Brina Patel is a freelance content writer, copywriter, and journalist from Sacramento, California. Her writing has appeared in Business Insider, Byrdie, Well and Good, and Verywell Mind. When she isn’t putting words to the page, Brina loves curling up with a thought-provoking memoir, making memories in new places across the globe, and spoiling her sassy Maltese. Today, she joined me to talk about this searing memoir of recovery from cancer, and why can be emotionally attached to people we’ve never met just by reading their words.
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Discussed in this episode:
Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted by Suleika Jaouad
Suleika Jaouad TED talk (Julie’s note: this is well, well worth watching)
Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport
Solito: A Memoir by Javier Zamora
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Between Two Kingdoms is a searing but ultimately hopeful memoir of Suleika Jouad’s leukemia diagnosis, treatment, and recovery, and the struggle of returning to a “normal” life after losing almost everything in the process.
Hello and welcome the Best Book Ever, the podcast where we get to know interesting people by asking them about their favorite book. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and my guest today is Brina Patel, a freelance writer from Sacramento, California. Brina and I talked about how strange it is to love a deeply sad book, and how we both feel a personal stake in this author’s life based on the words she wrote. It’s a tough and beautiful read, and I have a feeling that a lot of you might agree with Brina that “Between Two Kingdoms” is the Best Book Ever.
Julie Strauss: Hi, Brina. Welcome to the Best Book Ever Podcast.
Brina Patel: Thanks, Julie.
JS: Will you tell my listeners about your writing life and what kind of writer you are and what you do?
BP: Yeah, of course. So I am a freelance content writer, journalist, and I actually just am getting into copywriting as well. I do a little bit of everything in terms of writing for more business type of writing blogs, but then also doing more mainstream media and more of journalistic reporting type of pieces as well.
JS: Did you study journalism in college?
BP: I did not. I actually was a psych major and I was looking to go into education, getting my teaching credential and all of that, and I just went through some personal changes and realized that I wanted to do something that was more aligned with my passion, which had always been writing and just being more creative.
JS: When you write freelance nonfiction pieces, do you get to choose the topics that you research? Do you get to follow your interests or are you assigned things to write about?
BP: It really depends, honestly. There are clients that I work with who are very much on an assignment basis where they have specific things that they want covered, and then I just do all the research and writing part. But then there are other instances where I do have the freedom to pitch my own stories and bring up topics or stories that I think would be interesting and kind of run it by the editors and get the green light, if they think it’s worth covering. So a bit of both.
JS: What types of things are your favorites to write about?
BP: I really like writing about different mental health topics and kind of having professionals break them down and talking about how we can use them in our own lives. For example, I’ve done pieces on compassion fatigue, and I’m doing one on friendship breakups right now. I also like covering beauty brand, skincare, brands, and then just entrepreneurship as a whole, I find very interesting as well.
JS: It is so fascinating to me that now mental health articles and books are so much a part of our daily conversation. In every aspect of our life. How do you decorate your house so that it serves your mental health better? How do you dress properly so that you’re not stressed out by your clothes and it’s not messing with your mental health? Lately it feels like we connect everything back to our mental health and I think it’s so exciting. Coming from a psych background, it must be really exciting for you as well.
BP: Yeah, it really is. I’m glad that the younger generations are able to grow up in a society that normalizes a lot of these conversations because it is something we all deal with, whatever our unique challenges are, and to be able to openly talk about them and not feel ashamed for having feelings or certain experiences, I think is really helps us connect to each other better to.
JS: Do you ever see yourself writing fiction?
BP: I’ve kind of tried my hand at fiction, just in terms of short stories. I love reading fiction. I just don’t know if there’s something more within me that I need to kind of work on or just do a bit more, I don’t know. Practicing, I guess is just what I need to do. But I’ve considered it and I’ve had it in the back of my mind of writing some more short stories. I guess I just haven’t gotten over that inner block yet of, okay, just, just do it and see what comes of it.
JS: Tell me how you became a reader. Were you always a reader since you were a kid?
