This episode of AnthroPod features Ruth Behar in conversation with Kristen Ghodsee about how anthropologists can be public intellectuals: They discuss how can anthropologists maintain credibility as scholars within the academy while also speaking to broader audiences; the necessity of patience and thinking of a career over the long duree; the productive spaces and possibilities within the discipline to reach out; and tips and suggestions for how to write in ways that appeal to non-academic audiences.
Maybe we're just becoming kind of more holistically human in how we think about things, which is really what we should be doing as anthropologists and kind of being open to all these different ways of expressing ourselves. —Ruth Behar
Behar, Ruth. 1997. The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart. Boston: Beacon Press.
———. 2003. Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza's Story. Boston: Beacon. Originally published in 1993.
———. 2013. Traveling Heavy: A Memoir in between Journeys. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. [Book trailer available here.]
———. 2018. Everything I Kept: Todo Lo Que Guardé. Chicago: Swan Isle.
———. 2018. Lucky Broken Girl. London: Puffin.
Ghodsee, Kristen R. 2016. From Notes to Narrative: Writing Ethnographies that Everyone Can Read. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
———. 2018. Why Women Have Better Sex under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence. New York: Nation Books.
Ghodsee, Kristen and Rachel Connelly. Professor Mommy: Finding Work-Family Balance in Academia. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield.
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Kristin Ghodsee [00:00:13]: My name is Kristen Ghodsee and I'm really excited today to be on AnthroPod with Ruth Behar, professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan. And Ruth, thank you so much for agreeing to do this podcast.
Ruth Behar [00:00:28]: It's a pleasure. Thank you for having me.
KG [00:00:31]: I want to tell you a little bit about what my thinking about the idea and the role of the public intellectual is before we jump into the conversation. . . Which is that, of all of the other anthropologists sort of working today, I'm really so impressed by the breadth of your academic and creative work. So you've published in so many different genres lots of different work that's really not traditional for a garden variety academic. And I think in some ways that you're the paradigmatic case of a successful public intellectual. So because I have just published my own first book with a trade press, the first time I've done anything with a non-university press, I've been thinking a lot about the challenges of speaking to general audiences and speaking to even scholarly audiences outside of the discipline of anthropology. And I realized that there really aren't a whole lot of role models of people out there who manage to seamlessly blend different aspects of their scholarly and creative selves. So I really wanted to speak to you about your own experiences. And I was reading this 2017 article on public intellectuals in the Chronicle of Higher Education and the author had this wonderful quote that I'm just going to read. She says that some faculty members hang on tenaciously to the notion that speaking exclusively to the fewest smartest people is evidence of thinking the deepest best thoughts, unquote. So just to get us started, can you talk a little bit about why you decided to try to speak to audiences outside of anthropology and outside of academia more generally?
RB [00:02:01]: Sure. Well thank you for that lovely introduction and it's so nice to be here and having this conversation with you, and I'm so honored that you thought of me as someone who could speak to this issue of being a public intellectual. And I should just say just in response to the quote itself, it clearly must not have been a quote that an anthropologist wrote! Because I think you know the idea of anthropology, at least the way I view it, is that everybody has something important and interesting to say and that we're all kind of intellectuals of our own lives and our own cultures. And the pursuit of anthropology—I think has always been about talking to ordinary people and giving ordinary people a voice right in our work, not that they don't have a voice already. So I think it's interesting this idea that the fewest and the smartest
KG [00:02:50]: Yeah [laughing].
RB [00:02:52]: Are the ones that we want to speak to. So it just kind of goes against the grain of how I think about intellectual life. And I think my most basic answer is that, I come to academia being both an immigrant and growing up in a working class community, I guess I could say, so being an immigrant child from Cuba, you know arriving in New York, not knowing English, just being thrown into a public school first grade class and having to figure out how to speak how to communicate. And then neither of my parents were college educated, and I was the first college educated person in my family and definitely the first PhD in the family so to me I had to learn several languages.
RB [00:03:38]: I guess you could say, I had to first learn English. That was not my first language. And then eventually I had to learn how to speak as an academic how to be in academia and all of that was fairly challenging for me and yet I was very determined to master those languages. But it also involved a certain degree of alienation for me, and I kept thinking I'm getting further and further away from being able to speak to my parents and particularly to my mother, you know, the more I got invested in academia particularly in graduate school. I just kept thinking, well this is now I'm going to be writing things that my mother won't understand. And somehow that was important to me that I not lose, you know I use that as a symbol that I not lose my connection to family, to community, that I be able to produce work that that they could understand but that would also be respected in academia. So I think for me, the way I think about this is that, from the beginning I was really trying to find a way to have a foot in each place—like a foot in academia that I could be respected as a scholar because that was very important to me. But then I could also be understood by those outside of the academic world, kind of understanding that not everybody might be able to make it into academia for a variety of reasons. But that didn't mean that they couldn't understand or that I couldn't produce work that they could understand. So, so for me I think those whose origins are very important. But then I think the other thing is is that I always loved writing and the arts, and I continually have surrounded myself with people who are writers and artists. And creativity is very important to me and so I think being surrounded by people that are really amazing communicators made me want to be a great communicator too, and to constantly be searching for the best genre to communicate what I was feeling or what I was thinking or what I was seeing or what I was witnessing.
RB [00:05:43]: And you mentioned that I've worked in all these different genres and I have and sometimes I say to myself, oh my god to done all these things that I've probably done them all badly. But it's come from this desire to, to express myself in different ways. You know I'm trying to get at an emotion that's a little articulate, that's a little inchoate, but so strong and well maybe that requires a poem and so I'll sit down and write a poem but if I'm trying to tell the life story of you know of a village person in Spain well that's going to require ethnography and figuring out how to tell an ethnographic story. So I think I think I've been kind of always looking for genres that are going to help me tell whatever story it is I'm trying to tell at a particular moment.
