On December 3, I have been invited to the Yale Ethnography and Social Theory Colloquium. I will talk about the intersection of Christian conversion and illness narratives.
Embedded Narratives: Pentecostal Conversion and Metabolic Illness in Samoa
Medical anthropologists have long explored illness narratives as a discursive mode for re-creating an identity disrupted or spoiled by disease. Simply put, disease interrupts self-identity, which requires self-work to repair. In Samoa, where metabolic disorders, including diabetes, hypertension, and kidney disease, are often asymptomatic, the experience of illness does not disrupt everyday life. Instead, everyday life is disrupted by efforts to heal those illnesses. Metabolic disorders are particularly difficult to heal in the cultural context of Samoa because required “lifestyle” changes challenge common Samoan practices of well-being, including food-sharing, feeding, and values of physical stillness.
In this talk, I explore embedded narratives: illness narratives embedded in Christian conversion narratives. While illness narratives provide sick persons the tools to re-create their identities, conversion narratives embedded in illness narratives imbue narrators with divine authority to change their health. I problematize the ego-centrism of illness narratives by examining a narrative genre that displaces individual agency in favor of divine agency. This displacement, I argue, is essential to how many Samoans accommodate the pressures to change individual “lifestyle,” as they are advised by their physicians and nurses, while also critiquing the individualism inherent to that advice.