10 questions with ... Susanna Trnka

In this installment of '10 questions with ...' we chat with Dr Susanna Trnka about her latest book, One Blue Child: Asthma, Responsibility, and the Politics of Global Health (2017). ASAA/NZ was pleased to hold a launch for this book at the 2017 Shifting States conference in Adelaide


1. How would you describe your book to a non-anthropological audience?

The book looks at how childhood asthma is understood and responded to in two very different cultural contexts – New Zealand and the Czech Republic. Engaging in an in-depth cross-cultural comparison of how medical professionals, scientists, policy makers, political activists and asthma sufferers, parents and families view and experience asthma, it highlights the many different assumptions we make about who is responsible for the growing asthma epidemic and what we need to do to care for children suffering from this condition. In the process, it describes a range of approaches to people and governments have to asthma, from individuals dodging pharmaceutical use in order to not get “hooked” on drug-based remedies to medical services that send children to residential spas where they spend 6-8 weeks living away from home, communing with nature while learning about their bodies and refining their respiratory capabilities.

2. Why now?

Asthma is a growing problem around the globe and I think it is time we took a look at different ways of approaching it. More broadly, the book asks questions about what are our individual and collective responsibilities for health and medical care – something that is increasingly important as health services around the world are being restructured to put more responsibility for care onto individual patients and their families.

3. What kind of assumptions do you unsettle in this book?

One assumption I try and unsettle is the prevalent medical assumption that New Zealanders who have asthma but don’t take their medication are just being “slack” – instead I try and show the ways these patients differently situate their asthma symptoms in time – seeing them as a short-lived event rather than a permanent state of being. I also consider the ways that many so-called “noncompliant” patients are actually quite critical of the pharmaceutical industries’ roles in constituting them as potentially life-long patients (and consumers of their products).

Another assumption I try and unsettle is that asthma is not tied in with psychological and emotional factors. In fact, a number of asthma sufferers feel that there is an emotional component to their experiences of asthma attacks. I also look at how Czech spa care focuses on total body therapeutics, vividly revealing the role of things we might not normally take into account --  like pleasure  -- as part of therapeutic (respiratory) care.

4. What drew you to your topic?

One of my children had asthma when she was young. She was with me in the Czech Republic when she had a particularly bad, life-threatening attack. That experience, as well as the radicial differences in healthcare we experienced there in contrast to what we were used to in New Zealand, was what spurred me to write the book.

5. How was your publisher?

Stanford University Press was really delightful to work with. I highly recommend them.

6. What’s your favourite part of the book?

It is actually a really minor thing: in Chapter 3 I relate how I interviewed a famous Czech respiratory scientist who was in his early 80s and was being assisted throughout the interview by his colleague who was in his 50s. Sometimes the colleague would bring him pamphlets or scientific papers (as he spoke about them to me). At other times he would just sit next to him, and the more senior man would rest his hand on the younger man’s shoulder or knee. At one point, however, the senior doctor reached out toward the younger man but missed, and his hand was left awkwardly hanging in midair. The young man immediately leaned forward and held the older man’s hand for a few minutes. To me, the moment spoke volumes about how not only hierarchy and respect but also affection and care are played out between different generations, even different generations of medical researchers. It wasn’t, however, actually ‘necessary’ to the main point of the text (which was about how the senior doctor viewed patient care). When the copy editor and I were desperately trying to cut back the manuscript as it was way over the word limit, I was worried that that moment would be deemed extraneous and deleted, but it managed to stay in, which I am really pleased about.

7. What have you learnt about yourself as a writer as a result of this?

I have learnt that even though writing a book feels really daunting (particularly at the very beginning!), it is completely worth it, as you find out so much more about your topic than a series of articles would ever allow.

8. Would you write another book?

I have just come back from sabbatical during which I finished the first draft of the next manuscript – whether it gets published is another question. This next book deals with issues of embodiment in relation to pivotal moments in the Czech lifecourse. It draws from Continental philosophy  - primarily from Heidegger but also the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka – to understand the embodied dimensions of being-in-the-world through an ethnographic examination of things like ballroom dance classes, walking through urban spaces, and practices surrounding food and drink.

9. What’s next?

I’m doing a bit of New Zealand-based research on young people’s use of digital technologies for coping with mental and physical health issues, while also tinkering with the book manuscript I described above…

10. What are you reading at the moment?

I just put down a book by Jan Patočka (Plato and Europe) that considers the place of philosophy in building an ethical life -- what Patočka referred to as “living in truth.” I am also in the midst of some escapist reading – Alexander McCall Smith’s retake of the classic novel Emma.

Susanna Trnka is associate professor of anthropology at The University of Auckland.