RB [00:06:28]: Also to me being a public intellectual I think is just being able to share intellectual ideas with a wide public, some of which, some of that public might be in academia. So you might be trying to communicate anthropological ideas to somebody in the English Department or somebody in the theater department—so they may be equally an academic but they have a different way of communicating and their disciplines. So I think being a public intellectual starts with being interdisciplinary and being able to speak between and across disciplines. I think that's like maybe the first hurdle to get through, and then I think the next step is in being a public intellectual is just speaking to generally educated people. And I think our society or our contemporary global society is a very educated society many more people have college education now than they did, say fifty years ago. There are many people writing out there. There's many people reading you know, despite all the fears that, Oh my God we're not reading anymore. But in fact people are reading a lot and all again and all these different formats and genres. And so I think we have generally speaking, a much more educated society. And so it makes sense to be a public intellectual, because you're trying to speak about things that you know that others may also know something about in a different way you know.
RB [00:07:53]: If I'm speaking about Cuba, for example which I know intimately and I go to Cuba several times a year and I'm up to date on everything that's going on and I've tried to read everything that's out there about Cuba, but maybe I'm talking to somebody who went to Cuba for a week you know? And saw a little bit of the island and they know something too. They may not know all the things that I know but they know things too and you know, why should I put down whatever knowledge that person has who maybe hasn't done the full study. But they're interested, they're curious. They-they found some things quirky about Cuba and I come in and give a lecture about it. And I want that lecture to be interesting to that person and to be interesting to the person who's never heard of Cuba, never gone there. You know so, I think it's about trying to speak to as many people as possible but understanding that they are as smart as you that maybe they have focused on something else. Maybe I'm talking about Cuba to a neurologist or to a corporate lawyer. Obviously they're going to be equally smart but they have specialized in something else, but that doesn't mean that I should speak in a way that is so convoluted that they're not going to understand me. Or that somebody like my mother, who worked for many years in the diploma department of NYU, checking the spelling on people's diplomas. . . Why shouldn't she understand what I'm saying and what I think is important? So I don't know, for me I think it comes maybe from a deep sense of democracy, that our knowledge should be available to all and that as as those who produce knowledge we should try to make it available as we can to all.
KG [00:09:28]: I mean that's an amazing perspective. And I keep thinking about everything that you're saying in the context of sort of, the critiques that I hear often about quote unquote public intellectuals or intellectuals or academics who sort of make this more public facing turn. And obviously when you're talking to a corporate lawyer or a neurologist or you know somebody who's checking diplomas at NYU, like, you have to not use the kind of jargon that we use in academia you can you can't use the specific terminologies that we share. And so if you write an op ed for the New York Times or you write a little piece for the Washington Post or you do something that is really truly a kind of democratic engagement with society a lot of times what happens, is your colleagues or other people will say, oh but you haven't substantiated your claims or you haven't fully dived into the literature or you haven't cited the right people. I mean there seems to be this tension in some ways between the kind of evidentiary and rhetorical standards that we have in academia which many academics struggle to uphold—and the ability to as you say communicate with this wider audience. And so I'm really fascinated by the fact that you've done more popular academic books. You've done documentary films. You've written a memoir most recently. You've written a novel, I understand you're working on another novel and so I'd love for you to talk a little bit about how working in these different genres and communicating with these wider audiences, how it complements maybe your more traditional academic work, and then further, like how you deal with the criticism of, when you do speak to these wider audiences and you're not using the correct jargon or the correct language or you're not citing everybody. How do you balance the need to be the appropriately you know rigorous academic with the desire to have this more democratic form of communication with the broader public?
RB [00:11:24]: It's a challenge and then sometimes you know, you don't do it as well as you would like to. But you use the word balance and balance is what I have always searched for. I—you know I love scholarly work and I love doing it and I love reading it and I love being in scholarly conversations so it's just something that, that I adore. And I've definitely worked very hard to to be part of the scholarly community. At the same time there's an artist inside me, or I think there is, and that artist also needs to express herself.
RB [00:11:57]: And so sometimes there are poems or lately now there's been fiction that has been coming out of me and it's it's it's complicated. I think the first thing to be aware of, and I often say this to my students when they're concerned, like I want to do all the things you've done. I'll go, Well you can do it too, you just can't do it all at once. You're going to have a career. A career means that you know, hopefully you'll be lucky and you know you'll have many many years to nurture all these different sides of yourself. And so you know you're starting out in scholarship, you know you want to get a PhD in anthropology, well then you know you've got to work at that, you've got to know the literature, you've got to do your research, all the things that we need to do to be good scholars you need to do them. You need to go to the archive. I mean whatever it is that you need to do to really be a fantastic anthropologist, you're going to do that. So maybe it's not the best moment to be doing all the other things you want to do. Maybe you also want to write a novel. Maybe you also want to write a collection of poetry. You will be able to do that. Maybe you want to paint. I mean I've had a lot of visual artists. I had a student who was also a musician and an anthropologist. And so you know it's—I think you can do it all but you have to organize your time and kind of organize your life and sort of know that you can do things one by one right.
RB [00:13:12]: You can't write ten books at the same time, but you can't write ten books over the course of a long career right? So maybe you write one and then four years or five years later you're on to the next book. So you have to have a certain kind of patience with yourself, which is really hard because I'm a very impatient person actually. But having you know having that patience with yourself and kind of knowing, OK there's all these things I want to do but right now I'm going to concentrate on this project. This story, this article, you know whatever it is, you're going to put your all into that one thing and do it as well as you can and then move to the next. This is not to say that you can't multitask on the other hand, because you can, because sometimes you can. So when I was working on my documentary film in Cuba, I was also doing some other work because—you know documentary uses a certain part of your mind right. I mean you're you know you're there, you're trying to find people to interview, you know, you finally get them on camera. You interview them. Then you've got, like, all of this material to sort through in the editing room. You can't possibly use it all because otherwise your film would be twenty hours long.
KG [00:14:27]: Yeah.
