Tag Archives: ethnographic writing

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)? Continue reading

Slow Reading

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Michael Lambek as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Michael is Professor of Anthropology and Canada Research Chair at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His recent publications include “The Interpretation of Lives or Life as Interpretation: Cohabiting with Spirits in the Malagasy World” (American Ethnologist, 2014 41(3): 491-503) and A Companion to the Anthropology of Religion (edited with Janice Boddy, Wiley-Blackwell), out in paper in fall 2015. The Ethical Condition: Essays on Action, Person, and Value (University of Chicago Press) will also appear in the fall. For the University of Toronto Press, he edits the Anthropological Horizons series in ethnography.]

Instructors on the frontlines report that undergraduate grades are falling into a bimodal distribution rather than the comfortable old bell curve. The majority do poorly, it is said, because they do not know how to write. I suggest the source of the problem lies one step behind writing, in reading.

Writing presupposes reading. To write one has to know how to read and to write well one has to read well. Whether or not we write in order to be read, as Mary Murrell asked in her posting, at the minimum we are our own first readers. We read in order to own our writing, to confirm and assert it is ours, that it is what we want to say and the best way we know how to say it. Even before the copy edit and the proofing, we read what we write; reading is part of the very technique of writing. I am reading these lines as I write them. Continue reading

The Ecology of What We Write

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by Anand Pandian as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Anand teaches anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. His books include Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation (Duke University Press and Penguin India, forthcoming this fall), and Ayya’s Accounts: A Ledger of Hope in Modern India (Indiana University Press, 2014), which he wrote with his grandfather.]

One day last summer, a caterpillar dropped from the rim of my desktop monitor. A peculiar little creature—no more than an inch long, clothed in a jacket of wispy white, a jaunty pair of lashes suspended well behind a tiny black head.

The visitation was unexpected. It’s not as though I work in a natural wonderland. The walls of this office are made of painted cinderblock. The window is fixed firmly in place, completely sealed from the outside. Peculiar odors sometimes drift from the vent above my desk, possibly from the labs upstairs.

The caterpillar seemed unhappy with the windowsill, where I placed it for a closer look. So I scooped up the errant traveler and stepped outside the building, wondering, for a moment, whether there was anything more palatable in the turfgrass. Then I went back to writing, back to whatever I could forage for my monitor that day. Continue reading

How a Professional Writer Improved My Academic Writing

[Savage Minds  is pleased to publish this essay by Annie Claus as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Annie  is assistant professor of anthropology at American University in Washington, D.C. specializing in the social ecology of marine and coastal environments and diverse environmentalisms. She has published work on the impacts of environmental policies on coastal communities, the political ecology of disasters, and conservation social science. Her most recent work analyzes the relationship of Okinawa to Japan through the lens of coral reef conservation.]

I weaseled my way into a writing class as I was finishing my dissertation. Others had advised against taking the course (“just finish your dissertation and worry about its readability later”). But I had been convinced that clear writing reflects clear thinking. If clear thinking emerges through writing with clarity, shouldn’t we all be required to take at least one class about the craft of writing before we inflict our thinking on others?

The professor had taught writing for years and was on the editorial board of The New York Times—a real professional! His (The Pro’s) over-enrolled class was pitched to future journalists but that seemed insignificant to me. I pleaded with The Pro for a spot:

“Anthropologists are also writers, without training or hope. Isn’t it important to make academia a better, more accessible place?”

I argued and implored and won. Continue reading

Finding My Muse While Mourning

[Savage Minds  is pleased to publish this essay by Chelsi West part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Chelsi is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. She holds a BA from Millsaps College and an MA from UT. Her research in Albania was funded by J. William Fulbright program, the National Science Foundation, and the International Research and Exchanges Board. She is currently writing her dissertation, tentatively entitled, “Racial Entanglements: Charting Emerging and Shifting Categories of Identity and Belonging in Albania.”]

February is the worst month of the year. I keep repeating these lines in my head as I stare at the blank screen. I struggle to think of anything else to say. The beginning of this month is now becoming some sort of a routine.

My Dad taught me to write in the early morning hours. “When I was your age,” he used tell me, “I went to bed early so that I could wake up around 4 a.m. and do my homework when the house was quiet.” Around age 11 or 12 I began to emulate this practice, though I never quite got a handle on the waking up early part so instead, I just developed late-night writing habits. To this day I usually produce some of my best work between midnight and 5 a.m. When I think about it, my Dad helped me to craft much of my approach to writing. Continue reading

Read More, Write Less

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by Ruth Behar as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Ruth is the Victor Haim Perera Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. She is the author of numerous articles and books including Translated Woman: Crossing the Border With Esperanza’s Story (Beacon Press, 1993), The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart (Beacon Press, 1996), An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba (Rutgers University Press, 2007), Traveling Heavy: A Memoir In Between Journeys (Duke University Press, 2013), and is co-editor with Deborah Gordon of Women Writing Culture (University of California Press, 1995).]

Rolando Estevez painting-Loynaz-Poema XV ala tensa

 

Years ago, when I started returning to Havana, the city where I was born, I had the good fortune to be welcomed into the home of Cuban poet, Dulce María Loynaz. By then she was in her nineties, frail as a sparrow, nearly blind, and at death’s doorstep, but enormously lucid.

Inspired by her meditative Poemas sin nombre (Poems With No Name), I had written a few poems of my own, and Dulce María had the largeness of heart to ask me to read them aloud to her in the grand salon of her dilapidated mansion. She nodded kindly after each poem and when I finished I thought to ask her, “What advice would you give a writer?” Continue reading

Announcing the Spring 2015 Writers’ Workshop Series

What are you writing right now? Are you writing right now? An article, a paper, a book, a dissertation. A poem, a report, a proposal, an exam. A blog post. Who are you talking to about your writing? Who is reading your writing?

book shelf

 

One year ago, we launched the Writers’ Workshop series here on Savage Minds to provide a new space for reflecting on writing. We’ve now had two successful seasons with twenty-one anthropologists contributing: Continue reading

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