“Geography is destiny; Napoleon said that, ” Abraham Verghese recites to a group of Jefferson High School students. He proceeds to describe how this maxim had proved true in his own life. His parents, both Indian teachers living in the Southern state of Kerala, had met and married in Ethiopia, where they had been recruited to teach in Christian schools by the Ethiopian government. “My parents’ geography,” Verghese concluded, “determined my destiny.”
Verghese’s experience as a teacher is clear; he has an impressive natural grace in addressing high school students. He is direct and commanding, yet he speaks to them in a way that they connect with. For example, instead of lecturing, he immediately opens up the discussion, inviting questions. He wants to talk to them about what they want to know. Students ask about his childhood, his sense of place, his career. When did he know he wanted to be a doctor? A writer? These two questions bear very different answers for Verghese. He explains how he became interested in medicine in a superficial way as a very young boy, sensing it would earn him praise from his parents. Then he tells the students how he received his true calling to medicine from a book about a painter with a clubbed foot who becomes a physician. “At that time I realized that not anyone could be a great artist, but anyone who worked hard, and had an appreciation for the human body, could become a physician.”
Verghese doesn’t refer to his writing as a career. “I have only one careeer. I’m a doctor, I see patients every day. I am all physician. And I write.” He tells the Jefferson students how he had begun to write creative non-fiction in the 1990s, when he worked with in a small community in Tennessee where HIV and AIDS had become an unexpected problem. He describes writing articles for medical journals chronicling his work, and how he felt that there was a greater story to be told about his patients and their families. Over the next couple of years he attended the Iowa writer’s workshop, earning an MFA, and published his first book: My Own Country, about his experiences in East Tennessee, but also pondering themes of displacement, responses to foreignness and the many individuals and families affected by the AIDS epidemic.
Verghese tells the Jefferson students to dream in a concrete way. “Put a picture on your wall of what you want to be, and every day when you look at it, see yourself in that picture. You’d be surprised, often it comes true.” And for Verghese, it has. He explains how, before he finished his first book, he had printed a poster bearing his name and the words ‘New York Times Best Seller!’ Everyone laughs, but the message is received. Here is a man of incredible accomplishment as a doctor and as a writer, and yet, because of his humility, humor and natural intimacy, the students see someone like them: someone who struggles to define himself and his home; someone who has dreamed big.
Thank you to Abraham Verghese as well as the students and faculty at Jefferson who helped make this such a wonderful visit!
-Acacia, WITS intern