Finding Your Way

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the Fall 2014 Writer’s Workshop series.

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Paul Stoller as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Paul is Professor of Anthropology at West Chester University. He is the renowned author of innumerable articles and eleven books ranging from ethnography to memoir to biography, and is also a regular Huffington Post blogger on anthropology, Africa, higher education, politics, and more. In 2013, he received the Anders Retzius Gold Medal in Anthropology from the King of Sweden. His newest book Yaya’s Story: The Quest for Well-being in the World will be out in October from the University of Chicago Press.) 

For the Songhay people of Niger and Mali life is a series of paths that end and then fork off in two new directions. At these forks in the road the traveler must choose her or his direction, destination, and fate. My choices, many of which were shaped by forces beyond my control, miraculously led me to two mentors: the late Jean Rouch, French filmmaker extraordinaire, and the late Adamu Jenitongo, a profoundly wise sorcerer-philosopher among the Songhay people. Both of these men loved to tell stories, the life source of their science and their art. They never told me how to tell a story; rather, they asked me to sit with them, walk with them, and laugh with them. In this way, they said, I would find my own way in the world and my own way to tell stories. They both believed that the story, in whatever form it might take, is a powerful way to transmit complex knowledge from one generation to the next. Like Milan Kundera in his magisterial The Art of the Novel, they believed that the evocative force of narrative could capture truths far beyond the scope of any philosophical discourse.

And yet, like most anthropologists, I was trained to tell—not to show, to denote the social through analysis—not to evoke it through narrative. Following the path marked by my mentors, though, I have often tried to resist that disciplinary maxim. In most of my writing I’ve attempted to use narrative to connect with readers through what Jerome Bruner called the narrative construction of reality. There are many elements to Bruner’s approach. One central element—at least for me–is that narratives can underscore our human vulnerabilities. In my experience, they can bring to the surface deep fears about how we confront misfortune, illness and death. A second important element of narrative is that it evokes the human dimension of our inextricably intertwined professional and personal lives.

Here’s the rub. It is one thing to talk about the important elements of narrative and yet another to know how to express these important themes in our works. It is clear –at least for me—that writing anthropology or anything else is an activity that requires an open-minded and playful approach to exposition, an approach that has no rules or easy steps to follow. To find their way, writers, like filmmakers or apprentice sorcerers, need guidance from mentors as well as a measure of existential fortitude. It is not easy to pursue the truth of our stories, but a playful openness to possibility can sometimes show us the way.

When I’m writing or thinking about writing, which is much of the time, things pop into my consciousness that lead me in felicitous directions. When I sit down to write ethnography, memoir, fiction, or a blog, I move into a different space. When you write, strange things sometimes occur. In the summer of 2013 I read through files trying to find a topic to for a talk at a conference on Anthropology and the Paranormal. After several hours of fruitless perusal, a copy of a Le Monde interview, which I hadn’t looked at for seven years, fell to the floor. That inexplicable event created a perfect storm, or what Arthur Koestler called a library angel, that not only showed me the way to that presentation but also inspired a new book project. During a dog walk, a character from a work in progress “talks” to me, telling me that the tone of such and such a passage is wrong, or that a particular dialogue is off the mark. Staring at the computer screen a distant relative or a long lost friend “visits” reminding me of a turn of phrase that clears a path through the textual thicket.

If we are open-minded and playful, these elements sometimes materialize and can be woven into narratives that powerfully evoke complex social realities. When I sat with Adamu Jenitongo, he told stories to convey the most important lessons of his being-in-the-world. When I slowly read him the manuscript of what was to become my first book, In Sorcery’s Shadow, he told me I needed more stories in the text. I asked him if I should recount his story in more detail. He said that would be fine, but “if you want to tell my story, you have to tell your story as well.” His personal challenge has shaped all of my professional writing in which ethnographic narrative has been foregrounded, in which an attempt has been made to evoke the texture of inter-subjectivity, in which an effort has been made to describe sensuously the nature of place, space, and character. In this way, I have attempted to use narrative to evoke the themes of love and loss, fidelity and betrayal, and courage and fear—central elements of the human condition. Remembering Adamu Jenitongo’s example, narratives can sometimes transcend the here and now, which means that they can be fashioned into works that remain open to the world. For me, that is the scholar’s greatest challenge and most important obligation.

