Global Health Humanities, a June Special Issue

Podcast: Brandy speaks to Narin Hassan and Jessica Howell about the June Special Issue: Global Health Humanities

This timely special issue presents research in the emerging field of Global Health Humanities. Authors hail from different disciplinary backgrounds, including Medical Humanities, literary studies, film and visual media, the history of public health, rhetoric, women’s and gender studies, medicine, and physical therapy. Their work critically engages global health histories, medical intervention and education, as well as the representation in art and culture of illness and healing in a global context. While some articles focus on specific local cultural contexts, such as the Dominican Republic, Africa, America, India, Iran, or Canada, other authors take a comparative perspective, or reflect on Global Health Humanities scholarship and its developing methodologies and priorities. Authors also think through how specific embodied experiences, such as scarf injury, transplantation, fertility and childbirth, or long-COVID, reflect the political legacies of colonialism, sexism, racism, and other contributing factors tohealth disparities such as ableism and language elitism. The co-editors, Narin Hassan and Jessica Howell, also reflect on how Global Health Humanities scholarship can respond to current unfolding health crises through responsive and self-reflective praxis.

Map of health. Credit: Odra Noel. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)
Map of Health. Credit: Odra Noel. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)



Narin Hassan is Associate Professor and Director of Global Media and Cultures (MS-GMC) in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech. She is author of Diagnosing Empire: Women, Medical Knowledge, and Colonial Mobility (Ashgate, 2011). She has published essays on topics related to Victorian literature and culture, colonial/postcolonial studies, critical yoga studies, and medical humanities in Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, WSQ, Mosaic, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, Race and Yoga, and in a number of book collections. Her current research examines gendered conceptions of the mind, body, and spirituality in colonial contexts and within contemporary cultures of yoga. She serves as the President of INCS (Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies).

Jessica Howell is Professor of English and Associate Director of the Glasscock Center for Humanities Research at Texas A&M University. Her work focuses on “tropical” illnesses in nineteenth-century British and anglophone literatures of empire, with additional research in postcolonial and global Health Humanities. She is author of Exploring Victorian Travel Literature: Disease, Race and Climate (2014, Edinburgh University Press) and Malaria and Victorian Fictions of Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2019). Her work has also appeared in Travel Writing Studies, Literature and Medicine, Victorian Literature and Culture, the Victorian Review, the Journal of Public Health, and the International Journal of Nursing Studies. In addition, Howell has contributed a chapter to the Cambridge Critical concepts volume on Climate and Literature. At Texas A&M University, she convenes a minor in Health Humanities within the English undergraduate degree. She also serves on committees for the Modern Language Association, Health Humanities Consortium, and the Consortium for Universities in Global Health (CUGH).


Origin of life. Credit: Odra Noel. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)
Origin of Life. Credit: Odra Noel. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)

BRANDY SCHILLACE: Hello and welcome back to the Medical Humanities Podcast. This is Brandy Schillace, Editor-in-Chief. And today I have with me Jessica Howell, who’s a Professor at Texas A&M, and also Narin Hassan, who is Associate Director of the graduate program in Global Media and Cultures at Georgia Tech. They have some very exciting things to tell us about Global Health Humanities, which is a special issue going to be appearing with us in June. And I also know that Jessica is head of a program from which this kind of developed. So, welcome, both of you, and maybe you can tell us all a bit more about yourselves.

HOWELL: Thank you Brandy My name is Jessica Howell. I’m Professor of English at Texas A&M University, and I’m also Associate Director for the Glasscock Center for Humanities Research where I run an initiative in Global Health Humanities. And this is essentially where the interest for this special issue grew. I’ve been a Health Humanities scholar and teacher, as well as teaching in English literature for a good bit of time. And I was noticing that there was an emerging research interest in global health in the Humanities, and I was so lucky to be joined by Narin Hassan, Narin Hassan as my Co-Editor. Narin, did you want to  introduce yourself?

