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 →
“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 →
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 →
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….
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.
—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 →
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?
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 →
(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 →
I’ve received a lot of criticism in my life, but no one has ever accused me of having writer’s block. I do it all the time. On this blog, in my academic writing, in Amazon book reviews… I write write write. I wasn’t always a good writer or a fluent writer, and it took me years to get to the point where I could wake up every morning and feel that I could write five thousand words a day if I had to, and couldn’t sleep at night if I’d written less than a thousand. Many of my greatest teachers were role models, people who wrote comfortably and fluently and loved to do it. But I’ve also benefitted tremendously from good books on writing. Since we are doing the Savage Minds writing group this year, I thought I would share my favorite tips for books on writing. As an anthropologist, actually, when I say ‘books’ I really mean the conversations behind (and within) the books. And behind the the conversations I see the concrete networks of scholars. When it comes to books about how to write, there are two key figures who anchor two different (but related) literatures: Robert Boice and Joseph Williams.
Anthropologists have always been writers. But we have not always paid attention to writing as craft or as practice, rather than as vehicle for communicating knowledge. While historically some anthropologists wrote well or across genres—Zora Neale Hurston, Ella Cara Deloria, Laura Bohannan, and Clifford Geertz immediately come to mind—the 1980s literary turn in anthropology brought us new collective energy and interest in not just writing, but in writing well.
It’s time to get writing. We invite any and all anthropologists working on any sort of writing project to join the new Savage Minds Writing Group. Starting Monday, January 20, the group will run for ten weeks, concluding on Friday, March 28. The objective of the group is to provide a community of support and accountability to help members achieve their weekly writing goals. Writing group participants will check in online here every Friday to report their weekly writing progress. Writing can be such a solo endeavor, so here’s to forging some collective energy and inspiration!
Toward the goal of inspiration, the writing group will be paired with a series of Writers’ Workshop blog posts every Monday. Our schedule of fantastic guest authors is: Continue reading →
In my first post, I proposed that anthropology might be particularly well suited to thinking through the concept of empathy. In North America, “empathy” has come to be a prominent term across the caring arts. In areas ranging from self-help to health care, empathy seems to be something that can and should be cultivated. In 2006, President Obama declared that an “empathy deficit” was more pressing than a federal budgetary deficit. The scale of this claim reflects an increasingly popular view of empathy as producer of solutions to large, complex issues. In his 2010 bestseller Empathic Civilization, American social theorist Jeremy Rifkin argued that “global empathic consciousness” could restore a global economy and solve climate change.
Last weeks’ commentators aptly pointed out that “empathy” has become a gloss for broader concerns. Its implementation from the perspective of those of you working with social workers, health care professionals and so on made it clear that institutionalized empathy is a downloading of problems onto already thinly stretched personnel. As a former pubic schoolteacher, I can agree that it is tempting to dismiss empathy as a smoke screen for troubles of our times. Yet, I keep coming back to anthropology’s shared principles with empathy—specifically perspective taking, withholding judgment, and dwelling with the people we work with. I am not arguing ‘for’ or ‘against’ empathy. Frankly, I am curious. What meanings has this term come to hold in the context of North America, and what very real kinds of ways of relating to Others has empathy been trying to capture but somehow can’t? Puzzled by the empathy boom, I went to a good friend for insights. As an analytic philosopher specializing in emotions and emotion history, she had a lot to teach me about the crooked conceptual path of the term. She was so generous in sharing what she knows, I thought I’d share what I’d learned here. Continue reading →
I usually try to avoid ranting about my pet-peeves, but I just gotta get this one off my chest: what’s up with leftist academics criticizing a theory for being “disempowering”? I don’t even know where to begin with such criticism. It is as if someone, upon learning of such a theory, would be so overwhelmed by the inevitability of domination that they simply give up trying to make the world a better place. Has this ever happened to someone? Really?!
In the last few weeks, social work scholar turned pop-psychology web superstar BrenéBrown came out with a short animated video summarizing much of her writing on empathy. It opens by drawing a distinction between empathy and sympathy. According to Brown, empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection. For those of you who are expert in the area of the anthropology of emotions, I am guessing it would be fairly easy to come up with cross-cultural scenarios that put this pop-psych in its place (and please do!). That sympathy has become the bad guy in US self-help genres isn’t all that surprising. In psychology and analytic philosophy, empathy and sympathy are part of a larger cohort referred to as “other regarding emotions”. Debating the appropriateness of the other regarding emotions—from pity to compassion to sympathy to empathy—lends itself to prescriptive ways of being the world. This short video presumes that we can know what will feel good to others. In this case empathy feels good, and sympathy feels bad.