Register Monday | July 6 | 2020

A Doctor's Search for Beauty: An interview with Bahar Orang

Beauty can be found in countless small places in everyday life, Bahar Orang writes. It’s there when you’re writing letters in the dark, or just bumping hands with someone you love. 

Orang would know; she’s the author of the new book Where Things Touch: A Meditation on Beauty (Book*hug), but she’s also a physician-in-training. Based in Toronto, she normally spends most of her time in hospitals, working long hours connecting with clients in their most vulnerable states. She’s training to be a psychiatrist.

That all changed when Covid-19 hit. When it came to seeing psychiatry patients, Orang had to start exploring other ways to connect with people while treating them remotely. In her book, which combines lyric essay and prose poetry, Orang leads readers through her search for the beauty around her, even in spaces and moments that are not usually considered beautiful. 

"All of us / in any clinic or hospital, patients and caregivers—we / are starved for it, beauty," she writes. Many people in the midst of this pandemic could probably relate. We spoke over email. 

Christine Jean-Baptiste: A recurring theme throughout this book is the connection between beauty and touch. What inspired that? 

Bahar Orang: Beauty has always been like a methodology for me, where I’ve learned from beauty the possibility of ruptures, the possibility of contradiction, the possibility of attentiveness. How is beauty so singular each time, but its materials are never really new? I started to have this sense that beauty exists most of all between beings and relationships, and I wanted to think more about what that might mean.

CJB: What was that process like…writing this book, while working as a physician-in-training? 

BH: I started and finished the book as a medical student. It took about two years. The form really reflects the process: I had a busy and unpredictable schedule, so I wrote in fragments.

CJB: You often write about the intimacy of patient care, while working in the medical field. How has that changed now, during this pandemic?

BH: One big change for me, as a training psychiatrist, has been that I provide psychotherapy now over the phone. This has interrupted some intimacies but has perhaps made other intimacies possible. What happens when the stuff of connection is just the voice? It can open up new and sometimes urgent questions.

CJB: In your book, you offer intimate hospital vignettes. I’m thinking about that one scene in particular where you’re performing a C-section on a woman alongside other nurses. You provide details from opening the patient's abdomen to the countless I love you’s exchanged between the patient and her husband. How did you go about writing scenes like this one where the environment is something you are familiar with? 

BH: The book is not a factual or truthful account of my life, and I was thinking from many places while writing. More than anything else, I follow language. I start with a word I like, or a sense I want to say, or an image I’ve been saving for the page. And then it’s just this associative, intuitive puzzle with no apparent logic, and I allow the form to make the meaning, to alert me as to which scene I could write next. 

CJB: Did you mean to remain self-detached from the book? 

BH: It was probably just self-conscious in the way that one writes anything with attention to form.

CJB: You mention that the medical field does not wear beauty on its sleeve. You wrote: 

“Before, I was sure I would spend the better part of my / time studying words, reading and writing literature / and theory, learning beauty, looking at flowers. But I / went to medical school instead, and medicine, with / all the shit, blood, and guts, does not wear beauty on / its sleeve.” 

So, where does it wear it? Where do you find beauty in a place that is not founded on words and flowers?

BH: Perhaps one thing I came to understand in writing the book is that there is no pure beauty, all beauty is entanglement. In medicine, too, beauty probably lives inside some of those moments of encounter. 

CJB: Beauty is not entirely defined throughout the book and it takes on many  different forms. From beauty being a loved one, a moment, a desire, or a product of pleasure. Why did you choose to frame the narrative in this way?

BH: I think this is just the nature of beauty itself; it is a relational dark matter, something complex and strange, and its meaning slips between expressibility and inexpressibility.

I think beauty’s resistance to identification allows it to be free, so it can make those ruptures, and it can allow us to imagine otherwise. 

CJB: Throughout the book, you engage with other writers like Sontag, Dabashi, Cixous and Sharif, who often add their own sense of beauty. What do you think they added to your own reflections?

BH: The book emerged from thinking with and through other writers and artists, and to me, there was simply no other way to write than through this embeddedness. It was the literature and art of my own, and probably imperfect, canon that was the condition of possibility for the book. Solmaz Sharif’s poem,“Beauty” was somewhere I returned to often. 

CJB: What I really liked about this piece of work is that the overall structure is very lyrical, it dances between your thoughts and reflections while inviting us to some intimate scenes. Were you aware of this vulnerability when writing it?

BH: All writing asks for vulnerability, and I don’t know that I felt especially vulnerable with this book. I hoped it could be evocative, but it’s never quite about me or my own life. Every scene is a composite scene. I did, however, feel extremely close to the page when I was writing, tinkering almost obsessively with each word.

CJB: None of the prose sections have titles—they all kind of bleed together as one. What prompted that decision? 

BH: I imagined each fragment to be tied very closely to the other, but to always perform something new. The structure is like a fractured relationality, which took its shape as I wrote about beauty and its queries.