“‘I love you’ scares me,” he admitted, looking nervous. “I’m not sure I know what it even means.”
I sighed with exasperation. It means everything, I thought. You could paraphrase it as I see you. Better yet, I read you. There’s nothing else important to say, really.
I didn’t become a hopeful romantic because of rom-coms or Disney. I grew up without a television in a progressive household, and though my parents have a marriage suitable for any American dream story, I was raised to be an independent thinker. My parents turned gender roles on their heads and upended social norms about race and consumerism without ever uttering words like “feminism” and “capitalism.” Without a TV, books were my first love. Saturdays at the library were the highlight of my week as a child, where I’d pile volume after volume into stacks so tall I could barely carry them. I’d drag them home and arrange them beside my bed in order of decreasing appeal, so the book that most excited me was on top of the pile, ready for me to grab when I woke up on Sunday morning to start my day by reading.
It was only natural that I also became a writer. Before I was able to write I’d dictate my toddler musings (“today grandma and grandpa visited;” “Mommy made me cookies”) to my mother, who dutifully copied them into a notebook. The more I read the more I wrote, and the more I wrote the more I read. What was so magical about the written word, about language? I think I sensed, even as a child, its incredible power to create intersubjectivity. Language was how one person’s experiences and ideas could leave their mind and enter mine. With each book I was submersing myself in the universal current of humanity. I read stories about children living in very different circumstances from my own and felt compassion and the first sparks of my passion for social justice. The barriers between (even fictional) others and me were lowered as I let in their words and stories. In other words, the books worked on me – I felt so empathic toward the characters I met in those pages that something in me changed as a result. Collectively, those eye-opening stories I devoured so eagerly as a child were the first time I fell in love.
When I was in college, I had the opportunity to travel to the Dominican Republic as part of a medical service project. We sought to provide clinical care as well as partner with a community just outside the capital city in pursuit of lasting public health improvements through research and collaborative action. I distinctly remember the day we were making a house call to see a young man who had recently broken both legs in a motor vehicle accident. After examining him and providing what help we could, the team turned to his anxious mother. She told us about headaches, insomnia, and fatigue. “I think I’m just worried about my son,” she explained.
Suddenly I understood how being a doctor was an expression of love. While the physician in charge that day was not a Dominican mother living in that community with limited financial resources, his task was to put himself in her shoes as best he could in order to understand what she was going through and thereby provide the best treatment. Although I’d grown up in a house full of medicine (both my parents are physicians) that moment was an epiphany. By being a doctor I could live out the empathic intersubjectivity I’d experienced through books as a child. Medicine, at its best, was love, and it offered a tangible set of tools with which to take up the fight for social justice. It feels silly to admit that I had to travel abroad to discover this, but once I did I started seeing it everywhere, and I decided to go to medical school.
Throughout med school I have continued to write and – as time permits – read. I am increasingly aware of the inherent subversiveness of writing truthfully and openly. It’s hard enough to open up and be, vulnerably, yourself – even with just one other person. But when we share our writing we are vulnerable to many unknown readers, a prospect that is sometimes scarier. When we share with a significant other, the dialogue is (well, should be) constant, so that we continually clarify what we mean and thus create shared meanings. When we write, though, we get one shot. The reader reads, and we can only hope that those words will convey our meaning. And when we write as women of color in a society that continues to define us in mainstream culture by our femaleness and our color, then writing becomes a not only daring, but also radical, act. It is radical to tell our stories of being complicated, three-dimensional humans when society portrays us within the confines of gender, nationality, religion, sexuality, race, class, body type, and other social labels. Because it is radical it is necessary.
Writing is an act of love. We write to be seen, heard, understood. With every word we risk being misinterpreted, essentialized, or taken out of context. When we write truthfully, we don’t write just about the positive; we write about flaws, imperfections, and mistakes, because we know that the completeness of this picture creates authenticity that is essential to art. Similarly, reading requires wholehearted commitment to taking in and accepting all of a story, even if we disagree with the characters’ beliefs or actions. We know we cannot rewrite what the author has put on the page, so as readers we are faced with the task of attempting to understand and accept it.
Great love and great reading experiences both require getting outside ourselves to connect with something bigger. Relationships are not only about fulfilling personal desires, mutual attraction, and enjoyment; these things are short-lived and quickly dissolve when there is no shared commitment to the greater purpose of empathic mutual understanding. That’s why pleasant-to-read fad novels will not be remembered as classics, and the classics often require dedicated effort to grasp. Like great books, great relationships offer the possibility of a transcendental experience outside of the egoism of our own singular experiences and beliefs. Perhaps because I was so affected by the things I read as a child I developed a deep desire to live my life the way those fearless authors did – to put my words and self unapologetically into the world. Similarly, I wanted to fall in love with the people around me in the way that I loved books; I wanted to read and see and cherish them in an essential way. I’m the sort of writer and reader who will never hesitate to tell someone I love him, if I do – and I blame books for that.
A slightly different version of this essay originally appeared on Irene’s blog.
Irène Mathieu is a writer and medical student at Vanderbilt University. Before medical school she studied International Relations at the College of William and Mary and completed a Fulbright Fellowship in the Dominican Republic. Irène’s poetry, prose, and photography can be found in a diverse array of publications, including The Caribbean Writer, The Meadowland Review, Sole Literary Journal, Protest Poems, the Lindenwood Review, Muzzle Magazine, Magnapoets, Damselfly Press, Hinchas de Poesia, OVS Magazine, qarrtsiluni, Tabula Rasa, Extract(s), So to Speak, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Journal of General Internal Medicine, and more. Her poetry chapbook entitled the galaxy of origins is forthcoming in 2014 from Dancing Girl Press. She plans to become a community-engaged primary care physician and researcher who listens to and tells stories around the world. You can read her blog at and follow her on Twitter.