LITERATURE, WRITING & ANTHROPOLOGY: A CURATED COLLECTION
Shannon Dugan Iverson, University of Texas
Darren Byler, University of Washington
What is the work that stories do? “Literature, Writing, and Anthropology” seeks to address this question by creating a space in which fiction and anthropology converge, collide, and collapse into one another. This collection, a collaboration between Cultural Anthropology and the literary journal American Short Fiction, features articles, interviews, short stories, and a lecture by eleven authors. In assembling these pages, we have been surprised by the affiliations that form across the fiction, ethnography, and criticism. Though we’ve separated the fiction from the anthropology, there is no way to easily demarcate where fiction ends and anthropology begins.
Conventionally, we have relied on “truth” as the fundamental distinguishing factor between fiction and other genres; fiction was thought to be invented, while the social sciences, journalism, and memoir presented accounts of “real” people, places, and events. Looking at the intersection of literature, writing and anthropology today, clearly this simple binary is eroding. Though anthropologists have an ethical obligation to present an accurate account of the communities in which they work, “truth” can be slippery. Is an ethnography “true” if there is no account of the author’s presence within it? Are anthropologists simply forcing other people and their own lived experiences into preexisting trope-molds, rendering them (if not quite “untrue”) rather useless? Aren’t things like love, grief, shame, embarrassment and joy “true”? Does the “truth” even matter if it is ultimately useless to the communities that are studied and represented?
All of the work here, fictional or otherwise, is concerned with clarifying, exploding, magnifying, or subverting different kinds of truths. Anthropology has turned to literary conventions in order to further clarify the position of the author and encourage multivocal authorship; to expose vulnerability; to reveal silences in standard discourses; and to reveal the seams in both anthropological and ethnographic practice. Likewise, fiction writers increasingly borrow from non-fiction writing genres, including the sciences and the social sciences, which in turn results in a destabilization and reworking of the “truths” contained within those genres. Lucy Corin’s short story “Madmen,” included in this collection, employs a bit of Van Gennep, Turner, and Foucault to create a satirical yet sincere account of adolescence in which girls and boys are paired with “madmen” in a fictional rite of passage. As this collection makes clear, fiction and truth begin to bleed into one another as authors explore ways to expand truth and tell better stories.
A brief account of the history of the relationship between literature and anthropology can demonstrate the ways that these questions started to gain traction. This history is much longer than is usually acknowledged, in large part because ethnography is most often a written description of lifeways.Though works of “ethnographic fiction” were frequently written by prominent anthropologists in the 1920s and 30s, the discipline (as a budding “science”) eventually began to discourage “novelistic” writing (two major works by students of Franz Boas, Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa and Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, were criticized on these grounds). Another of Boaz’s students, Zora Neale Hurston, is considered a forerunner of literary anthropology (especially for Mules and Men) and became a celebrated novelist after the writer Alice Walker publicized her work; Hurston is particularly known for the classic Their Eyes Were Watching God). Since that early period, anthropology has experienced several “literary turns,” punctuated by Clifford Geertz’s 1973 exhortation to produce “thick description.” Geertz’s work was followed by literary modes influenced by postmodern critiques, including reflexivity (e.g. Rosaldo 1991), experimental forms, and an acknowledgement of positioning and authorship that often resulted in scholarship that overlapped with memoir.
The 1986 collection of essays Writing Culture reviewed anthropology’s relationships with writing, especially in the production of ethnographic “truths.” This landmark publication was the antecedent of the 1996 feminist response Women Writing Culture edited by Deborah Gordon and Ruth Behar (featured in this collection). The “literary turn” presaged by these and other works encouraged anthropologists to take stock of how ethnicity and power were implicated in ethnographic composition. By amplifying the epistemic crisis of cultural representation that was brought to the fore by post-colonial literary theory and the politics of racial difference and gender recognition, these anthropologists sought to redefine both the poetics and the politics of ethnography. Most recently, two sessions at the 2011 meetings of the American Anthropological Associations in Montreal stressed the utility of literary modes for accomplishing what forms of conventional ethnography does not: injecting a personal, multi-vocal, creative, and emotional element into anthropological writing .
