This post builds on the research article “Beyond Writing: Feminist Practice and the Limitations of Ethnography,” which was published in the November 1994 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
Interview With the Author
CA: What is the purpose of telling stories?
I don’t see stories as having any singular purpose. In different contexts, stories have different purposes. And, of course, those contexts and purposes are always shaped by culture, and in our globalized world, they usually have multiple overlays: local, national and transnational.
In one of my research projects in Nepal, I looked at the kinds of stories rural women told in their songs and poems and how that related to their activism. But the deeper I dug, the more I saw how those stories were tied up in ethnic, class and national identity in a time of rapid social change. Anthropology is good at telling stories like that, stories about how and why people in different times and places tell stories. But anthropology, like other academic disciplines (and perhaps our society as a whole), could do a better job of valuing a greater diversity of stories and practices among its professionals.
These days, I choose to write poems and creative nonfiction. But I would never claim that only those story forms matter. I humbly bow in gratitude towards those who tell the other stories we need: legal testimony, progressive policies and legislation, journalism, fundraising efforts, tales of hope and courage. And although I chose a different path, I continue to be grateful for the stories anthropologists tell to help us better understand race and racism, human evolution, and regions that the US is militarizing. The question that prompted “Beyond Writing” and that continues to gall a bit is this: why are those of us who choose to tell non-academic stories and do non-academic work not valued much in academic circles?
I taught at an independent high school for six years — a wonderful alternative, by the way, for any anthropologist tired of doing the adjunct rounds. I delighted in taking a complicated subject (say, the construction of race and racism in 17th century American colonies) and simplifying it just enough (but not too much) to compose presentations, activities and assignments for adolescents. That work demanded as much, if not more, creativity and intellect as writing an article for a peer reviewed journal. But in hierarchies of academic prestige, it doesn’t count for much.
Our society depends on K-12 teachers and countless others who know how to translate between academic research and more public cultures through lesson plans, radio, blogs, etc. We need those people, but we don’t value them very highly. Of course, that’s a general reflection of power and hierarchy in our society, not anthropology alone. But given anthropology’s reflexivity and insight into marginalized cultures, it continues to amaze me how the profession itself marginalizes in pretty conventional ways.
CA: What do stories want?
I don’t see how to attribute volition to the stories themselves, but I suppose we humans who tell stories want them, more than anything, to be heard. We want them to circulate and achieve whatever purposes we intend in a particular context (to persuade, teach, comfort, mobilize, entertain, sell, inspire, manipulate, spark new ways of seeing...).Of course, listeners and readers have their own aims, their own agency. In my creative nonfiction and poetry, I’ve been trying to learn from fiction writers and poets how to create space for that. Coming from an academic background, I find it’s not easy to relinquish control over intention and meaning and let the stories move around and breathe more. That’s both exciting and terrifying.
CA: Is ethnography an art? How does taking a writerly approach to ethnography shape knowledge?
I find myself drawn to the elegant simplicity of how graphic designer, Milton Glaser, sums up art: “Art, at its fullest capacity, makes us attentive" (http://bigthink.com/ideas/16180). One could push deeper into what attentiveness might mean and pad that basic premise with more on intention and beauty, but I find it a pretty good starting place for pondering what might constitute art across space and time.
As an undergraduate at the University of Washington, I couldn’t decide between art and science, so I chose anthropology. I figured it would allow me to be both artist and scientist, or maybe some fusion of the two. Later, I added activism to the mix. I tried to tack back and forth, but mostly ended up drifting. I abandoned my early passion for cultural ecology, then took a stormy turn through Marxist and feminist approaches to women and development, social inequality, activism and resistance, and women’s songs and life stories. I finally circled back to the human and nature nexus via research on agroecology in Nepal.
Through all that, I’d say that anthropology gave me great tools for being attentive. I continue to use those. In the end though, academic anthropology did not fully satisfy either the scientist, the activist or the artist in me. The greater my professional successes, the more I felt my capacity for joyful attentiveness waning. I suppose it’s how some artists feel when money and status call attention away from the art itself and direct it towards power and hierarchy. Getting attention is not the same as cultivating attentiveness. Of course, that’s not unique to anthropology, or even capitalism. All art is produced in a cultural and economic context which both cultivates and constrains.
That waning desire to be an academic is what prompted me to write “Beyond Writing.” I was discovering other ways to be attentive: creative writing, growing food, observations and musings on plants and animals, compassion. At the time of writing the article, I couldn’t see where all that was going but sensed that the work I wanted to participate in and produce would not be valued in academia. It was too ephemeral. To make sense of my own lack of joy in the profession, I wanted to understand how academic structures limit what counts as ethnography and also limit the extent to which ethnography can be the activism or art that so many hope it can be.
Still, I think that there is an artfulness to writing up research in any discipline so that it best represents the knowledge gained and explains it well to the intended audience. Perhaps those who most enjoy doing anthropology and writing ethnography are those who experience it as a means for making themselves and others attentive — those who experience it, in other words, as art. And then there are those of us called to other forms of attentiveness. That is not a failing of ethnography as art or as an approach to shaping knowledge. Nor is it a failing in those of us who pursue other paths. I see it as a failure of professional imagination and organization that can’t create a big enough net to hold us all.
CA: How has writing ethnography changed over the past 25 years?
