Esther L. Jones, Medicine and Ethics in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction

Esther L. Jones, Medicine and Ethics in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2015) x + 190 pp. Hb £55.00, PDF £43.99. ISBN: 978-1-137-52060-9

Framing her discussion of Black Women’s health with the metaphor of eating salt together, taken from Toni Cade Bambara’s 1980 novel The Salt Eaters, Jones explores how black women’s speculative fiction weaves narratives of medical discourses, spirituality and young black female agency in order to imagine alternative systems of ethics and care that challenge traditional medical discourses. Jones uses an historical approach to medical science to pinpoint the role of medicine in developing a scientific discourse of racial difference leading to the emergence of eugenics in the twentieth century. Starting with the examples of Sara Baartman in the nineteenth century and Henrietta Lacks in the twentieth, Jones establishes a history of medical abuses justified by a deviant set of ethical standards, itself rooted in these discourses of racial difference. The major strengths of the book are its discussion of the relevance of speculative fiction to the field of medical ethics and race as well as the textual analyses’ foundations in recent events and cultural history.

The main questions at stake are the following: why are black women’s bodies considered as pathological and therefore treated unethically and what alternative system would allow for ethical relationships despite differences. Each of the novels studied provides attempts to re-imagine social relations to avoid such abuses. These solutions are presented through the narration of the experience of a young black girl from outcast to role model as they refuse their respective social order and propose an alternative system of relationship based on empathy. In that respect, these novels present narratives of womanist survival ethics as a an alternative to the often ambivalent relationship Black women have with the medical establishment (whether it is rooted in a general sense of distrust or a reliance on other sources of support that are more inclusive of spiritual healing practices).

Jones’s project is based on four case studies, each of them relying on a specific novel (or series), highlighting various ways in which difference is used to justify unethical treatment of others. Given Octavia Butler’s notoriety as an African American writer of speculative fiction, it is not surprising to find the opening and closing chapters of the book devoted to her works. In the first chapter, Jones relies on the traditional mad scientist trope of science fiction to shed light on the potential return of biological determinism through sociobiology. Jones reads Butler’s use of the concepts of genomics and eugenics in her Xenogenesis trilogy not as a discussion of the discipline of sociobiology but as highlighting the way scientific discourse and sociobiology permeate social discussions, especially those dealing with difference. Drawing on the 1965 Moynihan Report’s claim that power needs to be given to Black men to establish normalcy within Black communities, Jones analyses the many ways in which society attempts to regulate the main character’s sexuality as she is always reduced to her body/childbearing abilities. Ultimately, the obsession with racial purity of the clan menacing Shori is deemed pathological and the community rules in favor of Shori’s symbiotic model of relations between races. The last chapter focuses on Butler's Parables (1992-96). Through the lens of disability studies, Jones analyzes the role of vulnerability in establishing ethical social relations. This focus on vulnerability aims to dismantle the myth of inviolability and mastery over the body and highlights the difference between physical impairment and social constructions of disability.

In the second chapter, Jones reads Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Who Fears Death in light of Arab militiamen’s use of rape as a means to achieve ethnic cleansing in Sudan. By focusing on the experience of little girl born from such a rape, Okorafor highlights the social beliefs in which such practices are rooted. It is through what Jones refers to as the 'cult of tradition' that ethnicity is defined by paternity and that women are seen as culture bearers. Jones uses the 'cult of tradition' as a way to navigate the question of female genital mutilation without imposing Western beliefs on these women, a strategy used too often by Western scholars when dealing with this issue. Reading female genital mutilation as both a public health problem for women and a culture bearing ritual, Jones argues that a middle ground can be found by focusing on the internal logic of the culture itself. A ritual without the actual cutting could be such a middle ground as it could both put a stop to this form of gender violence and reinforce the role of women as culture bearers, yielding the power to rewrite cultural scripts.

Chapter Three focuses on the ways in which intracultural and gender politics affect exploitation through organ donation. Drawing from Natasha Trethewey’s poem 'Miracle of the Black Leg,' Jones highlights the erasure of Black donors in medical literature’s reliance on the discourse of miracle. She then analyzes how Nalo Hopkinson’s novel Brown Girl in the Ring imagines a way in which Western and Afro-Caribbean can be intertwined in order to challenge the traditional hierarchical binaries of religion and science that have left Black women vulnerable to systemic exploitation. Such a project can only be successful, when alternative narratives, such as the one of hope and survival offered by Hopkinson, are recognized as modes of knowledge protection alongside with scientific discourse.

With this volume, Jones opens a space to discuss and challenge inequalities inherent to the current medical system. In order to do so, she craftily builds bridges between these works of speculative fiction and specific forms of medical injustice towards Black women. It is through these connections that her literary analysis becomes a cultural studies argument about race and gender. In many ways, this work provides the necessary ground to go beyond traditional narratives of race, gender, and medicine because it takes into consideration narratives that do not belong to traditional medical discourse. With her focus on relational ethics, Jones shifts the discussion from a scientific issue to a social one. While my training as a literary scholar made me wish for a more extensive literary analysis of the novels, Jones successfully argues that works of speculative fiction by Black women writers can be a privileged locus for discussions about alternative, more efficient and equitable medical practices.

Caroline Mosser, University of South Carolina