NARIN HASSAN: Yes, thank you. I am Narin Hassan. I am an Associate Professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech. And as Brandy mentioned, I’m also a Director of a new graduate program that’s a collaborative program between my department, which is Literature, Media, Communication and the School of Modern Languages at Georgia Tech. And it’s a collaborative program called Global Media and Cultures. And my work is largely looking at the 19th century and intersections of gender, health, and colonialism in the 19th century. And I was lucky as a graduate student to actually be a graduate student at the University of Rochester, which had a Medical Humanities program, one of the early programs at their medical school. So, as a graduate student, I taught a number of courses in that Medical Humanities program and then continued to do some research in that area.

SCHILLACE: Yeah, and that’s exciting. Actually, I know a bit about the Rochester program, and that’s kind of exciting too. I think one of the things that interests me about what our project here at Medical Humanities, we define it quite broadly. And I know that in some areas, right, people think of Medical Humanities as coming, as really being about literature in medicine, which it sometimes is, or narrative medicine, which it sometimes is, but it’s much broader than that. And so, here at Medical Humanities, we have people from anthropology, history, literature, the medical sciences, social science, social justice all coming together. And so, that’s one of the reasons why I found your proposal for a Global Health Humanities special issue so intriguing is that it does have a broad base. So, I wondered if you could say a bit more. I know that kind of came out of some of the work you were both already doing. How did you bring it together, and what can people expect from this special issue when it hits this June?

HOWELL: Sure. Well, we essentially met through our common networks in 19th Century Studies. I also study literature of empire, health, and the environment. And so, Narin and I knew each other through those networks, and it was through Narin’s previous work and her interest in Health Humanities that we decided to form this collaboration. If we can define the Health Humanities as understanding cultural practices and products related to health and illness, this special issue is really poised to embrace a global turn to understanding these kinds of practices in a global context. So, we do think of it really broadly in terms of different forms of human expression, which of course, very much include literature and literary forms, but also film and visual media, the history of specific terms and concepts related to global health as well as Global Health Humanities as a field itself, and how it articulates itself in relationship to Health Humanities and in relationship to the history of the Medical Humanities as a field. So, there’s also a kind of self-reflective quality to some of the articles that are appearing in this special issue to think about how is Global Health Humanities differing from Health Humanities? How is it innovating? And then also, what are its relevant kind of scholarly backgrounds and traditions that inform the practice?

SCHILLACE: Mmhmm. Mmhmm.

HASSAN: I’ll just add that when Jessica contacted me, it was a sort of follow-up to a conference that we were both at, the Interdisciplinary 19th Century Studies Conference. So, it was back in 2019. And at that conference, I had organized a roundtable on teaching race and empire in the 19th century that Jessica attended. And she kind of followed up after the conference. And so, I just wanted to add that both of us are sort of coming from backgrounds that are historical and also literary and cultural, but we also see in our issue and think it’s really important to represent scholars from a variety of fields. So,  Jessica has mentioned the various fields that are represented, but also, scholars who are doing different kinds of work. So, there’s pieces that are sort of looking, that are like teams working on particular topics. There are single-authored pieces. There’s scholars coming from different methodological places and backgrounds, but also scholars coming from a variety of different stages of their careers.


HASSAN: So, that was something we were really trying to do with the issue is, I think our goal was to take the broad approach in as many ways as possible and to sort of think about expanding the field and expanding the ways in which we think about the terms “global” and “health” and “humanities.”

HOWELL: Right.

SCHILLACE: Yeah, I appreciate that because, here at MH, one of the things that we’ve been working hard on and we just launched this year, officially launched, we’ve been practicing working on it already, is path to publication, which is an attempt to broaden out who can submit, effectively, a special issue. Because it is a lot of hard work as you can both attest to.

SCHILLACE: Getting published if you are from, say, the Global South and you don’t have the access to opening or even reading some of the essays that we have, if they’re behind paywalls, or you’re not being asked to be part of those conversations, yet you’re spoken about, but not necessarily heard from. And so, we’ve been trying to expose, there’s a lot about publishing that is unfortunately exclusionary, and we’re trying to make it more inclusive. And one of the ways of doing that is creating special issues that allow people time and gestation and a community to surround that, to help all of the articles be stronger. And so, I think you guys experienced that as well. I wanna say it was almost, what, almost two years that you worked on this prior to publication?

