When facing death, our differences dissolve rapidly, revealing a commonality that connects us all.
Local author and mental-health specialist Calvin White illustrates this universal truth of the human condition in Letters from the Land of Fear: Intimacy, Beauty and Death in Central Asia (Guernica Editions), one of two new books he has coming out in 2015.
In 2010, White spent 11 months in Uzbekistan with a team of mental-health professionals under the auspices of Médecins sans Frontières, counselling patients dying a “quiet, slow death in an epidemic of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis.”
He also spent two weeks in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, where 75,000 people had fled in response to an outbreak of communal violence.
There, he worked in refugee camps and at sites where the violence was taking place, both counselling and training counsellors.
White says his book gives readers an opportunity to vicariously experience the lives of those he encountered, seemingly ordinary people who are, in fact, all-too familiar.
“When you get close to them, you realize they’re the same as us in every aspect,” says White. “And it’s when somebody is faced with death that that commonness emerges. So the book tries to show that common human heart that we all have.”
White witnessed that commonness with the death of 30 of his patients, people with whom he had become very close.
He says part of the reason for writing the book is to honour those people.
The idea for the book came from an email exchange with his daughter. When she learned one of his patients had died, she reflected on how terrible it must be die from a terrible disease with no one knowing or caring that you’re gone.
“That was one of the points that I had in writing the book, is that I wanted to connect people over here to people over there, and people over here with the experiences that people over there have, that we could be having if circumstances over here were just slightly different,” said White. “I think that connecting with who we really are is healthy and sort of invigorating.”
In his second book, Bodies and Other Political Poems (Now or Never Publishing), White applies what he calls “poeto-journalism” to transform his penchant for social activism and critical thought into raw, revealing verse that touches on a wide variety of topics, ranging from sexual abuse and the neglect of children, to environmental issues, to global politics and the Taliban.
“I’m throwing ideas out there and hopefully, stirring people’s interest and stirring people’s attention to these issues and maybe giving them an echo,” says White. “So when they read it, they say, ‘yeah, I’ve felt that way.’ Or ‘good, he’s saying that.’”
Having two books coming out the same year wasn’t intentional, said White, but a matter of pleasantly surprising circumstance, particularly with Bodies and Other Political Poems, for which he had the fortune of finding a publisher who liked what they saw.
“I guess I say to myself, if I can’t get a publisher interested in my book, then maybe it’s not good enough,” said White.
White plans to do separate launches of each book in late March in Salmon Arm, Armstrong and Vernon.