In the late-twentieth century, pathographies or illness narratives—personal accounts of illness and dying authored by physicians, patients, and novelists—became established as a literary genre. Since 1990, Singaporean writers have published over 80 pathographies spanning novels, short stories, memoirs and poetry dedicated to conditions such as cancer, diabetes, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and HIV/AIDS. There was a dramatic increase in the number of mental health narratives—tackling issues such as depression, autism, bipolar disorder, dementia and schizophrenia—published in the wake of the National Mental Health Blueprint initiative (2007-2012) by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH). These local Singaporean pathographies are situated in relation to broader global trends in illness narratives including archetypes identified by Frank Arthur and Anne Hunsaker Hawkins. Analysis of Singaporean illness narratives highlights: (i) the subjective experience of health and sickness in the context of multicultural, multilingual Singapore; (ii) the stigma attached to mental health issues in South East Asia; (iii) the ways in which the daily life of a caregiver challenges their ideals, stretches emotional limits, and heightens interdependency within a society structured around multigenerational households. Although Singapore possesses world-class medical technologies and practitioners, health literacy rates are low. More granular analysis of local pathographies offers fresh insight into culturally-specific attitudes towards cancer, HIV/AIDS, and mental health.
Graham Matthews is Assistant Professor in English and Assistant Chair for the School of Humanities at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His most recent book is Will Self and Contemporary British Society and he has contributed essays to various journals including Modern Fiction Studies, Textual Practice, Critique, English Studies, and Literature & Medicine. He is the Coordinator of the Medical Humanities research cluster at NTU.
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