“ …when the infinite falls into ordinary time.”
Standing at the bottom of a large, raked auditorium on the first day of his upper division cultural anthropology class, a well-known, albeit slightly rumpled UCLA professor grasps the plain wood podium before him and facing the assemblage of students with a slight, amused smile and an unmistakably mischievous gleam in his eye. “A lot of people,” he begins, “wonder exactly what it is that cultural anthropologists do. They’ve seen Indiana Jones …they get exposed to dinosaurs and fossils from the Jurassic Park movies, so, to some extent they ‘get’ archaeology. But when it comes to anthropology, to cultural anthropology …many folks are simply in the dark.” The students, still a little groggy from the slap in the face of fall’s early morning responsibilities, begin to jot down a few notes here and there, but still have not managed to unstick their heads from the back of the comfy, padded armchairs that fill the cavernous, grey lecture hall. The professor pauses a moment, peers about at the sea of drowsy eighteen-year-old faces, seemingly enjoying himself, and continues, “cultural anthropology …at least anyway, modern cultural anthropology …relativistic anthropology …is the process of making the extraordinary ordinary and the ordinary extraordinary.”
With this a handful of students perk up, lift their heads, and quietly repeat back what the professor has just said. With this last statement, the professor has captured the attention of a good number of his academic charges. On this day, nearly seven years ago, I am one of those students.
Today I am a non-practicing but still highly devoted cultural anthropologist, a mother of two, and a writer (not necessarily in that order). As writers, we often struggle with exactly how to tell a story; we know what we want to say, but run circles around ourselves trying to figure out how best to say it. I engage in this struggle myself on a daily basis, but have found that by employing certain tools from my old days as a student of anthropology I am often able to crush the rut that looms threateningly over my laptop. What follows will be a “how-to” guide of sorts; a discussion of the four tools, borrowed from ethnography, that I use when setting out to create a good, solid story. With each of these tools I will include a brief study of authors I feel have utilized this idea in their own work. We will conclude with a discussion of how an exploration of cultural anthropology can help us as writers to explore issues of ethnicity and multiculturalism in our own work.
Exposing the oddities of the familiar and uncovering the familiar in the exotic is one of the most relevant, enlightening, and beautiful aspects of cultural anthropology: to teach people that what “they” do isn’t so different and what “we” do isn’t so normal. How do anthropologists go about their attempts to teach this vital, complex lesson? They do it largely through the practice of ethnography. Ethnography refers to the biography of a culture and/or ethnicity. Actually, I prefer “memoir” and not “biography” because an ethnography consists of a lot more than just a chronology of a culture’s existence; there is much room for interpretation and reflection on the part of both the ethnographer and the people within the culture being studied; and nearly all anthropologists go into the field with an idea they are out to explore or a question they are trying to answer.
How does ethnography work? In a nutshell: an anthropologist chooses a culture, sub-culture, or group to observe. Generally she goes into the “field” with a pre-existing question or phenomenon she wishes to explore. After establishing herself somewhat in the new environment--making contacts, meeting people, getting as comfortable as possible--she watches. She watches, and she watches, and she watches. And then she watches some more. After she watches a bit more after that …she writes.
So, the guidelines for an effective ethnography are as follows: 1) Set out to explore the world in a way that reveals the absurdity of what your home culture holds as normal, and expose the shared, sensible, and basic attributes of behaviors that are perceived as exotic. 2) Think of a question about a person or people you would like to know more about. Ask yourself if the answer would make a good, relevant story. 3) Observe the people (if you are on the heavily scientific end of anthropology you will call them “subjects”) in their home environment. Take copious amounts of notes. Take more notes. 4) Write.
What does all this have to do with creative writing? What could ethnography possibly have to do with your memoir? Your short story? Let’s take another look at the above list.