The contributors to this collection likewise stress the continued importance of literary modes of writing and genres of critique. In our interview Ruth Behar outlines two main trends that have emerged over the past 25 years: the first, is the way “auto-ethnography” is now “more fully woven into the narrative” in ethnographic writing; the second, is a shift toward “insider” or “diasporic” ethnography in which ethnographers work “with a deep sense of connection to the places and people they write about.” In a broad sense Vincent Crapanzano echoes these sentiments, noting that “the influence of the Black liberation movements, feminism, gender and gay studies, and the internationalization of anthropology as a discipline on the writing and evaluation of ethnography” profoundly affected the range of ethnographic writing and the self-reflexivity of ethnographers. Elizabeth Enslin also remarks on the way her questioning of “what counts” as ethnographic knowledge in her 1994 article “Beyond Writing” remain an important concern for many anthropologists concerned with “applied anthropology.” For her, ethnography has to do with writing “in ways that matter to the people we study.” Stuart McLean writes that although the literary turn in contemporary anthropology has contributed to “innovation with regard to method and subject matter” from his perspective “there is still a profound resistance on the part of most anthropologists to taking writing seriously.”
The Cultural Anthropology authors featured in this collection range from anthropologists integral to the “writing culture” movement of the early 1990s to young anthropologists who are taking literary anthropology in new directions today. Vincent Crapanzano, a distinguished professor of both Comparative Literature and Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and Ruth Behar, professor, poet and writer at the University of Michigan, were two of the pioneers of these movements. Crapanzano’s 1991 article, “The Postmodern Crisis: Discourse, Memory, Parody,” discusses the erosion in postmodern discourses of the stabilizing “third:” the invisible authority or discourse to which interlocutors appeal. Nevertheless, memory of the previous discursive forms remain, resulting in intercultural exchanges that are structured like parody. Behar’s 1991 article “Death and Memory: From Santa María del Monte to Miami Beach” combines an ethnography of death in rural Spain with an authoethnography of the death of the author’s grandparents. This combination creates a self-reflexive style of both writing and practicing ethnography that Behar would later elaborate in The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart. Stuart McLean and S. Lachlann Jain, professors at the University of Minnesota and Stanford University respectively, draw our attention to the importance of different epistemic and ontic approaches which find their creative center in locations such as critical ecology and queer theory. McLean’s "Stories and Cosmogonies: Imagining Creativity Beyond Nature and Culture," argues that we may bridge gaps between Selves and Others, Nature and Culture, by taking seriously the creative and constitutive powers of time and the natural world. S. Lachlann Jain’s 2007 article “Cancer Butch” employed a mix of writing styles (journalism, memoir, anthropology, queer theory) to convey the “pink washing” of breast cancer campaigns and the silences and/or strict narratives of femininity that these impose on women with breast cancer. Elizabeth Enslin, who works now as a writer of creative non-fiction and poetry, embodies the way anthropological knowledge can be put to work outside the academy. Despite her strong embrace of creative writing in her own life, her article “Beyond Writing: Feminist Practice and the Limitations of Ethnography” is a warning that good writing is not enough to bridge the gulfs of unequal privilege that are common between anthropologists and the communities in which they work.
Our collection also features stories and interviews by five fiction authors. Four of these stories were originally featured in our partnering literary journal American Short Fiction. These stories serve to demonstrate the similarities between the worlds of literary anthropology and fiction: both genres are able to reveal more of the desire, emotionality, and vulnerability of their authors and subjects. Our fiction collection also serves to highlight the ways that the unique tools of fiction (e.g. absurdity, exaggeration, deliberate patterned structure, the manipulation of time, the examination of impossible possibilities) can make us see ourselves more clearly.
