Tag Archives: ethnographic writing

Thinking through the untranslatable

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

(Savage Minds is pleased to post this essay by guest author Kevin Carrico as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Kevin is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for US-China Issues, having completed his PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology at Cornell University in 2013. His research focuses upon the implications of Han nationalism for ethnic relations in China. He is a contributor to Cultural Anthropology’s special issue on Self-Immolation as Protest in Tibet, and his translation of Tsering Woeser’s Self-immolation in Tibet is forthcoming from Verso Press in 2015.)

I recently finished translating a book, Tsering Woeser’s Self-Immolation in Tibet (Immolation au Tibet, la honte du monde), in a project that combines the two main components of my career path thus far: translation and anthropology. Prior to my graduate work, I was a translator of Chinese and French documents in Shanghai. And now as an anthropologist, I still engage in the occasional translation of texts that I consider uniquely insightful. This brief essay is an attempt to think through the relationship between these two activities via my recent work on self-immolation in Tibet. Continue reading

On Ethnographic Unknowability

This entry is part 11 of 12 in the Fall 2014 Writer’s Workshop series.

(Savage Minds is pleased to post this essay by guest author Catherine Besteman as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Catherine is Francis F. Bartlett and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor of Anthropology at Colby College. She is author of numerous books and articles, including Unraveling Somalia: Race, Violence, and the Legacy of Slavery (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), Transforming Cape Town (University of California Press, 2008), and co-edited with Hugh Gusterson, Why America’s Top Pundits Are Wrong: Anthropologists Talk Back (University of California Press, 2005) and The Insure American (University of California Press, 2009). Her most recent book Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine is forthcoming from Duke University Press.)

What if I told you to write what you don’t know?

I ask this because I find the oft-offered advice to “write what you know” both alarming and silencing. Isn’t ethnography at least partially about unknowability? If we acknowledge that textual recording is a form of fixing knowledge, how does one write what one doesn’t know? How can our writing play on the edge between knowing and not knowing, refusing to fix the unknown by writing it into existence? Exploring this playful and vexing tension in ethnographic writing is my current preoccupation.

A story might help illuminate my query. Continue reading

Writing to become…

This entry is part 10 of 12 in the Fall 2014 Writer’s Workshop series.

(Savage Minds is pleased to post this essay by guest author Sita Vekateswar as part of our Writer’s Workshop seriesSita is a Social Anthropologist at Massey University, Aotearoa/New Zealand. She is Associate Director of the Massey chapter of the recently established New Zealand India Research Institute (NZIRI). Her ethnography Development and Ethnocide: Colonial Practices in the Andaman Islands (2004) is based on her Ph.D. fieldwork in the Andaman Islands and her co-edited book, The Politics of Indigeneity: Dialogues and Reflections on Indigenous Activism (2011) is published by Zed Books. Her current research on the implications of climate change for food production takes a political ecology approach to follow the fortunes of millet cultivation in India.)

I write to become.

Through writing, I accumulate more being since I am more than I was when I materialise the ephemeral.

I wear the traces of various Englishes, strung like so many iridescent pearls within the necklace of language adorning me. The lilting singsong of Anglo-Indian first granted me tongue, irrepressible, undaunted by the pristine elegance of Queen’s English. As I collided with the unabashed assertiveness of American idiom, I learned the discipline of anthropology. I discovered my place in the world from the antipodes, in encounter with the laconic, self-deprecating humour of New Zealand vernacular. A clamour of tongues finds expression through me to constitute the anthropologist I have become. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Ethnographic Fiction: The Space Between

This entry is part 7 of 12 in the Fall 2014 Writer’s Workshop series.

(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

In Dialogue: Ethnographic Writing and Listening

This entry is part 4 of 12 in the Fall 2014 Writer’s Workshop series.

(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

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. Continue reading

Announcing the Fall 2014 Writers’ Workshop series!

This entry is part 1 of 12 in the Fall 2014 Writer’s Workshop series.

