While burnout and overwork are not especially new concepts, and human experience of them even less so, recent nonfiction from authors such as Anne Helen Petersen and Jenny Odell problematises women’s relationship to “success” and work under late capitalism. Yumiko Kadota’s Emotional Female explores similar territory, recounting the author’s experiences as a surgeon. It is memoir that also operates as a scathing takedown of the public hospital system in Australia through the story of a surgeon-in-training who is a woman and of Japanese descent.
The catalyst for the book was a blog post Kadota wrote in December 2018 about the abominable conditions at a dysfunctional Sydney hospital that led to her quitting surgery. It garnered wide attention from the general public and medical community.
While Kadota clearly aims to shine a light on these conditions – a worthy goal – the source of this light only ever really comes from her personal experiences and, occasionally, that of her close colleagues. The clear, detached writing style is not unlike the clinical precision with which a surgeon must take their scalpel to a human body, and it prioritises laying her life bare.
Unfortunately, this results in somewhat plodding prose. The book is also over-reliant on bearing witness as a premise for its 400 pages. There is little analysis of the systemic problems in public hospitals. Kadota briefly suggests that the high influx of nurses from the Philippines to the public health system might account for her being repeatedly mistaken for a nurse, but quickly moves on, missing an opportunity to explore the intersections of gender and race in care professions. The book in general shows little interest in the effects of these hierarchies on other staff positions within public hospitals; Kadota’s experience as a surgeon is never generalised to those who work in less exalted positions.
If it seems unfair to demand that a book do more than simply relay personal experience, it is because such books reveal how much more work there is to be done, and how patterns of abuse are widespread in hierarchical situations with uneven power balances. Kadota’s contribution adds an important voice to the wider conversation, and while not everyone reading will have intimate knowledge of the medical world, many – especially women from non-Caucasian backgrounds – will likely recognise similar abusive patterns in their own workplaces.
Viking, 400pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 24, 2021 as "Yumiko Kadota, Emotional Female".
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