Some of the stories collected here include canny plays on anthropological concepts: Lucy Corin’s short story “Madmen,” for example, describes a fictional coming-of-age ritual in which adolescents are paired with “madmen,” a conceit which echoes both classical anthropology in the Turner/Van Gennep vein as well as Foucauldian ideas of madness and civilization. Ms. Corin is widely published and teaches fiction writing and literature at the University of California, Davis. Michael Martone’s “Four Calling Birds” is a deeply structured, playfully melancholy tale of a love affair that is both a commentary on the classical tale of adultery and a demonstration that structure contains its own undoing. Mr. Martone is the author of many novels and short story collections, including the short story collection Four for a Quarter, and teaches creative writing at the University of Alabama. Katilyn Greenidge’s short-short fiction piece “The Innocent” lays bare an itinerary of desire by tracing it back to the discourse that incites it and disciplines it. Ms. Greenidge is a recent (2010) graduate of the Hunter College MFA program and has published stories in American Short Fiction, The Believer, Green Mountain Review, and At Length Magazine. L. Annette Binder’s “Sea of Tranquility” employs a gentle surrealism to talk about fatherhood and the major identity shifts of everyday life. Ms. Binder is the author of the new short story collection Rise (forthcoming August 2012 from Sarabande Books). Finally, Nathan Fink’s short story “The Big Light,” originally published in the University of New Hampshire Magazine, is an example of the visual power of writing as well as the ways that fiction can successfully manipulate time, making its audience witness trauma in slow motion. Mr. Fink teaches writing at DePaul University.
We are pleased to make the audio version of Paul Stoller’s lecture “Writing for the Future” available as a downloadable audio file (simply right-click/control+click and select 'save as' to download). This lecture took place in February 2012 as part of the Sensorium Seminar Series through the anthropology department of the University of Texas. Mr. Stoller is a pioneer in the field of literary ethnography, and this lecture is a window into his deep ethical commitment to write ethnography that matters, as well as the structural obstacles that limit the creation of such work in the academy. Mr. Stoller has worked in the Republics of Niger and Mali as well as New York City. He teaches anthropology at West Chester University. Most recently, he has begun to make documentary films.
Acknowledgements: We are very grateful to Anne Allison, Charles Piot and Alison Kenner (Cultural Anthropology editors), as well as Jill Meyers and Callie Collins (editors of American Short Fiction) for helping us to create and publish this collaborative project.We are grateful to all of our contributors (Paul Stoller, Vincent Crapanzano, Ruth Behar, S. Lochlann Jain, Elizabeth Enslin, Stuart McLean, Michael Martone, Lucy Corin, L. Annette Binder, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Nathan Fink) for sharing their work and their thoughts for this collection.We would also like to thank Craig Campbell of the University of Texas for curating the Sensorium Seminar Series of which Mr. Stoller’s lecture was a part.
 Langness, L.L. and Geyla Frank (1978), “Fact, Fiction, and the Ethnographic Novel,” Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly, Vol. 3, Issue 1/2, pp. 18-22
 See the official website of Zora Neale Hurston: http://zoranealehurston.com/
 Geertz, Clifford. (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books.
 Rosaldo, Renato (1991) Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Beacon Press.
 Abu-Lughod, Lila: 2006. “Writing Against Culture.” In Lewen, ed., Feminist Anthropology: A Reader. Pp 170-185. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing; Kondo, Dorinne K.: 1986. “Dissolution and Reconstitution of Self.” Cultural Anthropology Vol. 1, No. 1 (Feb.), pp. 74-88
 Behar, Ruth (2007) Ethnography in a Time of Blurred Genres. Anthropology and Humanism, Vol. 32, Issue 2, pp. 145-155.
