On my way out of the department a few evenings ago, I passed by a couple of graduate students who were arguing a fine point about Draco Malfoy. It made me feel oddly nostalgic: I’d read the last Harry Potter book in the airplane on my way to Australia for the first time. It reminded me of the power that fiction can have to completely draw you into a strange world and make that strangeness more familiar than your everyday surroundings. I can only think of a small handful of ethnographies that have affected me in the way that a good novel can. So I started making a little mental list of ethnographies that are almost as compelling to me as a work of fiction. Here’s what I came up with: Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic; Lila Abu-Lughod, Writing Women’s Worlds; Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, Guests of the Sheikh (not precisely an ethnography, more a memoir); Paul Willis, Learning to Labor; Philippe Bourgois, In Search of Respect; Amitav Ghosh, In an Antique Land; Joao Biehl, Vita; Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques; and the book I’m reading now, by one of the Levi-Strauss’s students, Pierre Clastres’ Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians.
Coincidentally, just as I started making this list, a friend e-mailed me and a group of other former Princeton grad students, asking for recommendations on great ethnographies that would be popular to assign in classes. Besides the ones on my list, here were some of the suggestions they had, in no particular order:
Political Systems of Highland Burma (Leach), Naven (Bateson), Coral Gardens and Their Magic (Malinowski), Crafting Selves (Kondo), The World of Goods (Douglas and Isherwood), Aids & Accusation (Farmer), In the Realm of the Diamond Queen (Tsing), Ilongot Headhunting (Rosaldo), Sorrow of the Lonely (Scheifflin), Negara (Geertz), Facts on the Ground (Abu El Haj), Kababish Arabs (Asad), Never in Anger (Briggs), Body of Power (Comaroff), Enchanted Modern (Deeb), Woman in the Body (Martin), In Sorcery’s Shadow (Stoller), Carnal Knowledge (Stoler), Flexible Citizenship (Ong), Discourses of the Vanishing (Ivy), Politics of Piety (Mahmood), Reading National Geographic (Lutz & Collins), Unnatural Emotions (Lutz), Sweetness and Power (Mintz), Weapons of the Weak (Scott), We Eat the Mines (Nash), The Devil & Commodity Fetishism or My Cocaine Museum (Taussig), Birthing the Nation (Kanaaneh), Veiled Sentiments
(Abu-Lughod), Fragments of Death (Panourgia), Shattering Silence (Aretxaga), Victim and Its Masks or Mecca (Hammoudi), Death without Weeping (Scheper-Hughes), Vita (Biehl), Charred lullabies (Daniel), Culture and the Senses (Geurts), Under the Kapok Tree (Gottlieb), Minority Rules (Schein), A Space at the Side of the Road (Stewart), Life Exposed (Petryna), Notes on Love in a Tamil Family (author?), At Home in the World (Jackson), Parallel Worlds (Gottlieb & Graham), Law of Desire (Haeri), Woman in the Body (Martin), Pathologies of Power (Farmer), Death Without Weeping (Scheper-Hughes), Sweetness and Power (Mintz), The Nuclear Borderlands (Masco), Fluid Selves: Being a Person the Tamil Way (author?), Listen to the Heron’s Words (Raheja and Gold).
Phew, what a list! Can anyone add to it?
Even if there aren’t all that many ethnographies that are as compelling as fiction (and in the list above, I think there are only a few candidates for that distinction), there’s certainly a genre that unites anthropologists and fiction lovers. But the examples of ethnographic fiction that I know of are few compared with the ethnographies that fill my shelves. The structures of academia certainly reward certain kinds of writing more than others, but I wonder if anthropologists aren’t also put off by the difficulty in breaking into the fiction publishing world, which makes publishing an ethnography look breezy in comparison.
So I thought I’d reflect on some of my favorite examples of ethnographic fiction, and ask readers to suggest any that aren’t on my list, because I’m always looking for more.
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God: Everyone cites this. It’s fantastic, beautifully written. But it’s not Harry Potter. It doesn’t draw you into a story in the same way. I don’t know why; somehow it just seems so abstract to me.
Elenore Smith Bowen, Return to Laughter: the nom de plume of Laura Bohannan. She published under a pseudonym to protect the identity of her informants since the book winds its way towards the ugliness of how people behave in the face of an epidemic. But mostly the book pokes gentle fun at the anthropologist, and what makes this a classic of ethnographic fiction is the way it portrays the fieldwork experience in early/mid-century Africa, from the planning of the expedition to the absurdities of trying to do research when she doesn’t speak the local language, the slow realization of how the field worker played into local politics, and she doesn’t shy away from portraying the colonial context of her fieldwork.
Timothy Knab, A War of Witches: His account of shamans and witches in Mexico. At times compulsively readable; at times totally soporific in a way that only ethnography can be. I’d be reading along, enjoying the story, and then all of a sudden I’d moan, “Crap, not more details about the Underworld.” Not hard to figure out which parts are straight from his field notes. I don’t know why he took the fiction route, but I wonder if it was to protect informants, since in the end one of them is revealed as… but no spoilers!
Richard Price and Sally Price, Enigma Variations: I found the very beginning of the book hard to follow, and I almost stopped reading, but I was glad I stuck with it because it quickly turned fascinating. It’s about the international market in “primitive” art and the role anthropologists play in conferring value through their role as authenticators. The bottom of every page has the drawing of some objet d’art, I assume from the Prices’ research. I love illustrations.
John O. Stewart, Drinkers, Drummers, and Decent Folk: the subtitle of the book is Ethnographic Narratives of Village Trinidad, and Stewart is an American of Trinidadian roots. He’s trained in both anthropology and an English major, and I think he teaches in an English department somewhere. You can tell. The book alternates short stories with ethnographic essays. It’s a nice illustration of how fiction can make different points than ethnography can.
Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge): Everyone includes Castaneda prominently in their lists of ethnographic fiction, but it’s really more like fictional ethnography. And not very good ethnography, either. This book drove me batty. It’s a case of fiction being more boring than truth; meanwhile, Castaneda’s real-life cult was stranger than any fiction he ever came up with.
Hmm, that’s all I can think of off the top of my head. I keep meaning to read Michael Jackson’s Barawa but haven’t gotten around to it. Amitav Ghosh has a slew of novels that I haven’t read. Kirin Narayan has a nice theoretical discussion of ethnographic fiction in Anthropology and Humanism, and Lila Abu-Lughod theorized the political implications of different kinds of writing, including fiction, in Writing Against Culture.
I know that I’m not the only anthropologist who has a secret longing to publish ethnographic fiction, not only because it is a different way of telling an anthropological story, but also because it is one route for dealing with the ethical dilemma of how to give anonymity to your informants in an era where you can be sure they will read what you publish. But I find it hard to write anything good. Narayan pinpoints one of the difficulties when she says that the most difficult thing for her as an anthropologist writing fiction is to show without explaining. For me, though, the bigger problem is coming up with a plot. That’s one thing you don’t really have to do with ethnography.
Anyway, for all you anthropologists who secretly write fiction, here’s your chance to try to get it published:
SHA 2008 Ethnographic Fiction Competitions
The Society for Humanistic Anthropology announces its annual fiction competition. The winning story will be published in Anthropology and Humanism and will receive a cash award. Stories should not exceed 20 double-spaced pages. Applicants should submit three hard copies of one story to Ayala Emmett, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Rochester, PO Box 270161, Rochester, NY 14627; tel 585/275-8736; firstname.lastname@example.org. Deadline: June 1, 2008.