RB [00:14:28]: So you can't use all the material you have, and so you sit there editing and shaping and you know crying, Oh my God I'm not going to be able to use the story where oh this is so terrible. So you go through the process of creation with everything that you do, but with something like the documentary, it involved a certain part of my mind, a certain kind of attention that I had to give that work, and so that allowed me sometimes to do other things too. Okay I can write a few poems in the midst of this because poems are short and I can write some ideas down I sometimes get an idea for a poem. . . Believe it or not, during a faculty meeting.
KG [00:15:09]: [laughing] that's a good use of a faculty meeting.
RB [00:15:10]: Sometimes Sometimes, I'll be like, oh wait a minute I just got an idea. You know I'll just be staring into space and you know, I just thought of an image. So you can multitask. So you can also multitask and do different things and I've always believed that different kinds of intellectual and creative work can nurture each other. So if you need to write the poem because a poem just came to you, there's something you know, deep that you need to say and you write that poem. Because you've got the poem down, then that might free you to go back to your ethnography, or back to your documentary film because you've got that poem out. . . That maybe it's about a loss in your family or a death or somebody that you just remembered in the midst of other things and you know, you put that down. And then that frees you or charges you up in such a way that then you can go back to maybe the more intellectual the heavier work, in some way. So it is a question of balance and sometimes you can multitask. And then it is a question of also being aware that you're going to have time over the course of a career to do different things. You gain respect for the intellectual work you've done, or at least I hope I have, and then that frees me up to, OK well I've done a number of ethnographies, maybe I can write a novel now and people won't be too upset [laughing].
RB [00:16:33]: I have written some ethnographic studies so maybe now I take some time and I write a few novels. And the novels in some way connect to my work as an anthropologist because they're about similar cultures and similar concerns. They have to do with immigration. They have to do with cultural intersections or you know themes that in fact are in my ethnographic work but now get carried over into a different genre. And I always had this idea and I think again, it's because I'm first generation in the academy. . . You know I used to feel like, well maybe one day they're going to kick me out of academia, they're going to go oh sorry you're doing too many things that just don't correspond to what you're supposed to do. And I used to have those thoughts you know they're kind of innocent and maybe somewhat childish, and I would think, OK well I guess if they do that, I have some other talents. I could be a photographer you know, I could maybe work in publishing. So I would kind of console myself and say well you know cause. . . I read a lot about the inquisition I sort of have this—
KG [00:17:36]: Right.
RB [00:17:37]: This inquisition is going to kind of get together, this inquisition, real committee. No no this is heretical what you're doing, get out. So you know the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. So I think they'll expel me and then I'll have to go to some new intellectual country and start all over again. So I think I had those thoughts, definitely when I was younger, and a feeling that you know, you needed permission to do things that I think as I got older I just started feeling, well I'm just going to do what I want to do and you know . . . and if, if I get expelled, Well I will find a way to survive. I think I always had that kind of quirky notion at in the back of your mind.
KG [00:18:19]: Which leads me to my next question, which is about the reception of your work among your academic colleagues. Have you ever faced disapproval or lost opportunities because of your decision to produce work for a broader audience? I mean you're talking about the Inquisition, the academic inquisition, I can just imagine them in their robes with their hats and everything, you know telling you, you know, you're publishing too much fiction! Or this poetry isn't academic enough! But I think that obviously, you know on some level it's it's, we all suffer from a little bit of imposter syndrome, we're always afraid. I think many people talk about being found out but it's also real. I mean there there are these tenure and promotion committees, there are these grant committees, as academics we're constantly being evaluated often anonymously by people we don't know, and so I think that people are quite afraid. I think fear is actually quite paralyzing for a lot of people who might want to write ethnographic fiction or ethnographic poetry or who might want to branch out and do a novel or a documentary film. So can you talk a little bit about your own personal experiences with that, sort of maybe not just imagined disapproval but perhaps maybe real pushback that you might have gotten from your colleagues or different forces within academia over the years?
RB [00:19:34]: Thanks for asking that, and I know certainly there there is there are real consequences to be paid when you move beyond what's academically acceptable. For sure. Back when I published Translated Woman, you know many years ago, more than twenty years ago, there was a lot of disapproval about the final chapter, "The biography in the shadow," that was just about nineteen pages long. And most of that book is is a study of one woman's life, a Mexican street peddler who I got to know very very well and spent lots of time with her and interviewing her and transcribing and translating interviews and talking with her about them and what she agreed upon to publish. I mean, it was a very very long intense project that I put a lot of my self into. And that book incorporates a final self reflexive chapter about the impact that working with Esperanza had on me and how I felt that my own life changed in the course of doing this ethnographic work with her. And I talked about my family and kind of coming into academia and all of that was discussed in that chapter. And a lot of people viewed it as provocative. A lot of people really hated it.
RB [00:20:45]: A fellow anthropologist who reviewed the book, in the New York Times Book Review in fact, was very negative about that chapter and basically said, you know the life of the anthropologist is never as interesting as the life of our research subjects. You know we didn't really need to hear about you you're not that interesting.
KG [00:21:05]: That's brutal. New York Times Book Review, ouch.
RB [00:21:08]: Yeah. So that was painful. . . And I heard from students too that the book would get assigned in courses and the professors would say to their students will don't bother reading that last chapter it's totally unimportant. Or students would read it naturally because if you're told not to read something that's taboo it's going to be a lot more interesting so I heard that from people. So, so there was definitely, you know, some serious criticism there. Not everybody liked the book. And that you know that was painful. That was definitely painful. And I think also, at an earlier point in my life, when I was considering other job possibilities, you know, I never really was able to find other positions beyond Michigan. I also had at some point decided this was really the place where I wanted to stay and that I had kind of a wonderful foundation here and I didn't need to go anywhere else. But at one point in my career, I was contemplating moving and I felt that people didn't quite know how to read me. They didn't quite know, perhaps, if I was anthropologist enough, if I was maybe doing, like you say like too many other different kinds of things. And I think a lot of people in our discipline feel uncomfortable with those of us that like to write and that, you know, get involved in our writing as writing. I think that's less true now. But I think there was a moment when people were uncomfortable with that and felt that we shouldn't be thinking about writing, that we should be thinking about our research subjects, our-our topics of interest or our—
KG [00:22:37]: Theory. Yeah.
