I just finished listening to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on audiobook (though I really wish I’d read it) and I can’t overstate how fabulous it was. Ta-Nehisi Coates has already noted that the author, Rebecca Skloot,* seemed to equivocate on the question of race, but her reporting doesn’t. In 1951, Lacks’s cervical cancer cells were taken by doctors without her permission. She would later die of the disease, but her uncommonly hardy cells became the first ever to grow in a Petri dish. The HeLa cells (named after their progenitor) led to so many scientific advances it’s hard to recount quickly, and the family never knew about the cell sample until 25 years later, when researchers came to ask for their blood.
The book shows clearly how racism, sexism and poverty played a role in patients’ access to medicine and in how doctors regarded patients. And Skloot makes clear that it’s not just a tale of the past: Lacks’s children have their own medical problems, and many of them don’t have health insurance. But the book is really about the life of Deborah Lacks-Pullum. Lacks’s daughter was born just a year before her mother died, and sees in the story of the HeLa cells a chance to connect with the mother she never knew.
One thing about the book unsettled me, and it was problem that was probably amplified on audio. Skloot doesn’t correct for grammar, and both Henrietta Lacks and her family members speak in a heavy Southern dialect. It’s not just them. An Asian doctor and an Austrian researcher are presented with imperfect English. And the readers for the book do voice impressions.
As the Fake AP Stylebook said on Twitter recently, “When considering whether to write in dialect, please don’t.” For newspapers, that’s generally true. It’s seen both as condescending — since people in general rarely use proper grammar when speaking but improper grammar is different from rendering dialect — and confusing for the reader. It’s also kind of a cheap way to convey a tone. But in this instance, it’s not so clear that it’s bad. One of the problems the Lacks’s had with the fact that their mothers cells had be taken was that she, and them, had been so left out of the story. Few people knew Lacks had contributed the HeLa cells at all. And even fewer knew about the woman behind them. Skloot’s mission was to correct that historical omission, and doing it in a way that lets the Lackses tell their own story in their own way seems like a good way to do it. In fact, Deborah’s voice in the book is really unique, and the language she used conveys a real sense of her personality.
But dialect: is it ok to use it? Does this make anyone else uncomfortable?
*Side note, Skloot came to one of my grad school classes, and I’ve been waiting to read the book since she talked about it then.