 Clifford, James and George E. Marcus, eds. (1986) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press
 American Anthropological Association (2010) Tides, Trademarks, and Legacies. Session #4-0630, “Literary Ethnography,” p. 243; Session #5-0650, “Literary Anthropology,” p. 359.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
"Lest I scare off my more conservative colleagues, I should add that I am not condemning the anthropology, or, as I would prefer, the anthropologies we have developed; rather, I am calling attention to the situation of these anthropologies in larger anthropological and nonanthropological discourses in the hope-such is the therapeutic pretension of commentary-that such an awareness, however speculative, will be conducive to an opening up of our several approaches. We certainly have to acknowledge that the structure of our discipline, its push toward consistency, toward what Bakhtin might call a dominating monological voice- one, in the case of anthropology, at least, that struggles to subdue (by declaring them subject matter) the many voices that insist on dialoguing with it -- is very much a product of our social and cultural arrangements and cannot without foolish arrogance be universalized. --Vincent Crapanzano, 2(2): 186" From George Marcus' "Editorial Retrospective" (1991: 6.4: 556)
Death and Memory: From Santa María del Monte to Miami Beach
Cultural Anthropology, August 1991, Vol. 6, Issue 3, pp. 346-384
Supplemental Material and Author Interview
"This paper tells two stories. It is a lament about death, loss, and grief, inscribing my mourning, a double mourning, as an anthropologist and a grand- daughter. But it is also about the effort to remember, and the need to remember, my effort and my need to remember, compelled as I am by duty-memory." From 'Death and Memory' (375)
Stories and Cosmogonies: Imagining Creativity Beyond “Nature” and “Culture”
Cultural Anthropology, May 2009, Vol. 24, Issue 2, pp. 213-245
Supplemental Material and Author Interview
What does it mean to create? Who or what could be said to create? God? Artists? Evolution? Markets? The Dialectic? Do things "just happen" and if so is that a kind of creativity? Taking storytelling as its point of reference, this essay considers the notion of creativity as it applies both to the productions of the human imagination, especially stories, and to the self-making of the material universe. I define creativity broadly as the bringing forth of new material, linguistic, or conceptual formations or the transformation of existing ones and as calling, not for a "cultural poetics," but for a more broadly conceived poetics of making (poesis, in its most inclusive sense), encompassing both the natural and cultural realms as conventionally designated, a poetics capable of articulating the stories human beings tell with cosmogonies detailing the coming-to-being of the physical universe. Extending the purview of creativity beyond the human realm to include the processes shaping the material universe allows us to envision creativity itself in terms of a generative multiplicity that resists articulation in binary oppositional terms and that demands therefore to be thought as ontologically prior to any possible differentiation between the domains of nature and culture, or between reality and its cultural–linguistic representations, challenging us to reimagine not only the relationship between nature and culture but also the problematic of representation that continues to inform much work in the humanities and social sciences. Such a reimagining might proceed precisely from an enlarged understanding of creativity—and in particular of storytelling—and I consider some of the epistemic and writerly implications of this claim for anthropology as a discipline concerned preeminently with exploring and documenting the varieties of human being-in-the-world.
Beyond Writing: Feminist Practice and the Limitations of Ethnography
Cultural Anthropology, November 1994, Vol. 9, Issue 4, pp. 537-568
Supplemental Material and Author Interview
By attempting to make sense of my own position working with women in Nepal and to chart a new direction for feminist practices within anthropology, I confront the distinction between cultural anthropology and applied anthropology. Although a critical review of this distinction is not my primary aim here, a few introductory remarks are in order. The marginalization of applied anthropology within the discipline reproduces the dichotomies between theory and practice, academic and activist, which feminists have in various ways been at- tempting to disrupt. My involvement in women's literacy classes and other organizing efforts in Nepal (which I describe in greater detail below) might hastily be labeled applied anthropology anFrom "Beyond Writing" (539)
The academic literature still tends to take Audre Lorde as the primary feminist theorist of breast cancer, and her The Cancer Journals (1997) remains, nearly three decades out, the definitive word on breast cancer and gender theory. In this article, Jain revisits the cultures and politics of cancer, offering a queer analysis of breast cancer in the U.S.
