Suleika Jaouad Does Not Want to Be Your Mountaintop Sage

ROAD WARRIOR In the month since the publication of her memoir, “Between Two Kingdoms,” which just spent three weeks on the hardcover nonfiction list, Suleika Jaoaud has heard from a number of individuals she didn’t expect to be in touch with — including her fourth grade teacher; a California oncologist who was a fellow at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City when Jaoaud was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 22; and a lawyer offering counsel to a Texas prisoner Jaouad writes about in the book.

These readers have been moved by Jaouad’s story of surviving cancer and then taking a 15,000-mile road trip to visit people — many of them strangers — who responded to the New York Times blog where she chronicled her experience as a young adult facing her own mortality. By now, we all know it takes a village (albeit a socially distanced one) to endure illness, isolation and fear. “Between Two Kingdoms” drives home the fact that, where cancer is concerned, it takes an empire.

The idea for the road trip and the memoir arrived when Jaouad found herself at a crossroads. “I felt like I should be living some version of the heroic journey I’d been bombarded with,” she said in a phone interview. “But I didn’t feel excited; I didn’t feel done. There was this strange omertà of silence that seemed to enshroud survivorship. I’m always interested in traveling to where the silence is, so once I detected it, I knew that would be something that I wanted to interrogate.”

Jaoaud’s nearest and dearest understood that there was no talking her out of her journey once her mind was made up, although some worried about her safety since she’d only had her driver’s license for a month. She recalled visiting her parents in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., about a week into the expedition: “My dad explained to me how, if you lean forward and look in the mirror, you can notice your blind spots.”

Along the way, Jaouad had books for company. She turned to Stephen King novels and true-crime accounts for guidance on narrative suspense; she devoured Audre Lorde’s “The Cancer Journals” and John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” which she called “no small gift.” But her true “sick girl bible,” as she put it, was Lucy Grealy’s “Autobiography of a Face.” Jaouad said, “She’s one of the few who writes about the aftermath of trauma and the imprints of her own cancer that haunted her long after it was gone.”

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