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Ethnographic fiction

7 March, 2008

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; Deadline: June 1, 2008.

–L.L. Wynn

24 Comments leave one →
  1. 8 March, 2008 11:30 pm

    Dear Wynn,

    I wrote a note about this post in my blog. One of my commentors was good enough to tell me the name of the author of the book Notes on Love in a aTamil family — Margaret Trawick — She also left a Google books link in the comment where parts of first chapter can be found, in case any of your readers be interested in the information.


  2. 9 March, 2008 12:25 am

    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.


    Well I wouldn’t describe Castaneda as Ethnography or by the more popular term Allegory. I can see your ‘trouble’ with the books of Castaneda. As an Anthropologist himself (U.C.L.A.) he would eat at the fibers of Academia.

  3. gregdowney permalink
    9 March, 2008 5:33 pm

    I read through the list of ‘great ethnographies,’ and if you ask me, there’s a few clunkers in there in terms of assigning them for classes. I’ve assigned some to undergrads, and their standards haven’t always been the same as the Princeton grad students. I think we need to be very careful about saying something is good to assign as an introductory text without really thinking it through. They may be classic, but that doesn’t mean a class of 19-year-olds is going to dig them.

    For example, I’ve had undergraduates get VERY upset about repetitious texts, something that doesn’t really bother me. Any academic gets used to coasting through sections that don’t have much to offer, skimming on for the next important part; we don’t mind, but I found students got really up tight, perhaps because they don’t know how to skim or perhaps because they feel like the price of the book is a function of its length, and they paid too much per idea (or something like that). For example, I had a group nearly turn on me when too many of them got fed up with some of the more detailed parts of The Gift. I think that they were ready to light the torches and head up to the castle on that one. And I saw someone trying to assign Outline of a Theory of Practice and had to intervene…

    So when I read for a syllabus book (or try to write one), I think long and hard about this. I’ve had groups that have resisted even things that I thought were engagingly written, such as Geertz’s cockfight. That said, I’ve had some luck with a book I like a lot, Wisdom Sits in Places, by Keith Basso; with Shostak’s Nisa; with Sound and Sentiment, by Steven Feld; with Ain’t No Makin’ It by Jay MacLeod (highly recommended, thanks to Victoria Sanford); Marshall Sahlins Historical Metaphors and Mythic Realities (though my last group was unpersuaded and I had to really go to the wall to sell it); and with some of Paul Stoller’s work, including the Taste of Ethnographic Things (and he also writes fiction). I also second the nomination of The Sorrow of the Lonely and the Burning of the Dancers, and I loved the Neur and David Lan’s Guns and Rain when I was an undergrad (of course I also liked Whorf’s essays, neurosciences, and economics, so cautionary note). All have strengths that recommend them, but I’m not persuaded 100% by any of them (of course, they still are MUCH better than most; and I understand that the Sorrow of the Lonely is back in print after being out for a while).

  4. 10 March, 2008 9:47 am

    Guru, thanks for the name of the author of Notes on Love in a Tamil Family.

    Gastronomical, yes, Castaneda has some background in anthropology which is undoubtedly why he’s able to so cleverly mimic/mock/subvert anthropological discourse, and why many people believed his book was an actual ethnography for so long. Even though I find the book incredibly boring, there’s lots of interest there for someone who wants to apply Bhabha’s insights on mimesis to Castaneda.

    Greg, yes, I agree that several of the books on that list wouldn’t work for some of the undergraduates that I’ve taught! Thanks for suggesting some additions. Lots and lots of new things for me to read!!

  5. 10 March, 2008 11:33 pm

    Ira Bashkow’s “Meaning of Whitemen” is one of my favorite ethnographies; beautifully written and it reads almost as fiction.

    Keith Basso’s “Wisdom Sits in Places” would be another one (as already mentioned).