HOWELL: Yeah, the inception of it was even before then. And I should say before we turn to thinking about how it has tracked, a very, a time of global upheaval and a time when global health has become of even more urgent interest in conversation, I just wanted to mention that though we have this diversity in terms of both the professional development of our different authors as well as the areas that they discuss. So, we have articles that are about the Dominican Republic, Africa, America, India, Iran, Canada, and the Mediterranean, and we have scholars that are in universities not based in America, for example, in the UK. So, there’s that kind of representation of diversity.

But there’s also, I would say, a kind of cross-cutting aspect which we explore in our introduction that many of the articles, that they come from different disciplinary and methodological backgrounds. Many of them engage cross-cutting topics like health inequity, access to care in a global context, gendered health disparities, the legacies of colonialism in terms of kind of neocolonial health infrastructure, and then also human health and displacement and the refugee experience, as well as the emerging, current, and very urgent topic of COVID-19 and the Health Humanities. And so, there are these cross-cutting, I would say, inquiries and interests that are really what we would call outlining the key considerations of Global Health Humanities as an emerging field. But then before we, I wanted to turn over to Narin to talk about how it’s been a long-standing project, but also one that’s been evolving in real time.


HASSAN: Yeah. I tried to go back and kind of look at the timeline be cause   it all seems so far away now! But it was back in, I guess, March 2019 that Jessica and I were both at the same conference, and she contacted me soon after. And it was around May 2019 that we started to think about the call and started to get some of that out there. So, it was right around the beginning of 2020 that we actually received the initial drafts. And then, of course, a lot of things changed as we hit spring 2020, which was a year in the project. And Jessica and I kept sort of feeling like the longer we were in the pandemic moment, we had to keep sort of rethinking and resituating the project itself and the kinds of questions we were trying to pose. So, we went through a very long process of sort of digging through different layers of, okay, where are we going with this? How can we look at the global and the local in this moment? How could we think about the different clusters and sections that we have? How are they changing? So, when we initially thought about the project, issues of migration and the refugee question, there was sort of a core section that was focused on that. And then we realized we really needed to address the pandemic.

And so, we went through a lot of different processes of, how do we add sections to this? How do we reframe what we actually have? And along the way, I mean, another thing that sort of went on over the course of the last three years is we were also addressing our own experience of isolation, all of the sort of disruptions of 2020. We were dealing with a lot of that from our contributors. We really had to change the way that we were working and thinking. We were dealing with our own sort of stress around aging parents, health issues. So, there were a lot of ways that this sort of personal kind of just jumped in and that the moment really impacted where the project was going. And it really has felt like a whole sort of process of layering is the word that keeps coming to mind, building and then reshaping that has happened in the last three years.

SCHILLACE: It’s really interesting. I’ve been working with and talking to Stuart Murray, who’s also on the Board of Medical Humanities, Editorial Board of Medical Humanities. And they’re working on a project right now with the Wellcome, and we are trying to help track it in real time through podcasts to say like, because projects evolve. And so, it’s interesting. We’ve just done that, really, with you, and this project has evolved. Unfortunately, we didn’t document it the way we’re trying to do with Stuart Murray’s project. But I think that there’s a reality, there’s an illusion that these projects sort of arrive fully formed, then are sent to publishers, and then just suddenly arrive in publication and print, when in fact, there’s so much shaping that goes on from my end, as an editor, but also from the guest editors before the papers get to me, and then again through the revision processes, through the helpful comments of people who are readers and engage with the work. And that continues to go on because the blog is open for people to respond to the special issue after it publishes. So, I think, hopefully we are seeing the end of the imaginary sort of ivory tower, fully formed ideas springing from the forehead of Zeus, and it’s much more of a collaborative and communal process.

HOWELL: Yeah. And I think that in fact we, in the introduction as well as in, as you say, the process of revision with all of the contributors, we tried to make this self-reflective, evolving process of scholarship actually the topic. So, rather than trying to gloss it over, but instead, we realized that Health Humanities scholarship can really embrace that self-reflexivity of saying, “How do I think about autonomy differently? How do I think of vulnerability differently? How do I think of global interconnection differently?”

