BOOK REVIEW: Fight Back With Joy
American Christianity has its own Arabian princess. Her name is Margaret Feinberg.
Last year, Feinberg published her 30th book — a collection of lessons from her battle with cancer titled Fight Back With Joy. Feinberg asserts, “More than whimsy, Joy is a weapon we use to fight life’s battles.” Feinberg excavates joy from beautiful and unlikely places — pain, rest, celebration, food, fear, and sacrifice. Each chapter ends with a cliffhanger — a foreshadowing of the next battleground where joy will take its stand. The book is beautiful and poignant in its own right, but as a cancer survivor, I found it especially marvelous. And I kept wondering how on Earth Feinberg had the strength to write it smack in the middle of the gut-punch we call chemo. But the most striking discovery came three days after I finished reading Fight Back With Joy. That’s when I realized its connection to a much older book of stories.
One Thousand One Arabian Nights is an anthology of short stories by different authors from the Middle Ages that all fit into one frame story. The frame story is this: A sultan is angry because his wife has cheated on him. In a colossal, patriarchal overreach, he expands his rage beyond his wife to all women. He takes a series of virgin brides, marrying a new one each day, sleeping with her that night, and killing her in the morning. He does this until he marries a young woman named Scheherazade. On their wedding night, Scheherazade tells the sultan a story, but she doesn’t finish the story. She leaves him with a cliffhanger. In fact, this may be the world’s oldest and most well-known application of that literary device. In the morning, the sultan decides not to kill Scheherazade. He tells her to finish her story that night, and that he'll kill her the next morning. So the second night of their marriage, Scheherazade finishes the first story and immediately begins a second, which she doesn’t finish. The sultan again stays her execution and this pattern repeats for 1,001 nights.
Simply put, 1,001 Arabian Nights is about a woman who tells her stories to stay alive. And even though the metaphor might be unpleasant, that is what Margaret Feinberg has done in Fight Back With Joy. I don’t mean that her keyboard was a magic elixir to keep her heart beating, but it certainly is a heartfelt book that feels like elixir to hurting readers. Feinberg’s mortality and her storytelling are deeply connected through this book. And when she unearths joy in the buried places of our pain, pulling us into each new chapter with another cliffhanger, she helps us live too.