RB [00:22:38]: Theory yeah. How could I forget theory. . . theory in particular—that that was what mattered and even though, you know ethnography is one of the things that we, you know, put so much emphasis on—you know and that's presumably the focus of our discipline. In fact the theory is so important to so many and then maybe I didn't come across this as theoretical enough in my work. And so I think I did feel that at a certain point years ago, probably twenty years ago that well that you know, that maybe not everybody liked what I was doing. They didn't know how to place me. But what I have found is how much the discipline has changed and how much my colleagues have changed. Like some of my most, what I would think of as my most hard line theoretical academic colleagues, some of his colleagues have now wanted to write more personal creative work and they've come to me for advice. They've come to workshops that I've taught at the American Anthropological Association meetings. They've actually come to those workshops. They've asked me for blurbs—like people that I thought really disapproved of my work about twenty years ago. And now like the grad students come to me, and they'll say, oh we want to put together a workshop on anthropology and poetry. Do you think you could offer the first workshop? You know, you go what? The grad students today, they are looking for ways to think about writing and creativity and how can they write better? How can they tell stronger stories? And so I feel like, because I've been in anthropology now so long, it's like come full circle. You know like, I passed through that period of disapproval and now this kind of this period of, the students you know want to know like what possibilities are there for our writing? And they want to at least explore. You know maybe ultimately they won't do the things that I do for example, but but they at least want to explore. They have an open mind. They want to know about this, You know, this way of doing ethnography or this way of bringing other kinds of writing and other kinds of thinking into ethnography. So I would say that yes, there have been some very hard moments and sad moments and definitely moments where like I wept about losses and you know the things I didn't do or the people that disapproved of me or certain fellowships I didn't get or you know those sorts of things.
RB [00:24:57]: There have been disappointments I know. I wouldn't want to say that there haven't been; they have been there. But at the same time I, I've tried to kind of cushion myself a little bit and and always try to just think of, what is the next project I want to do? What is it that I want to do? And not, not get involved in in those kinds of politics that I think ultimately could hurt you. I think I just cushion myself a little bit and I'll just go, you know, what matters now? What do I have to do next? In the time that I have left, what what would be worthwhile to do? What do I care about? So I try to, I try to always go back to that thought and remember my mortality and remember that there's only a certain amount of time to do things and what are the most beautiful and worthwhile things I can do. And so that's what I do when I feel hurt or when I feel that I haven't been understood. I think really, ultimately, I feel that I've been very fortunate and that the people have actually been—in the end, the majority of people I think—have been very open to what I do. And I think of anthropology as a discipline where there's space to do so many different kinds of things. We have such a broad spectrum of possibilities right from the most scientific, taking blood you know and using that to, you know to understand hormones or you know whatever it is, to you know, to to writing a poem and I think we've we've always had that spectrum and anthropology has always been this amazing discipline that unites the arts, the humanities and the sciences. And so I think it's a very very broad spectrum and I think ultimately I feel very fortunate that I have been able to do all the things that I've done and that people have been supportive. So for example you know, I wrote this children's novel Lucky Broken Girl, and I've been so touched that so many of my colleagues in the Anthropology Department at Michigan come to me and they'll say, Could you autograph this book for my daughter or for my son? So, so they know about it and they're not being critical, they're like giving the book to their kids to read. It's so touching and so sweet and so I think that you know that maybe, we're just becoming kind of more holistically human in how we think about things which is really what we should be doing as anthropologists, and kind of being open to all these different ways of expressing ourselves.
KG [00:27:26]: First of all I want to say that, I think you're a little too humble because I think that you played a big role in this coming full circle in anthropology. I think you were really a trailblazer and I know for me personally when I first read The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart, it was a kind of an epiphany. And I don't remember exactly what it was, I think it might have been 2014 at the American Anthropological Association meetings, but there was a panel in honor of you and your work and I remember sitting in the audience and really thinking, wow you can do everything! You can combine the artistic and the creative with the ethnographic and the theoretical. And you can be this much bigger thing than the boxes that we often, I think especially in academia with hyper-specialization, we put ourselves in. And so I think you deserve a lot of credit for opening up that possibility and also you know just being a role model to a lot of younger scholars. What I remember about that panel were a bunch of your former students and some of your mentors and you know just the discussions around the impact of, I think it was called the stew, in anthropology. It was beautiful and so personal I just want to say that I think that there's always been this incredible spectrum of work possible within anthropology. But I also think that it has taken certain people to burst through some of these barriers to actually talk, you know subjectively about their position within the work, and in relation to their subjects, and to talk about what it means to be a vulnerable observer. And I think that was very brave of you and I realized that you know, sometimes you're protecting—you said you're an artist as well as an academic and so this comes from a place of wanting to express yourself and be true to this larger artistic vision. But it's also really incredibly inspiring for those of us who read that work and who, kind of, you know, starting to think about the possibilities of, you know, thinking outside of the academic box, really. Okay I want to write a novel, I want to write a short story, or I want to write poems or I want to do documentaries or I want to write op eds or whatever. That it's really important I think that more anthropologists speak about these different possibilities of presenting our work to these broader audiences. Because I want to emphasize something that you said earlier in our conversation, which is just fundamentally more democratic—to reach out beyond the ivory tower to these wider communities that are interested in some ways and what we're doing and so that brings me to my next question. So I've also talked to anthropologists and you know I've also run workshops at the American Anthropological Association where I hear from anthropologists that they want to speak to wider audiences but they don't know how. And so I was wondering—and you said you have run workshops as well. Can you talk a little bit about the process of learning how to reach these non-academic audiences? Like how did you learn? Because you didn't learn in graduate school right, how to write nonfiction. So how did, how did this knowledge come to you? Or you sort of auto-didactic or did you really kind of cultivate different fields of knowledge as you were coming up, you know, how did you carve out the space for your artist self?
RB [00:30:43]: Thank you. That's a great question and thank you for the kind words you said as well. I'm really honored by everything that you said. You know as you were speaking, I was thinking I have to add that I have worked really hard—
KG [00:30:56]: Yes you have.
