[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Jessica Falcone as part of our Writer’s Workshop Series. Jessica is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Kansas State University. She is the author of numerous articles on transnational Tibetan Buddhism, religious activism in diasporic Hindu and Sikh communities, and anthropological theory. She has won awards from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology for her ethnographic fiction, and from AIIS for her book manuscript Battling the Buddha of Love: A Cultural Biography of the Greatest Statue Never Built.]
“Open your eyes; listen, listen. That is what the novelists say. But they don’t tell you what you will see and hear. All they can tell you is what they have seen and heard, in their time in this world, a third of it spent in sleep and dreaming, another third of it spent in telling lies.” (Ursula K. Le Guin 1969: ii)
I like to slip Ursula K. Le Guin into my syllabi as often as possible. I have used her work in my “Futurity” course, my “Utopias” class, my “Anthropology and Literature” course, and my “Ethnographic Methods” course. She is best known as a celebrated science fiction writer, but she also writes essays, realist fiction, experimental ethnographic fiction, children’s lit, anarchist social theory, and more. Even when (especially when?) weaving yarns about aliens, she is writing about us, about humanity, about power, gender, identity, and cultural mores. For an anthropologist attentive to the beating art of ethnography, Ursula K. Le Guin’s work is a softly uttered challenge about the complex nature of truth, and a whispered promise about the potential of fiction as a means of approaching it. Ever wonder what the “K” stands for? Kroeber, the “K” stands for Kroeber.
Writing Ethnographic Fiction
“Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.” (Le Guin 1969: iv)
Ursula K. Le Guin’s father, Alfred Kroeber, considered the first ethnographic novel—Bandelier’s “the Delight Makers” (1890)— a successful and faithful representation of the Pueblo culture the author had studied; he called the novel, “…a more comprehensive and coherent view of native Pueblo life than any scientific volume on the Southwest” (1922:13). Although ethnographic fiction has a long and storied history in anthropology, it remains marginalized, perhaps even stigmatized.
I see myself as an ambassador for ethnographic fiction, albeit a poor one, perhaps. It is a nigh endangered species within our disciplinary ecosystem, and I myself have done precious little to rail against that trend. While I worked towards tenure, I published just one book chapter with pretensions to ethnographic fiction, and although it’s destined to only ever be read by about a dozen people max, it is my most beloved text-baby. It is the true story of a giant statue in Bodh Gaya, India, which was cancelled, shifted, or interrupted, depending on who you ask and when. My narrative tacked back and forth between straight ethnography and (crooked?) ethnographic fiction. Since the piece was quite deliberately modelled upon Bruno Latour’s “Aramis, or the Love of Technology,” I titled it “Maitreya, or the Love of Buddhism,” and called it a work of “social scientifiction.” I would argue that my creative licenses made my product more compelling, and more achingly true. And if the piece succeeded at all, it was because of the fictions, not despite them.
In genre-normative ethnography, one can’t invent dialogue or scenarios that never were; one can frame, but not fashion. If I want to relate a conversation, I have to go back to my carefully typed transcripts. In our genre-normative writing culture, there are conventions that require diligence and care. As I write ethnographic fiction, I can transgress those conventions. I can flagrantly put real people in an imaginary situation to envisage an event that probably did not happen. I can construct hybrid people out of a multiplicity of known entities. While I acknowledge that there is something deeply unsettling about the liberties that we take in ethnographic fiction, it can be as profoundly liberating at the same time. And it doesn’t just feel good, it can be valuable. It can achieve things. For example, even my some of most stubbornly science-minded students admit that the ethnographic fiction interludes of Karen McCarthy Brown’s “Mama Lola” enhance the value and integrity of her ethnography.
I welcome genre-bending and ambiguity, but I do have a stodgy streak. I may revel in a beautifully crafted lie as much as anyone, but I like to know when I am being lied to. I strongly prefer (demand?) for ethnographic fiction to be labelled as such, whether in the title, preface, introduction, footnotes, or main text. I wouldn’t want ethnographic fiction to sneak up on me. In “Maitreya or The Love of Buddhism,” I gave my readers a roadmap; if a section was prefaced with “And thus have I heard…” (a Buddhist literary trope), then it was ethnographic fiction. I feel that ethnographic fiction ought not try to hide in the guise of conventional ethnography for therein lies madness. Therein lies the rupture of a sacred trust. Therein lies the specter of Carlos Castaneda.
