SELMA Medical Humanities: “Narratives of Illness” and “Indigenous Narratives of Health”

Marta-Laura Cenedese and Avril Tynan, convenors of the SELMA Medical Humanities Seminar Series at the University of Turku, Finland, reflect on the first season of the series, “Narratives of Illness”, and look ahead to a second season on “Indigenous Narratives of Healthcare”. 

October 2020. Sitting in our office at the University of Turku and sighing about the rapid approach of the Finnish winter, we began to speak about the increasingly scarce opportunities for escape to a warmer, sunnier country. Although we were acutely aware that our situation in regards to the pandemic was, on the whole, significantly better than that of our friends and colleagues in other countries, we were concerned about the loss of opportunities to network, particularly given our precarity as early career researchers.

Image credit: Hannah Phelps, student at Newcastle University Medical School, created the artwork for this series.

The pandemic had taken away possibilities for travel, face to face encounters, and many of our plans for research events, but it had also opened up a new space for online activities that would reach people across the world without the limitations  of more traditional conferences. As members of the SELMA Centre for the Study of Storytelling, Experientiality and Memory at the University of Turku, we felt that we had an opportunity to bring together the existing overlaps in our individual research projects with our personal interests in illness, narrative and literature. We began planning for one or two events, centred around narrative and illness, but the idea soon ran away from us as we found more scholars we wanted to hear from and more projects we wanted to hear about. Somewhere in the middle of energetic conversations and 3pm sunsets the SELMA Medical Humanities Seminar Series was born, with a line-up of scholars from Finland, Norway, Denmark, and the UK who would each bring a unique perspective on the creative and epistemic possibilities of ill-health.

Our aims were to bring together colleagues from across Finland and the Nordic countries with international collaborators, and we wanted to promote an intersectional approach towards experiential understanding of disease and illness from historical, literary, environmental, digital, ethnographic, and philosophical angles, among many others. We hoped that, by enabling and encouraging such discussions in the medical humanities, we might enhance individual and collective understandings of health and illness and influence the practices and policies of caregiving, social justice, cultural interaction, and healthcare access across Finland, the Nordic countries, and the world.

For us, the natural starting point for the series was to connect  our own – and SELMA’s – interests in narrative and literary theory with the work of Finnish and international scholars and the growing relevance of the medical and health humanities in our everyday lives and research. “Narratives of Illness” aimed to share  just some of the diverse perspectives and research areas that underpinned our own critical approaches towards health, illness, and medical care. Our speakers represented a range of early- to mid-career researchers, whose own interests in health and illness drew on narrative theories.

Anna Ovaska, a postdoctoral researcher at Narrare: Centre for Interdisciplinary Narrative Studies at Tampere University, had recently defended her thesis, Fictions of Madness: Shattering Minds and Worlds in Modernist Finnish Literature, at the University of Helsinki. Her presentation, “Close Reading and Illness Narratives” drew on the theoretical work of Louise Rosenblatt to advocate for the responsibility of the reader to pay attention to trauma in Timo K. Mukka’s Tabu (1965).

Linda Nesby, associate professor of Scandinavian Literature at UiT, The Arctic University of Norway drew on a variety of Scandinavian cancer narratives in her seminar, “Beautiful and Ugly Descriptions of Illness”, to reveal the necessity of provoking what Sianne Ngai calls “ugly feelings” in descriptions of illness. Her new monograph, Rage, relations and celebrities. Contemporary Scandinavian Illness Stories, will be published by Scandinavian University Press on 13 October 2021.

Laura Piippo, university teacher in Literature at the University of Jyväskylä, had recently completed her PhD and her presentation, “Poetics of experimental literature and paranoia”, addressed the ergodic structure of Jaakko Yli-Juonikas’ experimental literary text, Neuromaani (2012), as a way of creating a poetics of paranoia.

Deborah Madden, principal lecturer at the University of Brighton and director of the Centre for Memory, Narrative and Histories explored critical narratives of a “good death” in relation to the current pandemic. Her seminar, “Covid-19 and anticipatory grief: critical perspectives on the ‘narrative turn’ in end-of-life care during pandemic times,” raised important parallels between the contemporary global situation and historic episodes of disease and illness.

Finally, Anita Wohlmann, associate professor in the department for the Study of Culture at the University of Southern Denmark delivered a seminar titled “Metaphor Reconsidered: The Uses of Comparison in Illness Writing,” in which she explored the normative uses of metaphors in medical practices. Anita also invited participants to engage in an exercise to illuminate the potentially reckless and harmful effects of metaphors in healthcare settings.

With a little help from Twitter and the existing networks of the SELMA Centre and our speakers, we received a phenomenal response to our first season. With over 200 people registered to attend, each seminar attracted somewhere between 30 and 70 participants tuning in from locations as far away as ​​Australia, India, and the North American West coast, not to mention several European countries.

Indigenous Narrative of Healthcare, Autumn 2021

This autumn, our second season, “Indigenous Narratives of Healthcare,” responds not only to an urgent environmental and civil need to address inequalities and malpractice in Indigenous contexts, but also to our own desire to learn more about fields of research beyond the literary context. This season will bring together four scholars working in the interdisciplinary domain of Indigenous studies from across the world to discuss their own work and connections to Indigenous cultures and communities from radically different perspectives.

September 14: Prof. Bodil Hansen Blix, Professor with the Department of Health and Care Sciences, Faculty of Health Sciences, UiT, the Arctic University of Norway: “Playfulness in narrative care with Indigenous older adults.” (16-17 EEST / 14-15 BST)

October 5: Dr Wasiq Silan, researcher at the Centre for Research on Ethnic Relations and Nationalism, University of Helsinki: “Decolonizing care: listening to the voices of bnkis, Tayal Elders.” (16-17 EEST / 14-15 BST)

November 2: Dr Mounia El Kotni, postdoctoral researcher at the Cems-EHESS Paris:  “Traditional medical knowledge at risk: the struggle of indigenous midwives and doctors in Mexico.” (16-17 EET / 14-15 GMT)

November 23: TBC

You can find more about our speakers and read their abstracts HERE and you can register here. (After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.)


Marta-Laura Cenedese is a postdoctoral researcher in Comparative Literature at the Turku Institute for Advanced Studies and associate researcher at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin. Marta is an interdisciplinary scholar whose research focuses on twentieth- and twenty-first-century postcolonial literatures, cultural memory studies, multimodal storytelling practices, critical medical humanities, death and illness narratives, and writing methodologies. She co-edited the special issue ‘Connective Histories of Death’ (Thanatos 9:2, 2020) and is the author of the monograph Irène Némirovsky’s Russian Influences: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).

Avril Tynan is a postdoctoral researcher in comparative literature at the Turku Institute for Advanced Studies in Finland and visiting researcher at the Centre for Memory, Narrative and Histories at the University of Brighton. She has published widely on the roles of narrative and ethics in the representation of ageing, illness and death in French and Anglophone literature. She is co-editor of Storyworlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies and contributor-in-residence for Synapsis: A Health Humanities Journal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.