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Boeke | Books > Boekartikels | Articles on books > English

Karen Lazar, author of Hemispheres – Inside a Stroke, in conversation with Janet van Eeden

Janet van Eeden - 2011-07-15

Title: Hemispheres – Inside a Stroke
Karen Lazar
Modjaji Books

Click here to buy a copy from Kalahari.net.

Review by Janet van Eeden

Hemispheres – Inside a Stroke is another brave publication from Modjaji Books. Once again a woman whose life experiences are beyond the norm has been given a voice and Modjaji should be commended for continuing to showcase these unusual stories.

Commendation is due even more to the author of this collection of “poetic prose”, as Karen Lazar describes her work. Lazar has taken a life-changing experience, having a stroke after brain surgery, and done the impossible with these harsh circumstances. She’s imbued the traumatic events with hope.

Without shying from the difficulties encountered during the most challenging time of her life, she sees the world and those around her more clearly than ever before. “My visual world is back, more vivid and more whole than ever.” The oxymoron of the stroke is that while she is seen as “disabled” by the able-bodied around her, one of whom says it must have been such a shock coming out of surgery “feeling like half a person”, inside she reflects that “I have never been more whole.”

Lazar’s sensitivity as a writer is enhanced by the new dimension given to her through her suffering. I’m reminded of the words of the Sufi poet Rumi, who tells us to look to our wounds, as that is where the light comes in.

Lazar has looked to her wounds with perspicacity and intelligence. She finds that her inner resources have strengthened in inverse proportion to the ravages of the stroke. She says in the opening piece: “I start to think about the private losses. One of the hardest is that I will not dance again. But there’s a story to be told, and if I can’t dance, at least I can write.”

The poetic prose is beautifully clarified, the insights sharply etched without embellishments. Lazar’s collection gives hope and illumination about how to cope with the ‘thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to’. The reader is left with an enormous sense of respect for a woman who possesses a powerful literary skill, and, even more remarkable, inordinate courage.


Q&A with Karen Lazar

Karen, it’s very brave of you to write about your experiences before, during and after having had a severe stroke. You must have been relatively young when it happened. How long ago did it take place? You are a high achiever and have your PhD in English, so the stroke must have come as a huge shock to you, especially as you must have had big plans for your career. Have these changed as a result?

My stroke took place ten years ago, when I was 39. Yes, I have a PhD in English, It’s a feminist study of the work of Nadine Gordimer. The stroke did interrupt my career, but it hasn’t prevented me from doing what I love most, namely teaching English at tertiary level, and training teachers, so I haven’t lost my career.

What do you think led up to the stroke in the first place? Was there anything you could have done to prevent it happening? Do you have any advice to any other high achievers out there?

My stroke occurred as a consequence of surgery, not for lifestyle reasons as such. I had a large brain tumour successfully removed - which turned out to be benign, thank goddesses. It was a very long surgery of about nine hours and the stroke occurred as a post-operative complication.

As for advice to high achievers, well, your approach to that depends on how you define achievement. It’s not just about accolades and conquests. Sometimes it’s about day-to-day survival, and autonomy and wholeness are the real achievements.

Could you tell the readers of LitNet about your writing background? You lecture in English, but have you always expressed yourself through writing? 

I’ve always written a bit of poetry, but I’ve never pulled it together into a volume, though hopefully I will do so in the future. But I do a great deal of journal-writing and creative brainstorming, which helps me clear my head and problem-solve my way through the stroke.

You’ve written this collection of “poetic prose - short, distilled prose fragments” as you describe them, about your experiences in the hospital as well as the feelings you had during and after the stroke. From the first section, “Acute Metamorphosis”:

In the ICU period I’m grappling, or not yet succeeding in grappling, with a double metamorphosis. To start with, there’s the challenge of having had my cranium cut open. Nobody can remain the same after that. Then there are the repercussions – this strange new creature called a stroke, through whose lens the world has changed beyond the words to say it. I cannot find the syntax to put the words “my” and “stroke” in the same sentence for a long time.

But I can see. Mainly medical machines and doctors and nurses, but perfectly nonetheless … I’m not allowed to see my children for a month, though.

It’s a brave thing to have confronted the trauma so completely. Did you find it necessary as a writer to explore the event through words so that you could make sense of it? Is this your way of coping with something as life-altering as this?

Thanks, yes, the act of writing Hemispheres has been a big part of addressing the trauma, both in its initial shock and in its long-term ongoing effects. Writing offers a kind of containerisation. In opting for the genre of short prose fragments, and then configuring and unifying those fragments into three phases of a journey, “Acute Metamorphosis”, “Rehabilitation” and “Adaptation”, I pared down the experience to its core. This has given me a healing perspective.

I had a traumatic experience during routine surgery three years ago where incompetence in the hospital led to my near death. I had two surgeries within 36 hours. It took months to recover from the mental trauma, never mind the physical. I made sense of this through writing. Your stroke, however, has had a long-term effect on your way of life. Do you find yourself returning to words to keep you sane or have you managed to reconcile yourself completely to your new way of life through Hemispheres?

I think there’s a danger of “returning to words to keep oneself sane” as you put it. Yes, language mediates, shapes and distils everything, but realities are bigger than language, and bigger than any rational analytical vocabulary. Becoming overly obsessive about the “right” way to say something sometimes loses a quieter underlying logic of a non-verbal kind. The reason I chose to write in creative non-fiction, rather than academic discourse, about my stroke, is that creative language was more able to capture the existential and physical nuances of the condition.

