This enormously engaging autobiography is not only the story of a clever and courageous woman’s life but also of the differences between attitudes to women in Joan Arakkal’s chosen profession of orthopaedic surgery in India and the UK, then in Australia. When she finally takes legal action against the Australian Health Practitioner Regulator Agency, which is preventing her from taking up an appointment as a hand surgeon in Perth, the process takes many years and the results are negative for her and sobering for us as readers. However, Joan Arakkal comes through as enormously resilient, a woman whose delight in her family, her Indian culture and her garden as well as her pride in her work and research provide a bulwark against the appalling barriers she meets in her professional life. They also help her when she is diagnosed with breast cancer and when it returns twelve years later.
About the author
Born into a highly educated family in Kerala, Southern India, Joan Arakkal is encouraged by her parents to fulfil her potential and ambition in whatever field she chooses. Even in India, where − in her social strata at any rate − there is no differentiation between what girls and boys can do, taking up orthopaedic surgery as her specialisation when she finishes medical training is unusual. However, she excels and is accepted into what is a mostly male profession. After she marries and moves to the UK she works and studies to become a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. But when she migrates with her family to Australia this qualification does not give her the recognition it should and she battles many forms of discrimination. Although she is unable to practice in the area of hand surgery for which she is trained, she is a widely recognised medical researcher and academic. Her personal and professional strength and good humour come through in her writing.
Questions for Discussion
- The reasons why Arakkal chooses the field of orthopaedic surgery are quite complex.What insights do they give you into her character?
- Who are the people who have the most influence on Arakkal in her life and how is their influence discernible in the things she does? It is interesting to group them into different categories.
- Why are ‘women in surgery’ relatively rare and is their absence acceptable?
- How would you describe Arakkal’s social and political views? How much are they a product of her background and upbringing?
- As Arakkal describes the instances of discrimination that mark her professional life in Western Australian hospitals, is it possible to work out whether these are more to do with her racial background or her gender? Are other factors at work?
- Towards the end of Slice Girls, Arakkal asks ‘Is Western feminism a myth?’ How justified is this question in relation to the experiences she (and other women) have been through?
- Arakkal chooses to begin her autobiography with her watching her grown daughter performing the Tandava in order to graduate in an ancient Indian classical dance tradition, and ends with a chapter called ‘The Dance of Life’? How does this affect your reading of her story?
- Reading an autobiography is different from reading a work of fiction. What are the factors that make for this different reading experience? Do you as a group have a preference for one or the other and why?
If you liked this book, you may also like…
- Finding My Place: From Cairo to Canberra – the irresistible story of an irrepressible woman, Anne Aly (ABC Books)
- Always Another Country: a memoir of exile and home, Sisonke Msimang (Text Publishing)
- A Diamond in the Dust, Frauke Bolten-Boshammer (Simon & Schuster)
- The Calling: A true story of faith, hope and love, Susan Prescott, (UWA Publishing)