The Kissing Bug
A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation's Neglect of a Deadly Disease
Winner of the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award
National Book Foundation Science + Literature Selection
Finalist for New American Voices Award and Lammy Award for Bisexual Nonfiction
A TIME, NPR, Chicago Public Library, Science for the People, WYNC, WBUR Radio Boston, and The Stacks Podcast Best Book of the Year
Longlisted for the PEN Open Book Award
As heard on Fresh Air
Growing up in a New Jersey factory town in the 1980s, Daisy Hernández believed that her aunt had become deathly ill from eating an apple. No one in her family, in either the United States or Colombia, spoke of infectious diseases. Even into her thirties, she only knew that her aunt had died of Chagas, a rare and devastating illness that affects the heart and digestive system. But as Hernández dug deeper, she discovered that Chagas—or the kissing bug disease—is more prevalent in the United States than the Zika virus.
After her aunt’s death, Hernández began searching for answers. Crisscrossing the country, she interviewed patients, doctors, epidemiologists, and even veterinarians with the Department of Defense. She learned that in the United States more than three hundred thousand people in the Latinx community have Chagas, and that outside of Latin America, this is the only country with the native insects—the “kissing bugs”—that carry the Chagas parasite.
Through unsparing, gripping, and humane portraits, Hernández chronicles a story vast in scope and urgent in its implications, exposing how poverty, racism, and public policies have conspired to keep this disease hidden. A riveting and nuanced investigation into racial politics and for-profit healthcare in the United States, The Kissing Bug reveals the intimate history of a marginalized disease and connects us to the lives at the center of it all.
Praise For The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation's Neglect of a Deadly Disease…
— The Washington Post
A necessary read for anyone concerned about health crises across the world.
— The Boston Globe
Part memoir, part investigative thriller. . . . Her book shines a light on [a] neglected harm.
— The San Francisco Chronicle
A common but overlooked parasite killed the author’s aunt, spurring this exposé.
— The New York Times Book Review
Deftly reported. . . . a nuanced and empathetic look into the intersections of poverty, racism and the U.S. health?care system.
Hernández raises damning questions about which infectious diseases get attention and whom we believe to be deserving of care.
— NPR Books
A trenchant work of investigative journalism. . . . weaving in cultural and political analysis, extensive research, and personal history as she chases down answers about her aunt’s tragic death from an underreported disease known as Chagas.
Visceral. . . . [Hernández] weaves storytelling, science and policy with striking results.
She movingly profiles individual patients and. . . . the divergent fates experienced by [illness] sufferers of differing incomes, origins, and ethnicities.
— The New Yorker
This vivid, multidimensional account brings an ongoing medical injustice to light.
— Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
Uncovers a story about the intersection of public health and discrimination, and a disease that will become even more virulent as climate change stretches the kissing bug habitat further north.
— Chicago Public Library
Raises questions on why a disease that kills tens of thousands a year is not more of a focus.
— NBC News
Compelling and impressive. . . . Hernández's lucid writing provides a paradigm for how to begin addressing the inequities baked into medicine.
— Shelf Awareness
A deeply personal, unsparing analysis of how neglected diseases disproportionately affect marginalized peoples in the world’s richest country—and why they need not.
— Kirkus Reviews
Blending family and medical history, this account is especially relevant in an era of pandemics.
— Library Journal
A riveting investigation of a rare infectious disease, racial politics and for-profit healthcare.
— Book Public
Traces the effects of Chagas on minority communities, revealing how poverty, racism, and public policy have intersected to disrupt adequate healthcare interventions.
The book is propulsive, fascinating, and tragic in equal parts, and in both style and substance it reminds us that the cold hard facts of medical science are never separate from humanity, or from our prejudices, or from our most intimate stories.
— Undark Magazine
An expansive account of poverty, race, and who we consider worthy of help as it relates to location-based medical ailments.
— Bitch Magazine
Engaging and dynamic. . . . A reader walks away from The Kissing Bug with more knowledge and empathy than they had before and a sense that something must be done to save lives.
— Southern Review of Books
— The Lancet
— Reading Women
This nuanced and timely take exposes a disease that silently harms hundreds of thousands, it also serves as a prescription for change in our public policies and health care system.
— Discover Magazine
Trace[s] some of the most pressing questions about race and the institutions that purport to save lives in the United States, all of it held together by Hernandez’s complicated love for her once-vibrant aunt.
Through interviews with patients, doctors, and epidemiologists, Hernández weaves a narrative of the racial politics that overshadow modern healthcare.
A lyrical hybrid of memoir and science reporting.
The engrossing account of a family medical mystery that led to a compassionate investigation of an underattended disease.
— Foreword Reviews
Hernández writes to the heart of the story with immense tenderness, compassion, and intelligence. A riveting read.
— Angie Cruz, author of Dominicana
With The Kissing Bug, Daisy Hernández takes her place alongside great science writers like Rebecca Skloot and Mary Roach, immersing herself in the deeply personal subject of a deadly insect-borne disease that haunted her own family. It’s a tender and compelling personal saga, an incisive work of investigative journalism, and an absolutely essential perspective on global migration, poverty, and pandemics.
— Amy Stewart, author of Wicked Bugs
The Kissing Bug is a deft mix of family archaeology, parasite detective story, and American reckoning. A much-needed addition to the canon.
— Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD, author of When We Do Harm: A Doctor Confronts Medical Error
An engaging, eye-opening read for anyone looking to learn more about the human suffering caused by the collision of a parasite and years of neglect by the United States’ medical system.
— Kris Newby, author of Bitten
Tin House Books, 9781951142520, 336pp.
Publication Date: June 1, 2021
About the Author
Daisy Hernández is a former reporter for The New York Times and has been writing about the intersections of race, immigration, class, and sexuality for almost two decades. She has written for National Geographic, NPR’s All Things Considered and Code Switch, The Atlantic, Slate, and Guernica, and she’s the former editor of Colorlines, a newsmagazine on race and politics. Hernández is the author of the award-winning memoir A Cup of Water Under My Bed and co-editor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. She is an associate professor at Miami University in Ohio.
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
1. Had you heard of Chagas disease before reading this book? Were there things you learned about that surprised you?
2. Danielle Ofri calls The Kissing Bug “a deft mix of family archaeology, parasite detective story, and American reckoning.” In a few words, how would you characterize the book?
3. How was the book structured? How did this affect the story and your appreciation of the book?
4. Author Daisy Hernández begins the narrative in childhood, with a scene of her aunt in the hospital. Why do you think she chose to start in this way?
5. “While other girls my age were taught to fear rabid dogs and horrible men,” says Hernández, “I learned to be terrified of an insect the size of my fingernail, an insect that could kill a woman’s heart. And as with all private mythologies, this one began before my mother was born.” Growing up, was there anything that your family’s particular history taught you to fear?
6. Says Hernández: “The corazón, the heart, is an accordion. . . . The kissing bug disease tampers with this music.” How does she use metaphor and other techniques here and elsewhere to help explain complicated medical and scientific concepts? Why might she, at times, be writing in this way, rather than using more technical terminology?
7. Of all the patients Hernández interviews in the book, was there one you connected with most? Why do you think it was important to Hernández to include so many individual stories?
8. Angie Cruz says that “The question The Kissing Bug investigates is timely: Who does the United States take care of, and who does it leave behind?” After reading the book, how would you answer this question?
9. In your opinion, could more be done to educate the American public about Chagas disease? What kinds of steps might be taken?
10. If you could recommend this book to anyone in the world, who would you share it with? Who do you think most needs to read these pages?