RB [00:30:58]: —At my writing, at my writing. And I do want to say, in terms of the how to do it, that it is a long process and there's a lot of revision involved. And I have taught workshops. But I also attend workshops and I attend writing workshops frequently and have done so over the years. And I have writing buddies that I share my work with, who are all writers. You know so I never got my MFA in Creative Writing which was something that throughout the years I was thinking about Oh my God I should get an MFA. And I was actually trying to figure out how to do that and be a professor at the same time and I couldn't figure it out now. Now people do it. I've known a couple of people who actually get their MFAs while they are working as professors and do those low-residency type of degrees. And I was seriously contemplating that you know about thirty years ago, going, OK I should really, you know I should really be getting my MFA and working on this but it didn't happen. I couldn't do it. It was just just too busy. So instead I, as I said, you know, I've always had friends who were writers and artists. So part of it was connecting with Latino writers like Sandra Cisneros, who I'm a very good friend of, and other Latino writers. And we would get together at first very informally, and then that became an annual writing workshop. So every summer I was bringing work, you know to be criticized and workshopped very very seriously. In Ann Arbor where I live, over the years I've had a writing buddy that I get together with. She's a writer and a psychologist and we have been exchanging work for many many years. And the nice thing about having either a writing buddy or a workshop is that you know that these people are expecting to read some of your work. Like they're going to give you work and you're thinking, well I'm going to have to read their work. I want them to read some of my work!
KG [00:32:53]: [laughing] Yeah.
RB [00:32:55]: So you push yourself. This is what would happen with my writing buddy, it was just a one on one thing and she is much more prolific than I am. So you know in the time that it took me to write Lucky Broken Girl she wrote three novels. So I'm working on one, like over and over and over but it's OK. You know that, that was I was a slower writer. But just knowing that I was going to be meeting with her forced me even at my busiest moments—you know full-time teaching and traveling and lecturing, I would find the time to at least write five pages so that I can give her something of mine to read. So having a workshop or having a writing buddy is really fundamental: somebody that you trust that you can show those first drafts of your writing to. That is really really important.
RB [00:33:39] The other thing, and I wrote a whole article about this in what used to be called Savage Minds and now is called Anthrodendum, I wrote a piece called "Read more write less."
KG [00:33:49] Write less, yes.
RB [00:33:50] That was advice given to me by this Cuban poet that I adore, who I got to know she was in her 90s. And I got to know her the last last few years of her life. And when I went up to her and I said, you know, I read some of my poems to her. And I said, Oh what advice do you have for me you know to keep writing poetry? And she said, Read more write less. Leer mas, escribe menos. So that's the other part of your training. And you know it it is a bit autodidactic but to be reading, you know, you really have to read in the genre that you want to write in. So if you want to write you know in a creative nonfiction style, you want to write in a travel writing style, whatever it is that you're trying to write. You really have to learn that genre. You have to read as much as possible in that genre and kind of see what people are doing, like see what all the possibilities are. Oh you know so I can tell, I can tell the story in first person. Or I can tell it in third person. I can even tell a story in second person. You know you're reading others and going, wow this is amazing. And so for me reading is often a learning experience. I often read a book first just to read it, like what is what is the story here. And then I'll go back and go, what were the things I liked about this book. You know, what were the techniques? What was what was the language? Or were there long sentences or short sentences? Were there paragraphs that went on for pages and pages? How did the writer manage to do this and not, not bore me? So I'm always reading kind of strategically. And I have books that I read over and over and over there's authors that I go back to and they never tire me and I learn from them. So there's that and then I like to read the new new work that's out there. The novels that are getting attention and so on.
RB [00:35:40]: So I think reading is really fundamental and I know it's hard for us to find time to read because we have to read so much work for our courses, and it's not always the reading that we need to do for our own writing. So one thing that's happened to me more recently, is that I teach courses where I can incorporate a lot of books that I want to read: either books I haven't read yet or books I have just read and I'm trying to understand them. So I'm able to incorporate books that are going to really nurture me as a writer, and then if I incorporate them into a graduate seminar or an advanced undergraduate seminar, I'm going to be sharing them, these books with like twenty really smart students. This is going to help me ultimately as a writer. So that's the way that in recent years I've been able to really make the teaching and the writing and the learning kind of all flow together for me so that it's, so that it's actually very inspiring and very efficient at the same time. So so I guess to sum up what I'm saying: I would urge fellow anthropologists and anthropology students to take workshops, to, to read as much as possible in the genres that interest them, and also to do some reading in other genres.
RB [00:36:56]: So you know maybe you think, Oh poetry that's that's not really me, I'm not never going to need poetry. I'm just going to do ethnography. What do I need to read a poem for? The Poetry Foundation has this thing where they send you a poem a day. Sign up and you know, while you're going scrolling through your emails, there's, you know there's a poem there and you can go ahead and read a poem. And poems are great because they force you to think about language, they force you to think about the arrangement of words on the page, pauses and spaces and how to compress ideas you know into into the most efficient precise form. So that's always helpful. And there's images and metaphors and poems and so that can also help inspire you in your writing. So, so I think looking for inspiration is really important. Like now that it's summer time you know this is the time when I read a lot of novels. You know I watch TV series, I just like you know just like, indulge in lots of different kinds of stories. And I think that nurtures me and makes me think about, OK how can I, how can I tell the next story I want to tell? Maybe I can experiment with, you know with the way I'm going to tell it. Like up to now you know I've only written in like a first person voice . . . Maybe this next project I'm going to try to write it in two or three voices and see what happens. But then maybe I need to read some books that do that to see how you pull that off.
KG [00:38:20]: That sounds great. So I would love to come back and talk a little bit about Lucky Broken Girl which is your novel. It was published with Penguin Random House and it won 2018 Pura Belpré Award, I believe. It's been pretty successful. And so can you talk a little bit about the challenges of writing that novel and maybe even writing for children? Because that's a very different audience than maybe a wider intellectual public. But you're really speaking to young people and trying to communicate these various cultural experiences.
