(Savage Minds is pleased to post this essay by guest author Adia Benton as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Adia 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. Continue reading
(Savage Minds is pleased to post this essay by guest author Roxanne Varzi as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Roxanne is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Irvine. She is author of Warring Souls: Youth, Media, and Martyrdom in Post-Revolution Iran (Duke University Press, 2006). Her ethnographic research in Iran spans multiple genres, from the ethnographic monograph to ethnographic fiction to the film Plastic Flowers Never Die (2008) and on to the sound installation Whole World Blind (2011). Her current research is on Iranian theater.)
Fiction, for me, like ethnography, has always melded with a deep desire to understand and explain the world around me. As an eight-year old in Iran I wrote stories to either escape or explain the Revolution that had turned my country into an Islamic Republic and had turned my single identity as a dorageh, or two-veined Iranian, into half-American, half-Iranian, forcing me to either choose one identity or to stay in-between. Writing helped me to make sense of the in-between, to make sense of my new life while holding on to the one that was already becoming a dream — unreal.
The past was a place where “Bombs were flying through the air, the sky was ablaze, there was no night.” My American high school teacher read this opening of one of my stories and said, “Write what you know.” She smiled at me and told me to try again. I explained that I had seen bombs and that the sky was ablaze and night or not I couldn’t sleep for days as a child because I was so scared about what was happening in the streets. At least that’s how I remembered it. I came to see early on that we cannot fully replicate reality—even and especially in ethnography—in film, text or sound (the mediums I work in), nor is fiction purely a figment of its writer’s imagination. Was I writing fiction or ethnography and did the distinction really matter? Continue reading
(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Mary Murrell as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Mary is a Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She received her Ph.D. in 2012 from the University of California, Berkeley, and is currently writing a book about books entitled The Open Book: The Entanglements of Digitization. Formerly, she was the acquisitions editor for anthropology at Princeton University Press.)
In the midst of my fieldwork into the “future of books,” I encountered an equally familiar and unfamiliar character: the academic author. Certainly, I knew a thing or two about such a figure. During my many years as an acquisitions editor at a university press, I had published an awful lot of them, and, as a graduate student doing dissertation fieldwork, I was in preparation to become one myself. As they say, some of my best friends are academic authors! Yet, at the same time, this new academic author, this ethnographic datum before me, was curiously distinct.
The context was the proposed conclusion to litigation over Google’s book digitization program, announced in 2004 and quickly the object of legal dispute. In 2005, author and publisher trade groups had banded together into only large class-action lawsuit, charging Google with massive copyright infringement. For two years, author and publisher representatives negotiated and, in late 2008, they revealed a settlement that resolved their differences. Their plan was essentially to turn Google’s database of digitized books into a commercial product sold by subscription to libraries. This way there would be money for everybody: authors, publishers, and Google—in what was called a “win-win-win.” Despite their confident sense of achievement, opposition to the settlement slowly grew, from expected and unexpected quarters until, in February 2011, the judge in the case finally rejected it. Despite its defeat, the maelstrom it put into motion was productive, and one just product was the “academic author.” Continue reading
(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Whitney Battle-Baptiste as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Whitney is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, and is a historical archaeologist specializing in race, gender, and cultural landscapes. She is the author of Black Feminist Archaeology (Left Coast Press, 2011), and of articles on slavery in the southern USA including “Sweepin’ Spirits: Power and Transformation on the Plantation Landscape.” Her latest research is at the Millars Plantation on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas.)
I am a writer.
This simple statement is a recent revelation. Although I am a scholar who reads and interprets, thinks critically about theory and teaches many aspects of writing, those actions have never made me a writer. Claiming “writer” was never something I thought about. The strength I pulled from writing was from reading the words of others, not writing my own. As a child, books kept me grounded and helped me to imagine. As I matured, books became a source of the familiar, tools I used to orient myself and keep connected after I left home. I was born in the early 1970s, on the island of Manhattan, and grew up in the shadows of tall buildings with concrete at my feet. I read about survival, never wrote about it. I was one of those folks who could never maintain a journal for more than a week. I always leaned on the strength of others to work through life’s ups and downs. These words were always healing, grounding, necessary for survival. Continue reading
(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Marnie Thomson as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Marnie is a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado currently finishing her dissertation “Solutions and Dissolutions: Humanitarian Governance, Congolese Refugees, and Memories of a Neglected Conflict.” Her research focuses on refugee experiences of violence and dislocation to reveal the politics of humanitarian intervention in both Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. She is the author of “Black Boxes of Bureaucracy: Transparency and Opacity in the Resettlement Process for Congolese Refugees” (PoLAR, 2012), and was the winner of the first SfAA Human Rights Defender Award.)