So, in fact, in one of the series of revisions, when we gave feedback to the authors, if their essays were not about COVID-19 explicitly, but they mentioned the pandemic as an emerging context to their work, we asked them to actually kind of deepen that inquiry and say, “What is my positionality in relationship to the pandemic? What do I bring to my consideration of this emerging crisis?” And so, and just as you say, in the introduction, we actually reflect back, Narin and I do, on the different changes that the issue has undergone. So, I think that one of the really promising potentialities within Health Humanities research is to—and COVID-19 has brought this into really stark relief—is to make the process of self-reflection and embodiment actually the topic of scholarship, not just the background.

SCHILLACE: Absolutely. I think it’s a process of showing your work, really. And that is something, if I may say, and I think your issue is emblematic of this, or at least representative of this, that that illusion, that sense of a fully formed project is also one that carries with it a lot of white, Western, and often masculine baggage. There used to be a kind of academic expectation that you didn’t show these things. They were considered weaknesses instead of diversity.

HOWELL: Mmhmm.

SCHILLACE: The diversity was considered a weakness instead of a strength. That there was a point at which you would never, bring your, oh, well, you’re ill. You don’t talk about that. Or you have sick parents. You don’t talk about that. And I am 100 percent against us laying that to rest because we are human beings. We are a community. Pretending that we don’t have these struggles is deeply injurious, especially to, I think, early career scholars who feel like they have to somehow fall in line or ape this kind of behavior. And so, it’s really powerful. And I, again, I think you’re right. I think COVID has driven this home even further for us to realize yeah, you know, we are wearing shorts under the table on that Zoom call. [chuckles] You know, we, like, it’s just, it’s just a thing. We’re living beings.

HOWELL: Mmhmm. Yeah, absolutely. And coping with loss and also acknowledging people’s relative positions of privilege when that exists, right? That our stressors are different than the stressors that some of our colleagues across the globe are dealing with. So, all of that opportunity and responsibility really, I think, is brought to light by the topic of global health and the Humanities.

HASSAN: Yeah, I’ll just add that I feel like that is what has made the project sort of deeper and in terms of just sort of thinking about process. This was an amazing collaborative experience for me because Jessica and I don’t know each other that well, like just from seeing each other at conferences, and had never collaborated before. But once we were in 2020 and sort of going through the bulk of this project in the last two years, we did so much through Zoom, and we became so good at that, right?!

HOWELL: [laughs]

HASSAN: And our meetings became a really great space of connection, but also, we did a lot of writing while on Zoom. So, the process itself was unfolding during the pandemic, and we were able to use Google Docs and Zoom and all of these other forums to continue with the project. But those spaces also became spaces for us to be more open with each other about who we are as human beings, how we are caregivers, how we are giving in many different ways, and how the stresses of the moment are really bringing that to the core. So, as much as this is clearly, you know, it’s an academic project, we’re working with a group of scholars, there’s a lot that’s sort of around all that that we were trying to also address, right, to really think about who we are in this moment, working in this way, and trying to bring some of these questions to the world in a different way.

SCHILLACE: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I was wondering, since we have just this space to entice people to come and read the essays involved, what are some things that you hope people will be excited to see? What are some topics that you want to encourage? This is kind of our sales pitch as well. This is a great special issue. What should people come for, and what should they stay for?

HOWELL: Well, we can maybe take turns. Narin, I can talk about, there’s several different clusters, and so, we can talk about the highlights from each. And I’ll just start off by saying that the first cluster we have of essays is titled Nation, Biopolitics, and Narrative and thinks about the biopolitical links between global health and colonial history, specifically by focusing on reading literary text and film. So, we have an opening essay by Sandhya Shetty thinking about Katherine Mayo’s Mother India in terms of global health and security. And she does a really careful close reading of that novel, in particular thinking about Indian bodies and spaces. And then we have, continuing with the focus on India and representation, we have Meenakshi Srihari’s essay, which thinks about narrative arcs of organ transplantation within literature and film. So, we start out by thinking about how, as Narin mentioned before, you can bridge kind of local and global considerations by thinking about a particular representation of a particular place, which is India, in terms of both written and visual texts. The final essay in the first cluster is by Matthew Spencer and Lava Asaad, which weaves issues of migration and representation by thinking about a doctor’s experience in literature, working with refugees, and narrating that experience through memoir. And then maybe Narin, do you want to talk about women’s health?

