No one expects a cancer diagnosis—especially a 23-year-old. At 23, your life is just beginning. At 23, you think you’ll live forever. But Walela Nehanda was confronted with this stark and brutal reality when their doctor delivered the startling news that they had a white blood cell count of 660,000—“600 percent more than normal”—and it was likely leukemia. Unsure of the word, Walela had to Google leukemia and learned that it was “blood cancer.” From that moment, the unapologetically honest and vulnerable journey of Bless the Blood: A Cancer Memoir (Kokila, Feb. 6) begins. Nehanda never saw themselves writing a memoir, but the cultural worker, mental health advocate, and nonbinary writer and poet discovered it helped them to process what “felt impossible to process.” Through poems and short stories, Nehanda relives and relates their diagnosis, treatments, and healing in a way they hope will help other young people with cancer, especially young Black cancer patients, and those wanting to better understand those in their lives who are living with cancer.

Kirkus spoke with Nehanda via Zoom from their home in Los Angeles. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bless the Blood takes the reader on the tumultuous journey from cancer diagnosis to treatment—in this case for leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells. What did writing the book do for you personally as you underwent this journey?

I was diagnosed when I was 23. And I’m 29 now. Much of writing Bless the Blood was 20 journals’ worth of poems and snapshots of my life and reconciling the confusion and the rage that comes with having cancer as a young person. I was really trying to just figure out my place in this world, where I was seeing there was none made for me. If that meant taking up that space in a journal, and [discussing] a poem in a writing group, so be it. I also found it to be a way of archiving that I was here, of saying, this is what I experienced. I knew there were injustices that I was experiencing, especially within the health care system.

You shed light on the experiences of undergoing oral chemotherapies and a stem cell transplant as treatments for leukemia. What was it like to, in a sense, relive these experiences through the writing of this book, especially as a Black nonbinary person navigating the medical system? And how are you feeling today?

It was really hard on me. I kept telling my agent, “This book is trying to kill me.” It was a form of processing what also felt impossible to process and impossible to wrap my mind around. I wanted a book for younger people because I’d read Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals and A Burst of Light. Audre was 43; I was 23. We got diagnosed exactly 20 years apart. I wanted something for young adults where the rage, the feelings, are just a bit more feral. It’s like reconciling your place in a world and society, and within illness and disability, and how dehumanizing that is, especially with all the intersections within us: nonbinary and Black and queer and fat and all these things. It was really hard to birth this book, but I’m grateful that I did.

I’m honestly incredibly burned out. The self-advocacy that’s required in the health care system and publishing in life under capitalism—it’s all geared toward burnout. That’s how I’m feeling now. And it’s such a bizarre thing because you get to Mount Everest, to the peak of survivorship where I wrote the book, did the stem cell transplant, did all the things. Yet, I don’t necessarily get to enjoy the health of it. I’m obviously incredibly grateful for where I’m at right now, but it’s kind of maintaining this double-edged sword.

While the book is about cancer, it’s also about relationships. What effect did leukemia have on your relationships? 

I felt a lot of projections from people on how one should be a cancer patient. There’s no real guidebook on how to navigate cancer while treating everyone involved with dignity— whether it’s family, friends, the person that you’re in a relationship with, or people that you’re in relationships with. Ultimately, I found I was juggling everyone’s expectations, and a lot of them were silent, too. We’re all in this vacuum of assumptions.

Cancer ruptures a lot of personal traumas for people about their own relationships with cancer, illness, and disability. Compared to when I was 23, I have a lot more empathy now. That doesn’t mean certain things I experienced were OK. But now I realize no one knows how to handle cancer. No one knows how to handle illness. Even with the ongoing Covid pandemic, which is a mass-disabling event, and the genocides that are happening, we don’t know how to work through the grief that comes with these things. As a society, we need to question how we embrace grief and how we’re told not to. 

Bless the Blood goes beyond the traditional format of a memoir, in that it’s composed of poetry and short stories. Why did you decide to write your memoir in this fashion, and how do you feel your story is served through the use of these genres?

To be honest, I just know my strengths and skills. I grew up as a performance poet. I grew up writing short stories. I knew I could do poetry and short-form stories. When writing about a dense topic like cancer, I wanted to do so in a way that would hold young people’s attention, because this book is geared toward youth. And with poetry and short-form stories, you can pick the book up and put it down. I want young people to be able to do that. I wanted that level of accessibility.

It was never on my bingo card to write a book—never, ever. If you told me at age 19 or 20 that this would be happening, I’d be like, What is a performance poet doing publishing a memoir? But a lot of performance poetry and spoken word doesn’t subscribe to the rules of academia and other literature. I think that freed me in writing this book. That’s one part of it. The other part is that there’s this elasticity that comes with poetry and short stories because all of these are snapshots of feelings.

What do you hope that cancer survivors and survivors of violence, and those with no experience of cancer or violence, will get from reading Bless the Blood?

I’m proud that this book confronts emotions, that it confronts reality. It will make you feel something, whether you move through the world looking like me or not. I hope it touches on a deep vulnerability—that someone feels open to that vulnerability within them, especially in the times we’re living in. And I hope there’s some level of change and transformation.

Gina Murrell is a Black queer librarian, writer, and copy editor in New York.