“How do we write anthropology in a way that does justice to the stories we tell?” It weighs on me, this question. There it is, staring at me from the introduction to this Writers’ Workshop series. It is the question that paralyzes me when I sit down to write. Sometimes it prevents me from even making it into the chair. How can I portray the complexities of the stories people have shared with me?
I have convinced myself that I am a better listener, a better researcher, than I am a writer. I have been cultivating this research persona since 2008, when I first visited my primary fieldsite, a UN camp for Congolese refugees. I have spent years listening and dutifully recording what I heard. Yes, I was an academic writer long before that first trip but now it feels different. I have never written a dissertation before. I have never had to distill so many personal and cultural details into a document that will do justice to the many stories I have collected. Continue reading
(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Noel B. Salazar as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Noel is Research Professor at the Faculty of the Social Sciences at the University of Leuven. He is the author of Envisioning Eden: Mobilizing Imaginaries in Tourism and Beyond (Berghahn, 2010), and is co-editor with Nelson H.H. Graburn of Tourism Imaginaries: Anthropological Approaches (Berghahn, 2014), and with Nina Glick Schiller of Regimes of Mobility: Imaginaries and Relationalities of Power (Routledge, 2014). Scholar of tourism, cosmopolitanism, and varied forms of social and cultural mobility, Noel is currently serving as president of the European Association of Social Anthropologists.)
While I’m brainstorming ideas for this writers’ workshop series, my pre-school daughter is sitting next to me. Even though she can’t read or write yet, she’s fascinated by letters. As I type along on my laptop, she jots down her own invented script in a little notebook. It reminds me of my own journey of discovery of “the written word.” I had barely mastered the technicalities of handwriting when I started scribbling in personal diaries. As a teenager, I complemented these self-absorbed writings with more social formats as I exchanged snail mail letters with pen pals from across the globe. My first love relationships added poetry to the list and I became an avid journalist for my school’s newspaper (named “Boomerang,” hinting at the importance of reader reception). I continued some of that work at university, where I took a specialized course in journalism and experimented with a range of academic writing styles and formats. I also became a “critical writing fellow,” helping undergraduates to translate thoughts into words. When I moved abroad (which happened multiple times), I mailed weekly electronic “letters from [destination X]” to relatives and friends. I kept this tradition during my doctoral fieldwork, in addition to launching an ethnographic blog. So it’s no exaggeration to state that I like writing. Continue reading
(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. Continue reading
Anthropologists are writers. We research, we teach, we write. However, our training is as anthropologists, not as writers. How then does the anthropologist become a writer? How do we move from functional, mechanical prose that communicates ideas and findings to writing as a craft? How do we write anthropology in a way that does justice to the stories we tell? Continue reading
(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Robin Bernstein as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Robin is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado. She works on how growth and development is shaped, both across generations and among species, in humans and nonhuman primates, and is currently conducting research in rural Gambia. Her recent publications include articles in the American Journal of Primatology and the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.)
As an anthropologist with a field site on another continent and a laboratory that needs a full-time technician to operate properly, I am dependent on continuous external funding to keep things going. There was a time when I resented this, and felt utterly exhausted and desperate in the context of the endless application-rejection cycles, waiting on the edge of my seat to find out whether I could continue my projects uninterrupted, keep my employees employed, and offer any resources to my students. Continue reading
It is Week 7, or, the Week I Forgot To Put Up the Check-in Post. Its been that sort of week. Here at Savage Minds, we migrated to our brand new site and in the process our comments feature got all buggy. So if you tried to comment in Week 6 and couldn’t, we’ll just start fresh today. How has your week been? Where are you in the writing? Continue reading
(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest blogger Zoë Crossland as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Zoë is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. She works in highland Madagascar and writes on semiotics, and archaeologies of death and the body. Her most recent publication is Ancestral Encounters in Highland Madagascar: Material Signs and Traces of the Dead ( Cambridge University Press, 2014).)
Like fiction, archaeology allows us to visit other worlds and to come back home again. So, it can be a useful exercise to juxtapose archaeological texts with historical novels, poems and other forms of writing. Just as a novelist does, a writer of archaeology has to attend carefully to the conventions that shape the stories we tell. The written past demands some kind of narrative coherence, a consistency in our compositional form, and in the internal logic of the world we bring into being. Like poets, we have to choose our words carefully. In this comparison we can identify the shared techniques used to evoke other worlds and to draw in the reader. We can also consider the narrative possibilities that are excluded from our archaeological writing, and ask what opportunities might be opened up by allowing different forms of voice and language. Continue reading
(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Bianca C. Williams as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Bianca is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, and holds a PhD in anthropology from Duke University. She is the author, with Tami Navarro and Attiya Ahmad, of the article “Sitting at the Kitchen Table: Fieldnotes from Women of Color in Anthropology,” and of the forthcoming Duke University Press book Exporting Happiness in which she examines how African American women use international travel and the Internet as tools for pursuing leisure, creating intimate relationships and friendships, and critiquing American racism, sexism, and ageism.)