HASSAN: Okay, great. So, yeah, our second section is on women’s health in global context. And in that section, we have an essay by Anna Kemball, which looks at American Indian birth experiences and speculative fiction. And then we have a piece by Anna Tupetz and a whole team of researchers who are working on looking at female scarf injuries in Bangladesh. And so, those two pieces are taking really different approaches. One is more of sort of Gender Studies, Literary Studies scholarship. The other one is a little bit more anthropological and is sort of a more practice-based sort of project. And then do you wanna go on to the next one, Jessica, which is more on global concepts and history and politics?

HOWELL: Sure. So, as I mentioned in the introductory conversation, we wanted to make sure to have a section that was dedicated to where some of the key terms and concepts related to global health and the Humanities have come from, what are their legacies. And so, we have an article by Mari Webel on the history of the concept of neglected tropical diseases. So, she thinks about how, within a historical framework, this term of “neglected tropical diseases” has arisen through history and how it relates to public health institution and discourse. Brenda Wilson further then thinks about how in Kenya, again, in a more applied setting in this case, how language elitism affects maternal health outcomes in Kenya. And then finally, Raquel Baldwinson thinks about what our responsibilities are as Health Humanities scholars when we engage with the field of global health and what kinds of critical tendencies she sees arising in the global health communities, and how those need to kind of remain nuanced in understanding the real lived challenges that people are facing around the globe in terms of their health crises. And so, this section really focuses on zooming out, if you will, to think a bit about where we are and where we’ve come from in terms of key terms and concepts around global health.


HASSAN: Yeah. I’ll just end with the last section is called COVID-19 and the Future of Health Humanities. And those questions of sort of nuance and zooming out sort of continue in this section. This is a section that we added later on in 2020. And there are two pieces in this section, and both of them are really getting us to think about COVID-19 and how the questions of this moment sort of ask us to think ahead or to rethink the ways that we’ve thought about terms and thought about Health Humanities. So, the first piece is by Rosemary Jolly, and that essay is looking at contact zones and political and environmental histories in relation to global health. And the last essay is by Jessica, Jessica Howell. And that piece is looking at literary and historical contexts as a way to think about contemporary health futures. So, we end the collection with that piece as a sort of looking back, but also looking forward and sort of thinking about the broader theoretical questions that are at stake and the different ways that we can think about the terms that we’ve been addressing throughout the collection.

SCHILLACE: That’s wonderful. That’s wonderful.

HOWELL: Yeah, and one of the methodologies, I think, that this final section offers is thinking about how something like oral history or interviewing can become part of Health Humanities scholarship, where, well, it already is, but how it can grow in real time to think about people’s lived experiences during a time like the pandemic. So, what could we do in terms of creating interviews and texts out of people’s lived experiences and then incorporating those into Health Humanities scholarship?

SCHILLACE: No, I think they’re all really wonderful pieces, and I think we’ve been very lucky to get them in and get them through. It’s particularly that you sort of had to add on. I mean, you guys met in the halcyon days before COVID-19, and yet you managed through the course of this process to get those topics in as well. And I think that is something that we do try to build in at MH by having these longer gestation periods for special issues, is the opportunity to address real-time issues that are happening unexpectedly in the middle of everything else. And I think that that’s a strength. That’s a real strength of the issue.

I am so glad both of you could join me today, and I really want everyone to check out the upcoming special issue. Also, our blog, which is very robust and is treated almost like its own online publication in some ways is carrying lay descriptions provided by the authors for the pieces that appear. And so, it also helps broaden the conversation out to non-specialist audiences. So, and that’s not behind a paywall. So, please do join us for this wonderful special issue on Global Health Humanities. And also check out the work of our guests today. Is there anything you want to leave us with?

HOWELL: Oh, I think  that this issue is also an invitation for further collaboration between Humanities scholars and those who are health practitioners in a global context to think about how individuals’ stories and experiences can be incorporated into our understanding and practice of global health.

SCHILLACE: Well, thank you again. Thank you both, and thanks to all of our listeners for being part of the conversation.

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