BP: Oh yeah, definitely. I still remember when I was younger, I’m sure a lot of people have had similar experiences where before bedtime my mom would read me a story and we would always read it together. She would read it before I was able to read. And it was just this really exciting part of the day for me. And I still remember just loving that part of the day. Cause it was just getting to be with me and her and would kind of go into this imaginary world together and escape everything else. And so she definitely instilled the love of reading in me from an early age. And it was always something that I found very, it was just a nice escape and I think growing up more introverted and shy, it was kind of a nice way to, I guess, find another world that I felt a little bit more comfortable in.
JS: How did that transition as you grew up and began to read on your own? Were you an avid reader, did you, or was it something you put away for a while?
BP: Yeah, I would definitely say middle school, high school and college. The only books that I read were assignment based ones that we had to read and write about, or have quizzes about. So I think in that part of my life, I was kind of turned away from reading cause I was more of an obligation versus just reading something for its own enjoyment. But after college, I would say that’s when I really started diving deep into it again.
JS: I cannot tell you how often I’ve heard that – when that the rigors of schoolwork has killed the reading urge in in so many students. Gosh, it is so discouraging to me, and I don’t know how we change that in our education system, but I hear it over and over again on this podcast, people saying they just are burnt out. They’re so exhausted they cannot bring their eyes to a page again after they’ve spent the last eight hours reading for a class or whatever. It makes me sad cuz you gotta think a lot of people probably never go back.
BP: Oh yeah, definitely. Yeah.
JS: And I don’t know what the answer there is.
JS: So when you came back to it, where, where did you go genre wise?
BP: I think that’s when I really started getting more into nonfiction and I think I started out first with more just basic nonfiction, like how-to books or something. I dove really deep into something more practical. But then I started reading memoirs about a couple years ago and then I was like, wow, these are just really fascinating ‘cuz it’s somebody’s real life, but it reads like fiction. But there’s just so much in there. It’s kind of like the how-to, but it’s also not because they’re, they’re teaching you how to deal with something or how they went through something. So it’s more of this kind of thing that you have to reflect on it, where the lesson isn’t as apparent, which I liked because it was just, there’s just a lot more I feel like I got out of reading memoirs.
JS: When you go to memoir, is there a certain type or flavor of memoir that you prefer?
BP: Yeah, I guess, I mean celebrity memoirs. I have read a few good ones. I will say maybe just more so of like an illness or some really big hardship that somebody’s had to go through and just kind of seeing their little way of overcoming it or how they kind of found a way to deal with whatever that hardship is. I guess I don’t know how to exactly pinpoint that into a subcategory, but yeah, something that’s surrounding a big hardship or a major life challenge, I would say.
JS: Do you remember how you found this book that we’re talking about today?
BP: Yeah, so I actually, I made my Instagram account that I have now. Originally, it was a book Instagram account before I made it more towards just sharing, writing and my own kind of thoughts. So I reconnected with a friend from college and we just started talking one day about books and she had just read this book, Between Two Kingdoms and she was like, you have to read it. It’s amazing. And she gave me the synopsis of it. So yeah, that’s how I found out about it, and it just has stuck with me ever since.
JS: Will you tell our listeners the summary of this?
