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Suleika Jaouad Revisits Bone Marrow Transplant in “American Symphony”



After the film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, Ms. Jaouad recalled that someone in the crowd approached her and said how relieved she was: “You’re still here.”

“When it comes to illness stories, we tell them from the vantage point of having survived,” Ms. Jaouad said. In that sense, “American Symphony,” which stops short of a white-text-black-screen epilogue and offers no update on Ms. Jaouad’s health, is a corrective. “It wasn’t clear that I was going to survive the shooting period of this,” she said. The credits roll, but there is no neat ending for Ms. Jaouad and Mr. Batiste.

“None of us know if we’re going to exist in the future, but I have a heightened fear of not existing in the future,” Ms. Jaouad said.

In “Between Two Kingdoms Ms. Jaouad writes about her exchanges with a man named Quintin Jones. Mr. Jones, who introduces himself to her as “Lil GQ,” read her columns while on death row. He’d written from a place of recognition — one trapped person to another. After her transplant, she visited him in prison. But the week her book was released, he was given an execution date. Ms. Jaouad was devastated. She threw herself into the movement to get his death sentence converted into a life sentence. It didn’t work.

On the morning of his execution, Mr. Jones was granted four hours of phone calls. He spent them with Mr. Batiste and Ms. Jaouad. “It was unbelievable because we were talking in the future tense, knowing that the future wasn’t going to come to pass,” Ms. Jaouad said. “He talked about coming to visit us, hanging out in our garden. We were all just choosing to live in that space.” She tried to explain the suspension. Their conscious decision to be outside of time.

Lately, Ms. Jaouad is forcing herself to make plans. She sees it as an act of, “necessary optimism,” that she has committed to write two more books. One will be a work of painting and prose that Ms. Jaouad has titled “Drowning Practice.” The second will be a book about journaling, incorporating writing prompts. She will show her work at the art center ArtYard next summer.

A few weeks ago, Ms. Jaouad traveled to Seattle and was walking outside, suddenly under a torrential rain. Someone rushed to offer her an umbrella. “I was like, ‘No, I’m good,’” Ms. Jaouad remembered. She wanted to feel the rain on her face. Back in New York, she let herself fantasize. Not about prizes or red carpets, but about some unspecial rainstorm a decade from now. How incredible it would be not to feel new, she said. “If I’m around, I’ll want the umbrella.”

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