The Rumpus Book Club chats with Janice P. Nimura about her new book, The Doctors Blackwell (W. W. Norton & Company, January 2021), the challenges and delights in retelling stories of the past, her favorite nonfiction writers, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Randa Jarrar, Morowa Yejidé, Melissa Febos, Lilly Dancyger, Mariana Oliver, Elizabeth Gonzalez James, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Janice P. Nimura about her new book, The Doctors Blackwell!
Janice P. Nimura: Happy to be here with you!
Marisa: Very much looking forward to this after a long week!
Janice P. Nimura: Indeed. May we all be at the beginning of a better chapter!
Marisa: I wonder if you might start us off by discussing how you first became interested in the Blackwell sisters, and when you knew this would be a book-length project?
Janice P. Nimura: Publishing my first book was so much fun that I knew I wanted to find a new project right away. The Blackwell story spoke to my own passions—I had been a science kid at an all-girl school, and thought I would be a doctor when I grew up. (I swerved.) I was shocked I had never heard of the Blackwell sisters until I was in my forties. And then it seemed that if I had never heard of them, there must be others…
Marisa: How did you come to hear about them? I’d learned of Elizabeth Blackwell a long while ago, though not in any detail, because my mother used to pass along many biographies written for children of pioneering women.
Janice P. Nimura: Right—she’s easiest to find on the kids’ shelf, though you won’t find Emily alongside her. Oddly, I stumbled across Emily first, in the context of queer history; she lived with a female partner for the last several decades of her life. And once I’d met Emily, I found my way to Elizabeth pretty quick.
Marisa: In the book, queerness is addressed but room is left for speculation with regard to Emily’s relationship to her partner (I’m guessing because there isn’t definitive evidence?), and I did wonder about it, so that’s very interesting!
Janice P. Nimura: That’s right—I didn’t have all that much primary material, as both Emily and her partner, Elizabeth Cushier, were fairly reserved people. It was important to me to respect their privacy, but there was no doubt of the degree of warmth and love between them.
Etta Madden: I love the way you brought in Elizabeth’s relationship to her siblings. Could you talk about how you decided which relationships to emphasize the most? That is, did the relationships present themselves as you were reading letters and diaries? And how did you put the limits on reading the Blackwell papers? Or did you manage to read all of them?
Janice P. Nimura: The Blackwell siblings provided a vast depth of material—they were very bonded to each other and also drove each other a little nuts, so they were always leaving and then writing to each other. There was an ocean of letters and journals. I tried my best to read everything I could, especially 1840–1870, which is the heart of the story. It was wonderful to see the same events described from different perspectives. Once I had a sense of how I was telling the story, I could focus more narrowly on specific moments and how everyone reacted.
My rule of thumb always is, leave out the boring stuff. So, the depiction of their relationships was mostly dictated by who was writing the best material to whom!
Marisa: Was there any interesting material that didn’t make it into the book? Something you wish you’d had space to include, perhaps?
Janice P. Nimura: There are always rabbit holes you go down more deeply than what ends up in the book. And there was wonderful material from the latter part of their lives, after they parted ways—but I wanted to frame the story in terms of their work together, so I had to leave it in the archives.
Marisa: Yes, I’m so curious about what their lives looked like after Elizabeth left America for good—I felt like I could read another book just about that, or two books, even (one about Elizabeth and one about Emily).
I have to ask: did you have a favorite sister?
Janice P. Nimura: Someone recently asked me: which sister would you rather have as your own doctor? And I’d have to say Emily—not just because she was much more the practitioner than Elizabeth, but also because I think she was more emotionally accessible than Elizabeth. Both women had the highest standards imaginable in their work, but I believe Elizabeth was perhaps slightly less unbending with other people. That came across clearly in their interactions with their adopted daughters: Elizabeth had a more formal relationship with Kitty. Emily was also more prone to doubt, which I found deeply familiar, and endearing.
Etta Madden: I was really surprised by the adopted daughters, but I loved that part of their stories!
Janice P. Nimura: Me, too. People reveal themselves when children are involved, somehow.
Marisa: Yes, I agree, Etta! The adopted daughters were unexpected for me (in both instances). And Janice, as you wrote, they really offered us a window into the personalities of each sister.
I think I’d also prefer Emily to be my own doctor, though I am fascinated by Elizabeth in a different and more entrancing sort of way.
Janice P. Nimura: Elizabeth is both an awe-inspiring and a poignant figure. Her adamantine idealism carried her along through unimaginable challenges, but it also prevented her from connected deeply to other people. She was striving for an ideal world, but never really found many people perfect enough to join her there.
Marisa: I found this book to be such a respite from the unendingly horrifying news cycles of late fall/early winter. It was quite comforting to read about real people who’d lived in a completely different time and faced different but very significant challenges. I wonder, Janice, if you enjoy reading biographies, and if this resonates?
Janice P. Nimura: Thank you! I too find the Blackwells comforting in their complexities and contradictions. The world is a messy place, and even heroines make mistakes—the Blackwells help me remember that sometimes our leaders reveal their humanity in ways that, while relatable, aren’t always totally admirable.