BP: Yeah, of course. Between Two Kingdoms is a memoir by Suleika Jaouad. She essentially has just graduated Princeton, and she moved to Paris, is really excited to start living an independent life, and wants to be a war correspondent. And for the past several months she’s been dealing with these really mysterious symptoms like rashes, itching, just a lot of fatigue. And she kind of just chalks it off as just lack of sleep, too much partying, whatever. So she also meets this guy before she goes to Paris and he moves out there with her and they start living this really cute life together. Her symptoms still continue to worsen though. And eventually she goes and gets checked out. The first few times they tell her nothing’s wrong and then it just gets to the point where she gets so bad that the doctors in France tell her to go back to the US. She does, she gets on the first flight back to New York where she’s from, and then from there, that’s kind of when her cancer story starts. She gets this diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia with a very slim prognosis of surviving. And so for the next four years of her life, she’s doing the chemotherapy, going through clinical trials, and then she gets a bone marrow transplant from her brother donating his bone marrow to her. And so it just chronicles that journey. But then alongside her cancer, she’s also dealing with the emotional stuff. The relationship with Will, the guy who had gone to Paris with her. He’s pretty much one of her full-time caretakers. And so that relationship goes through its own challenges from that, but at the same time, Suleika also meets this really supportive community and she becomes a columnist for the New York Times writing her own little segment on what it’s like to be a young person with cancer. And so she connects with fellow cancer patients and just other people around the US, who reach out to her, write her letters. Once she is in remission, she finds that she’s in this weird limbo place of not really feeling cured. Well, she feels she’s cured, but she doesn’t feel like she’s healed yet. she still feels like she needs to fully heal. She decides to go on a 100 day trip around the US. The significance of the 100 days is that’s how long she had to wait, after her bone marrow transplant, before she got the clear from her care team that things were good, there were no complications. So she does another 100 days where she rents a van. She adopts this little dog and the drive around the whole US and she just meets with a bunch of people that she connected with during her time as a cancer patient through the letters that they wrote to her from seeing her column in the New York Times. And she just learns a lot of really meaningful things from each of them. We see her go on this journey, and at the same time, she’s also starting this new relationship with Jon Batiste, who is her now husband. And so yeah, it’s just a really beautiful memoir about finding that place in between feeling sick and feeling well, and kind of learning to accept that middle ground that most of us will be in and out of.
JS: Did you know who she was or how it was going to wind up as you were reading it the first time?
BP: I didn’t know who she was, but I did do the Googling and I found one of the TED talks that she did. So I knew what the outcome was of the story, but as I was reading I didn’t really know the depth of what she went through. I was thinking, okay, she probably went through chemo and all of that, but it was just the length of how long it took and just the extent of what her body went through it, that was like, I had no idea.
JS: Isn’t it weird to love something that is so deeply sad? It ends – this is not a spoiler alert cuz everyone can look it up – but the trial that she went through, and this community that she formed and the people that she lost along the way. It is just such a deeply sad book, and it’s weird to love a piece of art so much that is so painful.
BP: Yeah, that’s a really good point. I almost feel it’s because it kind of forces you to think about what’s really important in life. I think in the day to day it’s so easy to get fixated on trivial things it almost takes reading something like this really, really sad to be like, Whoa, why am I freaking out about this thing that has zero significance on my life whatsoever when I should really be telling these people that I love, that I love them, or just making the most of this time that I have with this person. Because as we see in her story, things can just change really fast. I feel like sometimes that’s what it really takes, to just focus in on what matters in our own lives.
JS: Do you have a particular story in there or was there a particular anecdote that resonated with you?
BP: She says, “As we live longer and longer, the vast majority of us will travel back and forth across these realms, spending much of our lives somewhere in between. These are the terms of our existence, the idea of striving for some beautiful, perfect state of wellness. It mires in us eternal dissatisfaction, a goal forever out of reach.” And so I was like, Wow, that’s really true. I think we can get so fixated on having perfect bodies or just reaching this place of feeling our best, looking our best, and just being able to accept, life is gonna be really messy. Life is gonna have a lot of curve balls. So just being able to come at ’em from a place that’s like, okay, this is just what being a human entails. It’s not something to run away from.
JS: Yeah, but I mean that in itself is the fundamental unfairness of this disease on her, right? Because she’s still, when she’s diagnosed, she’s still at that age where, in your young twenties and mid-twenties, you’re not thinking about that kind of shit. You’re just healthy, you’re gorgeous. You hurt yourself at the gym, and the next day you’re fine. You know, what I mean? Nothing lingers.
JS: And then she’s at this phase where everything is terrifying and scary. And just walking to the taxi cab to take her to her chemo is fraught with danger. She could fall, she could catch a germ, she could all of these things. And it’s, it’s this interruption of the natural order of things. I kept thinking she didn’t get the chance to have a carefree, healthy, young adult years.