Reading Ethnographic Fiction
“Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, There! That’s the truth!” (Le Guin 1969:iii)
While our post-1980s anthropological writing culture is willing and able to embrace our conventional ethnography as “partial fictions” (Clifford) and “faction” (Geertz), there is a very clear implicit boundary between “making” and “making up” (and both of those theorists defined their terms as reflections upon the former as opposed to the latter). But is the difference really so clear cut? If all of our writing actually sits somewhere in between the poles of fact and fiction, then all writing is just a particular vintage of “faction.” When Geertz used the word “faction,” he meant for it to expose the inventive work of “making stuff,” but not “making stuff up,” but there are those on the other side of that line who would lay claim to the phrase. And that line—that all important line separating “making” from “making up”— it’s elusive, impossible, and humming with movement. Somewhere in that nebulous center lies the kind of careful inventions that even the most dogmatic genre-normative ethnographer may engage in: the self-conscious veiling or massaging of details to protect the confidentiality of informants. And as for the far ends of our faction spectrum, I am not sure if it’s even controversial to suggest that there is little (if any) writing on the extreme of either end. Facts are always still fashioned, and fictions are always still cultural.
My deep appreciation for ethnographic fiction notwithstanding, I don’t pretend to have a handle on precisely what it is. Is it ethnographic fiction just fiction by a trained anthropologist? Yes, but isn’t it also a creative form of ethnographic writing that transcends disciplinary borders? And if yes, then what is the difference between ethnographic fiction and very thickly described fiction (think: Orhan Pamuk or Edith Wharton)? In their respective treatises on ethnographic fiction, both Langness and Frank (1978), and Schmidt (1981), included the novelist (and non-anthropologist) Chinua Achebe in their broad surveys of what counts as ethnographic fiction. I would certainly consider some of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work ethnographic fiction. And then there is the question of what differentiates ethnographic fiction from creative non-fiction (think: Susan Orlean), or “new journalism” (think: Hunter S. Thompson)? This particular hue upon the faction spectrum is crowded indeed.
Even the broadest definitions of ethnographic fiction tend to meet the following criteria: 1) it is a narrative nurtured by lived experience (one’s own, or someone else’s as gleaned through research, perhaps participant observation); 2) it is unfettered from the bonds of the precisely experienced and observed. Unfettered. I linger on that word. Unshackled, open, free.
During the Society for Humanistic Anthropology’s member meeting at the AAAs in 2014, I led a discussion about a dilemma facing the ethnographic fiction award’s selection committee: we’ve started getting more submissions from non-anthropologists. It has improved our (still low) applicant yield, but is a pool of writers from all walks of life good, bad or neither? Some members suggested closing the contest to all but professional anthropologists, but others fought for inclusivity. Defining an “anthropologist writing fiction” under those conditions would be a difficult task itself: would a student taking anthropology courses be thus excluded?; would someone with an anthropology PhD teaching in a religious studies or criminology department be thus excluded?; as a non-academic, would Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnographic fiction endeavors have been thus excluded? If ethnographic fiction is not just creative writing by anthropologists, then does anything go?
We settled on a compromise of sorts. This year we have asked applicants to submit a short essay accompanying their ethnographic fiction that theorizes what ethnographic fiction is and how their submission fits into the genre. Ethnographic fiction is messy, so we have invited others to get down and dirty in the mud to wrassle the vagaries of genre-bending along with us. We don’t care if a submission comes from Stephen King or Stephen Tyler, so long as they are willing to take their wobbly seats at the Mad Tea Party and work the riddle that may have no answer.
Bandelier, A.F. 1890 The Delight Makers. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co.
Clifford, James. 1986 Introduction: Partial Truths. In Writing Culture. James Clifford and George Marcus, eds. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Falcone, Jessica. 2012 Maitreya, or the Love of Buddhism: The Non-event of a Giant Statue in Bodh Gaya In Enlightening Bodh Gaya: Contested Histories of a Sacred Buddhist Space. Geary, David et al, ed. Routledge.
Geertz, Clifford. 1988 Works and Lives: the Anthropologist as Author. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Kroeber, A.L. 1922 Introduction to American Indian Life. Ed. Elsie Clews Parsons, B.W. Huebsch, Inc.
Langness, l.l. and Gelya Frank. 1978 Fact, Fiction and the Ethnographic Novel, Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly, 3, 1-2:18-22.
Latour, Bruno. 1996 Aramis, or the Love of Technology. Boston: Harvard University Press.
Leguin, Ursula K. 1969 The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Walker.
McCarthy Brown, Karen. 2001 Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (Updated and Expanded Edition). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Schmidt, Nancy. 1981 The Nature of Ethnographic Fiction: a Further inquiry. Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly. 6(1):