An Emmy Award-winning writer and activist describes the harrowing years she spent in early adulthood fighting leukemia and how she learned to live again while forging connections with other survivors of profound illness and suffering.
A leukemia diagnosis split Jaouad’s life into two distinct parts: before and after. 'Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted' is a beautifully crafted account of this split, this rupture — But what might be more harrowing, and ultimately more affecting, is the interiority of this book. Jaouad gives readers an intimate look not only into her experience but also into her thinking about the experience. Her insights about the self, connectedness, uncertainty and time speak to all of us, not only readers who’ve faced a life-changing — and potentially life-ending — diagnosis ... Jaouad’s self-awareness is part of what makes this book such a transformative read ... book about human connection, a book about the ways Jaouad, now 32, was held by others — the family and friends who cared for her, the doctors and nurses who tended to her, the patients she befriended, even the strangers whose generosity gave her more time.
Here is the key to Between Two Kingdoms — Jaouad’s disarming honesty. There is no self-pity in this telling and few of the expected pieties. Rather, what we get is a young person wrestling with a situation she would have once considered unimaginable, until it became the substance of her life. 'How do you react to a cancer diagnosis at age twenty-two?' she wonders. This question functions as lodestar, something of a guiding light ... But how does this happen? And what does one do after it has? The key is not so much recollection but reconciliation, which is part of the intention of the memoir. What, though, does reconciliation really mean? How do we put a piece of our lives away? ... Jaouad’s point is that we never fully get better, just as we were never fully well in the first place. Life and death, health and sickness … they overlap and blur together in the singular experience of the now. To highlight this porousness, she reveals how cancer changed her family dynamics ... But Between Two Kingdoms is also about the struggle to remain a participant in one’s own life. Jaouad makes that explicit by shifting to present tense in the second half of the book — the part about recovery — as she travels the United States, visiting the people, many of them readers of her blog, who offered her solace during the years she was sick. It’s a bold move, this tonal shift, and at times it can be jarring. Yet this is also, I think, part of the point. Jaouad is writing about a process, a back-and-forth. In the tension between health and sickness, past and present, a new balance must be forged.
In the beginning, we treated the pandemic as a suspended time between two realities, hoping we could hold our breath and wait for things to resume. Between Two Kingdoms, by Suleika Jaouad, has arrived as a guide to another kind of in-between, with haunting similarities ... There are times the pacing plateaus, where length dilutes urgency, but I was immersed for the whole ride and would follow Jaouad anywhere. Her sensory snapshots remain in my mind long after reading ... Not only can Jaouad tolerate the unbearable feelings, she can reshape them into poetry ... Her writing restores the moon, lights the way as we learn to endure the unknown.