BP: Yeah, no, that, that is really true. She was able to really talk about a lot of these things, even with her relationship, just the way she’s able to handle these feelings and really talk about them. I think most people at that age, if they were to go through something this, it’s just, I feel like it’s something that would just be so hard to go back and talk about, and especially in such a public way. I think that’s what I liked about this book so much was that she was just able to talk about and kind of express those moments where she was like, this is against the way things are supposed to be. But also, kind of find these deeper threads of truth throughout it as well.
JS: The story of Will, her boyfriend – well obviously you already said she’s married to someone else, so that is not a spoiler to say that it doesn’t work out – but that relationship was so fascinating to me. I mean, being newly together and right at the exciting part. Imagine living in a crappy apartment in Paris, you would just feel like you have got the world at your feet. And then this happens. She gets this diagnosis and he just goes, Okay, this is what we’re doing now. I mean, I really want, I would love to get his book too. And did he have one second of feeling like, Forget it. I live in Paris.
BP: Yeah, I mean that would be really interesting to hear kind of his side of things too, and just also being at his age and being able to take that on., that’s such a huge task. Nobody prepares you for that. I think he was like 27 or something when this happened and I don’t think most people would have the maturity for that. Especially in a brand new relationship where you’re expecting, to build this stable life together and you have this plan.
JS: Through the tedium of it. And I think that’s the thing that anyone who’s been a caregiver knows that overall, we make it very heroic when we talk about it. But the fact of the matter is most of it’s just tedious. It’s just cleaning up barf over and over and over again, and he just did it. I just kind of fell in love with every single person in this book. They just all tried so hard to just be the right person for her and it, I thought all of it was so heroic and wonderful. Even when they screwed up. I thought she did a great job of letting us see how human they were and they were trying so hard to be superheroes for her. And they are just people, and this is a terrible situation, and she did such an amazing job of just letting us love them with her. I loved it so much.
BP: Yeah. Yeah. Same. I think she doesn’t sugar coat anything or try to make anyone look like this angelic person. She said, they did this and it was amazing. But there are also moments where I was kind of pissed off at them and because they did that. We really got to see the whole spectrum of the situation. As much as she allowed us in.
JS: Do you follow her writing? I believe this is her only book, but when I was checking out her website before we talked, I saw that she writes articles and blog posts and newsletters and things like that. Do you follow any of that?
BP: Yeah, so I actually am on her newsletter list for the Isolation Journal. So it was this project that she started at the beginning of the pandemic where she would send out journal prompts, and she does it every week now. She’ll have a different writer kind of come on to the newsletter and offer a really thoughtful journal prompt. And then Suleika will also kind of give us an update on her own life. And it’s just a nice kind of Sunday morning reflection thing. I highly recommend it.
JS: You said she had relapsed. Is she okay now? Is she healthy now?
BP: I know she is still undergoing treatment. The last newsletter, I believe she said she was going through chemotherapy and she’s been kind of navigating that again, doing another bone marrow transplant.
JS: Oh my God.
BP: Yeah, yeah, it’s been hard to kind of see everything kind of her going through that again.
JS: Yeah, I had no idea how what a process that was. She details the first bone marrow transplant in her book and I don’t think I ever really knew what happened with that. I mean, I know what marrow is, but I had never stopped to think about how we extract it and how we put it in another person, and the recovery from that was terrible.
JS: Oh, this is the thing about a memoir, right, is one, as brutally honest as what she wrote, is we’re now very invested. You telling me this, that she has relapsed, it does feel very personal and I’ve never heard of this woman until you told me to read this book. And that’s the power of this memoir is I am, I now feel very invested in her. And I don’t just want her healthy, I want her to win the lottery. I want her to win a Nobel Prize for literature. She probably just wants ordinary and I say, let’s give her everything. Let’s make her queen. And I’ll tell you what else. That dog better live forever. Will you make a pact with me that if you ever hear if her dog dies, do not tell me. Okay? Please.
BP: Okay. I can, I can make that pact.
