Strange person. You arrived one day. From other places. Of other people
You said you were seeking knowledge. My friend. Anthropologist
Bewitched by your strangeness I decided to help you
My spirit welcomed yours into my family’s home
I might have adopted you as my own
Son. Daughter. Sister. Brother
You saw me at my weakest. You saw me at my strongest. Seeking knowledge
I seek to make my living. I seek to problem solve. You watched
You studied my moral dilemmas. My crazy paradoxes
We searched. Mirrors of each other
Gifted. You harvested
Because you came from other places. Because you belong to other people
I protected you as my own. I felt an obligation. To keep you out of harm
Sometimes we disagreed. All families disagree
Every word. Every step. Every act
You watched my every breath
Studied my soul
Do you feel my pain? Do you see my smile? Did you hear my words? We talk
Did you sense my apprehension? Do you know I fear your power?
Do you know I resent your privilege? I see your vulnerability
Did you see my eyes beseech you?
Let me be more than this.
Months passed. One day you had to leave. To your other home. We parted ways
When you left, you shut the door packing bits of my spirit. You flew away
I retreated. Silent. Invisible. Back into your unfamiliar shadows
I took bits of your spirit. Memories of our time
No strangers to each other
Weeks turn into months. Months turn into years. We wait. Proudly
On white paper, your hands typed. The words of my black voice
Do you ever think of me? Do you even remember me?
Our spirits dancing in your mind. Words flow
Until your image of my soul
Written as a whole
You twisted and you turned. Our spirits fought. You argued with yourself
Your very own knowledge. Your very own people. Your power
Remember our teaching. Served in our food. In our home
Remember. We are mirrors of each other
Your knowledge submitted to others
Looks back at you from home
You transformed our knowledge into others’ words. For other people in other places
You reason through our dilemmas in the corridors of power
You familiarize, moralize, categorize, characterize
Our spirits lie dormant. Silent and invisible
Carved into the black indelible ink
Waiting to return
You are one of us. We love that you came and shared our home. Our friendship
We love the work you do. Together our spirits dance over earth
I wait for you to come. To share our hard-earned spoils
Your creation. From the teaching of our home
Gifted from the depths of my black soul
Am I making sense to you? Our spirits roam. Restless in your other world
It is time to bring them home. Their remaining bits await
We need to nourish them. We need to eat together
We can create a better knowledge
We can make our others one
Understand each other
* * *
I have been being transformed by anthropology since 2012. In it, I have discovered a wonderful toolbox for understanding, creating, sharing, and storing knowledge in and of our complex world. Anthropology is also a culture: a system of social relations that produce, reproduce, and reinforce certain types of knowledge. There are insiders and outsiders; new and old; hierarchies; structure; social norms, morals, and values.
I also discovered uncomfortable truths. I am a Papua New Guinean woman living and working in Australia. My experience and practice of anthropology involves swinging, sometimes knowingly and often unwittingly, between being different others. One day I am an anthropologist, and the next I am the source of data to a colleague who appears oblivious to me trying to engage as an equal.
In this poem, “Other,” I situate the anthropologist as the other to highlight some of these uncomfortable truths. As anthropologist, in relation to colleagues, my disposition shifts between subject/colleague and object/data. In relation to my research, I shift between being a researcher and being a member of my various communities.
These experiences reveal contradictions. For example, there is a tension between fieldwork and ethnography. On the one hand, the anthropologist produces and claims knowledge. On the other hand, in order to gain this knowledge, the anthropologist must engage in a relational process of immersing, befriending, participating, and experiencing other people and cultures.
These methods, and the framing of the anthropologist as the producer of knowledge, are based on the problematic assumption that the other is only a passive receptacle of data, an input for the anthropologist’s process of knowledge production. In the poem, the anthropologist’s subject is simultaneously creating knowledge in relation to the anthropologist. She is gathering data, codifying actions, analyzing morality, categorizing and producing knowledge.
The strength, value, and importance of anthropology lies in these contradictions. I love how the anthropologist brings an endless mix of curiosity, enthusiasm, theory, and perseverance to understand the other’s point of view. This outcome, when it is achieved, is hard-won. My own knowledge has been enhanced because people among whom I research have gifted me their endless curiosity, enthusiasm, theories, and perseverance. It is in these dialectics of contradiction and relations between anthropologist (other) and the other (knowing seeker and producer of knowledge) that new forms of knowledge, of knowing, and of creating knowledge crystallize.
Some ways of acknowledging these issues that might improve anthropology include: a) building on the important progress made by feminist and decolonizing research methods to reframe ethnography as a dialectical process between researcher and researched; b) enabling others to share and represent their own forms of knowledge as part of anthropological practice; c) encouraging anthropologists to share their work with communities, policymakers, and broader audiences.
Taking these steps may mean transforming academic programs to incorporate plans for sharing knowledge into research proposals, ethics approvals, curriculum, and teaching and examination processes. In a world where barriers between anthropologists and the other are diminished by technology as well as social and political transformations, anthropology needs to address these issues in order to remain relevant.