By Tilesha Brown, Special to the AFRO
Irène P. Mathieu was a featured poet at the recent Virginia Festival of the Book. At the New Dominion Book Shop, in downtown Charlottesville, she read to a room full of both fans of her work and new supporters in a program called “Root & Tendril: A Poetry Reading.”
But the interesting part about Mathieu is that she is not just a poet. She is also a resident pediatrician, an activist in her own right and a living, breathing exception to the widely accepted rule that you have to choose a career along the beaten path in order to be successful. Through writing, medicine and advocacy, Mathieu has created an award-winning lane for herself.
When asked which came first- the poetry or the medicine- she has to pause. Poetry definitely came first, she decides after a brief pause. With both her parents being physicians, she explains that medicine was there from day one. However, she fought it, at least in the beginning.
“I did not want to be a doctor for a long time. Part of it was a rebellion— not wanting to follow my parent’s footsteps because to me, medicine was always a default,” she tells the AFRO, “but I always wanted to write. I felt like I was an artist and I wanted to create things.”
She was also drawn to social justice and equity issues. Even as a young child, she knew she wanted to help make the world a more fair and balanced place. And hearing her recall her childhood growing up in Charlottesville, Virginia, it’s not hard to understand why.
“Growing up in Charlottesville was very isolating,” she says, “the schools that I went to, a lot of times, I just remember a feeling of marginalization. I didn’t feel like I belonged.”
She talks about all of this calmly and in a matter-of-fact tone as she sips a cup of coffee at a cafe, anxiously anticipating her debut at the Virginia Festival of the Book in just a few hours. This is an event that she’s attended since she was a little girl. But this year, there’s a marked difference in the tone of the festival. She is reading from her award-winning collection of poems in a town that has just been catapulted into the international spotlight for the same reasons she felt isolated as a child.
In August 2017, violence entrenched the small college town after one person was killed and 19 others hurt when a speeding car slammed into a group of counter-protesters where a white nationalist rally had been scheduled to take place. The events rocked the town and revealed the strong currents of racism that residents say had been bubbling under the surface for a long time.
Having grown up there, Mathieu says she’s not surprised that it happened in Charlottesville, and coincidentally, it is events like this that fuel, at least in part, her poetic voice.
“I don’t think I do it consciously. I don’t think my writing is propaganda,” she says, “It’s more that I’m writing about the truth of what I feel, and I feel very angry about injustice and inequity.”
After years of fighting it, she finally gave in to the call of medicine while in her upperclass years of college.
“As I got older, I started to realize… if I can borrow the quote from Dr. King…’Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhumane.’ “
And that’s when the pieces started to come together. She started to realize that going into medicine was actually a great career for fighting inequities because, she says, inequities are always riddling the body.
“You always have bodily manifestations, so this is actually a really neat way of being an advocate and trying to also be a policy maker— someone that can actually influence the structures that can shape people’s health,” she says.
While visiting a community in the Dominican Republic, she became interested in the relationship between the caregiver and the patient and she saw how powerful and how comforting and therapeutic that relationship could be. And that’s how she got into medicine again.
After returning to the U.S., she finished her pre-requisites for medical school and got into a program shortly after.
All the while she was writing.
While in medical school, she started to attend workshops and joined every poetry reading she could in different cities. Then, in 2014, she released her first chapbook and that’s when she started feeling like she could actually become a successful poet.
She most recently moved to Philadelphia for her residency in Pediatrics. So for now, her writing schedule is dictated by her program and that schedule varies, but she still finds time to write. So far, it has proven to be exactly the kind of life she wanted to build for herself. She’s an artist and an advocate for justice, equality and global health. She didn’t have to sacrifice one for the other and she encourages others to create their own path the way she did.
“If you work really hard at something, then no one can tell you that you don’t deserve it or that you’re not good enough for it or that you can’t do it,” she says.
As for Irène’s future, in the next five years, she sees herself in academic medicine at a university hospital, seeing patients at a primary care clinic, doing research and teaching resident university medical students.
And, of course, writing.