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.

Some Congolese refugees have told me that listening is enough. Listening to their stories of the war, listening to the chaos of fleeing, listening to the hardships of life in the camp is enough. A few told me that listening in itself was a gift. Others have told me that neither listening nor writing is enough. They want to know what I can contribute that is more material, more tangible, that will contribute to their political goals. But either way, everyone is interested in how I will portray them on paper. Even more than portrayal, however, they are concerned with how they will be perceived by those who do not know them.

           “What do Americans think of us?” Nia asked me.

           We were sitting in wicker chairs in Nia’s home in the camp, looking at the photos I had printed from my visit the previous year. I told her I had taken these photos for personal reasons, not for my research, so I had not presented them anywhere in a formal fashion. I could not remember if I had shown them to anyone, actually. I told her maybe a just a few friends and family members had seen them.

           “What did they say—do they think we are dirty people?”

I turn to dialogue when I feel stuck or paralyzed in writing. My fieldnotes are full of dialogue. Conversations are so much of what we do as anthropologists. I do not know how to do participant observation without dialogue. We may observe discussions, but we also participate: we ask questions, we respond, we joke, we empathize, we sometimes say the wrong thing. In this way, dialogue returns me to my research. I attempt to recreate the words that were spoken—via the most accurate translation I am able to muster—and also the context in which they were uttered. Something about reading, writing, and translating conversations takes me back to the ethnographic moment I had attempted to capture in my field notes. Such moments seem to be the crucibles in which ethnographic knowledge is collaboratively produced.

            “No,” I said quickly. “But my friend in Dar es Salaam, a Tanzanian, looked through the entire stack of pictures I brought with me. She stopped at a picture of you and then at one of your husband. She asked who each of you were, not knowing you two were married. When I told her you are Congolese refugees, she said she was surprised. She called you both smart.

            Nia smiled. “Really? She did not think we were refugees?”

I had found Nia bathing her youngest daughter in a basin outside when I walked up to their home that day. She often does this before I come to her house, anticipating that her daughters will follow us inside, climb onto my lap, and perhaps even ask to take some pictures. She cleansed them of the red dirt that inevitably finds its way onto everything and everyone. Marougé, it is called, combining the Swahili prefix ma-, found in words like matope or mud, with the French word for red. Marougé is the color of life in the camp. In the dry season, even the highest leaves on the trees are dusted with it. In the rainy season, the brick walls of the houses melt back into the mud they were before they became bricks.

Yet even without describing this scene, the simplicity of our words conveys our anxieties and vulnerabilities. The story of my Tanzanian friend, while true, implied that Nia and her husband were “smart,” in contrast to other people in the camp who, presumably, were not. Nia’s relief and disbelief that a Tanzanian did not immediately recognize her refugee-ness meant she was pleased by this distinction. We were both flirting with an idea we hoped to transcend in our lived and written expressions: that refugee was a dirty word.

            “Nope. Besides no one could call you dirty. Americans typically shower once a day. How many times a day do you bathe?”

            Nia was laughing now, “At least twice, even three times many days.”

            Jitahidi, Nia’s husband, did not laugh. “It does not matter if we are clean or dirty. Do you think if Europeans cared we would still live in these conditions? Do you think there would still be war in Congo if the US cared about it?”

Jitahidi’s comment strikes at the heart of my paralysis: that no matter how many stories I listen to, I will not be able to write in a way that makes people care. That the war in Congo will continue, that refugee camps will always be permanently temporary solutions to structural and other problems. This is why I try to faithfully render dialogue in my writing. Jitahidi and Nia’s words speak to social theory. Their comments are critiques. They pry open the silence that shrouds the conflict in Congo, unearth the muddiness of camp life, and connect their plight to global politics. My hope is that dialogue invites listening into the text, and welcomes readers to the conversation.





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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.

8 thoughts on “In Dialogue: Ethnographic Writing and Listening

  1. I really enjoyed reading this, thanks. I think that the dialogue point is a really great one. I hope that you manage to keep it going throughout the whole writing.

    I’m by no means an experienced writer (writing my dissertation now too), but I remember one piece of (maybe useful) advice from when I was writing up my MA research. My supervisor suggested that I write something ‘political/journalist/creative’ for a weekly or magazine. More people will read it, and you can be more creative, and then you can clear any anxieties you might have about ‘making people care’ vs ‘sticking to the rules of the academy’. But then maybe you’ve just got a really open department and supervisor and you can do it with your dissertation too.

  2. Marnie, thanks for this thoughtful piece. Your dialogues are full of life, and I like how you render yourself visible in your writing!
    I honestly think that you’re as good a writer as you are a listener-researcher. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to convey so beautifully, in just a couple of paragraphs, a whole array of practical meanings of “refugee” through your everyday in the camp.

    It would be interesting if you followed further the link between your writing and the theme of “making people care,” what it means to you and how it informs your writing (and research) choices. There is an interesting tension in your text between US’ indifference and ongoing war/refugeeness, and your hope of the reader finding her way into the conversation through your dialogues. Are the two related?

  3. Marnie, You have articulately described the dilemma an anthropologist faces when conveying the most personal stories that have been shared in a way that preserves the context in which they were delivered. I was very touched by your blog. You are an incredible writer. Amy

  4. Thank you, Marnie, for writing this and exposing us to your critical and heartbreaking fieldwork. The issue you raise about how to represent not just your stories but of the people you work with hits home for all of us, and especially those of us that work with people whose lives are extraordinarily challenged, marginalized, stigmatized, policed… Dialogue, using “their” words is one way to step out of the way and let the impact of the situation and implication of structural forces reveal and speak for themselves (of course they are not without our help and then the interpretive help of readers and critiquers). And sometimes the words and stories folks share with us are just so illustrative and telling on their own – that is, without the ethnographer butting in an trying to explain / contextualize every meaning bit of detail. My question follows along those lines: how do you (and others reading here) balance the storytelling with the analysis? For example, in this piece you take the time to explain “marouge” as well as the reaction of friends from Dar esSalaam – did that “come” naturally or what did you wrestle over to make those interjections? How are you handling this balance, this intertwining in your dissertation? Thanks again, and sending lots of positive writing energy your way!

  5. Thanks, Ian. I am quite fortunate to have an open and great department and advisor. But I think writing for different audiences is worthwhile as well, and something I would like to do more. Are you writing in different venues as you complete your dissertation?

    Andreas, thank you. I actually considered a different ending to this piece–one that more explicitly linked dialogue and caring. The tension you’ve identified–indifference/caring–is one that consistently informs and motivates my research and writing. I am glad that it came through in this short piece, but it deserves more elaboration in the dissertation.

  6. Rimorainbowbody, thank you for the encouragement and these productive questions. Explaining marouge and the comment by my Tanzanian friend did come about pretty naturally for me because I thought they provided contextual information implicit in the conversation. Jitahidi’s comment at the end, though, presented more of a struggle for me. I think it speaks for itself, and I decided I wanted to leave it that way, for this piece at least. But I think there are times, in the dissertation and elsewhere, where comments such as his would require more analysis. Perhaps dialogue can speak to social theory only when the writer has done enough interpretive work to contextualize it? I’m not certain, but want to keep thinking about this. What do you think?

  7. Marnie, I was interested and saddened by your dissertation. On one note you remind us we are all the same and worry about what others think of us. But you also remind us that we are truly greedy and jump to help in a war where oil is involved but not the human injustice in Africa . I feel ashamed of that. Thank you for allowing us to see this. Elise

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