Until recently, I was too busy raising a child as a mostly single mom and trying to survive financially outside academia to ponder changes in ethnography. And now that I’ve made space in my life for writing again, I’m focusing on craft in fiction, poetry and narrative nonfiction rather than ethnography. I have a lot of catching up to do there. But from what I can see, anthropologists still seem to be struggling with the same questions that prompted me to write “Beyond Writing,” — how to research and write in ways that matter to the people we study; how to write in ways that engage audiences who need to hear about the people we study (e.g., policymakers, educators, voters); how to balance research with other academic duties; how to value the diversity of what anthropologists do.
CA: If you were to teach a course on literature and anthropology, what would your students read?
Since I’m out of the professional loop, I can’t come up with many specific authors or titles without more research. But at the most general level, here’s what I’d aim for: Ruth Behar, for sure; perhaps something older that had some literary flair (Malinowski?); something modern and experimental (maybe one work that’s highly readable maybe and another that’s rather dense and dull); some fiction written by an anthropologist, and literature by a non-anthropologist that exemplifies cross-cultural conversation (e.g., Junot Diaz, Lousie Erdrich, Luis Alberto Urrea, Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy).
I might also include something like Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. I’m intrigued by my own conflicted feelings about the book and figure that would spark some great conversations. The writing is gorgeous, the research impressive, and the stories compelling and timely. But the third person omniscient voice unsettles me. Is that the best way to present the complexity of an unfamiliar and marginalized culture -- speaking as though inside someone else’s head? I’m pretty sure I could never write non-fiction like that. The anthropologist in me thinks too much about the pitfalls. Yet that’s the sort of approach that can transform dull writing about another culture into literature and engage a non-academic audience. And it brings in multiple voices and cultural complexities while keeping the focus on the people who matter rather than the foreign narrator. All that raises interesting questions about voice and person and provides a counterpoint to the reflexive “I” in so much ethnography (and, of course, memoir).
CA: Your 1994 article is an important critique about the limits of “writing culture,” as well as the limits of “feminist ethnography.” Though you’ve left academia, you’ve continued to write ethnographic memoir, poetry, and literary nonfiction. How does your academic training continue to inform your writing, and what are the ways in which you’ve continued to move “beyond writing” in the non-academic world?
The title of that piece probably should have been “Beyond Academic Writing” since even there I briefly talked about other kinds of writing that should count (and secretly dreamed of doing some day).
I wrote that essay during a time when I was struggling with my own role. I owe a huge debt to the women poets I worked with in Nepal. I thought I wanted to learn more about their songs, poems and stories as a form of resistance I could ponder as an activist and academic. But over time, I found myself simply longing to write poems and stories. Leaving academia freed me to do more of that. Literary writing brings deep pleasure and new ways of observing, connecting and engaging critically with the world.
My academic training does make it hard for me to produce the kind of narrative nonfiction that goes viral because it appeals to simple world views (e.g., Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea). That’s good. I don’t want to tell those kinds of stories. I’m thrilled that my academic training makes me critical of what Teju Cole calls the “White Savior Industrial Complex.” But in terms of finding publishers, readers and monetary rewards, the dominance of simplistic stories can be frustrating.
Now that I’ve dabbled in creative nonfiction, I can see there are no easy answers there either. The arguments about fact and truth coming out of journalistic traditions often seem rather simplistic given my roots in 80s anthropology, when we were all talking about cultural critique, subjectivity, and provisionality.
As for moving “beyond writing” altogether, I now recognize that some of my proudest practical contributions from my years as a professional anthropologist are largely invisible or are inscribed outside academia. The work I did in agroecology and with women in Nepal is not enshrined in any text but has an ongoing life shared with others in initiatives like Ajamvari Farm and Volunteering to Learn in Nepal. I don’t own that work and would find it hard to delineate my contributions in any quantitative way. I rather like that. And I’ve also been able to achieve other kinds of practice. Teaching high school is the closest I’ve come yet to the praxis I advocated in “Beyond Writing.”
I’m transitioning now into a new phase and doing what I’ve dreamed about for years: growing and marketing food sustainably at Amaranta Farm and working with others to build local and regional food networks in the Pacific Northwest. All that’s a work in progress, but I’m excited about how — along with writing creatively — it brings together the artist, activist, and scientist in me and calls up my deepest capacities for attentiveness.
Website and blog: www.elizabethenslin.com
Additional Works by the Author
"Natural Births," The Gettysburg Review, Spring 2009 (Honorable Mention for the 2011 Pushcart Prize).
"Ama," The Crab Orchard Review, Spring 2009 (Finalist for the John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize and 2010 Press 53 Open Award for Creative Nonfiction, and Notable in Best America Essays 2010)
"Fieldnotes on Flooding in Nepal," The Truth About the Fact: International Journal of Literary Nonfiction, Spring 2009. A few copies may still available for purchase at Small Press Distributors.
"Meeting My Future in the Dark," Raven Chronicles, Vol. 15, No. 2, 2011.
Creative Nonfiction Online
"Costume," In Posse Review, Winter 2011.
"Imagined Sisters: The Ambiguities of Women's Poetics and Collective Action in Chitwan." In Selves in Time and Place: Identities, Experience and History in Nepal. Edited by Al Pach and Debra Skinner (1998).
"Collective Powers in Common Places: The Politics of Gender and Space in a Women's Struggle for a Meeting Center in Chitwan, Nepal." Himalayan Research Bulletin (1993).