Can’t Get There from Here? Writing Place and Moving Narratives

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Sarah Besky as part of our Writer’s Workshop Series. Sarah is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the School of Natural Resources and Environment and a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows at the University of Michigan. Starting in Fall 2015, she will be Assistant Professor of Anthropology and International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Sarah specializes in the study of nature, capitalism, and labor in South Asia and the Himalayas. She is the author of The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in Darjeeling India (University of California Press, 2014) and other articles on social justice in agriculture and is currently working on a new book project on transparency, financialization, and tea auction reform in Northeast India.]

One of my favorite Saturday Night Live skits is a game show parody called “What’s the Best Way?” The premise is simple: a group of New Englanders jockey to give fast, accurate driving directions. Phil Hartman plays an old man with an airy Downeast Maine drawl; Adam Sandler an electrical contractor from Boston; and Glenn Close an upper-class Connecticut resident. The host, played by Kevin Nealon, asks questions about how to get from one place to another within New England. For example “Who’s got directions from Quincy, Maass to the Jahdan Mahsh department store in Bedford, New Hampshire?” Contestants buzz in, quiz show style, with their directions—directions which are loaded with quirky geographical references, including a “wicked huge Radio Shack” and a fahm that offers a chance to pick fresh Maine blueberries (“but only in the summah”).

I love this skit because it satirizes my own predilection as a native New Englander for giving overly detailed directions that orient the asker to the contours of the road, the colors and shapes of houses, and places that “yous-tah be there” (instead of supposedly conventional things like the number of traffic lights or street names).

But I also find this rather esoteric parody instructive for thinking about how to write place ethnographically. For many anthropologists, navigating fieldsites that are out-of-the way or otherwise marginalized, Phil Hartman’s character’s resigned answer to one directional challenge might ring a little true: Yah caahn’t get theyah from heeyah. Beyond writing about place, how can we use our writing to recall visual, material memories of getting from one place to another (or failing to do so)?

Doing fieldwork involves moving through and experiencing space in ways particular to our projects and the places we work. In my research on Darjeeling tea plantations, I climbed up and down steep Himalayan foothills, pulling myself through the tightly planted, gnarled tea bushes that gripped the slopes. But a trip down to the plantations each morning first required a consideration of the eating schedules of the families of macaque monkeys, who would descend from the temple, where they spent their evenings, to the road below to munch on offerings left by morning walkers and whatever else they could mug off of passersby. If I could not find an old Tibetan woman on her circumambulation of the temple complex to cling to for protection as we weaved through the gauntlet of hungry monkeys, I made elaborate detours. When I write, I recall these everyday movements. As ethnographic writers, these remembered images and descriptions from our fieldnotes are “data,” as important as material from interviews or other punctuated events.

Darj Walking through Tea Garden

 

Why should we care about how (or whether) one can “get there from here”? Perhaps because, as Kirin Narayan reminds us, “Reading transports us.” She frames the project of writing place with a question: “How do ethnographers enhance this journey so that readers glean facts about a place and something of the feel of being there?”

The “arrival trope” is, of course, the most common of ethnographic devices. I have one. You probably do, too. But the arrival trope has been rightly criticized for fetishizing the state of finally being somewhere (else), ready to begin anthropological fieldwork. We probably all recall Malinowski’s directive to “Imagine yourself suddenly set down surrounded by all your gear, alone on a tropical beach close to a native village, while the launch or dinghy which has brought you sails away out of sight.”

This impulse to recount arrivals speaks to the fact that ethnographic narratives are at heart concerned with movement—from place to place.

The primary means by which I move from place to place, both in the field and closer to home, is walking. When I work in Kolkata, the act of winding my way through pedestrian congestion, in and out of markets, and through that city’s metro, is a constant sensorial overload. When I write about Kolkata or Darjeeling, I use the local equivalents of the “wicked huge Radio Shack” to draw readers into these movements—and importantly the sensations of these movements. As Alex Nading has argued, “trailing” the movements of people and other creatures can be a way of carrying place seamlessly from fieldwork into narrative.

When I write about place, then, I close my eyes and re-imagine walking. This is less visualization exercise and more constructive daydreaming. What does it smell like? What does it sound like? What does it look like? What does it feel like? How do I get there from here? How many Dunkin Donuts (or their Himalayan or Kolkatan analogues) do I pass on the way? I find that on my first couple of drafts, these descriptions are way overwritten, but with more editing, place starts to tighten, and even serve to bolster historical and theoretical elements of books and articles as well.

Tea Garden Walk with Umbrella

When I read an ethnography, I want to know where I am in the world. When I write, I want to communicate not just stories about people, but also stories about landscapes.

Most anthropological monographs begin with a fieldsite chapter as the first substantive section after the introduction. (I would add that many proposals and articles allow for a fieldsite/background section after the introduction as well.) Sometimes these chapters can be a total slog to write (and read). Perhaps we tell ourselves that we need to get a lot of historical and contextual material across so that the (more fun to write) subsequent ethnographic material makes sense.

We should bring our creative ethnographic writing skills to these chapters, but we should also work to pepper the remainder of our narratives with more place descriptions. Such descriptions can serve as a medium to convey forward what might otherwise be an episodic tale. Amitav Ghosh beautifully accomplishes this kind of conveyance, both in his intimate fluvial story about life, work, and uncertainty in the Sundarbans, The Hungry Tide, and in his epic account of Mandalay, Calcutta, and the spaces in between, The Glass Palace. An unfolding landscape—of plants, animals, infrastructures, and histories of change and perturbation—can be as much a “character” in an ethnographic narrative as a human interlocutor, as encapsulated in ethnographies by Laura Ogden, Hugh Raffles, and Paige West.

While I was writing my dissertation, Kirin Narayan, who was my dissertation advisor, reminded me on multiple occasions that “all quotations need context.” We all know that quotations don’t just happen, yet they often seem to magically appear in the narratives we craft. We need to ask ourselves: Where was I? What was going on during this conversation? Was I plucking tea? Was I making tea? Was I drinking tea? Was I holding a baby while someone else performed similar labors? Or were we walking?

Without a grounding in place, narratives don’t flow. They caahn’t get theyah from heeyah. Voices appear out of nowhere. Ethnographic narratives, then, are like New Englanders giving directions. Where to turn? Certainly, “two lefts and a right” will get you there, but what about that kid on the corner selling fireworks? At the place you can get a good peach cobbler—but not on Sundays, lest you be overrun by the after-church crowd? This kind of context-building—the folksy chatter that can seem so superfluous to the weighty, critical questions we’re asking—provides an excellent opportunity for giving stories a physical medium in which to live.

 

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.

4 thoughts on “Can’t Get There from Here? Writing Place and Moving Narratives

  1. Thanks for drawing us into your fieldsite and process by reminding us of place, and of motion.

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