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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A searing, deeply moving memoir of illness and recovery that traces one young woman’s journey from diagnosis to remission to re-entry into “normal” life—from the author of the Life, Interrupted column in The New York Times
ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, Bloomberg, The Rumpus, She Reads, Library Journal, Booklist • “I was immersed for the whole ride and would follow Jaouad anywhere. . . . Her writing restores the moon, lights the way as we learn to endure the unknown.”—Chanel Miller, The New York Times Book Review
“Beautifully crafted . . . affecting . . . a transformative read . . . Jaouad’s insights about the self, connectedness, uncertainty and time speak to all of us.”—The Washington Post
In the summer after graduating from college, Suleika Jaouad was preparing, as they say in commencement speeches, to enter “the real world.” She had fallen in love and moved to Paris to pursue her dream of becoming a war correspondent. The real world she found, however, would take her into a very different kind of conflict zone.
It started with an itch—first on her feet, then up her legs, like a thousand invisible mosquito bites. Next came the exhaustion, and the six-hour naps that only deepened her fatigue. Then a trip to the doctor and, a few weeks shy of her twenty-third birthday, a diagnosis: leukemia, with a 35 percent chance of survival. Just like that, the life she had imagined for herself had gone up in flames. By the time Jaouad flew home to New York, she had lost her job, her apartment, and her independence. She would spend much of the next four years in a hospital bed, fighting for her life and chronicling the saga in a column for The New York Times.
When Jaouad finally walked out of the cancer ward—after countless rounds of chemo, a clinical trial, and a bone marrow transplant—she was, according to the doctors, cured. But as she would soon learn, a cure is not where the work of healing ends; it’s where it begins. She had spent the past 1,500 days in desperate pursuit of one goal—to survive. And now that she’d done so, she realized that she had no idea how to live.
How would she reenter the world and live again? How could she reclaim what had been lost? Jaouad embarked—with her new best friend, Oscar, a scruffy terrier mutt—on a 100-day, 15,000-mile road trip across the country. She set out to meet some of the strangers who had written to her during her years in the hospital: a teenage girl in Florida also recovering from cancer; a teacher in California grieving the death of her son; a death-row inmate in Texas who’d spent his own years confined to a room. What she learned on this trip is that the divide between sick and well is porous, that the vast majority of us will travel back and forth between these realms throughout our lives. Between Two Kingdoms is a profound chronicle of survivorship and a fierce, tender, and inspiring exploration of what it means to begin again.
1. After her diagnosis, Suleika finds that many people—from friends to healthcare providers—don’t know how to react or say the “right” thing to a cancer patient. Her friend Jake rushes off the phone, and a nurse tells Suleika about another young patient who’d been around her age when she died. What do you think would have been more helpful for Suleika to hear from these people? How did these passages make you think differently about empathy and the way you can support people going through something difficult? How have you been supported while going through something difficult?
2. “When you are facing the possibility of imminent death, people treat you differently,” Suleika writes. “All of this attention can feel like you are being memorialized while you are still alive.” What was it like for Suleika to be mourned like this before she was gone? Do you fault her friends and family for acting this way, or do you think it’s a human impulse? How, if at all, does Suleika try to avoid this trap of pre-memorializing with her group of cancer friends?
3. How does Suleika’s writing help her throughout her treatment? How does it hurt her?
4. Suleika writes about the pressure to be a model patient, “to be someone who suffers well, to act with heroism, and to put on a stoic facade all the time.” Why do you think we put these expectations on cancer patients? Who do you think this performance is actually for?
5. The book’s title comes from a Susan Sontag passage: “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” Have you used your “kingdom of the sick” passport yet? What was it like there, and what did you learn about yourself? What are the benefits of experiencing this “other” place?
6. What does Suleika’s breakup with Will represent for her? What does her relationship with Jon come to represent?
7. Suleika feels a strange sadness at the end of her treatment, even feeling bereft at the loss of her port. Discuss this sadness. How does it
subvert our expectations of what survival and healing are like?
8. Eventually, Suleika realizes that she can’t wait until she’s “well enough” to start living again. What sparks this realization for her? When have you wanted to wait until you were “enough” of something—rich enough, thin enough, well enough? How can we learn to embrace where we are at present? What do we lose by constantly striving, without satisfaction?
9. Even though Suleika knows exactly what her friend Max needs from her when her cancer returns, she can’t bring herself to be there for him right away. “Right now, my impulse is self-preservation,” she writes. “The thought of more heartbreak makes me want to cut myself off from the world.” When do we need to prioritize our friends? When do we need to prioritize ourselves? How can we learn to tell the difference?
10. Which of the stops, and people, on Suleika’s road trip stayed with you the most? Why? What did she learn from that particular person? What did you learn?
About the Author
Suleika Jaouad (pronounced Su-lake-uh Ja-wad) is the author of the instant New York Times bestselling memoir, Between Two Kingdoms. She wrote the Emmy Award-winning New York Times column “Life, Interrupted” and her reported features and essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Vogue, and NPR, among other publications. A highly sought-after speaker, her mainstage TED Talk was one of the ten most popular of 2019 and has nearly five million views. She is also the creator of the Isolation Journals, a community creativity project founded during the Covid-19 pandemic to help others convert isolation into artistic solitude; over 100,000 people from around the world have joined.
Born in New York City to a Tunisian father and a Swiss mother, Suleika attended The Juilliard School's pre-college program for the double bass, and earned her BA with highest honors from Princeton University and an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College.
Suleika’s career aspirations as a foreign correspondent were cut short when, at age 22, she was diagnosed with leukemia. She began writing her New York Times column “Life, Interrupted” from her hospital room at Sloan-Kettering, and has since become a fierce advocate for those living with illness and enduring life’s many other interruptions.
Suleika served on Barack Obama's Presidential Cancer Panel, the national advisory board of Family Reach and the Bone Marrow and Cancer Foundation, and the Brooklyn Public Library’s Arts & Letters Committee. She was awarded the Red Door Advocacy & Community Service Award, and has been an artist in residence at Ucross, ArtYard, and the Kerouac Project.
Suleika travels the world teaching workshops and speaking, and she was an Anacapa Scholar in Residence at the Thacher School and a lecturer in the Narrative Medicine Program at Columbia University. She has appeared on the Today Show, NPR's Talk of the Nation, the Paris Review, the Los Angeles Times and Glamour, among others.