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

Week 6: Savage Minds Writing Group Check-in

What is your process? How to get your creative juices flowing…and keep them flowing? This week’s Writers’ Workshop guest author Kristen Ghodsee gave us a sneak peek into her writing process in My Ten Steps for Writing a Book, confiding that she had not even been fully aware of it until she sat down to consciously think it out. After six weeks of purposeful writing as part of this writing group, what new practices have you added to your process? What is helping you get where you want to be in the writing?

Four more weeks to go, so this might also be a good time to not only check-in on last week, but also assess your goals for the remainder of the writing group, and also tune in on Monday for our next Writers’ Workshop post, this time from Zoe Crossland, professor of archaeology at Columbia University.

Finally, if you missed it, there is still time to add strength to your writing support network—create an Anthropology Zombie Apocalypse Team! I made mine yesterday and got Sam Beckett, Kurt Vonnegut, and Franz Boas. This week I’m going to see if I can’t channel some Kurt Vonnegut in my writing. This could be interesting….

My Ten Steps for Writing a Book

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Kristen Ghodsee. Kristen is Director and the John S. Osterweis Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College. Her prize-winning books include: The Red Riviera: Gender, Tourism and Postsocialism on the Black Sea (Duke University Press, 2005), Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria (Princeton University Press 2010), Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life After Communism (Duke University Press, 2011), and Professor Mommy: Finding Work/Family Balance in Academia (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011). Her fifth book, The Left Side of History, is forthcoming with Duke University Press in 2015. She blogs about ethnographic writing at Literary Ethnography.)

When Carole McGranahan asked me to blog for the Savage Minds writing group, I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about.  I’d recently finished my fifth book, and was in the early stages of a sixth manuscript, so it seemed like I should have something to say about how to get a big project done. 

But I never realized I had a process until this morning.  To get the creative juices flowing, I sketched out a flow chart of how I tackle a project from start to finish.  The chart surprised me.  My quirks and old habits turned out to be a defined system, one that I have implemented for each of my books without even knowing it.

Continue reading

On Unreliable Narrators

(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

To inconstancies.

—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: Savage Minds Writing Group Check-In

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

Ethnographic Writing with Kirin Narayan: An Interview

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this interview with Kirin Narayan as part of our Writers’ Workshop seriesKirin 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?

Continue reading

Week 2: Savage Minds Writing Group Check-In

Here we are again: Friday! How was your week? Did you sink into a good groove, or did you more write-in-place as is sometimes the case? My writing this week was helped by Gina Athena Ulysse’s post Writing Anthropology and Such, or “Once More, with Feeling.” She gave us so much to think with as well as to feel and to allow without apology. Writing from the gut? Check. Writing without permission from others? Check. Writing with an awareness of the constraints of position and category? Check. Writing anyway? Check!

And she gave us this gem: “Decades ago, I realized that I am not a linear writer, but more of a quilt maker. I am content when I produce chunks. I have also learned to not berate myself if I can’t come up with anything. There are works by certain poets and art books near my desk (or in the moveable studio bag), which I need and reach for when words are not whirling out of my head as I face the screen.  As long as I am present in the space and in conversation with artists or even in silence, I now consider myself writing.”  Continue reading

Writing Anthropology and Such or “Once More, with Feeling”

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this guest column from Gina Athena Ulysse as the launch post of our new Writers’ Workshop series. Gina is an associate professor of anthropology at Wesleyan University. Born in Haiti, she has lived in the United States for the last thirty years. She is also a poet, performance artist and multi-media artist. Prof U, as her students call her, is the author of Downtown Ladies: Informal Commercial Importers, A Haitian Anthropologist and Self-Making in Jamaica (Chicago 2008). She recently completed Why Haiti Needs New Narratives, a collection of post-quake dispatches, essays and meditations written between 2010-2012. Currently, she is developing, VooDooDoll, What if Haiti Were a Woman, a performance-installation project. Most recently, her writing has been published in Gastronomica, Souls, and Transition.)

When I write, there’s a slight lag- a-whatever- space-between when words strung together into phrases or sentences are transmitted onto the page with fingers trained as intermediaries.  A right hand injury made me identify this pause as I became more conscious of various aspects and levels in my writing. Not being able to type gave me a new relationship to interludes in my process. Continue reading