1) Set out to explore the world in a way that reveals the absurdity of what your culture holds as normal and expose what is common in behaviors perceived as exotic. What better mentality for a writer …a storyteller? This is, indeed, the most important tenet of cultural anthropology, and I think should be a tenet of creative writing as well. The most compelling stories, fiction or non-fiction, confront the reader with the utter surprise of life. The best works of creative writing show the discomfort of the comfortable or the normalcy of the bizarre: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and more recently Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Lauren Slater’s Lying …the list goes on and on. However each of these works operates on either the premise of exposing the reader to the unusual, bizarre, and often dark aspects of the familiar or revealing the common, universal qualities of themes considered by many to be exotic, different, what anthropology would refer to as the “them” of the “us/them” dichotomy. I would like to pause here to examine in detail Capote’s In Cold Blood and Plath’s The Bell Jar as these two works provide spectacular examples of the power of both demystifying the unknown while also portraying the familiar as exotic.
At the beginning of In Cold Blood after describing both Holcomb, Kansas and the Clutter family as typical American institutions, Capote goes deeper and gives the reader insight into some of the more unfamiliar aspects of family life in this small town: “In regard to his family, Mr. Clutter had just one serious cause for disquiet—his wife’s health. She was “nervous,” she suffered “little spells”—such were the sheltering expressions used by those close to her.” (Capote 7) By employing the euphemisms given to Mrs. Clutter’s possible disorder, Capote provides a window into the rigidly polite, suppressed nature of Holcomb life. Even this early in the story Capote shows us a hidden, secretive side to a family that many who grew up in the 1950s could easily identify with. Throughout the work Capote continues to expose the multifaceted natures of the players involved in the Holcomb murders. At times the reader is even led to, in part, sympathize with Perry Smith, one of the murderers. Take for example a passage that describes Perry’s life while he is living in a cell adjacent to the home of the undersheriff and his wife:
The topmost branches of a snow-laden elm brushed against the window of the ladies’ cell. Squirrels lived in the tree, and after weeks of tempting them with leftover breakfast scraps, Perry lured one off a branch onto the window sill and through the bars. It was a male squirrel with auburn fur. He named it Red, and Red soon settled down, apparently content to share his friend’s captivity. Perry taught him several tricks: to play with a paper ball, to beg, to perch on Perry’s shoulder. (Capote 254)
By showing the darker side of the Clutter family and an amiable, soft side of Perry Smith, Capote succeeds in exoticizing the familiar and demystifying the unfamiliar and scary. This gives the reader a more full, richer experience than if only the evil side of the murderer was shown and only the sweet, functional side of the Clutter family was portrayed.
Sylvia Plath’s masterful work The Bell Jar is a spiraling journey into the tormented mind of an “average” young woman. Through Esther Greenwood, the largely autobiographical heroine of the novel, Plath is able to show unfamiliar, sometimes frightening, sometimes amusing aspects of growing up female in the early sixties.
Take, for example, Esther’s imagining of a possible marriage to a potential lover as she lies next to him in bed:
I tried to imagine what it would be like if Constantin were my husband. It would mean getting up at seven and cooking him eggs and bacon and toast and coffee and dawdling about in my nightgown and curlers after he’d left for work to wash up the dirty plates and make the bed, and then when he came home after a lively, fascinating day he’d expect a big dinner, and I’d spend the evening washing up even more dirty plates till I fell into bed, utterly exhausted. This seemed a dreary and wasted life for a girl with thirteen years of straight A’s, but I knew that’s what marriage was like, because cook and clean and was just what Buddy Willard’s mother did from morning till night, and she was the wife of a university professor and had been a private school teacher herself. (Plath 94)
Instead of espousing the more conventional happily married fantasies that were expected of young girls of that era, Plath shows in clear, well-observed detail a more hidden, concrete aspect of being a wife.
Even something as simple as coming down with a bad case of food poisoning, Plath is able to turn surreal and unknown. Her use of detail and swirling imagery renders an experience that many of us have gone through ourselves frightening and foreign:
I sat on the toilet and leaned my head over the edge of the washbowl and I thought I was losing my guts and my dinner both. The sickness rolled through me in great waves. After each wave it would fade away and leave me limp as a wet leaf and shivering all over and then I would feel it rising up in me again, and the glittering white torture-chamber tiles under my feet and over my head and on all four sides closed in and squeezed me to pieces. (Plath 49)
One of the most haunting, memorable sections of The Bell Jar unfolds when Esther loses her virginity. The language and attention to detail renders yet another familiar experience disturbing and perilous. Esther has just arrived at her friend’s apartment after the young man she has just lost her virginity to has dropped her off:
“You look funny,” Joan said.
