(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.
And yet, like most anthropologists, I was trained to tell—not to show, to denote the social through analysis—not to evoke it through narrative. Following the path marked by my mentors, though, I have often tried to resist that disciplinary maxim. In most of my writing I’ve attempted to use narrative to connect with readers through what Jerome Bruner called the narrative construction of reality. There are many elements to Bruner’s approach. One central element—at least for me–is that narratives can underscore our human vulnerabilities. In my experience, they can bring to the surface deep fears about how we confront misfortune, illness and death. A second important element of narrative is that it evokes the human dimension of our inextricably intertwined professional and personal lives.
Here’s the rub. It is one thing to talk about the important elements of narrative and yet another to know how to express these important themes in our works. It is clear –at least for me—that writing anthropology or anything else is an activity that requires an open-minded and playful approach to exposition, an approach that has no rules or easy steps to follow. To find their way, writers, like filmmakers or apprentice sorcerers, need guidance from mentors as well as a measure of existential fortitude. It is not easy to pursue the truth of our stories, but a playful openness to possibility can sometimes show us the way.
When I’m writing or thinking about writing, which is much of the time, things pop into my consciousness that lead me in felicitous directions. When I sit down to write ethnography, memoir, fiction, or a blog, I move into a different space. When you write, strange things sometimes occur. In the summer of 2013 I read through files trying to find a topic to for a talk at a conference on Anthropology and the Paranormal. After several hours of fruitless perusal, a copy of a Le Monde interview, which I hadn’t looked at for seven years, fell to the floor. That inexplicable event created a perfect storm, or what Arthur Koestler called a library angel, that not only showed me the way to that presentation but also inspired a new book project. During a dog walk, a character from a work in progress “talks” to me, telling me that the tone of such and such a passage is wrong, or that a particular dialogue is off the mark. Staring at the computer screen a distant relative or a long lost friend “visits” reminding me of a turn of phrase that clears a path through the textual thicket.
If we are open-minded and playful, these elements sometimes materialize and can be woven into narratives that powerfully evoke complex social realities. When I sat with Adamu Jenitongo, he told stories to convey the most important lessons of his being-in-the-world. When I slowly read him the manuscript of what was to become my first book, In Sorcery’s Shadow, he told me I needed more stories in the text. I asked him if I should recount his story in more detail. He said that would be fine, but “if you want to tell my story, you have to tell your story as well.” His personal challenge has shaped all of my professional writing in which ethnographic narrative has been foregrounded, in which an attempt has been made to evoke the texture of inter-subjectivity, in which an effort has been made to describe sensuously the nature of place, space, and character. In this way, I have attempted to use narrative to evoke the themes of love and loss, fidelity and betrayal, and courage and fear—central elements of the human condition. Remembering Adamu Jenitongo’s example, narratives can sometimes transcend the here and now, which means that they can be fashioned into works that remain open to the world. For me, that is the scholar’s greatest challenge and most important obligation.