In the fall of 2021, Dr. Kym Weed’s course ENGL 763: Intro to Health Humanities allured some of UNC’s sharpest and most dedicated students. Cathy Choi, a recent alumna of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was one of these scholars. The course, which explores diverse methodologies and genres within the health humanities, exposed and inspired Cathy to conduct intensive research into graphic medicine. Graphic medicine is both a research method and field of study in the health humanities that, according to Ian Williams, explores and engenders an interaction “between the medium of comics and the discourse of healthcare.” Capitalizing on her interest in graphic pathographies, Cathy composed her own creative graphic medicine piece, “No Space for Trash from Aliens”. This piece, as Cathy explains, “gives a sampling of [her] life as a daughter of immigrants who are navigating the process of legal residency.” At the same time, this original work served as an opportunity for her to demonstrate her understanding of health humanities research methods in a mode of composition she thought best. Cathy submitted this end-of-the-semester passion project to a special issue of Literature and Medicine, and it was quickly published in the Spring 2022 issue of the journal.
Despite the vast, transdisciplinary field of health humanities, Cathy felt particularly drawn to the literary style of graphic medicine. This genre fosters a creative outlet to “appear playful at the surface,” but at the same time, provide “commentary on politics, socio-economics, and other complex structures that affect and shape the everyday person.” Cathy also affirms that graphic medicine “challenges the rigidity of traditional academic scholarship” as well as “strives for inclusivity: welcoming narratives of various perspectives, speaking on a myriad of health, well-being, illness, and disability.” For instance, rather than relying on standard textual accounts of illness and health, which is a typical forum for medical discourse, Cathy’s “No Space for Trash from Aliens” incorporates powerful visual messages and striking text that often evoke an immediate understanding in ways that conventional prose cannot deliver. In addition, her thematic manipulation of words such as “illegal alien” (such as by drawing the main character as an “actual alien”), serves to add an ironic playfulness to the severity of the topic, while also allowing her sense of agency to reclaim derogatory labels and racial slurs.
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Exploring struggles as a first-generation Asian-American college student tasked with helping her parents navigate the difficult process of declaring legal residency and immigration, Cathy’s piece provides a cathartic release of mental, emotional, and physical strains. It provides nuanced insight into the “invisibility of undocumented citizens” while disrupting the assumption of linear progress on both mental health and standard textual medical discourse. Cathy’s “No Space for Trash From Aliens” welcomes transparency and, more importantly, freedom, as an original graphic pathography, resisting a simplistic and conventional method of academic scholarship. By introducing a thematic exploration into the main character’s layered consciousness, her piece uproots tradition and transforms medical discourses into a comical graphic that freely vacillates between linear and nonlinear ways of story-telling. She also explores the complexity of emotional and psychological vulnerability with her readers and pioneers a new kind of medium that does not rely solely on strict paragraphical prose and systematic essay-writing.
“No Space for Trash From Aliens” boldly breaks barriers and stigmas associated with Asian-American silence on mental health. Her narrative account and informative insight into the racing thoughts and anxiety of a first-generation Asian-American daughter and college student not only exposes the mainstream representations of the “model minority,” but humanizes them. By doing so, Cathy challenges these stereotypical ideals by skillfully crafting a multidimensional character who deals with the everyday internal stresses of balancing her mental health, expectations, and responsibilities as an Asian-American “alien.”
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In addition, Cathy’s play on the word “rubbish,” which explores items or ideas in terms of “trash or things that are discarded and deemed as unworthy of taking up space,” accurately speaks to a community that consistently places a stigma on mental health and illness. With numerous studies showing the Asian-American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community as having one of the highest rates of depressive symptoms of any racial/ethnic groups with the lowest rates of mental health services usage, “No Space for Trash from Aliens” serves a beacon for those struggling to find affirmation in their own AAPI or immigrant experiences. It also informs readers of the silent mental health crisis festering within the AAPI community. Cathy’s graphic medicine piece provides insightful commentary on various complex structures within the broad interdisciplinary field of health humanities, while simultaneously engendering a feeling of respite, comfort, and even affirmation to some Asian-American readers like myself. Moreover, Cathy’s “No Space for Trash from Aliens” resists the notion of the universal patient and vividly represents multiple topics with valid, and at times, conflicting points of view and experiences.
Noelle Escobal is a senior majoring in English and Comparative literature. Her interest in the health humanities stems from a curiosity in how her humanities major can intersect with STEM and other health related fields. Being a part of HHIVE gives her the opportunity to gain invaluable insight into her everyday experiences as a Clinical Support Technician at the UNC Hospitals. In addition, as a prospective physician, she hopes to use her knowledge of the Health Humanities to help her foster better patient understanding and care. With an interest in medicine, it is her goal to provide high-quality, person-centered care and comfort for older adults as well as those with disabilities.