“You better get a doctor.”
Still she hadn’t noticed anything.
I bent down, with a brief grunt, and slipped off one of my winter-cracked black Bloomingdale shoes. I held the shoe up, before Joan’s enlarged, pebbly eyes, tilted it, and watched her take in the stream of blood that cascaded on to the beige rug.
“My God! What is it?”
“I’m hemorrhaging.” (Plath 258)
One thing that makes this and so many of Plath’s scenes come alive is her strong use of concrete detail, which is a vital element to ethnography as well. Often in an ethnography it is the seemingly mundane details of how a person in a certain culture carries out his or her day-to-day existence that provides the breadth and heart of a people’s story. And this has never been more true than in our current era of anthropology, when the old stand-by “and while the men were away on the hunt [followed by lengthy, unending description of said hunt], the women and children were left behind to tend to domestic chores” is finally being replaced with thorough, well-observed descriptions of cross-cultural female roles.
Indeed, Marjorie Shostak’s seminal 1981 ethnography, Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman was ground-breaking not only for the fact that it focused on the life of one person in order to get to the core of an entire culture, but also for its balanced, studied exploration into female day-to-day life. This book is important to the study of anthropology for many reasons including those listed above, however it is also quite relevant to the field of creative writing in that it was the first ethnography that utilized strong narrative technique in addition to the clear detail and meticulous reporting of data inherent to fieldwork. UCLA anthropology and linguistics professor Dr. Marjorie Goodwin says of Shostak’s Nisa, “I think this was a great idea and very engaging. I'm all for this [style of ethnography] if it reflects what went on as well.” (Personal correspondence, 2002)
Hence, Plath’s “winter-cracked black Bloomingdale shoes” and “enlarged, pebbly eyes” are examples of the kind of detail a writer can only achieve after spending a good deal of time with her characters, or in anthropological terms “subjects.”
Sometimes, however, what we don’t say can be even more important than the crystalline images we painstakingly create for the reader. Take for example, Plath’s stark description of one of Esther’s suicide attempts:
I had taken the silk cord of my mother’s yellow bathrobe as soon as she left for work, and, in the amber shade of the bedroom, fashioned it into a knot that slipped up and down on itself. It took me a long time to do this, because I was poor at knots and had no idea how to make a proper one.
Then I hunted around for a place to attach the rope.
The trouble was, our house had the wrong kind of ceilings. The ceilings were low, white and smoothly plastered, without a light fixture or a wood beam in sight. I thought with longing of the house my grandmother had before she sold it to come and live with us, and then with my Aunt Libby.
My grandmother’s house was built in the fine, nineteenth-century style, with lofty rooms and sturdy chandelier brackets and high closets with stout rails across them, and an attic where nobody ever went, full of trunks and parrot cages and dressmakers’ dummies and overhead beams thick as a ship’s timbers.
But it was an old house, and she’d sold it, and I didn’t know anybody else with a house like that. (Plath 177)
By discussing a suicide plan in language stripped of any darkness or fright, Plath succeeds in rendering this scene not only startlingly macabre, but also brutally familiar. Somehow we can relate to a suicide gone awry simply because the noose won’t hang high enough …everyone has been in a situation where something that should go as planned, doesn’t. The suicide, then, is taken out of the realm of the unfamiliar and exotic and situated in terms to which the audience can relate.
Both Plath and Capote are able to tell their stories more fully by jolting the reader out of her comfort zone. In ethnography, this often happens naturally, as real-life people very rarely do what you expect them to. “It's hard to piece together things …that are not linear or neatly categorized. But we attempt to tell narratives, which is what novelists do as well, to convey what everyday life is like. We do not dwell as much on the quantification so we can be more humanistic,” states Dr. Goodwin. (Personal correspondence, 2002) Following this pattern can help the creative writer by allowing for characters and settings that breathe with the mess and chaos of real life.
