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?

KN: My writing path in anthropology is for me part of a longer journey that began as a child discovering the magic transport of words; the chance to reach out beyond immediacies to share insights, experiences, imagined spaces, and also to record what I learned from others. My mother kept my old notebooks and once every few years I leaf through. I find a range of genres. I was invariably trying this, trying that, playing with possibilities as I found new forms through reading. Of course, this was all parallel to what was being expected in school. I learned to take stock of form and produce what a good student was expected to. But I also tried to keep this somehow mine in a jaunty choice of words.

For me, this question about purposeful shaping versus the serendipity of outward forces goes back to the early tug between writing what I wanted and writing what was expected or demanded. Outward expectations—invitations and deadlines– can be a great galvanizer, forcing words into form and especially in pushing one to finish. It’s a painful and mysterious alchemy to transform what one is supposed to write into what one wants to write. Frankly, I’ve been encountering the same difficult challenge after agreeing to respond to these questions!

With the big press and procession of outward professional and institutional demands, it’s ever more of a challenge to pay attention to a welling of inspiration separate from all the Have to Do’s. As a beginning Assistant Professor, I was lucky to have received some talismanic advice from Professor A.K. Ramanujan, who was a linguist, a folklorist, a translator, a poet, and more. He told me that he wrote first thing in the morning. He staunchly held to the need to listen to one’s own creativity. If he felt a poem stirring, he said, and instead insisted to himself that he should write an article, neither the poem nor the article were likely to get written. But if he allowed the poem to come to him, then later he could do the article with greater energy. I wish I had written down his exact words but I have often inwardly recreated them.

  • What changes have you seen in anthropological writing over the last several decades?

It seems to me that anthropology grows ever more capacious, allowing for multiple kinds of intellectual projects and forms of writing. The critiques of the 1980s, when I was a graduate student, have left the lasting legacy of more room to write in, more references as armor to justify an innovative style. Thanks especially to feminist anthropology, we also have had the chance to recover the fuller range of experimental forms that our anthropological ancestors worked with, forms that were earlier not recognized as a bonafide part of our legacy. There has been a greater acceptance of more openly embracing collaborations—writing with rather than writing about—and to write with the urgency of ethical and political engagement for wider audiences.

  • Your books are populated by characters the reader really gets to know, including yourself—from Swami-ji in Storytellers, Scoundrels, and Saints and Urmila-ji in Mondays on the Dark Night of the Moon to your mother, father, and brother in My Family and Other Saints and then Anton Chekhov himself in Alive in the Writing. I see this attention to character rather than to a person’s status or category or role in a society as a hallmark of the new post-1980s ethnography in general, but as something you have in particular really developed for the field. Why does a fully-fleshed out individual speak so strongly to ethnographic knowledge? Why do you think this has mattered so much in recent decades?

Simply as a literary device—engaging readers—the chance to evoke other people and their stories is a real gift for ethnographers. The best ethnographers and those writing for popular audiences in particular have always known this, and you can look back into the history of anthropology to find all kinds of memorable characters, especially in fieldwork memoirs and life histories.

But I think that more than a literary device, portraying people in their complexity is theoretically and ethically important. Writing about individuals known through long periods of shared time with an attention to their many facets doesn’t allow us to contain them or pin them down in Schutz’s memorable phrasing as “homunculi of theory.” This keeps us honest about other people’s creativity, transformations and quirky unpredictability, and grounds intellectual missions within human encounters that can allow different readings. Fully-fleshed out individuals bring light to the complexity of life worlds that ethnographers try to make sense of and enhance a sense of compassion, a feeling for stakes and difficulties. Yet writing with a sense of character also demands a nuanced sensitivity as sometimes the most fascinating things can be embarrassing or harmful.

  • What are you working on now?

