Debut author Anne Marie Ruff is visiting today to talk about her book Through These Veins. Discover the fascinating background behind this book that blends the worlds of traditional healing, U.S. government funded AIDS research, and the pharmaceutical industry in a tale of scientific intrigue and love, with both devastating and hopeful effect.
All profits from the sale of this book will be distributed to the Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders and the Institute of Biodiversity Conservation in Ethiopia.
Anne Marie is giving away one print copy of Through These Veins to US/CAN residents or one eBook internationally. Just comment to be entered to win! Ends 11/16.
Guest Blog by Anne Marie Ruff
I worked for many years as a journalist, both in the U.S. and internationally. But I find that I have grown jaded, fatigued, disillusioned with the incessant stream of news. I am interested in the longer story arc, the slower movements of society and culture that drive the daily churn of news like a massive gear in the machine of history.
My novel, Through These Veins, is heavily informed by the years I spent in Thailand reporting on AIDS research and traditional medicine. But the novel has allowed me to explore individual and societal questions about curing AIDS in ways far beyond the limits of a three minute radio story.
Here is how the novel’s story opens: In the coffee-growing highlands of Ethiopia, an Italian scientist on a plant collecting expedition discovers a local medicine man dispensing an apparent cure for AIDS.
Fact or fiction?
The specifics of this particular situation are a fiction. But the story that unfurls from this fiction is studded with facts, real scientists, and events mirroring real life situations. I gathered my sources and research for this novel at first unknowingly, while I worked as a journalist based in Bangkok, Thailand and then in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Later, once I had the idea for a novel, I sought out more research for the novel, under the guise of journalism.
I didn’t set out to write fiction, which seems so contrary to the ‘just the facts ma’am’ axiom we associate with journalism. My intention was to shine a light on unreported or under-reported environmental stories. The medical reporting I did was not really my passion, as much as a byproduct of living in Bangkok; a hub for HIV/AIDS research and activism.
After a year of telling gloom and doom stories about the destruction of forests, or coral reefs, or traditional agricultural varieties, I felt like even I was becoming desensitized to my deeply held belief that our collective health is inextricably linked to the health of our environment.
When, in the course of my reporting, I met a charismatic Italian scientist who approached plant collecting and conservation as if it were an adventure worthy of Indiana Jones. I had a shazaam moment. He ignited an idea for a new approach, a fictional story centered on a character like him. He could carry readers around the world, and inspire in others the passion he felt for the richness of life on the planet. He could articulate the imperative to conserve it for the health and well being of this and future generations.
But I needed more drama to make a compelling narrative.
As I worked on outlining my fictional story, my reporting on drug development and HIV/AIDS revealed itself as not only relevant, but integral to my story about the value of biodiversity, and one of its prime values as a source of medicines.
I spent the next several years continuing my research and finally writing and revising (and revising and revising) the novel.
I am grateful for that conference in Malaysia and the chance meeting with Stefano, for it allowed me to marry my different reporting interests and use everything I learned and more in a novel way. So facts support my fiction, and hopefully, my fiction will serve the facts.
The sick people arrived in Chochotte with almost every sunset these days. At first they had come only sporadically. Every couple of months, a ragged shepherd boy or a gaunt woman with her dozens of braids fuzzy from neglect would drift up from the road like a ghost. Each afflicted with some persistent illness that would not release its grip, not allow them to tend their sheep, or their coffee bushes, or their children, some sickness each had watched tighten its fingers around people they knew and loved, carrying them relentlessly, painfully to the grave.
They came because of Zahara’s father – a man they knew as the witch doctor of Chochotte village, a man who could cure all ills, a man who gathered wild spirits from the forest and unleashed them on the evil that caused the sickness. They came offering whatever meager surplus they could sacrifice – a stiff goat hide, a handful of roasted wheat grains in a worn basket, an empty plastic food aid sack refashioned into a shoulder satchel. They came on blind faith – a familiar, abiding faith, with which they had long ago submitted themselves to Allah’s will – a faith they now, desperately, fearfully, directed to the rumored mercy of the witchdoctor of Chochotte.
When the people with the sickness arrived, Zahara made a place for them, a space to sleep on her own plastic woven mat, in the tidy mud and thatch gojo where she lived with her father and cousins. She brought a bucket of water for washing because they were too exhausted to walk to the stream. She brewed tea with dried flowers to help them sleep. She looked into their eyes, clouded with terror and fatigue, felt the lesions on their skin as they took her hands in theirs, and listened as they whispered, “Al-hamd’Allah, thanks to God, bless you sister.”
Of course the story was not true. Nataniel was not a witch doctor filled with the power of wild spirits. He was an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, armed only with a carefully folded paper from Addis Ababa University certifying he had completed his studies in pharmacology in 1974; the same year the ancient imperial line of Abyssinian rulers came to a spectacular end with the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie.
Nataniel treated them as best he could, giving them traditional medicines rather than imported pharmaceuticals, homemade potions and poultices that had earned him the respect of Chochotte’s residents. Periodically he gave them an intoxicating mixture of chat to chew and taej to drink, dulling their pain. Then, helplessly, he watched them die.
Nataniel, despairing, retreated for long hours to the forest, seeking refuge from the eyes of those who beseeched his help. The plants and the trees surrounded him, protected him and eventually restored his faith in life, in a God who endowed the world with intricate beauty and order. One day, after watching a woman die, leaving an infant child behind, he brought his rage to the forest. He pounded his fists against the trunk of a massive tree, against the smooth bark, as if it were responsible for the bitterness of his fate, the bitterness of this death – so like the death of his own wife shortly after Zahara’s birth.
He shouted up the trunk, willing it to telegraph his message to God. He asked why God had laid this impossible burden before him, why he had been tasked to heal others with so little power to do so. He shouted; asking, imploring, demanding help until his voice grew hoarse. Drained of his anger, he fell forward against the tree in a childlike embrace and sank to the ground.
In the silence that followed, a single leaf, green with red veins, floated down and landed on the ground beside him.
An answer? An omen? A meaningless coincidence?
He looked up and noticed the leaves of the tree, many with red veins, fluttering in a silent breeze he could not feel. In an effort he later recognized as sheer desperation, he gathered up all the leaves he could find with these red veins and stuffed them in his pockets. He ran back to the village and boiled them furiously over a raging fire. He gave the resulting brew to the sickest man in his gojo. Nataniel had no idea what the effect would be. Unlike the other plants he used as medicine, his Aunt Darjena had told him nothing about this tree, nothing of its benefits, its dangers. He did not worry that the brew might be toxic; the man would be dead from the sickness in a few days anyway. Amazingly, a week later, the man rose from his bed, Lazarus like, and returned to his village.
Then the people with the sickness came every week, sometimes every day. And Zahara’s life became consumed by her father’s urgent work.
Summary of Through These Veins
In the coffee-growing highlands of Ethiopia, an Italian scientist on a plant collecting expedition discovers a local medicine man dispensing an apparent cure for AIDS. As the medicine man’s teenage daughter reveals the plants behind the cure, their lives become irrevocably intertwined.
Through These Veins weaves together the dramatically different worlds of traditional healing, U.S. government funded AIDS research, and the pharmaceutical industry in an intensely personal, fast-paced tale of scientific intrigue and love, with both devastating and hopeful effect.