As a graduate student during the time that the “Writing Culture” movement was in its heyday, I was drawn to ethnographies such as Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. I loved it not only for its poignant analysis of the cultural contexts of Bedouin poetry but also for Abu-Lughod’s fine writing. Before becoming an anthropologist, I had received a master’s degree in creative writing, and I have always been interested in the ways that anthropology and literature inform one another. In particular, what can anthropologists learn from fiction?
In a 2007 article, Ruth Behar called ethnography a “blurred genre that had to mesh the description of a people and a place with a ritual incantation of the theoretical literature” (154). This is both a distinctive strength and a limitation of ethnographies. Sometimes it can be jarring to read an ethereal passage of text, perhaps a haunting description of a person or a place, only to be jolted into reality by theoretical paragraphs that yank us down to earth. Yet this is part of the necessary work of our social science: viewing the unique situation of the anthropologist’s fieldwork through theoretical and comparative lenses.
Despite its lack of theory, however, fiction can still offer social analysis. Sherry Ortner once suggested that American novelists were ethnographers whose commentaries on society were just as important as their aesthetic contribution (Laterza 132). Novels can be useful in teaching because, like good ethnography, they humanize the struggles of people one might not hear from otherwise. The Sudanese author Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, for example, offers an excellent portrayal of post-colonial malaise and hybridity. Alaa Al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building is another novel I use in class to illustrate topics such as urbanization, sexuality, and social class in Cairo.
In her blurred genre essay, Ruth Behar suggests that reading fiction can teach ethnographers about setting a scene and creating strong characters. And, in response to Ryan’s last post, she also explores different ways that anthropologists can intersperse dialogue into their narratives. I would further argue that writing fiction itself can be a useful exercise. Some of us turn to fiction writing to create worlds resembling the ones we know, but which contain events that never happened. Fiction allows for the “what if,” the bringing together of invented characters in realms that we may know well, and then watching what happens. Unlike ethnography, there is no need to stay true to the people that one meets in the field. Liberalities can be taken with place and setting as well.
I wrote a novel, The Gift, about a college student who gets involved with an academic couple looking for an egg donor. One member of that couple, Peter, is a former Peace Corps worker now pursuing a doctorate. He is unreasonably attached to his Peace Corps past, trying to reconstruct the history of the town where he was stationed through colonial texts that are themselves projections of European fantasies. I had fun describing Peter’s obsession with colonial documents about the imaginary Sidi Maarif, rumored to have once been a matrilocal society famous for its stunning tapestries, which explorers reported would “fetch a higher price in the markets of Marrakech than a caravan of gold” (104). Although now, Sidi Maarif is a rundown shadow of its formerly colonized self, it was once said to “reward the visitor with her ample pleasures, possessing potable water, palm trees overflowing with fruit, and inhabitants who are as pleasant and hospitable as the most lavish of desert shaykhs.” In creating Peter, I wanted to fashion a character still in love with Orientalist representations even though he is supposed to know better. I have met people like Peter, though he is still only a work of fiction.
There are anthropologists who have crossed over and become exclusively fiction writers, such as Amitav Ghosh, Tahmima Anam, and Camilla Gibb. Their work reflects an anthropological sensitivity to the people and places they write about, which they explore in a deep and nuanced way. We can also learn from anthropological science fiction, a topic unto itself, which also contains intriguing cultural critiques. Fortunately for those of us interested in blurring genres, we have the Society for Humanistic Anthropology, whose journal, Anthropology and Humanism, has room in its pages for reflections on these issues, as well as literary experimentation. As storytelling is a way people make sense of the world, so might we, as anthropologists, take it seriously, both as a form of social analysis and as another outlet for our own observations of reality.
Behar, Ruth. 2007. “Ethnography in a Time of Blurred Genres.” Anthropology and Humanism 32(4): 145-55.
Laterza, Vito. 2007. “The Ethnographic Novel: Another Literary Skeleton in the Anthropological Closet?” Suomen Anthropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 32(2): 124-34.
An associate professor of anthropology at Rollins College, Rachel Newcomb is a regular contributor to Huffington Post and writes book reviews for The Washington Post. Her books include an ethnography, “Women of Fes,” and a novel, “The Gift.” For more information, you can visit her website.