An Interview with Juan Alvarado Valdivia
Conducted by Roberto Cruz
Cancerlandia takes us through the journey of author Juan Alvarado Valdivia and his fight with Mr. Hodgkin’s. Not only does it depict the fight between these two characters, but the author also delves into a seemingly new world he seems to move to after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. With a dark sense of humor, Juan Alvarado Valdivia takes us into his darkest days as both his personal struggles and his fight with cancer manifest themselves in his everyday life.
The author takes us through his journey into Cancerlandia, a world made up of doctors and chemotherapy, while trying to keep in tact everything from his ‘normal’ life. The undoubted merger between Juan’s old life as well as his new one comes with outburst of emotion no longer able to be bottled up inside, but also a deep reflection of a bigger purpose as he continues to find comfort in his writing.
Alvarado Valdivia ultimately takes us into a critical point in his life depicting some of his biggest through Mr. Hodgkin’s. Ultimately, it his will, loved ones, and his writing that help him battle with the biggest challenge he has faced in his life.
-Roberto Cruz ('17)
Throughout your book, which chronicles your life with cancer, not only does there seem to be closure with cancer itself, but also with some of the other issues you were facing (anger, drinking). Did winning your battle against cancer naturally help you find a way to cope with these issues? Do you think you would have become conscious of these other problems you found yourself to be facing if you had not had cancer and had to go through that whole process?
In a way, I believe the struggle to regain my good health helped me to address these other personal issues. I think overcoming cancer provided me with a mightier resolve. When you overcome such a mortal test, when you discover a well of strength you never quite knew before, it becomes easier to convince yourself that you can overcome other challenges. At least that's been the case with me.
I'd like to think that I would have eventually become conscious of my drinking and anger management problems, with or without the aid of my illness. But what really helped to illuminate those personal issues was being in a relationship with the ex-girlfriend I wrote about in my memoir in conjunction with being seriously ill. Our difficulties as a couple, coupled with the pain and suffering my drinking and anger caused us both is what finally made me realize, oh, I have a problem—and there has to be another way I can manage these emotions.
Mr. Hodgkin’s plays a very important role in this memoir. He was constantly brought to life by your own experiences and perceptions of cancer. What was the purpose of giving cancer this different dimension? Was this something that allowed you to think of cancer as something that could be more easily defeated?
Personifying my disease into a character I named Mr. Hodgkins was natural for me. I think it's mostly a result of going about life as an atheist. When I was diagnosed, I did not allow myself to blame God, or write it off to some notion of destiny that I could never prove or rationally explain. For me, being stricken with Hodgkin's lymphoma was and continues to be essentially a random happening; yet, shortly after I was diagnosed, I had a ton of frustration and anger over being the one afflicted with a rare blood cancer. And so, creating a nemesis gave me some sort of outlet to direct all this pissed-off-ness to. Creating Mr. Hodgkins—a foe—was in line with Western medicine’s combative approach towards cancer that I wholeheartedly bought into when I was ill.
In my book, I mention a Google search I did for the terms “Mr. Hodgkin and I.” And I was really pleased, and still am, to know that other folks afflicted with Hodgkin's lymphoma have also done the same. It certainly wasn't anything original of me.
You incorporate this sense of dark humor in your book and even mention that, that is part of your personality, was this used as a way of coping with some of the problems that you were facing?
Absolutely. A dark, twisted sense of humor has been one of my staple tonics for Dealing With Life for a long, long time.
Life is hard. In general—historically speaking—humans are a severely fucked-up species in my humble opinion. And so, laughter has been a way for me to cope with this reality. I've been on Planet Earth now for nearly thirty-seven years, and I've observed and convinced myself that folks who have endured the most suffering are oftentimes the ones with the gnarliest sense of humor—certainly the ones with the heartiest laughs. I think I've had a fairly easy life (so far), but laughter definitely helps me through it.
The book certainly made it clear that writing was an important part of who you were as a person; writing was something you never intended to give up even with cancer. Is there any connection between who you were, in terms of writing, before and after this experience and the way in which you express yourself in your writing.
Hmm, that's an interesting question. In terms of writing, in terms of expressing myself, I'm probably more bold about stating difficult or fucked-up observations about myself or the world we're a part of ever since I was diagnosed with lymphoma. I guess one of the benefits about having a deathly visitor is that it can allow you to be less fearful of expressing your truth because, well, if you don't do it now, who knows if you'll continue to have that opportunity? I may be in complete remission now but I think I haven't lost some of that fearlessness in my writing. At least I hope I haven't! Otherwise it'd be all for naught!
You’re very candid about the different types of relationships that you had with people you knew and people you met. How do you feel these relationships changed (or stayed the same) as a result of going through cancer?
Everything is always in flux, especially relationships. Some bonds were strengthened while I struggled to regain my good health and some relationships eroded. I was fortunate to have two classmates at Saint Mary's—two friends who were already familiar with the kingdom of the ill (in the words of Susan Sontag)—to drop some wisdom on me after I was first diagnosed. One of my classmates told me that being seriously ill would reveal my true friends, as well as those who weren't. She told me I would find out who would be there for me, and she was absolutely right. Death has a knack for revealing one's true self, even those on its periphery.
There are parts of this book, especially towards the end where you are left reflecting on your experience with cancer. Is your life post-cancer, and the things you keep learning an element that still affects your life today? Or was there complete closure when you finished writing this book?
I am fortunate to still be in remission. My experience from having and ridding myself of a life-threatening malady still has ramifications that play out today; they're like aftershocks from a ginormous earthquake—and I imagine they'll play out for the rest of my life, however long it may be. For example, I now have so much appreciation for simply being healthy. Being able to simply stand up and walk without being in pain is fucking amazing! I know my body is now on a trajectory of physical decline, but I'm more grateful than I used to be for the mental and physical faculties I still have. I also live life with a bit more urgency—both conscious and subterranean—but I think that's a damn good thing because the truth we all have to grapple with is none of us knows when our ride is going to end.
In terms of closure, writing the book—along with therapy—was instructive in allowing me to come to terms with how I would choose to look back upon that tumultuous episode in my life. Writing the memoir also helped to prove to me that being a writer is like the best in me. When I was sick, I wanted to live to write, to continue to create, and to hopefully become a kinder person to myself and others. Writing this book crystalized those wishes and beliefs, so there is closure with that.
Juan Alvarado Valdivia is a Peruvian American writer who was born in Guadalajara, Mexico and raised in Fremont, CA. He is the author of ¡Cancerlandia!: A Memoir, which was listed as a Top 10 Best Non-Fiction Book for 2015 on TheLatinoAuthor.com. He received his MFA in creative writing from Saint Mary’s College of California. This winter, he will be a resident at the Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts. He lives in Oakland.
Follow these links in order to learn more about the author and his book!
Check out the ¡Cancerlandia! trailer: https://vimeo.com/nitofeito/cancerlandiatrailer