RB [00:38:54]: One thing I've come to realize as I've gotten older is that I've really been an educator all my life. You know I received my PhD very young. I was like 25, 26 years old when I got my PhD, took a few years to live in Mexico, but then you know came back in my thirties and I was already teaching. So I started out very young and I've been an educator all these years and I think as I thought about that writing for children wasn't that much of a challenge because now my undergrads feel like children.
KG [00:39:27]: Right. [both laughing]
RB [00:39:30]: I'm writing from kids who were ten or eleven or twelve. So that's not so different from teaching classes to 18 to 20 year olds. Oh.
KG [00:39:37]: Yeah that's true, that's one of the things with academe. Like we keep getting older but they stay the same age.
RB [00:39:44]: Yeah. Exactly. So, so I think it didn't seem like so like incredible to be speaking to this younger age group or to be writing for this younger age group. But Lucky Broken Girl, I mean really, was a lucky book because I didn't know I was going to write it. I was trying to write actually another novel: an adult novel, a complex novel, that one in three points of view and I just couldn't get it to happen either—a novel that I've been working on probably for 20 years. Like every summer I pull it out and work on it again and I just couldn't get it to happen. It was—you know that was probably my MFA—was that novel that's probably never going to be published. But trying to write that novel was how I learned to write fiction. So that one has been shelved. It frustrated me and I, and I put it away and I just—I don't even know how it happened, but I started writing kind of the first vignette of Lucky Broken Girl.
RB [00:40:40]: Lucky Broken Girl is is a semi autobiographical novel based on my childhood in New York, coming from Cuba and just trying to adapt and assimilate into life in the United States. And then how that story then meshes with another story, which is also true—that shortly after we arrived from Cuba, my family and I were in a terrible car accident in New York on the Belt Parkway and I ended up in a body cast for a year. And that happened when I was 10. And of course it was a very traumatic moment. It was horrible. You know my mother had to attend to me. I couldn't get out of bed for all that time and then I finally recovered. But then once the cast was removed, I found it very hard to walk again because I'd gotten used to being in bed. I was terrified of going out. I was afraid my legs wouldn't hold me up. I went through a terrible time. Finally, I began walking again and then I had a terrible limp that went on like an entire year after the cast was removed. So it was a terrible time in my life. But at the same time I think of that as a pivotal moment. And I think we all have turning points in our childhoods where we kind of become already as children what we're going to be as adults. I think we have those moments where decisions get made, or something happens in your life that you know you take a certain turn and it's going to shape who you become. And for me that that moment the broken leg, the body cast: that was the moment. Because since I couldn't move, I couldn't play hopscotch, I couldn't go outside, I was reading all the time. And my public school sent a tutor to our house and that was when we said, Oh my God we're really in America, our—you know, my public school cares enough that they're going to send a tutor to teach me because I couldn't go to school for a year. And I had this tutor who would come to my bedside and bring me books and teach me math, and my English improved. And I started reading and becoming this little girl who liked to read books. I'd been a very active, kind of frenetic girl before and I became this very very different child: a much more contemplative quiet shy child. An observer you know? Because I had been in bed for year, right.
KG [00:42:53]: Yeah.
RB [00:42:54]: So it was a pivotal moment, that pre-teen moment. And so it was a moment that I never forgot. I wrote about it in an essay in The Vulnerable Observer. There's an essay I wrote about it and kind of wrote about it as an adult woman looking back at that experience in the way it shaped—and how later in life I went through a time of terrible panic attacks and agoraphobia where I was reliving that, that year in bed. And so I wrote about that and how ironic it was that I became an anthropologist, thinking of how anthropologists or people who are always on the move, right? We're always going someplace, we have to be mobile. That's kind of almost the definition of of our profession and thinking of that time when I was immobile. And how perhaps that immobility you know set me on this path to be, to be mobile. So I wrote that essay for The Vulnerable Observer and then let it go. And then so many years later, you know four or five years ago when I started Lucky Broken Girl, I just wrote down my first vignette of kind of arriving from Cuba and you know who we were as immigrants. And I realized that after all these years of writing reflexively and personally and writing about Cuba that I had never written about the immigrant experience. About our immigrant experience and what it had been like for my parents and my family to recreate their lives you know in Queens New York, and you know in this very working class immigrant neighborhood in Queens New York. And all of that, all those memories started flooding back and just remembering like, what was my mother like? Well what was my father like? The rest of the family, my Baba, my beloved maternal grandmother. I just started thinking about everybody, and how we lived, we all lived in the same apartment building on different floors of the same building and how we were these immigrants. And of course we all have immigrants very much on our minds right now with everything that's going on, and the horror of the wall and the cages and everything that's going on with immigrant children right now on the border . . . and I had all of that somewhere in my mind and was thinking about us and how I had been an immigrant child, and just all those memories came back and and somehow this voice this voice emerged on the page this 10-year-old girl Ruthie who was me and who wasn't me. Because I mean, do I really know what I was like when I was 10? You know at this stage of my life.
KG [00:45:20]: Right.
RB [00:45:21]: I mean can I remember what was you know when I was 10, and I would see 10 year olds or 11 year olds or 12 year olds and go, Oh my God I was a child just like that. I was a child that size you know with thoughts, with hopes, with ideas. One of my friends at the time had had a daughter about that age, and I just thought Oh my God I was a child just like this. And I went through this experience and all of that. I don't know. I can't even explain it as well as I would like to. But but that time just came back to me and in the voice of this child, it was almost like, I don't want to say that it was like, You know, I was transcribing the story. But it almost felt like this child was whispering in my ear and telling me her story and that child was me and it wasn't me. Maybe it's the child but maybe she was just more amazing than I was and braver and smarter and more thoughtful. But I put all of that into, into the voice of this child and it kind of just emerged. And when I finished it, I said you know, I think this is a book for children because I'm telling it from the 10-year-old girl's perspective. And I wanted to keep it kind of innocent, like this child who's like trying to understand how this happened to her, and what could she do, and who does she need to pray to. And you know just like trying to imagine what it was like to be that age. You know and—it was an experience that in a way I didn't take seriously enough because my family was so exasperated with me.
