence. Authors in this genre are tackling topics like the experience of living in a nursing home, caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s, mental illness, the embodiment of sickness, and even what it’s like living with breast cancer—the importance of which is underscored by Dr. Waples’ and Dr. Lamb’s responses.

“I think it’s valuable to have as many patients’ stories in as many media as possible, because it teaches us new ways of understanding and learning from the lived experiences of illness and disability,” says Dr. Waples. She makes the point that graphic narratives have the ability to open up access to stories of healing and illness because of their format, explaining that “graphic narratives can represent embodied experience in creative, visual ways that are not necessarily available in written language… graphic narratives open up possibilities for a range of audiences to engage with narratives in ways that transcend traditional means of writing or reading.” This assertion makes sense in that not only are graphic narratives easier to read, but they have the ability to display emotion in ways traditional text simply cannot.

Dr. Lamb then pointed out that “the graphic format can make it easier to talk about, or process, difficult subjects. Perhaps because we associate comics with humor, it can make addressing these difficult topics feel somehow less heavy, even though graphic narratives can be quite serious and not at all ‘funny’… the interactions of image and text can allow for the telling of rich, complex stories.”

However, Dr. Lamb’s commentary goes further than just format. She compounds her previous statement by saying that “one of my favorites is Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? [because] it is one of several graphic narratives out there that speak to the difficulties involved in caring for aging parents.” She furthers this by saying that she loves in particular “how it calls attention to how problematic and (financially) limited our options are for long-term care in this country.” She adds onto this by discussing the value of this novel, and all graphic narratives, for caregivers bot present and future—“I also appreciate how honest it is about the conflicted feelings we may have as caregivers. Caring for aging parents is not a topic we see represented widely—it’s not particularly “pleasant” as Chast notes—but I think the graphic format makes it more approachable.” Furthering this point she concludes that “creating graphic narratives may be a good way for those in health professions to process emotionally-weighted experiences.”

Following this discussion on the virtues of using graphic medicine in the classroom, I asked Dr.  Waples and Dr. Lamb what their favorite graphic narratives were. A few of the favorites mentioned were Chast’s book, David Small’s Stitches, Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person by Miriam Engelberg, Paco Roca’s Wrinkles, Sarah Leavitt’s Tangled,  In-Between Days by Teva Harrison (the judge for Hiram’s Graphic Medicine Competition), and excerpts from MK Czerwiec’s Taking Turns. Discussing her favorites, Dr. Waples said that what she loves about Engelberg’s narrative “is that it is truly a ‘comic’ – a collection of short vignettes that are smart and insightful, but also often wickedly funny.” On Small and Leavitt’s work she praised the authors’  abilities to portray the complexities of living with an illness, caregiving, and family dynamics.

Lastly, both Dr. Waples and Dr. Lamb had plenty of praise for Teva Harrison’s memoir. Dr. Waples stated that “Harrison’s narrative about living with stage 4 breast cancer is so original and expertly-crafted in its blend of images and short vignettes. It’s powerfully moving reading experience. I fell in love with it when I first read it.” Dr. Lamb added onto this by saying that while In-Between Days is “more prose-based, so not strictly a graphic narrative, it is an incredibly powerful account of living […] with the knowledge of your imminent death.” It is this type of challenge—grappling with sometimes difficult topics and turning them into a visually useful narrative—that the Center for Literature and Medicine is hoping to present to students with the Graphic Medicine Competition.

If you are considering entering the Graphic Medicine Competition, please visit http://www.hiram.edu/graphicmed for more information. Submissions are due March 1st and should be submitted to litmed@hiram.edu with the correct sizing format outlined on the website. Submissions will be judged by author Teva Harrison, who has written her own graphic narrative, In-Between Days, a memoir about her experience with cancer.