Ethnographic Fiction: The Space Between

This entry is part 7 of 12 in the Fall 2014 Writer’s Workshop series.

(Savage Minds is pleased to post this essay by guest author Roxanne Varzi as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Roxanne is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Irvine. She is author of Warring Souls: Youth, Media, and Martyrdom in Post-Revolution Iran (Duke University Press, 2006). Her ethnographic research in Iran spans multiple genres, from the ethnographic monograph to ethnographic fiction to the film Plastic Flowers Never Die (2008) and on to the sound installation Whole World Blind (2011). Her current research is on Iranian theater.)

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?

After college I returned to Iran for a year and then spent the following year back in the States writing about it. To live meant to write about it. Sometimes if I didn’t write about it, it was as if the event had not happened, or was somehow unreal and unbelievable, like ethnographic notes jotted down a few hours too late.   I thought I was writing a memoir, but it was really something in-between fiction and ethnography (which I knew little about but gravitated toward instinctively). It was 1994 and the onslaught of memoirs of Iranian returnees, and of Iranian women in particular had not yet arrived. There were few publishers interested in non-dramatic narratives from Iran, especially one like mine that had no near-escapes, imprisonments or beatings. My account concentrated on the quotidian, which I thought offered a downright exotic view of Iran compared to the American news coverage: angry raised fists and anti-American slogans.

A Booker prize novelist who read some of my work told me I was shifting between literary non-fiction and fiction and suggested I choose a genre and stick with it. Had I listened to her, that book may have been published as a whole rather than as essays in some venues, short stories in others (including Anthropology and Humanism, which gave it a prize) and parts of my ethnography Warring Souls.

After the ultimately fragmented memoir, my next project was my dissertation on Iran where I experienced a very new and intense form of writer’s block, which was really self-censorship in disguise. The writing was no longer about me, which meant I had the enormous responsibility all anthropologists have of faithfully and respectfully writing the intimate lives we are privy to. This was coupled by the responsibility of being the first anthropologist of my generation to do fieldwork in Iran, a state with all sorts of rules about what one can and cannot talk about. If I messed this up, the door would close for others. I wanted to continue to work in Iran, and to protect my family and my anonymous interlocutors and future researchers. The parts of my work that I found the most difficult to write about were the lives of people whose worldview was so different than my own and so contested, especially those men who wanted to martyr themselves for the State.

I was advised to “just write” which I was attempting to do in my little carrel on the roof of Butler Library at Columbia University on September 11, 2001 when further downtown two planes flew into the World Trade Center. The world again felt unreal and so I turned to fiction. Fiction allowed me to bring the tone, the feelings, the atmosphere of the Iran-Iraq war and what it was like for those who fought it to the fore without making any judgments about their project or what it meant in light of my current situation as a Middle-Eastern American living and writing in New York City. In the end, one of my mentors encouraged me to leave the fiction in the dissertation, which I did while secretly bemoaning the destruction of my budding war novel. Next time, I promised myself, I’ll write a novel.

As I found out, the choice wasn’t mine. My ethnographic material demanded a particular genre: a film, when I was working on visual war culture in Iran and a sound project, when I was working on international war photography.  Despite the change in mediums, what remained the same were the hours of research and even more hours of writing. As my five year-old would let you know, without research I wouldn’t have a story to tell because I’m just not any good at making them up or at refraining from analyzing and educating alongside narrating. In my latest eight-year long attempt at writing a novel based on fieldwork on underground theater, I couldn’t bear not to throw in my analysis and theorize or to stick to an omniscient narrative. I finally broke down at year six and explicitly added the ethnographic back in to the novel through the addition of a first person voice which analyzes and theorizes the ethnographic material. I simply stopped trying to choose between a novel and ethnography and embraced the in-between: a novel or neo-ethnography.

This latest ethnography on Iranian theater is akin to Italian neorealism, in which real people played themselves with lines scripted by a writer toward the goal of creating social change, a new reality. Whether I’m writing the script or writing about the play, what I’m doing or trying to do is to play with ethnography in a very serious way. I believe ethnography is the genre that is most malleable, most inspiring, most in-between. It gives my loose meanderings a purpose, it gives just living a vocation, it gives gossip and nosiness legitimacy. Ethnography makes me feel twice alive, in person and then on the page. It allows me to analyze, to overthink, to take refuge in that place where I feel that everything is explainable and controllable … and then it explodes. My ethnographic notes are a dictionary, a book of short stories, a litany of mistakes and misunderstandings. My ethnographic writings are soon filled with the opposite of ethnography, and yet are still filled with life and then when life needs protection, needs cover, needs space to breathe and to change, there is fiction. Fiction allows me to write about Iran uncensored, allows me to play and to change the ending. The thing about ethnography is there isn’t an ending. No one writes The End at the end of an ethnography. Instead it’s the beginning of discussion, of thought, of change and it’s where as a writer I’ve found my home, my identity.

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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.

One thought on “Ethnographic Fiction: The Space Between

  1. “Ethnography makes me feel twice alive, in person and then on the page.” Beautifully written and thought provoking!

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