Etta Madden: I’m also curious how your book tells the women’s stories differently? I have not read any other biographies of them, so I am curious about your “new” angle?
Janice P. Nimura: I think the biggest difference for this biography is that it’s a double portrait—it was important to me to tell this as a story of sisters in partnership. Elizabeth may have been first, but I don’t think she would have gotten as far as she did without Emily’s support.
As for other biographies of them—they’re mostly either on the children’s shelf, and sanitized, or they’re focused more narrowly on Elizabeth. I wanted to put the sisters side by side, with all their rough edges intact.
Marisa: How long did it take to see this project through? I can only imagine the time spent researching… your first book, Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back, was published in 2015. Did you start working on this shortly thereafter?
Janice P. Nimura: I first encountered the Blackwell story in the summer of 2015, and I was intrigued but daunted—it seemed like a much bigger story than my first book. I kept looking, and I kept circling back to the Blackwells, until it was clear this was the story I needed to tell.
Etta Madden: Thanks so much for telling it and for telling it so well!
Joan: I found this book thought-provoking, especially in the times we’re living through now. Having grown up during the social upheavals of the 1960s, it became easy to forget that the freedoms and rights we now enjoy can so easily be lost. The book really served as another reminder that these rights are so valuable. And how fortunate we are to have the ability to choose our life, our careers, our paths…
Etta Madden: Joan, I totally agree with you! The women’s health and women’s bodies theme is huge! I have been talking about this book and these women with so many women I know…
Kamilla Khabibrakhmanova: I’m curious as to whether there was more that wasn’t included in the book with regard to how Elizabeth chose medicine as the profession to show herself excelling in as a woman… it seemed a little random to me. Did your research show her considering other paths or more reasoning about it?
Janice P. Nimura: The origin story of her choice is fuzzy—she didn’t journal about it, or agonize over it in letters. There’s the famous tale that a dying lady friend confided how much she would have preferred to have a female doctor… but I prefer to focus on Elizabeth’s admiration of Margaret Fuller’s ideas, that women could be anything they wanted to be. And a medical degree, earned via lectures and examinations, was a particularly clear and graphic way to make the point.
Joan: Actually, I was also wondering, Why medicine? It wasn’t actually very respectable or scientific. Why not law?
Janice P. Nimura: There was actually more precedent for women in medicine: women had always been healers and midwives and nursed their families through illness. Though it was horrifying to imagine a woman in the medical lecture hall, it wasn’t hard to imagine one by the bedside. Lawyers were men, full stop—there was no precedent for women adjudicating legal or business matters.
Marisa: What is like to have the book releasing now, amid, well, everything going on around us? The pandemic, the presidential election and its aftermath, etc.
Janice P. Nimura: In some ways it feels like a book is the last thing we should be focusing on, with the world in such turmoil. But at the same time, history is happening to us right now, and thinking about the past helps us understand the present. And, of course, it’s important to tune out the news once in a while and just read a book!
Elizabeth Blackwell is having her two-hundredth birthday in a moment when the things she worked toward have never been more important. It does feel like a good time for her story, somehow.
Joan: Very timely, with the pandemic, elections, the Supreme Court…
Marisa: Yes, I think that the book touches on so many things that are relevant to our current moment. You don’t shy away from the racism inherent in the Blackwells’ lives, and that even though they were forward-thinking in terms of both racial and gender inequality, they were still very much products of their time.
Janice P. Nimura: That’s the biggest challenge when you’re retelling stories of the past—to make sure you’re looking through the lenses of the period, as well as your own. It’s not always the same view. I remember in tenth grade being assigned to write an essay on whether Abraham Lincoln was a racist. It was the first time I began to realize there wasn’t just one story.
Marisa: We have just a few minutes left, so I’m going to combine my last two questions: who are your literary influences, and/or other artistic influences from outside literature? And, what are you reading now? Any forthcoming books you’re especially excited for?
Janice P. Nimura: As far as writing nonfiction, I love the writers who are storytellers first: Nathaniel Philbrick, Stacy Schiff, Helen MacDonald. And I love great historical fiction—right now I’m rereading Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies in preparation for diving into Hilary Mantel’s latest, The Mirror and the Light.
Kamilla Khabibrakhmanova: Just wanted to add my thanks for telling this story before our time ends—I’m so happy this book exists now and we can all know more about these very interesting and important women!
Joan: Yes, thank you so much!
Janice P. Nimura: Thanks so much for having me, and for being early readers! It means a great deal to hear from you.
Marisa: Those are terrific recommendations! Thank you, Janice, for your time this afternoon and for this important book. I hope it makes its way into many readers’ hands! And thanks to the members who participated, for your thoughtful questions!
Janice P. Nimura: The pleasure was all mine! Thanks Marisa and everyone!
Marisa: Have a good night, all, and take care!
Photograph of Janice P. Nimura by Lucy Schaeffer.