Fiction and Anthropology

As a graduate student during the time that the “Writing Culture” movement was in its heyday, I was drawn to ethnographies such as Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. I loved it not only for its poignant analysis of the cultural contexts of Bedouin poetry but also for Abu-Lughod’s fine writing.  Before becoming an anthropologist, I had received a master’s degree in creative writing, and I have always been interested in the ways that anthropology and literature inform one another. In particular, what can anthropologists learn from fiction?

In a 2007 article, Ruth Behar called ethnography a “blurred genre that had to mesh the description of a people and a place with a ritual incantation of the theoretical literature” (154).  This is both a distinctive strength and a limitation of ethnographies. Sometimes it can be jarring to read an ethereal passage of text, perhaps a haunting description of a person or a place, only to be jolted into reality by theoretical paragraphs that yank us down to earth. Yet this is part of the necessary work of our social science: viewing the unique situation of the anthropologist’s fieldwork through theoretical and comparative lenses.

Despite its lack of theory, however, fiction can still offer social analysis. Sherry Ortner once suggested that American novelists were ethnographers whose commentaries on society were just as important as their aesthetic contribution (Laterza 132). Novels can be useful in teaching because, like good ethnography, they humanize the struggles of people one might not hear from otherwise. The Sudanese author Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, for example, offers an excellent portrayal of post-colonial malaise and hybridity. Alaa Al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building is another novel I use in class to illustrate topics such as urbanization, sexuality, and social class in Cairo.

In her blurred genre essay, Ruth Behar suggests that reading fiction can teach ethnographers about setting a scene and creating strong characters. And, in response to Ryan’s last post, she also explores different ways that anthropologists can intersperse dialogue into their narratives.  I would further argue that writing fiction itself can be a useful exercise. Some of us turn to fiction writing to create worlds resembling the ones we know, but which contain events that never happened. Fiction allows for the “what if,” the bringing together of invented characters in realms that we may know well, and then watching what happens. Unlike ethnography, there is no need to stay true to the people that one meets in the field. Liberalities can be taken with place and setting as well.

I wrote a novel, The Gift, about a college student who gets involved with an academic couple looking for an egg donor. One member of that couple, Peter, is a former Peace Corps worker now pursuing a doctorate. He is unreasonably attached to his Peace Corps past, trying to reconstruct the history of the town where he was stationed through colonial texts that are themselves projections of European fantasies.  I had fun describing Peter’s obsession with colonial documents about the imaginary Sidi Maarif, rumored to have once been a matrilocal society famous for its stunning tapestries, which explorers reported would “fetch a higher price in the markets of Marrakech than a caravan of gold” (104). Although now, Sidi Maarif is a rundown shadow of its formerly colonized self, it was once said to “reward the visitor with her ample pleasures, possessing potable water, palm trees overflowing with fruit, and inhabitants who are as pleasant and hospitable as the most lavish of desert shaykhs.” In creating Peter, I wanted to fashion a character still in love with Orientalist representations even though he is supposed to know better. I have met people like Peter, though he is still only a work of fiction.

There are anthropologists who have crossed over and become exclusively fiction writers, such as Amitav Ghosh, Tahmima Anam, and Camilla Gibb. Their work reflects an anthropological sensitivity to the people and places they write about, which they explore in a deep and nuanced way.  We can also learn from anthropological science fiction, a topic unto itself, which also contains intriguing cultural critiques.  Fortunately for those of us interested in blurring genres, we have the Society for Humanistic Anthropology, whose journal, Anthropology and Humanism, has room in its pages for reflections on these issues, as well as literary experimentation. As storytelling is a way people make sense of the world, so might we, as anthropologists, take it seriously, both as a form of social analysis and as another outlet for our own observations of reality.

Behar, Ruth. 2007. “Ethnography in a Time of Blurred Genres.”  Anthropology and Humanism 32(4): 145-55.

Laterza, Vito. 2007. “The Ethnographic Novel: Another Literary Skeleton in the Anthropological Closet?” Suomen Anthropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 32(2): 124-34.

An associate professor of anthropology at Rollins College, Rachel Newcomb is a regular contributor to Huffington Post and writes book reviews for The Washington Post.  Her books include an ethnography, “Women of Fes,” and a novel, “The Gift.” For more information, you can visit her website.

9 thoughts on “Fiction and Anthropology

  1. “…and I have always been interested in the ways that anthropology and literature inform one another. In particular, what can anthropologists learn from fiction?”

    Amen to that. Thanks for this great post. I have always felt that anthro training could use a heavier dose of writing and literature. Not as an extra, but a fundamental aspect of training anthropologists…since we produce texts, we might as well get deeper into the process of making them. I think we should emphasize writing as much as participant observation, interviews, etc. Anyway, glad to see this come up here on SM.

  2. An excellent post Rachel, many thanks. I’m wondering whether you – and other Savage Minds readers – have any thoughts on possible ways in which we may be able to weave theory and narrative in our writings. You mention the jarring juxtaposition of an “ethereal passage of text, perhaps a haunting description of a person or a place” with theoretical passages that “[jolt us] into reality” and “yank us down to earth”.

    In fact, I would want both the theoretical and the empirical to keep us grounded in the actualities of the social worlds and historical processes being described. I’m particularly interested in what we might call theoretical storytelling, i.e. in using the human love of narrative to present complex theoretical arguments in ways that will not send readers scurrying for cover. Perhaps we need to find time to develop further the genre of the anthropological essay, a genre in which the theoretical and the ethnographic are skilfully woven together.

  3. Two thoughts
    1.)Samuel R. Delany’s Neveryon books are great “sword and sorcery” novels that are set during the period of the origins of city-states in Mesopotamia. Delany clearly read the archaeological and anthropological literature on the non-state/state transition, and used it to write about institutional formation, power, and gender.

    2.)I wonder about fiction as a sub-genre of ethnographic writing. I had a colleague (who has since sadly left the discipline) who was interested in using fiction strategically, as a way to write about politically fraught situations where naming individuals and institutions directly would’ve been dangerous. Of course, this is difficult ethical terrain, at least as far as accurate representation is concerned, but I wonder whether there is room for it within our toolkit.

  4. Thanks, Ryan. I agree that writing should be part of our training. Actively working on writing wasn’t a part of my graduate experience, although I appreciated the many articles and books spawned by the Writing Culture movement.

  5. I like the idea of theoretical storytelling. Making the theory part of the narrative would be an interesting technique to attempt. There are journalists who have written highly ethnographic accounts of cultural phenomena that are widely read, but not anthropologists so much…

  6. Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll have to check those out. As for your second comment, creating composites is a strategy people use in ethnographies, and I often wonder how far authors go in doing so. Keeping true to events, perhaps, but merging different people into one? But if events can’t be reported on without giving away identities, might those events be altered to the point that they also become fictional?

  7. Just want to note the dilemma that pits protecting the identities of the people whose lives we study, when revealing who they are might harm them, against the notion of collaborative ethnography, in which the anthropologist shares the authorial spotlight with his collaborators.

    In my own case, working with Japanese advertising creatives, the people I study very much want to be named. They live for public recognition that leads to more and more interesting work. But they do not, of course, want me to say anything that would damage their reputations. Now my problem is that of a journalist writing about any public figure: When is it appropriate to go off-record or conceal a source? When is either selling out?

  8. Nicely written and thought-provoking post, Rachel. As a twist on the fiction and ethnography issue, I suspect I am not alone in using novels as assigned readings in culture area classes. In my China course I used Ba Jin’s “Family” and Ha Jin’s “Waiting.” For Japan, I’ve used Tanizaki’s “Naomi.”

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