"The next time they talked on the phone, she told him she had just started to come when she heard her daughter return home downstairs and call out to her. Falling from the bed, she ran across the room to close the door. As she ran, the orgasm caught up with her, the blood rushing from her head, her legs turning spongy, compressing beneath her." From "Four Calling Birds" (29)
"The day I got my period, my mother and father took me to pick my madman. The whole time, my dad kept his hands in his pockets and my mom acted like it was her show. I hadn’t let her in on how scared I was that I might be a freak born with uterus of steel and it would never happen. Apparently it didn’t cross her mind that I might be worried, watching all my friends go through it and what was up with my body, because all she said after I stopped digging and looked in my pants was, “All right. But hurry and get back." From"Madmen" (81)
"It began with a shimmering in both his eyes. He was sitting at the store monitor, and the letters started to blur. They went from black to silver, and he rubbed his eyes and closed the shades to cut down on the glare. It was almost six o’clock in the evening, and he needed to check the database tables. Th ey were liquidating the inventory, but nobody was buying. A lady had come in at lunchtime and napped on the Tempur-Pedic without any explanation. She thanked him when she left and straightened her skirt. Couples came in all day long and bickered because the mattresses were too hard or too soft or weren’t suitable for backsleepers. He was thankful for Marci then because she didn’t fuss about the little things. She’d stopped coloring her hair, but she still drank wine at dinner. Fetuses need antioxidants too, she’d say. It’s my duty to eat chocolate." From "Sea of Tranquility" (65)
"For one whole day, Nick was only going to say what Vera wanted to hear. Nick and Lillian had come up with the idea together, after Nick and Vera had a fight and he hadn’t come back and spent the next morning at Lillian’s, complaining. Lillian was going to film it. They both assured Vera it would be fun. Lillian and Nick were artists. Vera was not." From "The Innocent"(61)
"I have to tell my wife it’s just a thunderclap, a far off scrap of sound booming the sky overhead. I use my palm to say it, knead where her shoulder blades hook below the sheets, but she’s dreamt herself away from here, lying, I know, somewhere in a desert. It’s just as well I go back to sleep." From "The Big Light"
In the academy there has always been a tension between institutional expectation – what we are expected to do to advance on our scholarly path – and creative desire – what we want to produce to fulfill our deep existential obligations. Given the power of academic institutions, most of us, and here I certainly include myself, tend to do what is expected: to produce academic texts that are markers of intellectual distinction. These texts, usually written with the “dead hand of competence” in a bloodless plain style, may well raise eyebrows and make important contributions to knowledge. They are usually documents that seek “the truth of statements,” a truth formed in the logical precision of discourse. No matter the sophistication of the argument, these texts usually do not endure. In relatively short periods of time, they are stored away – to make room for newer works that reflect the next moment. Once in storage, these “dated” texts remain closed to the world. But there is another path. Texts that seek the “truth of being,” a truth that is, in part, sensuously evoked through narrative and image, have a much better chance of remaining open to the world. These are productions in which the scholar takes institutional risks to create works that may pass the test of time, works that produce knowledge that somehow makes life a little sweeter. In this talk, I suggest how anthropologists might produce works that seek a “truth of being.” These are productions that reflect a measure of mastery. For the Songhay of Niger, mastery is reached when the specialist – a custodian of knowledge – is finally ready to take on the greatest obligation: to pass on what he or she has learned on to the next generation. Stories are told, lessons are learned and the work moves on to a future in which the specialist’s thoughts and images remain open to the world.
LITERATURE, WRITING, & ANTHROPOLOGY TEACHING RESOURCES
Over the years, Cultural Anthropology has published articles that address writing throughout the world and within the discipline. Power and creative expression are the principal themes that intertwine throughout these articles, often in surprising ways. Politics and official or popular narratives are also simultaneously affecting and affected by works of fiction, poetry, and songs, as Cultural Anthropology articles in this theme demonstrate.
A bibliography of related texts.
RELATED MULTIMEDIA CLIPS
“The Day Jorge Negrete Died in LA” by Renato Rosaldo (YouTube)
“Writing Culture at 25” by Cultural Anthropology at Duke University (YouTube)
"Fictocriticism" by Michael Taussig (European Graduate School)
“Invisibility” by Renato Rosaldo (via poets.org)
My Family and Other Saints, a memoir by UW-Madison professor Kirin Narayan (Amazon.com link)
Images courtesy of:
Darren Byler. July 5, 2012
Natalia Osiatynska. June 21, 2012 via Flickr:Creative Commons (http://www.flickr.com/photos/osiatynska/3287986172/)