Welcome to another in our series of interviews with the organizers behind Death Salon. Each subject was interviewed by a fellow organizer or event coordinator. Here you will learn more about each participant’s contributions to the Salon, their own fascinating body of work and more about Death Salon itself.
Tell us about your area of research and academia.
I am now what they call an “alternative academic” or alt-ac. I manage the Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry journal (housed at Case Western Reserve University’s anthropology department) and I guest-curate and blog for the Dittrick Museum of Medical History (also at Case). In addition, I teach a class on the history of science for the SAGES program and help develop curriculum for medical humanities at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner School.
I like to use the term “medical humanities” to describe my work. That means I am interested in the intersections of medicine, history, and the humanities. I earned my PhD in 18th century (and early 19th century) literature, but that means being a historian of more than fiction. Particularly, I look at early electrical, neurological, and reproductive science. Scientific discovery and literature influences one another a lot, and my current book project looks specifically at Gothic literature of the 18th century and its relationship to those burgeoning sciences. Bonus: I get to spend a lot of time in graveyards.
How has interest in fiction as well as your own fiction influenced you and/or your career?
Stories are important. Without them, how would we approach self-knowledge or—just an importantly—share it with others? Every culture has stories specific to it that communicate cultural identity, social structures, spiritual connections and more. In the West, we have a tendency to privilege what we think of as true, non-fiction, rational accounts (we can blame the Enlightenment). The lens we use changes what we see—there are plenty of native peoples, for instance, who would consider the historical narratives of western expansion and progress patently untrue—a fiction that serves the teller. That is a negative example, but there are positive ones, too. Origin stories might be “fictional” in one sense, but entirely true in another. How many of us learned more about ourselves from reading our favorite novels as children than we did from studying non-fiction books about the psychology of the self? Fiction helps us understand the non-fictional world that surrounds us, and that is equally true for the study of history.
I have written fiction since I was a child. I grew up in an underground house next to a graveyard, so, you know—there was plenty of material. My artwork and my fiction always return to my roots. In addition, the conscious production of fiction encourages me to reflect on the other stories I hear: historical narratives, or scientific ones. You think, “decisions were made here about what to represent and how.” I have also realized the value of narrative in presenting history—and being a fiction writer has honed the descriptive language that allows me to make non-fiction stories come alive. This is also true of many of my favorite writers of historical fiction—Alex Grecian, Tessa Harris, Lynn Shepherd, Stephen Gallagher: they are giving you a fictional story, but they are also bringing history to life and providing a window into a forgotten time.
How did you get involved in Death Salon? How will you be participating?
I am one of the organizational and founding members of Death Salon, and along with a number of other talented folks (including this conference’s director Megan Rosenbloom), I hope to promote its futurity. At present, I am the communications chair, and I may be directing if Cleveland is the venue in 2015. I also write about death (history of grieving rituals, momento mori photography, etc.) and will be presenting on The Order of the Good Death salon day. The title is Death Becomes Her (inside and out); I’ll be talking about medical anatomies and the sexualization of the female corpse.
What part of Death Salon are you most looking forward to?
That is hard to say. It is such a joy watching our empryonic ideas take shape as a reality; every part of the Salon seems equally exciting to me. I am really looking forward to meeting other members in person, and to reconnecting with old friends. I am also really looking forward to the programming, and to the cabaret. So—I cheat: I look forward to the whole thing!
Elizabeth Harper is a Theatrical Designer, Relic mapper, armchair hagiographer, and blogger of All the Saints You Should Know. Follow @CadaverFormosus