[00:46:48]: And I understand them now, it's like they just wanted me to get better and it was so exasperating to see me in bed during all that time and then the cast came off. And then I didn't just like automatically start walking and jumping and running. I was having a hard time and they were all very exasperated with me. And so I think I wanted to just put that experience away and then you know, 50 years later it came back so strongly. So I finished it and then I said, Well let me see what I can do with this. And I began to send it out to agents and got lots of rejections. Every time I would get a rejection, I would rewrite it, and I would revise it and go, Well maybe this part needs to be better. Maybe this part needs to be better. And I just kept going and going and I would get a rejection and work a little bit more. Rejection and work a little bit more. And then finally I sent it to this amazing agent who had represented an author that I really admired and I said okay well let me try. It's probably gonna be a no, but let me just try. And you know the essence of finding an agent is writing a perfect query letter.
KG [00:47:50]: Mmhmm.
RB [00:47:51]: The query letter is the five paragraph email letter that you send with, you know, what is this about, who are you, you know, why should this be published. And you hopefully get the person who likes you query letter and I did. And she said, No, send it to me right away. And I did. And then, two three days later, she said I want to represent you. I said, great, you know, this is this is perfect.
KG [00:48:14]: Wow that's fantastic.
RB [00:48:14]: It was fantastic. It was, it was amazing and I had never ever worked with an agent in all these years of writing. I had published two books with Beacon Press and Beacon is part trade, part scholarly press. So I guess I'd had that experience. But I'd never worked with any of the big publishers and I'd certainly never had an agent up until this novel. And so then, I had the agent you know she—you know agents you know are wonderful because they're enthusiastic about your work. And they want to get, you know, your—your writing out there. And then, so then, it was a matter of getting the book out to editors. And again, just to share this with everybody, to be totally honest about how the process works: again there were several rejections among editors. And these were editors that my agent was convinced were going to love the book. And they were like, No it's interesting, but it's not quite for me . . . you know they had different reasons, you know. I mean it's so complicated. Sometimes it has to do with, you know, do they already have a Cuban author or whatever. It's like all of these issues that have really nothing to do with you and your writing. So again it's it's patience, you kind of hang in there and then there was an editor that I had come across who had, who had edited a book that I loved called Brown Girl Dreaming by Jackie Woodson. It was a book I adored. It's an autobiographical verse memoir. And I loved it and I look to see you know who was the editor? And that's a secret that we all know—you look in the acknowledgements, and find out who people's editors and agents are and so on.
RB [00:49:48]: And so I saw who the editor was, and I said oh well, if I could just possibly have this editor, it would be so wonderful. And I know I found the editor online; I had her picture up on my computer and look at her picture, oh please, it would be so nice of you to work with me. And I stare at her picture on my computer. And then that editor—again it was one of those things where, you know it, just immediately, like within a day or two she said, yes I want this. And it's like wow. And so that was so wonderful. So so it was a very happy process in the end though, like I said, you know, it took a lot of work. It took a lot of revision. It took a lot of rejection. And then once the editor took on the book and we decided to work with her, then there was more revision involved because . . . This is one of the nice things about working with an editor who who is with Penguin Random House, is that she really combed through the work word by word and we went back and forth about four times. And the curious thing is she said to me, oh that wasn't that much. She, she said to me, your work was practically ready to be published. I said, really? because you know I revised it four times after she got it. She said, No sometimes you know we go through ten passes with some books. So that's the level of of attention that the work gets because you know, you're getting an advance you know. You know all of that and so. So there's some. So there's some money on the table. There's some stakes. And I think that all of that has something to do with the level of attention that you get. And I think sometimes with university presses—I mean there's some great editors and I've published with Rutgers University Press and Duke University Press, the University of California Press, they've all been wonderful but sometimes the university press editors don't have the, time to give that kind of editorial support to the writing. So I think that's, that's something that I discovered so late in my career working on this novel, that you know, the editor gets really deeply deeply involved in reading and commenting and and then responding to you as well. When I was working on the ending of Lucky Broken Girl I had about twenty different versions of the ending. You know I could—
KG [00:52:06]: Wow that's a lot of versions.
RB [00:52:07]: I have a lot of versions. I go through lots of versions. You know I thought well, she would be happier? No should it be more realistic? Should it be sad, or should she be walking again without a limp? Or should it end with her still walking with a limp? And you know just like let the reader contemplate what's going to happen: is she ever going to walk normally quote unquote again. So there were all of these different scenarios in my mind of how it could end and that's why it was very very helpful when I finally came up with the scenario that I thought was best—to be able to say to my editor, what do you think I think, I think this is finally it. And she said yes. Now you've got it. You know so it was nice. So you get that—you need, you sometimes need that confirmation from somebody that you really trust in that process and that was something that I was just so grateful for.
RB [00:52:57]: And then afterwards you know there was a whole team of people, helping to get the book out there to readers, to children, to librarians, to teachers. And so what I've enjoyed so much about now being a children's author is that I've gone to many schools and I've spoken to kids—10-, 11-, 12-year-old kids, you know groups of them. And sometimes small groups. Sometimes it's a book club. Sometimes it's a whole class. Sometimes it's the whole auditorium of kids. And it's amazing. You know I think they are a tough audience because you know you can lose them very quickly if you become boring.
KG [00:53:37]: Yes.
RB [00:53:38]: So talk about being a public intellectual.
KG [00:53:41]: That's a really high standard.
RB [00:53:44]: Yes, to get kids to stay with you and to you know and to be interested in what you have to say. It's really amazing. But I think children's literature is so fascinating now I really would urge more anthropologists to write for kids because the whole field of children's literature has changed. I mean there's a lot of concern now with having diverse literature, having diverse protagonists, you know, so like more Latino protagonists. More Muslim American protagonists. Protagonists that we didn't see in children's literature when all of us were growing up you know. I mean I read Nancy Drew mysteries. There weren't like a whole lot of other different protagonists. There certainly was no like Cuban Jewish protagonist that I could read about in literature. And so children's literature has expanded now to include so many different kinds of voices, so many different kinds of backgrounds. And the idea that sometimes if a child isn't reading, it's not because that child can't read or isn't smart enough to read . . . but that child isn't finding a book that is speaking to him or her. And so now you know there's just this effort to get, like every possible—just the voice of disabled children and just like, so many different voices are out there now in children's literature.
