Dr. Sarah Sasson’s debut anthology is the result of a lifelong love of both the medical field and literature. “Even while getting my medical degree, I was still very engaged with the arts and read a lot of medical humanities while I studied,” she says.
Her desire to further explore the delicate relationship between those in and adjacent to the medical community led to Signs of Life, a stunning collection of stories from new and emerging writers that was written from the viewpoints of patient, caregiver, or kin. Sasson whittled down the anthology from over 200 submissions, with many chosen writers going on to secure awards and publishing contracts of their own. These include Sophie Overett (“Dive”), who won the 2020 Penguin Literary Prize for her novel, The Rabbits; Al Campbell (“Does He Feel Warm”), whose short story is actually an excerpt from her debut novel, The Keepers; Annette Freeman (“Lifelines”), who was shortlisted for the 2022 Penguin Literary Prize for On a Bright Hillside in Paradise; and Sasson herself (“Unlearning”), whose novel Some Things Beautiful will debut with Affirm Press in 2023.
Now living on Gadigal land in Sydney, Australia, with her husband and young children, Sasson works as a clinician-scientist at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales/Westmead Hospital. With degrees in English literature and medicine and a doctorate in the area of HIV/Aids research, Sasson has seen both her fiction and nonfiction featured throughout Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom in publications such as in Meanjin, Oxford Writers’ House, and Medium.
The Australian-born physician/writer has always been deeply moved by authors who explored how different cultures play out within the medical establishment. Books such as The House of God by Samuel Shem and Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi provided unique insights about “conditions difficult to completely understand through theory alone,” Sasson explains. She credits her childhood, in which she lived in Australia, Chicago, and Singapore in rapid succession, with helping expose her from a relatively early age to a broader worldview in terms of equity—both in and out of the health care field. Signs of Life features stories from all over the world, including Ghana and India, which highlights the painful fact that everyone’s access to quality local medicine is relative to the socio-economic and geopolitical forces that surround them.
This inequity features predominantly in the anthology, as does the universality of our humanness in the face of unimaginable pain. The equal treatment of both mental and physical ailments within the collection was a conscious one on Sasson’s part, as she acknowledges that the world is finally beginning to recognize the interconnected roles that physical and mental health play in the overall well-being of the individual and of the community as a whole.
Signs of Life certainly does not shy away from depicting the realities of disease, nor the feelings of frustration and hopelessness when official diagnoses seem incomplete:
You have faith in modern medicine, and you continue taking the medication per the doctor’s orders. Perhaps it will get better, you think, as the walls between you and the world lose their focus. You get up from bed, move from the room. Walk outside. Move again. Pieces of you feel left behind, detached, smudged away and lost. Sometimes your singularity returns, your body and being crisp again, and sometimes the fuddles work hard to keep you amorphous. The fuddles. What are they? What do they want? Why do they want to trick you, make you think the world is a lie? (“Fuddle,” Vanessa McClelland)
But as serious as the subject matter can be, Signs of Life is clearly not a book about death or dying. Instead, it manages to successfully transform its patient and caregiver experiences into a celebration of life and the unique ways in which we live it. It neither denies pain nor bows down to it but instead continuously demonstrates that there is no limit to what comes after.
The anthology’s willingness to confront pain head-on is just one part of what makes it, according to Kirkus Reviews, a “rich and varied set of ailment-related works.”
It is most often the quiet moments of trauma or acceptance or affection that authentically submerge the reader in each character’s experience, such as when a breast cancer survivor struggles with marital connection: “She shaves her legs and underarms, tweezes a few stray hairs from her inner thigh, another that has sprouted near her navel. She will not let herself go. She will ‘Look Good, Feel Better,’ just as the ladies at the workshop advised.” (“Not Done With All That,” Jann Everard).
These snapshots successfully drive home what it’s like, not just for the patient, but also for those around them. Sasson deliberately included stories from the perspectives of patients, caregivers, and kin in order to further examine what it feels like to “occupy and transition between these roles.” As a doctor, Sasson admits that what she finds “best for the patient” often revolves around prolonging life or curing an ailment. However, the patient might focus more on reducing the pain, while the patient’s kin might focus on something else entirely.
This trifecta of interconnectivity fascinates Sasson, from “the microscopic aspects like cellular and molecular biology and genetics all the way through to how people function in society at large. For my day job I work as a physician seeing patients, as a pathologist looking at cells and proteins to help diagnose disease, and as a conductor of laboratory-based medical research…so it’s quite broad….But from my point of view, the commonality is that medicine and literature are both ultimately concerned with the human condition.”
And it’s this human condition that threads itself so strongly throughout the anthology’s individual stories, weaving the whole work into a moving tapestry of pain, perseverance, and, above all, love. Ultimately, Sasson hopes that Signs of Life strengthens the voices of those who are ill and those who care for them, promoting empathy and starting new conversations between loved ones and strangers alike.
Andrea Moran is a professional copywriter and editor who loves all things books.