by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona native Frank Bures' new book opens with an attention grabber. A man on a bus in Nigeria believes his penis has just been stolen by the woman next to him — that she caused it to magically disappear — and a bus full of people is ready to kill her over it. It is a bizarre and surprisingly wide-spread phenomenon; many people in parts of West Africa and Asia believe that their genitalia have vanished after being stolen with magic. Western experts call the supposed syndrome "koro," after a Southeast Asian name for it, and they have largely dismissed it as the absurd superstition of primitive cultures. Bures is not content to wave off the heartfelt panic of koro victims.
"It's real to them," Bures said in an interview. He does not think that koro victims' genitals are really disappearing, but for him, the phenomenon is a way to explore what humans believe is real, the real power that beliefs have, and how our own sacrosanct ideas of what is true may be shaped by our culture. Koro and other "cultural syndromes" — medical conditions that only occur in certain cultures — has been Bures' muse for years. In his first book amid a rising career as a globetrotting freelance writer, "The Geography of Madness," Bures takes readers on a tour of cultural syndromes. In northwestern India, people suffer from a belief that a lizard is burrowing under their skin, trying to reach their neck and kill them. Some Chinese people come down with frigophobia — an extreme fear of cold and an obsession with wearing warm clothes — that stems from their belief that life depends on a balance between yin and yang, hot and cold. In France, some people associate migraines with liver problems, and Japanese youth suffer from a "silent epidemic" of an extreme withdrawal from social interaction called hikikomori. Bures talks with victims of koro and other cultural syndromes and probes the psychology behind them. Readers may squirm when he turns his attention to Western cultural syndromes and challenges American ideas of medicine. Is pre-menstral syndrome a cultural construct? Could depression or carpal tunnel be cultural syndromes? Bures makes the case for reconsidering the idea that human brains work like machines and that what goes on in our minds is not real.
"The body and the mind affect each other, and that is what creates our experience," Bures explained. "So it's more complicated than is it real or is it not real," he added.
Koro is perhaps the perfect launching pad for Bures' study of how culture shapes people's perception of reality because it seems so absurd and so easy to empirically disprove. After all, either the victims' genitals are still there or not, right? But koro victims truly see and feel what they believe. "Even when they go to a doctor and a doctor says, 'You're fine. Your penis is right there,' they'll [say,] 'No, that's not really mine,' or, 'The essence is gone,' or, 'It's just coming back,'" Bures explained. "People will even look at their normal penis and feel that it's not there."
What people expect to experience can shape what they do experience, Bures argues in "The Geography of Madness." That point is perhaps best illustrated in his exploration of "voodoo death," a African, Brazilian, and Oceanic phenomenon in which people are told they are going to die at a certain time and then they actually do.
Bures is less concerned with whether voodoo and koro are real, and more interested in the way culture shapes people's perceptions and, more fundamentally, what culture is.
He describes listening to koro believers and a koro victim's passionate story until it began to sound almost believable. "[A]s I listened to him tell his story, I felt myself drawn in to it," Bures wrote. "I could feel his fear. I gave in to the panic in his voice. It was so real, so true. In that moment, I was afraid, too."
"That's how culture works," Bures said. "When you're inside this world that everyone around agrees exists, it's really hard to resist that."
"The Geography of Madness" is part travelogue, part scientific inquiry, and partly the story of Bures' own life, as a Winona boy who goes off to see the world and tries to understand it, as a parent, and as a writer who struggles toward success. It is hilarious, at times, in all the ways a book about magical penis thefts might be expected to be funny, and it is deeply serious and introspective, too.
When he was a young man growing up in Winona in the 1980s, Bures had his own eye-opening experience with how arbitrary culture can be. An Italian exchange student who stayed with his family was almost rejected from a party because his pants were too tight, and when Bures went to Italy as an exchange student himself, he was rebuffed by Italian beauties who told him he eats like a caveman. "That is so American," they informed him. Bures describes reaching a point where he felt more at home in Italy, and less at home back in America.
Bures' experience in Italy gave him the travel bug. On a subsequent trip to Tanzania, he describes developing a deep admiration for the way Tanzanian culture values spending time with people over being on time. They have sayings like "guests are a blessing," and people think nothing of taking an hour to walk a friend home. "I'd love to incorporate that into my life, but it's not that easy," he said of living with a Tanzanian sense of time.
In other writing projects, Bures has explored American subcultures, too, such as the shared stories that underpin Big Foot believers. "It is so interesting to be in those spaces, which are so complete and so logical from within, but so strange from without," he said. In his book, Bures gives his readers this message: "I hope you'll come to see the part we all play in creating worlds that look strange from outside but that make perfect sense from within, and how the strands that hold those worlds together are the same threads that run through our lives, and that hold us together too."
Next week, Bures will give a reading as part of the Winona Poet Laureate's First Tuesday's series. He will appear at the Blue Heron Coffeehouse, 162 West Second Street, Winona, on Tuesday, May 3, at 7 p.m. The event is free with optional donations toward the laureate program. Bures' reading will be followed by a poetry open mic.
Bures has written for the Washington Post Magazine, Esquire, Wired, Harper's, Outside, Salon, Mother Jones, and Poets and Writers. His writing has been praised by "Eat, Pray, Love" author Elizabeth Gilbert. Winona author and former poet laureate Emilio DeGrazia said of Bures, "I think he has something important to give Americans, which is a cross-cultural perspective, because often we get locked into a limited point of view." Bures is the son of Winona doctor Frank Bures.