“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” Proverbs 4:23
Like many others, the blank page can terrify me. Simply starting a new blog post, an essay, or a book chapter can have me tumbling into hours, days, or shame-filled weeks of procrastination. These are the times that resistance and fear triumph, and I feel myself falling into a moody mixture of anger, frustration, sadness, and general feelings of incompetence. Oh, and sometimes there is crying. However, once I find successful methods for dragging the words that are in my head onto the page, I then attempt to organize them in a way that makes sense, creates “new” knowledge, and contributes to multiple fields, ever aware that in some near future a committee will attempt to quantify my publication impact and decide whether they should grant me tenure. Surprisingly, for the past three weeks Writing and I have engaged in a truce—or I should say, she has decided to get off my back, give me some room to breathe, and allow the words that infiltrate my dreams and my meditation sessions to flow a bit easier onto the page. What is interesting is that this period of writing peace has resulted in a new issue: I keep getting my best writing ideas while I’m in the shower. Continue reading
(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest blogger Sienna R. Craig as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Sienna is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Dartmouth College. In addition to her 2012 book Healing Elements: Efficacy and the Social Ecologies of Tibetan Medicine, she is also author of the lush ethnographic memoir Horses Like Lightning: A Story of Passage Through the Himalayas.)
The idea of a decision is a decision.
We build arguments around impermanence
But are not the sort of people to admit
—Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, from In the Absent Everyday
I have been thinking a lot about the idea of the “unreliable narrator” these days, and what it might mean for us ethnographers, careful raconteurs of others’ stories, intertwined as they are with our own. The idea of the unreliable narrator emerges in literature, theatre, and film as a tool of craft that plays with senses of credibility or believability, sometimes to trick the reader or the audience, other times to push the boundaries of a genre or challenge the cognitive strategies a reader might employ to make sense of the story she is being told. Although unreliable narrators may materialize through a third person frame, they are most commonly first person renderings. In the most facile sense, an unreliable narrator is biased, makes mistakes, lacks self-awareness, tells lies not of substance but of form. The device can also be used in a revelatory vein: to twist an expected ending, to demand that readers reconsider a point of view, to leave an audience wondering. Like our anthropological propensity to classify, literary theorists have done the same for the interlocutors of our imaginations. Types of unreliable narrators include the Madman, the Clown, and the Naif, to name a few. Others posit that the unreliable narrator as a device is best understood to fall along a spectrum of fallibility, beginning with the contours of trust and ending with specters of capriciousness (Olson 2003). This is the shape of a character as she defies the expectations of a reader, who then may well pass judgment on this scripted self. Continue reading
Week 3? How is that already possible? We have somehow collectively arrived at week three of our ten week writing group. One-third of the way through! We kicked off this week with writing insights from Kirin Narayan (“Ethnographic Writing with Kirin Narayan: An Interview”). Much of what she had to said coursed through my writing mind this week: on trying to merge what you have to write with what you want to write; on the theoretical and ethical importance of portraying people in their complexity; and her answer in its entirety to my question “Why ethnography?” She replied:
For the discipline of paying attention; for learning from others; for becoming more responsibly aware of inequalities; for better understanding the social forces causing suffering and how people might somehow yet find hope; and most generally, for being perpetually pulled beyond the limits of one’s own taken-for-granted world.
Amen. Continue reading
(Savage Minds is pleased to run this interview with Kirin Narayan as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Kirin is currently professor in the School of Culture, History and Language at Australian National University, after a distinguished career in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin. She is the author of numerous books and articles, written across all possible ethnographic genres, including the monograph Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu Religious Teaching, folklore such as Mondays on the Dark Night of the Moon: Himalayan Foothill Folktales, the novel Love, Stars, and All That, her memoir My Family and Other Saints, and the writing guide Alive in the Writing: Crafting Ethnography in the Company of Chekhov.)
This past month, I interviewed Kirin Narayan over email, she in Australia and India, and me in the USA. Inspired not only by her writings, but also by an ethnographic writing workshop she led for faculty and students at the University of Colorado a couple years back, I wanted to share her insights and inspiration with Savage Minds readers and participants in our ongoing writing group. Below is our exchange. Enjoy, learn, write!
- CM: One of the things so unique about your writing are the many genres and forms you write across: academic prose, fiction, memoir, creative non-fiction, writing about writing, storytelling, editing, books, articles, and so on. What has your writing path in anthropology been like? How much have you purposefully shaped what and how you wrote versus how much have embraced what invitations and opportunities have serendipitously come your way?