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Author Q&A: Benjamin Black, Author of Belly Woman #TheWriteReads #BlogTour

My dear bookish friends!

A few days ago I reviewed Belly Woman by Benjamin Black (an absolute must-read, check out my review for more insight here), and I was lucky enough to get an interview spot with the author for the blog tour with TheWriteReads. So, without further ado, let’s get straight to the questions and answers!

Dr. Black, you’re a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist – what made you choose this field of work, and this medical field in particular?

Towards the end of medical school, when I was about 25 years-old, I went to work with displaced populations along the Myanmar-Burmese border. Each day we treated women and girls suffering the consequences of the conflict in the jungle surrounding us. It was here, as I treated girls with injuries from unsafe abortions and learnt how communities support women giving birth as they fled the military that I chose a career in sexual, reproductive and maternal health for populations in times of crisis.

What made you want to work for Médecins Sans Frontières, and why Sierra Leone in particular?

After working as a doctor for a couple of years I took time-out to complete a Master’s in politics and economics of conflict. During this time I studied humanitarian intervention, I was attracted to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) due to their outspoken self-criticism. I had read many of their previous reports and followed their responses in the news. I was (and still am) aware no organization is perfect, but being so open about their faults I found refreshing.

Sierra Leone was chosen for me. Once I was registered to work for MSF the placement was proposed. At the time Sierra Leone had the highest rate of pregnancy-related deaths in the world.

What exactly made you want to write Belly Woman?

I write in Belly Woman about two young brothers I cared for during the Ebola epidemic. They were the last survivors of their family. As an obstetrician I was facing the tragedy of maternal health and the vast gap in access to care between my work in London and what I was seeing in Sierra Leone. I felt a deep responsibility for being present and witnessing something which most of the world would not. When the young brothers died, I became determined to document the human side of this tragic moment in history.

What made you choose non-fiction for Belly Woman, as opposed to a fictional story with fictional characters?

When I began writing Belly Woman I thought I’d fictionalize a lot of the story, but the reality was more dramatic and shocking than anything I could create. The story is also not mine to change. The names of my colleagues are all correct because they wanted me to write this book and gave their permission. It’s their record for later generations and a testimony to their courage at a time of immense need. Returning the book to my colleagues has been incredibly rewarding. The patient names and details are changed, but the medical detail is correct.

Are there any patients and their stories that are stuck in your head, perhaps even years after still? Do you ever wonder what they (or your patients in general) are up to today, or is there no time for that?

I feel that meeting a patient in maternity is like reading just a few pages of a book, even if I know how one chapter ends I’m often left not knowing the rest of their story. I do wonder about many of the women and babies from the time I write about in Belly Woman, those who returned to their villages in the midst of the Ebola epidemic and those who had had particularly challenging births. Sometimes I think I’m better not knowing.

How do you manage to keep your distance and still be compassionate when it comes to your patients as well as their families?

Compassion can show itself in many ways; a kind word, a nod of the head or handing a box of tissues at the right moment. I’m not sure if I keep a distance from my patients, but I do feel that with time, experience and increased exposure we can become desensitized to almost anything. I hope I manage to keep the right balance, being able to empathize and listen but also managing to draw a line between my experience and that of another person.

Is there ever a day you wish you had chosen a different career?

I’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunities to work in an area I love. If I were to have gone in a different direction I suspect it would’ve been journalism.

Do you plan on writing more books?

Once I’m able to carve out the time, I’d love to write another book. I’m keen to write a novel exploring some of the wider ethical challenges that come with humanitarian work.

Could you imagine stopping working as a doctor and write full-time instead?

Honestly, no. I love writing, but I also get cabin fever quite quickly. Being a doctor gets me out, meeting people and thinking through solutions to complex challenges.

Are there any authors you look up to?

Abraham Verghese’s work is phenomenal. His ability to weave together literary prose with medical history and clinical drama is exceptional.

What are three things you would recommend to other aspiring authors – perhaps from the medical field as well – who want to write down their stories but don’t know where to start?

Just start. It doesn’t matter what you write or if no one else ever reads it, but starting is always the hardest part.

Write as a reader. When writing Belly Woman I was writing the book I would want to read. I took care to think about what would engage me and what would I think if I had bought the book to read.

Be kind. An author, especially in non-fiction, is in a privileged and powerful position. You can be critical of individuals and organisations, but always be fair and imagine (or at least I did) if it were the other way around and you’re the individual reading what’s been written. If in doubt, close the laptop (or pad) and come back to read what’s written a couple of days later (or ask a friend).

A huge thank you to Dr. Black for answering these, and thank you all for reading! Perhaps this interview will convince some of you to check out Belly Woman – let me know what you think!



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