‘The Kissing Bug’ Explores the Personal and Global Impacts of a Deadly Disease

Bicho. Vinchuca. Chinche. Pito. Bloodsucker. Blood-sucking cone-nose. The Barber. Kissing bug. So many names for triatomine insects, those blood-sucking night stalkers who often carry T. cruzi, the parasite responsible for Chagas.

If you’ve never heard of Chagas, you’re in good company. In Daisy Hernández’s engaging and dynamic new book, The Kissing Bug: A True Story of an Insect, a Family, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease, the author admits that she didn’t know what it was either when her Tía Dora was wasting away from this disease during the 1980s. Hernández’s family, like many families who live in South or Central America, like many families of Latinx origins in the United States, had members who lost their lives to heart, esophagus, and intestine stretching and weakening under the destructive weight of the T. cruzi parasite. Many of these people are not aware they have been infected before it’s too late. Some of them are born with the infection. Many people live full lives without consequences. Others die painfully.

The memoir elements of this book are warm and rich with Spanish language and stories around the kitchen table. Hernández shares her memories generously and with love, even when recounting Tía Dora’s disapproval. The author was the niece who wouldn’t wear her hair in cute ponytails, who wouldn’t answer “Señora?” when called, who wouldn’t greet Tía Dora with formality. She was the disappointment to Tía Dora when she came out as queer; however, she was also the niece who translated in the hospital room at six years old, at whom Tía Dora beamed as if she were “the smartest girl alive.”

The personal yields to a broader narrative of the parasite itself and those outside Hernández’s family who live with it, those who treat the sick, and those who work to increase awareness. The author takes the reader with her as she visits the Insectario in Bogota, where researchers study the kissing bugs; on a hunt for the insects in the early Texas morning; to the basement of an evangelical church in Virginia, where they are screening for T. cruzi. Hernández writes lovingly about Carlos, Maira, Janet’s baby, and others who live with Chagas. Knowing the narratives of these individuals compels the reader to care about the treatment and management of this disease on a broader scale.

Hernández wants you to know that Chagas is a public health crisis, but it’s also a problem of the poor, the undocumented, of the Second America, the one nice white middle class people don’t see. When she’s not writing about her journeys to learn about Chagas, she’s writing about Austin State Hospital, where in 1943, a young, black man was infected with T. cruzi for research purposes; Pharma Bro Martin Shkreli, who sent the price of benznidazole, the drug used to treat the parasite, sky high; Lucia, a patient who died from Chagas because she couldn’t afford a heart transplant. 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 and narrow the “epi divide.”

Daisy Hernández compellingly balances memoir with discovery as she highlights the human toll of zoonotic infections on families. She reminds us that the natural world dazzles and can kill you with a kiss. Even in our COVID-weary world, The Kissing Bug is a book for now.

The Kissing Bug: A True Story of an Insect, a Family, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease
By Daisy Hernández
Tin House Books
Published June 1, 2021