Following Henrietta Lacks


If you pretty up how people spoke and change the things they said, that’s dishonest.

Perspective of a member of the Lacks family

The book club at Courtney Park branch of the Mississauga Library system had an interesting discussion on “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.


The discussion made me remember the discussions we used to have in Shara Jraba , Tripoli, where we had a reading group, and we would try to tease out the differences and similarities between Medical refugees and Subalterns.  This is where I met Nigerians –who used to be active in the Church at Dahra and Medina, who would help the community in different ways- from visiting hospitals to jails, to get medicines and set the papers right. That was in the times of the previous regime, over ten years ago. Now people are wondering whether having a Regime is better than having no Regime.


Who was Henrietta Lacks? She was a black tobacco farmer from southern Virginia who got cervical cancer when she was 30. A doctor at Johns Hopkins took a piece of her tumor without telling her and sent it down the hall to scientists there who had been trying to grow tissues in culture for decades without success. No one knows why, but her cells never died. Source

One of the Lacks family members told Rebecca Skloot not to pretty up what the people spoke.

“If you pretty up how people spoke and change the things they said, that’s dishonest.” Throughout Skloot is true to the dialect in which people spoke to her. The Lackses spoke in heavy Southern Accent, and Hsu in non-native English. What impact did the decision to maintain the authenticity have on the narrative? This was a topic of discussion, in a system where the world of medicine is affected by insurance, law. There was a criticism of the way the cells were used without proper knowledge of the Lacks family. However, in the past fifty years, medicine has advanced such a way, that Henrietta would have survived the cancer which killed her in 1951.


The mission statement of the organization says

We provide financial assistance to individuals in need, and their families, who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefiting from those contributions, particularly those used in research without their knowledge or consent.

The Foundation offers those who have benefited from those contributions — including scientists, universities, corporations, and the general public — a way to show their appreciation to such research subjects and their families.



The discussions in the Book Club made me remember earlier perspectives regarding research, science, ethics and availability of medical facilities

1983-English Classes-Army Public School-Dhaula Kuan Delhi

Remembering my English Teacher- Mrs. Majumdar- (Army Public School-Dhaula Kuan-Delhi) and how she asked us Biology stream students in Class 11, how many of us want to follow pure science, rather than go into applied fields. That was in the India of 1983-84, the year of the Bhopal Gas tragedy and the killing of Indira Gandhi.  Very few thought of pursuing research in pure sciences in India then.

2011-September- Discussions at Shara Jraba-Tripoli

Revisiting the question of medical refugees- we saw in post-revolutionary chaos how workers from Subsaharan Africa were targeted. They still live a perilous existence in North African coastline regions.

The workers from the Sub-saharan Africa are in  danger of being targeted as mercenaries.  They are from the countries where neither capitalist democracy nor Marxist socialism have a foothold. There are no resources to be marketed, no working class that could serve as a revolutionary avant-garde, just starving people. French post colonial post structuralist philosophers became their advocates.

For more detailed narrative: See Blog







Earlier Perspectives-Readings in Riverwood

Reading made me a traveler; travel sent me back to books.


Theroux, Paul. Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads (p. 293).

Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

As I walked through Riverwood-I remembered some of the times gone by, when I had read other stories here.

The Libyan short stories by writers like Wahbi Bouri, Sadik Nehoum, or the story of Bomma-the slave, whose life is followed by Amitav Ghosh-in his book-In an Antique land.

Relating to these stories, like Hotel Vienna-set in Benghazi in the post World War II period, made me recall my own trips to Benghazi-Tobruk-Shahat(Cyrene)-Susa in quieter times and the broadening of perspectives which one got by talking to long-term expatriate workers of Libya and exploring Byzantine time mosaics in Eastern Libya with them.

Now, many years later, reading and reflecting on these in Riverwood area of Mississauga, and reading the notes from the “Reading journal” which I keep, gives added meaning. Keeping a Reading Journal is a great way to deepen one’s humanity. What does a particular work tell about the human condition? What is the context in which the arc of development of a character progresses? How does relation with the other structures of society impact the character? …

And so on.

This led me to the exploring of stories written by writers like Alice Munro, (Nobel prize in literature-2013) with stories set in Ontario. These give a window into the lives of Canadians which a normal  ‘new’ immigrant will not usually come across, as they are more involved in settling down, getting their credentials verified, finding a job, and staying connected with the threads of life which they left behind. For an earlier perspective- read the discussion on Alice Munro’s story-Runaway- on a trip returning from Guelph in January 2014.


It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends

Joan Didion, Goodbye to All That

As we returned from Guelph University in the snow, we discussed –Runaway-by Alice Munro.



IN AN ANTIQUE LAND-AMITAV GHOSH-The story of Bomma- who came from what is modern Tunisia today, stayed in Egypt, went to Aden, then to Western India-stayed there for around 2 decades and was a trusted assistant of his owner, built a life for himself in India

But the slave of Khalaf’s letter was not of the company of the consequential people like wazirs, sultans, the chroniclers, and the priests –the people who have the power to inscribe themselves physically upon time…in this instance, it was a mere accident that those barely discernible traces that ordinary people leave upon the world happen to have been preserved. (From Amitav Ghosh’s –In an Antique Land) ..Readings in Riverwood-in the morning- on the bench in memory of Zachary Jelovsek,(1995-2014).Taken much too soon


A Reading Journal