RB [00:54:59]: And so to me, I do find it an extension of my anthropology, because I often end up talking about diversity, about multicultural environments, about speaking between and across cultures, you know things like that with kids, You know on a kid level. And you know even speaking about things like bullying, I mean that has a lot to do with anthropology: speaking about cultural difference, about class differences. All of those issues are now being treated and discussed very intensively at the elementary and secondary school. And of course high school level. So children's literature is not, just Dr. Seuss books or something like that. I mean it's a very fascinating complex literature. There's a lot of historical novels. The next novel that I'm working on, that's coming out next summer, is a historical novel that takes place in Cuba in 1938–1939. And I did a lot of research on that period for that novel. So it's it's a really fascinating field and you feel that you can communicate with children at a moment in their lives where they are very very malleable and very very open to ideas and to kind of being turned into a better person. I mean, that's really the time when you can make a child into a truly holistic human being who cares, you know, who cares about other people, and cares about other societies and cultures and other religions. You know, I think it's really that time of great openness in a young person's mind. So, so I don't I don't view this as something very very different from my anthropology. I view it as you know as part of it. Like I'm communicating anthropological ideas in a certain way to young readers.
KG [00:56:50]: Yeah. About what you're saying, I've been thinking about this quote that's often attributed to Ruth Benedict, that the purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences. And as we conclude, I'm thinking about the role of a public intellectual within anthropology. I mean, maybe the ability to speak to these wider audiences, using these different genres—whether it's fiction or poetry or documentary film or more public writing . . . maybe the idea of taking anthropological knowledge and repackaging it and communicating in this much broader democratic way is ultimately making the world safe for human difference and celebrating the diversity of humanity. And I just was thinking about you talking about how young children are looking for books that speak to them and their experience, and how they're at this moment when they can empathize with a much broader view of humanity than maybe they've been raised with . . . And you know maybe it's not just children! Maybe it's all of us that needs this moment of absolute hyper–political polarization, maybe what we need is a little bit more of an attempt to try to get people to see and celebrate the diversity of human experiences. It's something that I think about a lot in my own work and I think that, you know, writing in all sorts of different genres and in all sorts of different registers is—it's sort of a kind of a central question that I think we need to continue grappling with. Would you agree?
RB [00:58:15]: You're saying this so well. I mean, yeah. I don't think I could add more. I think I think I love that. I mean the repackaging idea and I think making making the world safe for human differences—I think that that's a beautiful quote from Ruth Benedict. And yes, I really think that that is what it's about. And I think each of us can find ways to do that: ways to be a public intellectual or to basically do outreach. I guess that's another word that's used often. And I think for each of us it's different. I mean you know for me, it so happened that I wrote a children's novel. I wasn't planning on it but it happened. And I think, you know, I think to allow that serendipity into how we do our work is, is useful so that maybe, you know, you're writing your ethnographic work and then you know, the possibility opens up for you to do a documentary film . . . Because maybe maybe you have videotaped interviews, right, in order to do your ethnographic work or maybe you have just tape recorded people. And maybe you create, you know, some sort of soundscape which is another fun thing that ethnographers are doing now as well as creating these multi-modal soundscapes, different kinds of things. And so maybe the opportunity presents itself for you to play with a different genre. Maybe you do a book trailer, you know that was another fun thing that I did when I when I wrote traveling heavy. When I wrote Traveling Heavy, my son is a filmmaker and I said, Oh I've always dreamed of you know having a book trailer. I think book trailers are so much fun. And he helped me put together a very humorous book trailer.
KG [00:59:43] I loved that trailer. It's very funny. Hysterical Yeah.
RB [00:59:49]: For Traveling Heavy . . . And that's thanks to to my son, you know who, like, he knew how to edit it so it would be really funny. So I think each of us can kind of you know if we want to—I mean this is the other thing, I want to say that nobody is forced to do any of this. If you want to just do your theoretical classical ethnographic work that's totally fine. But you know if you do want to explore a little bit, or you know give yourself a chance to play a little bit and share your work potentially with with more people, then I think, yeah trying something out and again it can be very small . . . It might be, you know, something that is already part of your work and you haven't even realized that you could use it to create something in a different genre, right? Or maybe you have a very strong opinion about something and that's a part of your ethnographic writing. But maybe you can pull out something and make it an op ed essay, right. So so there's all these different ways to to reach people, and I think everybody is so hungry to sort of, to understand the world, and to, and to hear a good story, you know, about those other lives—
KG [01:00:57]: Absolutely.
RB [01:00:57]: And how how people are living their lives today you know. I think we all want to know that. And you know, and as anthropologists, we're in such a great position to, you know, to be able to speak to that issue from so many different points of view and from so many different parts of the world. I mean how how many professions allow for that? And so I think, we, if no one else, should really be sharing so much of what we know, and so many of the amazing experiences that we've had and the knowledge that we are so lucky to acquire—thanks to people who are willing to speak to us and share their lives with us. So I think passing that on just seems to be a very natural thing for us to be doing.
KG [01:01:37]: Wonderful. Well, I think that's a great place for us to end this interview. Thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me, and to AnthroPod for allowing us this opportunity to talk about what it means to be a public intellectual in anthropology in the year 2019. Thanks so much.
RB [01:01:54]: Thank you. Thank you Kristen, this was great. Thank you.
Beth Derderian [01:02:07]: [AnthroPod theme music plays] And thank you for listening. Today's episode was executive produced by Beth Derderian. Special thanks to Kristen Ghodsee for proposing this episode and Ruth Behar for joining us. For more episodes or to learn more about Anthropod, please check out our website at culanth.org.