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'Between Two Kingdoms' Tells A Story Of Survival — And Of A Journey To Learn To Live

<em>Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted,</em> by Suleika Jaouad
Random House
Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted, by Suleika Jaouad

When Suleika Jaouad graduated from Princeton in 2010, she was considering a career as a war correspondent. Instead, within months, she was diagnosed with a rare form of acute myeloid leukemia. She quickly found herself fighting for her life in New York City cancer wards, where she was given a 35 percent chance of survival.

Jaouad started writing about what it's like to face a life-threatening illness at 22. During her "incanceration" — months in isolation to prevent infections — she documented her grueling treatments, first in a blog, then in a weekly column and videos for The New York Times called "Life, Interrupted," which generated an enormous response. She had become a different sort of war correspondent.

Between Two Kingdoms, Jaouad's searching memoir of her illness and its aftermath, takes its title from an observation in Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor: "Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick." The line between them, Jaouad discovers, is more porous than most people realize.

The daughter of a Tunisian-born French literature professor and a Swiss-born painter, Jaouad is a lifelong over-achiever. In addition to English, she speaks French (her first language), Arabic, Spanish, and Farsi. As a high school student, she traveled solo by train to NYC early every Saturday morning, lugging her double-bass from her home in Saratoga to Juilliard's precollege program. At Princeton, which she attended on full scholarship, she majored in Near Eastern studies, double-minored in French and gender studies, and received highest honors.

Jaouad's discipline served her well during her nearly four years of treatments for a particularly intractable cancer. These included multiple rounds of painful chemotheraphy and a brutal clinical trial followed by a bone marrow transplant ("a medical game of Russian roulette") for which her younger brother, who dubbed her "Suleikemia," turned out to be a perfect match and blessedly willing donor.

Her proactive, disciplined approach to life also helped Jaouad through what she has called the hardest part of her illness, which began after her cancer was declared in remission: figuring out how to live again.

The year after her treatment ended, Jouad was newly single, frail, and lost. As she points out in her 2019 TED Talk, "What Almost Dying Taught Me About Living," after 1,500 days spent focused on survival, cancer had ravaged her body, her sense of self, and her relationship with the boyfriend who had so loyally supported her through her long medical ordeal. (Her boyfriend's devotion was so extraordinary that — spoiler alert — it's hard to believe she didn't end up marrying him. How that came to be is part of her story. So, too, is her relationship with jazz pianist Jon Batiste — whom she met when they were teens in band camp.)

At a low point, Jaouad revisited some of the emails she had received from farflung readers of "Life, Interrupted" while she was hospitalized — lifelines that had given her a portal into a world she could no longer inhabit. Re-reading letters like the one from Lil'GQ, a convicted murderer on Texas's death row who compared his isolation and threat of impending death with her situation, or from Katherine, a high school teacher in California mourning the suicide of her bipolar son, helped take her out of herself.

Jaouad hit on an idea that she hoped would help her reassert her independence, tame her fears, and find her bearings: a road trip with her adopted terrier mutt across America. Limited to the 100 days she could be away from her medical team, her ambitious 15,000 mile route was shaped by planned visits to people whose stories had moved her most. Her hope was that she could learn something from them.

There have been some gorgeous cancer memoirs in recent years, including Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air and Nina Riggs' The Bright Hour, which are all the more heartrending because they were published posthumously. Among the posse of cancer buddies Jaouad met at Memorial Sloan Kettering and sadly lost was the poet Max Ritvo, whose books, Four Reincarnations and The Final Voicemails, were published after his death from Ewing's sarcoma in 2016, at age 25. A visit to her dying friend in California was an important stop on her journey.

So, what starts as a cancer chronicle becomes a unique twist on the classic American road-trip narrative, books that include John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, and Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Between Two Kingdoms shares with them the idea of finding freedom and answers by lighting out for the territory and exploring the diverse ways that people live.

Jaouad's book stands out not only because she has lived to parse the saga of her medical battle with the benefit of hindsight, but also because it encompasses the less familiar tale of what it's like to survive and have to figure out how to live again. It helps that she is a deft researcher, a smart, sometimes painfully honest writer, and an audacious reporter. Between Two Kingdoms is a spectacular debut which leaves us eager to see what this gifted young woman will do next.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.