As for reconciling myself … Yes, the book has helped, but the job of reconciliation, as we know from South African life, is never over. A stroke is not a single catastrophic moment at the beginning. It is a series of continuing metamorphoses through the different phases of one’s life and each of those needs renewed engagement and reconciliation.

I found your passage about doctors quite amusing, in a morbid way. From the second section, “Rehabilitation”, the passage is called quite simply, “Doctors”:

“Doctors coming,” calls the sentinel from the corridor. Figures scurry to stuff fallen blankets back into cupboards, to pluck dead flowers from their vases. A trail of face-washing down the rows spruces up the patients for our first performance of the day ...

Enter Dr Fabrizio. His first patient is Mrs Kekana, an elderly diabetic who has been admitted for aggravating stroke.

“Why you so fat?” he snaps, poking a patch of flesh under the ragged nightie. “I’m gonna have to wire your jaws together for the rest of your life.”

I seethe from the bed opposite.   

It is a humbling experience for an intelligent human being to be reduced to a mere object, a bag of flesh, to be prodded by the medical fraternity. However, you seemed to have experienced more positive interactions with the nursing staff than most in your five months in hospital. Is this simply the nature of the institution in which you found yourself or do you think that, on the whole, nurses and doctors generally do the best they can?

There are good health professionals and there are less good ones, but all of them are under pressure, even in the private healthcare system. In a brain injury ward, the level of patients’ needs and devastation is often very high indeed, and I was very moved by some medical staff’s respectfulness and compassion. The more callous nurses and doctors seemed to be suffering from attrition themselves.

Also, not all patients have the confidence, or feel entitled, to insert themselves back into the conversation as a subject, as an “I”, when they are objectified or described in the third person while being right there in the room. As an articulate middle-class person I was more empowered to intervene in medical discourse to make myself heard.

One of the most difficult things I can imagine is the fact that your children weren’t allowed to see you for a month. Were you too ill to realise this or did it become part of the trauma of the whole experience? Did it have a long-term effect on your children?

I was aware of what was happening from the beginning. It was terrible not seeing Raphael and Julia, who were then nine and six years old respectively, but they’ve had incredible, loving support from our family and community. I’m sure there have been long-term repercussions for them, but that’s their own courageous and creative journey to speak about and not mine.

One of the most moving passages is in the third section, “Adaptation”.  It is a piece entitled “The Hope School”: 

Finally only one child is left. “Your turn Sandile,” says the teacher.

He has only a torso. No legs and arms. He’s lying flat on his stomach on a low black plastic scooter. He manoeuvres his way forward with surprising twists and propulsions. He looks up at me with bright expectant eyes. I wonder what to do.

Sandile wriggles himself on his scooter up closer towards my bigger scooter, lifts his exquisite little face towards the dashboard. I hear the familiar beep and find Sandile’s chin on the hooter, pushing the button purposefully. He rumbles off to class amidst infirm children being wheeled into lessons in hospital beds.

I look up to find my student crying. 

Is it a cliché to say that you can’t feel sorry for yourself if you find others worse off than you? Sandile epitomises to me the optimism many severely handicapped people adopt to cope with their circumstances. I also found that your comments about disabled toilets – where hand rails come off, for example, in the Tate Gallery in London -  and your feelings about able-bodied people parking in disabled parking bays – are refreshingly honest. You are rightfully angry about certain assumptions people make.  Is there anything else you’d like to add to inform people about how best to treat those who are physically challenged in some way? Is there something we could do better to make it easier for you?

There is always someone worse off. I’ve become quite involved in the world of disability and I never come away from an encounter not feeling blessed in my good resources, including my possession of language and the ability to communicate.

Thanks for asking. I think it’s helpful when people envisage (literally imagine spatially or visually) how disabled people will gain access to a place and a bathroom, and put that on the agenda in old and new environments.

I can’t speak for all, but I find it comfortable when people offer help and wait for the cues of the disabled person as to what help is appropriate. In my experience, most people welcome an opportunity to be kind. Insensitivity or squeamishness about disability is usually born of ignorance, not malice.

You have continued to lecture and work as you did before. Has your working process changed greatly over the recent past? How long did it take you to get back to a normal working routine?

Yes, I lecture still and I’m lucky to be able to say I still have the same cognitive skills that I had before, so my training is still operative. My stamina is poorer, though – disability is very tiring – so I have to pace myself more carefully.

I did a bit of mentoring and writing mentoring from home initially, after my stroke, before returning to work, first at Unisa, then back at Wits.

Your family has been amazingly helpful, it seems to me. Do you think it would have been possible to adapt as well as you have without the support you’ve received from them?

My family and friends have been key to my adaptation and coping. Unfortunately all three of my siblings have emigrated, but they’re nonetheless very supportive. My mother, Claire, and my children, and my carer, Mbali Mabanga, have all been so caring, energetic, patient and accepting.

Do you have plans to write another collection or novel soon? If so, can you tell us a bit about it? 

Yes, I’m definitely aiming to write more, but I’m not sure what form it will take. Maybe a collection of poetry or short fiction? These things need incubation, so I’m in no hurry.