  6. 11 March, 2008 2:46 am

    Greg, I’ve had similar problems, but sometimes it’s just a class and a text that clash or don’t. For example, I had lots of trouble with Basso’s Wisdom–they thought it repetitive…

    Don’t forget fiction itself! I like to assign novels that were never intended to be “ethnographic” but are still excellent. For West Africa, see God’s Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembene.

    Ethnography that hasn’t already been mentioned, that students loved:
    Michael Jackson, In Sierra Leone
    Ira Bashkow, The Meaning of Whitemen

  7. 11 March, 2008 10:42 am

    TT, oh yes, thanks for mentioning Meaning of Whitemen — I’ve actually been reading that recently and I quite agree, compulsively readable. Should have been on my list. And now that two people have recommended Basso, I really will have to buy it, even though JP reports that his students don’t always like it.

    JP, as for fiction itself that wasn’t written by anthropologists but that reads “ethnographic,” what do you think about Alexander McCall Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency”? I have heard that some anthropologists have issues with it, but I loved it: not only because it’s so funny and readable but because of its treatment of witchcraft.

    As far as fiction goes, my area of expertise is the Arab world, and the things that I can imagine using to teach with are Alaa al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, for illustrating the relationship between Islamic “fundamentalism” and state terror; Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt trilogy for the portrayal of the changes that oil discovery wrought in a desert land and because it’s really just a thinly disguised history of the Saudi monarchy; Ibrahim Abdel Meguid’s The Other Place for its portrayal of the migrant labor economy in the Gulf; and the hard-to-find but worth it “An Apartment Called Freedom” by Ghazi Algosaibi, a Saudi writer who portrays life in Cairo in the late 50s. Better than any history book.

    And on the topic of fiction and academia, Chicago- and Princeton-bred anthropologists might get a kick out of James Hynes’ Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror. He tries to channel Poe into academic settings. One of the long short stories thinly fictionalizes the Obeyesekere-Sahlins debate. It’s a little over the top but some things ring frighteningly true!

  8. 14 March, 2008 10:53 am

    Oh, I thought of another one example of ethnographic fiction that I liked: Camilla Gibb’s novel, Sweetness in the Belly, based on her field work in Ethiopia. See

  9. pamelamtu permalink
    16 March, 2008 6:23 am

    I am surprised no one has mentioned Chinua Achebe. Although, Things Fall Apart, is an obvious choice for ethnographic fiction; I have always preferred and had success with Arrow of God.

  10. Michaela permalink
    21 March, 2008 5:34 pm

    I re read Jean Brigg’s ‘Never in Anger’ again over the xmas break. It is one of my favorites… I would recommend it any anth. student…

  11. Michaela permalink
    21 March, 2008 5:37 pm

    Sorry, should have read more carefully – just saw you already covered this one and a few others that just came to my mind…

  12. Anneke permalink
    18 May, 2008 6:01 am

    Perhaps someone can help me find a book I have been searching for for more than a decade.

    I heard a reading from it on the CBC years ago and, of course, was driving and couldn’t write the title down. I called the CBC and they had no idea what book I had heard discussed.

    No amount of Googleing has hel;ped me locate this book.

    It was a novel about an anthropologist studying a “primitive” community, I believe in South or Central America. He was invited to participate in a ceremony. What he doesn’t realize is that he IS the ceremony.

    He is taken out into the jungle and tied down to the ground and slits cut in his flesh. Seedlings and earth are placed into the slits. At first he is in pain and delirious but as the days pass and the roots and insects begin working into his flesh he begins to become one with the process and with the earth… When he is finally “rescued” he fights against his rescuers.

    What particularly intrigued me by the story was something I saw later in London, UK. They had an exhibit on The Day of the Dead. At the entrance, they had an almost life-sized “calaca” (papier mache skeleton) by Philipe Linares, which had plants and animal life growing in and on it.

    If anyone has any idea what this book is, I would be eternally grateful…

  13. 4 July, 2008 4:18 pm

    Klaus says-

    Carlos Castaneda?