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I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

7 thoughts on “Finding Your Way

  1. Words of wisdom from one of anthropology’s most accomplished storytellers. But a question tugs at the corner of my mind. Many years ago I heard Terence Turner say that he had gone to Brazil proposing to follow the model of Victor Turner and study social dramas resolved through ritual. But unlike the Ndembu, the Amazonian people with whom he worked had no interest at all in tracing the histories of multi-generational conflicts. Instead, they were always willing to talk about myths. I think of a book of Japanese folktales sitting on our bookshelves. The stories it contains hardly seem like stories at all; both plot and character development seem very thin. Yet, we are told, these tales have been told for generations. Let us agree that telling stories is a good thing — an idea very popular, too, these days among business people. What kinds of stories should we tell? And how do we know when the story is a good one?

  2. The folks I work with are often talking to me about their conflicts with other people, often mutual acquaintances! I have found that recent ethnography about people in the region I work has put a lot of focus on this. There is a lot of story, however, to be told about what people (including myself) are doing when they aren’t talking — which is much of the time. Very reminiscent of how Charles Briggs describes his fieldwork in New Mexico.

  3. The folks I work with are often talking to me about their conflicts with other people, often mutual acquaintances!

    But how are they talking about them? I think, for example, of bitching and moaning about relationships or co-workers that remain confined to the contemporary. Then, in contrast, I think of the social dramas that Turner described or the conflicts over the history of World War II that complicate relationships between Japan and China. In these cases, the conflicts in question span generations.

    My inspiration in asking these questions is Dorinne Kondo’s Crafting Selves in which Kondo describes three very different ways in which Japanese talk about themselves: (1) the ideology preached at a moral rearmament camp to which the owner of a Japanese confectionary factory sends his workers, (2) the picaresque tale of a master baker’s career, roaming from place to place and job to job as he perfects the traditional craft skills at the core of his identity; and (3) the remarks, never more than fragmentary observations, with which the women who work at the factory describe their work, which to them is just a job, a way to make some money to supplement household income, not something central to the ways in which they construct their selves.

  4. I didn’t mean to imply that the conflict-talk isn’t story, or something akin to or a part of story at least, and I don’t feel that story has to involve “spanning generations…” This is funny though, because my region is Inner Asia, and “shamanism” in the last twenty years or so there has been argued to involve resolve (or intensify) contemporary conflicts by conflating them with generational or deep-historical/mythological ones! I’m generally on board with this analysis, but I think there are other things to be said (and folks I work with are saying different things).

    I’m also urging us to get beyond the values placed on orality (and historical continuity, perhaps?) that many anthropologists seem to carry with them. Basso (and Renato Rosaldo, for the historicity point at least) also come to mind. How were those housewives “constructing selves?” Was it through talk at all, or just not talk about factory work?

  5. And I don’t mean to imply that stories confined to the contemporary or other thin slices of time can’t be good stories. My thought is that what counts as a good story is culturally variable and may differ on both sides of conversations between anthropologists and their collaborators. The counterpart to my anecdote about Terrence Turner is the wry observation (I forget who made it) that, based on available ethnography, peoples in Francophone Africa have elaborate cosmologies, while those in Anglophone Africa have elaborate kinship systems.

    The question, “How were those housewives ‘constructing selves’?” is a good one. We don’t know. What we do know is that Dorrine Kondo, a Japanese-American woman, tells us that she went to Japan, in part at least, to explore her Japanese roots. That her book is focused on work may reflect the period in which her fieldwork was done, when Japanese were considered, by themselves as well as others, the hardest workers in the world. Another influence, and this is pure speculation on my part, may have been a bias (found in Marx as well as other masculine theorists) in favor of the notion that the workplace is where important identities are formed. Most telling of all may be an anecdote that she herself includes in the book. She is out grocery shopping one day and sees her image reflected in the glass case that protects the meat that a butcher has on display. What she sees is someone who looks like a typical Japanese housewife, and she freaks out. Her identity is built around being a strong, feminist intellectual pursuing an academic career. She is looking at her nightmare.*

    *This, anyway, is the way the incident appears in my memory.

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