10 Questions with Beth Vale
MHHA: Please tell us who you are, what your area of interest/expertise is, and wherein the world you work?
I’m a health anthropologist, writer, social development consultant who works at the intersection of society and the body. I’ve spent most of my research career working on how antiretroviral therapy is received, interpreted and delivered in South Africa. My work in this area began in the early years of the public treatment roll-out, during which time I was also a student HIV/AIDS activist and an intern with the Treatment Action Campaign. While HIV/AIDS was, for along time, the lens through which I read the social landscape, the work naturally intersected with research interests on gender, the household,sexuality and social welfare. Since completing my PhD, I have broadened by research interests to include the body politics of Johannesburg nightclub culture, and, more recently, chronic illness in the Eastern Cape Karoo. My current work is expressly interested in interconnections between human health and the health of the land – social history as encoded in the body.Alongside my academic outputs, my work has included narrative non-fiction,short-form journalism, poetry, storytelling, exhibition collaborations, bodymapping workshops, as well as health and education consulting.
You can see more of my creative and academic work here.
MHHA: Do you have funding for your work?
While working on my current book manuscript, I’ve received support from the Academic and Non-Fiction Authors Association of South Africa and the Jakes Gerwel Foundation.
MHHA:Who are your research/practitioner partners?
I continue to partner in various ways with Megan Vaughan and her team, who are working on a Wellcome-Trust funded project titled Chronic Disease in Sub-Saharan Africa: a critical history of an 'Epidemiological Transition.
MHHA: What projects have you been working on recently?
I’m currently working on a book manuscript, which tells the social history of the Eastern Cape Karoo through stories of health and healing. I continue to consult for a range of private and non-government organisations, producing research and writing, offering a humanities perspective on key social policy questions. In 2020, I collaborated with writer and multi-media artist, Phumlani Pikoli, on a series of panels exploring mental health, sexuality and young people’s digital lives. I also produced a multi-media art-piece for MHHA’s Breath Symposium,titled Karoo Sanatorium: a speculative fiction based on many true stories. The piece drew on ethnographic and archival research to tell a story that evoked the social, historical and political milieu of the region, and their impact on health.
MHHA: What about your work challenges you and which parts makes you smile?
I have al ove/hate relationship with the unpredictability of research. Nothing ever turns out the way you imagine; or at the pace you hope for. Part of being a good ethnographer, I think, is letting the messiness, the contradictions, and the surprises lead you. In many ways that’s the most exhilarating part of my work, but it also means letting go of control and expectation, and accepting disappointments. Each moment of research is also inevitably a confrontation with the limitations of one’s own knowledge. There’s both beauty and frustration in that.
MHHA: What three positive things have you/your team achieved this year?
I recently took up my first lecturing post, which has been a significant milestone. Ire-designed and taught a third year course on the Anthropology of Medicine& The Body. That, in itself, felt like an immense victory given the new challenges presented by online learning. I also began drawing connections between my research on long-term illness and the Covid-19 pandemic, publishing a piece on Care & Caring in the journal Transformation, and on The Virus in the Queues for Thesis 11’s online series.
MHHA: What advice can you give to people aspiring to work in your field?
This is advice I’m still trying to give myself, because I know how valuable it is whenI actually get it right:
Write everyday. Write nonsense if you have to. Write what you observe about the world around you; a thought that occurred to you in Isle 5; something you read in the news; a conversation you had with a friend; an article you’re planning. Allof this becomes useful. There’s a quote by Te-Nehisi Coates that I love:
Writing as writing
Writing as rioting
Writing as righting
On the best days, all three.
MHHA: What impact would you like your work to have?
Healthcare needs a humanities voice. There is an overwhelming tendency – not just in health but in so many social policy questions – to defer to technical experts, to statistics, to technological or pharmaceutical interventions. But all of these must land, and live, in social worlds. My hope is to continue to bring an anthropological voice to interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary,conversations about health and the body.
MHHA: If you had the opportunity to change anything in your field; what would it be,how would you change it, and why?
Despite many efforts, including those of MHHA,academia continues to be organised into disciplinary siloes, which are mirrored in aspects of the funding and publication industry. I often find myself longing for more structures to support collaboration, public engagement, and creative output.
And of course, I always want more time to write!