    While it certainly qualifies as fiction……the ethnographic aspect of his work was (in my opinion) more of a practice in Psychoanalytical Anthropology in which Castaneda uses fictional characters and scenarios in order to prove some basic points about human consciousness and identity.

    The work is a bit “dated” for contemporary students but it is reflective of a sector of the Anthro community from the 1970’s that was an extension of the subculture that sought to break the constraints of the socio-complexity levels of the modern Nation State and return to some proverbial and utopian “Eden”. Unfortunately most of the work falls into the “what were you smoking Category” and thus was deemed fringe Anthropology.

    Nonetheless, some of these texts I feel can be engaging reading and informative, perhaps causing us to evaluate things from alternative perspectives.

    A few of my favorites are:

    The Wizard of the Upper Amazon- by Bruce Lamb

    Cosmic Serpent- by Jeremy Narby

    Tales of Power
    The Art of Dreaming- both by Castaneda

    These are the 2 most cohesive of his books, with the second mirroring nicely the work by Stephan LaBerge on lucid dreaming.

  14. Caroline permalink
    27 August, 2008 8:45 pm

    While I am by no means an anthropologist (rather a liberal arts oriented phD student and humanities teacher working on a meta-analysis of experimental ethnographies) I think I have a relevant work to add to the list which I didn’t spot yet (but that may be oversight)

    Harry G. West- Ethnographic Sorcery. It reads like a novel. A good short description in my eyes can be found here.

    it is a short book, one reason why students can be expected to like it, and what I particularly like about the work is that it presents its informants in a way that makes sorcery much less something alien and much more something like a postmodern understanding of knowledge construction. On an abstract level, it explores how knowledge shapes lives, regardless of cultural context.

    I also have a kind of request to readers of this page. In the context of the PhD project I’m working on, I’d be very interested in relevant experimental (preferably recent) works that alter the ‘accepted’ rules of representation in order to present something which is very difficult to capture in the sense that it does not fit ‘our’ way of categorizing experience. Various works on the list above already fit those search requirements. I would prefer to stay within the limits of what is still considered ‘scientific’ rather than fictional. What is central with ref to this post is that I am looking for works that have the power to affect in a way that a good novel can, as L.L. Wynn puts it. I consider this to be a very important aspect of anthropological writing and aim to study it further, argueing that it is relevant far beyond anthropology…thanks in advance

  15. 28 August, 2008 5:37 pm

    Hey Caroline, thanks for the West reference. I don’t know the book but now I’m excited to read it. As for your question… Stuff that alters the accepted rules of representation… Hmm. the only thing that immediately comes to mind is Taussig. His later stuff. But you know, check out the winners of the story and book awards given by the Society for Humanistic Anthropology. The stuff they pick often is a little more experimental. Also, the anthropologists who write on violence, terror, and genocide tend to push the boundaries of normal ethnographic writing because their extreme subject matter is often said to transcend normal language (think the literature ala Scarry that posits that pain cannot be expressed through normal language because it is beyond culture), so they have to find transcendent ways to write about it.

  16. late permalink
    2 July, 2009 12:33 am

    ok, a bit dated. but we still lloved it

    Worsley, Peter. The trumpet shall sound: a study of “cargo” cults in Melanesia, London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1957.

  17. Anna permalink
    11 February, 2011 5:30 pm

    A number of these look great and I’m going to add them to my list to read before I assign!

    I’d also add Kristen Ghodsee’s “The Red Riviera” as a fairly light and thoughtful read that clearly outlines the role of women in tourism in post-socialist Bulgaria.

  18. 6 April, 2011 4:34 pm

    I think the novel you are trying to remember is Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card. If not, there is a remarkably similar scene in his novel.

  19. NWard permalink
    23 September, 2011 5:14 am

    Sweetness in the Belly, Camilla Gibb. Love it.


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