Most immediately I have just finished an essay for the new journal Narrative Culture, about the stories told among artisan communities in different regions of India, and the embedded commentaries on the creative process, on shifting relations to materiality, and wariness towards patronage. I am letting that essay settle a little as I look forward to learning more about memory and forgetting of artisans’ stories at a moment that many hereditary artisans have shifted occupations. In different ways, this is related to My Family and Other Saints, Alive in the Writing and also my ongoing work with oral traditions in the Himalayan foothills.

  • What book or article of someone else’s do you wish you had written?

I’m often filled with admiration for other people’s writing and can marvel at how much they are able to write and publish, but I don’t wish that I’d written what they have. I know that I could never duplicate another writer’s particular experience, insight, and skill. So I try to learn something for my own writing from what I really like in someone else’s.

  • Do you write in the field, or perhaps a better question: what do you write in the field? Only fieldnotes or also drafts of things?

Whether I write and what I write in the field really depends on the fieldwork circumstances: the project and the people around me. No matter where I am, I try to do some free-writing in a journal each morning. Sometimes that material can form the basis for notes. In addition to talismanic fieldnotes, because of my interest in oral traditions I am usually working on transcriptions to be folded into further discussions. I am often writing letters or now emails when I can. I sometimes get a flash, seeing how the materials in notes could be made into a chapter and might try my hand at that.

The biggest separate project I’ve taken on in the field was the writing of Love, Stars and All That. I was in the Himalayan foothills of Kangra in 1990-1991, with many people around me pouring out sorrowful commiserations over how old, unmarried and unmarriageable I had become. Writing a comic novel in the evenings, after fieldnotes and transcription, and summoning up the company of faraway friends who might laugh, helped me stay cheerful.

  • Who do you write for? To what extent are anticipated readers (individuals and community of readers) a part of your writing?

Of course, this changes with every project and genre. Mostly, when I can think of my writing as sharing something I care about with someone I care about, that can help loosen a big freeze of self-doubt into a flow of words. My anticipated readers are both people I can give a face to—like my mother or friends in various locations—and also an amorphously imagined interested, smart, friendly and hopefully somewhat forgiving person whom I might not yet have met but who I will become connected to through these written words. Especially for books, I am writing for the widest circle of potentially interested readers, whether or not they are professional anthropologists. This means that I am constantly trying to figure out how to keep readers engaged, hoping that someone might read on not just because she or he feels obliged to for whatever professional reason, but also because this might potentially offer a space for the pleasures of succinct shared discovery.

I like to hope that Chekhov would be amused rather than appalled!  As a doctor, he could playfully invent imaginative ailments, and when asked to account for himself he said that he suffered from “autobiographobia.” So there’s a chance that all the details I assembled about him might have brought on a related case of “biographobia.” As someone who loved absurdity, he might have been entertained to find his quirky brilliance reframed and set into dialogue with all these other figures living in different times—but then too, he might have found the various prompts and exercises threaded through the book bizarrely earnest. And as someone with a strong sense of social justice he might have given his blessings to portions of Sakhalin Island being read afresh and perhaps seeding ideas for further ethnography.

  • Why ethnography?

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.

  • The Postscript to Alive in the Writing is such a gift to writers. You have wonderful, encouraging, and concrete suggestions for writing: getting started, moving forward, moving past writer’s block, revising, and finishing. Do you follow your own advice? What are the hardest parts for you as a writer?

I’m so glad that you found that postscript helpful. Writing is always hard for me, and yes, I try to follow my own cheery advice—with varying degrees of success. Every part of the process can be painful and burdened by self-doubt. Writing along with others is a wonderful way to get past the sense of one’s own crushing limitations. All of Alive in the Writing and especially the postscript was a way of conjuring up companionship with the hopes that this might help others as it has for me.

Thank you for including me!

  • It is our pleasure, Kirin. This is such wonderful food for thought from reflections on anthropology and ethnography to reassurances about writing, and all in between. Thank you for your quirky brilliance, catalytic energy, and the permission to write what needs to be written, to let–for example–a poem pause the writing of an article so that you may come back to it refreshed and ready. May it be so!
Carole McGranahan

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

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