Mourning, survival and time: Writing through crisis

This entry is part 8 of 12 in the Fall 2014 Writer’s Workshop series.

(Savage Minds is pleased to post this essay by guest author Adia Benton as part of our Writer’s Workshop seriesAdia is an assistant professor of anthropology at Brown University. She has worked in and studied the fields of development and global health since 2000, and is a contributor to Cultural Anthropology’s recent special issue on Ebola in Perspective. Her book HIV Exceptionalism: Development through Disease in Sierra Leone is forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press in 2015).

“Everyone identifies with the survivor.” The man, whose name I have yet to learn, wore a sage-colored newsboy cap. We were sitting next to each other at my neighborhood café. A half-hour before, he was several feet away, sketching, occasionally eyeing my copy of The Wretched of the Earth. “Pardon me,” he said, as he approached my table. “I couldn’t help but notice that you’re reading…” Within minutes, our conversation about radical anti-imperialist writing and secret societies had devolved into a meditation on how humans cope with tragic and sudden death.

“Everyone identifies with the survivor,” he repeated, as he adjusted his sketchpad in his lap.

“I don’t,” I said.

The man paused for a moment and raised his eyebrows as if he didn’t believe me. I recounted the story of an old work buddy, James (a pseudonym), who had died in a helicopter crash in West Africa about ten years ago. At the end of the story, I repeated a peculiar tidbit I had heard from a mutual friend about the last moments of James’ life:

“He was so committed to the organization that he threw his papers and laptop out of the window so that no important documents would be lost.”

As I talked, the memories of working with James at an international NGO in Sierra Leone came flooding back: James demanding that we consume beers at “the last station” during his field visits from the capital; all-employee chats on the staff guest house roof; and sober meetings in the dust-covered office on the main floor of our rural office building. And there were memories that were figments of my imagination: a frightened and determined James tossing office memos, reports and contracts out the window of a rapidly descending aircraft. It didn’t matter if the memories were real or not; they haunted me. For far too many nights in those weeks after his death, I was startled awake by dreams that placed me on the helicopter — dreams that had me convinced that I had been substituted in his place.

The man in the newsboy cap smiled sympathetically. I had proven that I identified with the dead. He said I had told a “great story.” But I felt embarrassed and self-conscious. A decade had gone by, and I hadn’t raised a glass in James’ memory. I think he would have liked that. I had not really even told this story — not in this way. Perhaps I had shied away from retelling this story and from the rituals of memorialization because the circumstances of his death felt too raw; they reminded me of my vulnerability, that thing I wanted to forget and denied daily as I toiled away, psychically and spiritually impaired, in a place haunted by war. It occurs to me that the man in the newsboy cap had nudged me toward an uncomfortable truth. Although I was at first convinced that I didn’t strongly identify with the survivors, my uneasy relationship to James and his place in my story revealed a hitherto sublimated, but profound, discomfort with being a survivor.

But it was only in writing this, just now, that I was able to get to the point of processing and acknowledging this discomfort, of interrogating my insistence that I didn’t identify with the survivor, that I wasn’t like everyone else. It has taken me years to write about James’ death — though he has appeared in my writing in allusion to other, mundane things — and it has taken weeks to extricate meaning from the chance café encounter sparked by a shared interest in Fanon. In some ways, I remembered something that I have known for quite a while: certainly we can all write things on the fly, and those things might even be smart, insightful, or poignant. In fact, sometimes we are compelled to write in the moment, driven by an ethnographic sensibility and knowledge. This writing-in-the-moment is motivated as much as by anger and grief as it is informed by ethnographic encounters. It is not the same as the slow ethnography to which so many of us have become accustomed.

Time, especially for the ethnographer, can help to tease out uncomfortable truths and challenge deeply held notions of others and ourselves. The passage of time can encourage fuller reflection on the chance encounters that move us to think differently about the human condition. With time, intimate encounters and significant moments are relived and reimagined. They are reinvigorated as they are transformed from field notes and faint recollections into words on a page or coalesce into an argument. For me, this is what gives ethnographic writing its potential. Writing is reflection and presents an opportunity to do things with time. Ideas and images can bounce around in my head for weeks, months, or even years, making connections to each other, before I can finally write them down. Once the ideas, people and places are there in front of me, vividly described and thoroughly undressed, they gradually regain their materiality. These figures, places, things and their evocation in the written word, smooth a path for identification with survivors and survivals, both real and imagined.

As an ethnographer who has conducted fieldwork in Sierra Leone and previously worked in the region where Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea meet, it is probably no coincidence that the memory of James resurfaces here and now; this is the place where James died. It is also a region that is experiencing the worst outbreak of Ebola in the 38 years since the disease was first identified. As I write essays about Ebola in West Africa and the US — and watch my twitter feed fill up with news about Ferguson, Gaza and Syria — I find myself drawn to arguments about whose deaths are grievable, whose lives matter and how such calculations are made manifest in the actions of an international ‘community.’ I am reminded of how writing, no matter the tempo, has helped me to remember the dead, and the conditions of their living, in a way that settles uncomfortably between identifying with and being a survivor and empathizing deeply with the oppressed, the dispossessed, the policed.

There has been little time to reflect and write about the unfolding events in the slow motion ethnographic writing often requires. Yet I continue to write, supported not by the luxury of time, but by the desire to make use of grief and anger. Writing lets me, for just a fleeting moment, pin down — perhaps, even slow down — and make sense of an unfolding crisis. It may also help those of us who identify both as survivors, and with the dead, come to terms with our own grief.

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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.

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