JS: I don’t think I could handle it. Oscar feels very important.
BP: Yeah, he’s a special little guy. She really took us on this journey with us. I really feel like I wanna genuinely know how she’s doing now. Cause after all of that, I can’t just be left on a cliff hanger.
JS: When you were reading that quote to me, you picked up a notebook. Do you frequently take notes from the books that you read?
BP: I would say not frequently. I kind of go off and on. I do have a little journal that I’ll sometimes write quotes or interesting words in, but it’s not a, it’s not as frequent of a habit as I would like it to be. What about you?
JS: I write in books and then, if it’s a library book, I will take a note and I’ll put it in my daily planner, but then I don’t often look at them again. I like the idea of just having a notebook of book quotes. I don’t know why I don’t do that. Do you have anything else in your notebook that you want to talk about from this?
BP: There was another quote that I wrote down that I really liked. “Healing is figuring out how to coexist with the pain that will always live inside of you, without pretending it isn’t there or allowing it to hijack your day.” I liked how she said that because I think we kind of think of healing as this thing where you’re like, okay, I’m totally free of whatever physical or emotional challenge that I was dealing with, but knowing that it can have a meaning. It’s still present, but you’ve gotten to the point where you’re acknowledging it, not pretending it’s gone. You’re not trying to push it away or, allowing it to take over everything, even though that is difficult sometimes.
JS: Tell me, what are you reading right now?
BP: I actually just finished a book called Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, that talks all about how to kind of use our devices and technology for us and kind of not let them control us, which I thought was really interesting.
JS: Is that something that you struggle with? Did you read it hoping to solve a problem?
BP: Oh yeah, definitely. I’ve been a lot more aware of just how much social media and email is such a pull for me and I’ve had to really change the way that I use those apps and have more boundaries around those. Cause I did find that they were definitely having that control of me where I felt like I was not being as productive as I would’ve liked to be. Definitely recommended if you also have similar struggles.
JS: I don’t know anybody who’s not fighting that battle. What are his recommendations?
BP: He starts off kind of talking about how he thinks that kind of doing a 30 day detox from a lot of these apps can really help us get away from them and then have kind of this clear space from where we can observe how they are affecting us. And then go back to the ones, he’s not saying to totally cut off, but he’s just saying to develop better habits when we do go back to them. So, instead of having Instagram, Facebook, all of that on your phone, only having it on your computer and then having set days or set timeframes throughout the day that you check. It’s pretty liberating being able to take back that control. Especially when he talks about how these engineers put so much time and money into making these apps purposefully addictive and keeping us on them for as long as possible. We’re just furthering their mission at the cost of our own peace of mind.
JS: Yeah, and they’re doing a great job of it, cuz boy does it work.
BP: Then I’m also almost done withanother memoir called Solito by Javier Zamora. And it’s his story of crossing from El Salvador to the US as a kid and kind of his journey with all of that. So it’s, yeah, it’s a really good story. He’s an amazing writer as well.
JS: He’s now in the States?
BP: Yeah, he’s in the States, I think he’s in Arizona now.
JS: Well, Brina, this has been lovely talking to you. Even though the book broke my heart, I do have to say this again: I would recommend this book, even though it is, it’s a tough read. But it’s, it’s just gorgeous. And so I just want to thank you for introducing me to her and to this story. Will you share with our listeners where they can find you in your work?
BP: I am on Instagram, and I have a website, and that’s kind of where I share a lot of my own blogs, written work that I’ve done. And then I have a little newsletter on there as well where I just like to share little updates and, examples of storytelling that I find impactful as well.
JS: Thank you so much for talking to me today, and I hope you will come back anytime you have a book you wanna tell me about. I will steel my soul and I’ll have more Kleenex handy for the next book you choose.
BP: I promise I’ll choose something that is not as, not as heavy.
JS: No, No! You choose what you want.
BP: I think, I guess this out of all the books that I have read, this one probably is up there in terms of the emotional impact, but, yeah, I’m glad that we got to, to talk about this and it was really nice chatting with you as well.