Now, of course in anthropology we are speaking culturally, so the list of what is odd and what is normal changes wherever you venture …shifts with whomever you talk to. I offer the above list of authors as an example of twentieth century Western literature. What shocks, comforts, and dismays obviously shifts and ebbs in a manner unique to each culture.
2) Think of a question you would like to know the answer to. Would the answer make a good story? What better place for a writer to start than this? When discussing her book A Child Out of Alcatraz, author Tara Ison said the following: “I found out there were families that used to live on the island. I had all these questions and I had to know about them. And then I said, ‘Someone has to tell their story.’ And then I said, ‘That someone has to be me!’”(Lecture, Antioch University Los Angeles, 2001) In a lecture comparing the process of writing to archaeology, Sharman Apt Russell notes, “Don’t be afraid to ask the big questions …don’t be afraid to dig a little.” (Lecture, Antioch University Los Angeles, 2001) Both Russell and Ison are two authors who often use an idea, puzzle, or question they would like to investigate as a starting point for their writing. Russell’s recent book When The Land Was Young: Reflections on American Anthropology studies the complex, often difficult issues facing the archaeological community today, and how those issues affect all human beings worldwide. Russell lets a questioning, inquisitive tone drive much of her prose, allowing the reader to journey with her in order to gain better understanding:
I do not know what links me to the person who shaped this clay. I cannot really imagine a specific woman; I tell that story only to my children. But I do feel a connection. This making of pots is part of what it means to be a human being. Perhaps it is the essence. Suddenly my own life seems like a dream. Wal-Mart, surely, is nothing but an amazing, amusing, fantastical dream. In the middle of that store, in a restaurant, at a street corner, I have often paused, confounded by an atavistic awe. Wow! I think, looking at a traffic light. Magic! Who did this? What happened to the world? Where are the trees? I am both appalled and appreciative. (Russell 4)
Tara Ison uses a similar investigative approach when composing her novels and short stories. In addition to the richly detailed and exhaustively researched A Child Out of Alcatraz, Ison’s short story “Cactus” stands out as an example of how research and questions both big and small can give breadth to creative prose. In this instance the question is small yet distinct, in what ways do cacti resemble a painful journey through a doomed romantic relationship?
Jumping cholla. They’re everywhere. He pointed to a shrubby, fuzzy cactus nearby, three or four feet high, pale green and flowerless. It looked like a bristled balloon animal, twisted from those long, skinny balloons into joints, and covered with spiky hair. It looked mocking.
You must’ve brushed against it, he said. You step too close to one of those joints, they sense the moisture or heat or energy or something, and attack.
They jump, and cling on.
This is like getting all your childhood vaccinations at once, I said. I wasn’t crying, yet.
I told you to be careful.
You told me to be patient.
Same thing, he said. He rummaged in his duffel bag. They also call it teddy bear cholla.
Adorable, I said. (Ison 124)
Note how the sharp, detailed description of the jumping cholla adds to the bristling tension building between the couple.
I recently spoke with Ison and Russell in hopes of further exploring how the issues of curiosity and questions informs and motivates their writing. According to Russell, “I never write from the pedagogical instinct, the urge to teach. I never write because I have answers. I write because I have questions which I want to answer for myself. I write as an act of discovery and exploration. I write as a way to figure out the world and this has become my way of being in the world.” (Personal correspondence, 2002) Ison described her process as one heavily rooted in the practice of research:
I often begin with something I think I know a little about (ex: cactus, prisons, etc., whatever) - I leap in to the writing at that point, to get a feel for the story, the characters, the metaphors, the theme. Quite soon I exhaust my superficial knowledge, and then I stop writing and hit the research books. And I learn how very little I actually know. The research provides some answers - but also triggers more questions. So, it's back to the writing to explore those questions from the characters' perspectives. Then back to research, and so on. It's a symbiotic thing, back and forth, answers leading to more questions - all, ideally, leading to more linguistic, psychological, and metaphorical layers. (Personal correspondence, 2002)
Therefore sometimes going against Hemingway’s familiar adage to “write what you know” can give color and depth to our prose, and as these authors illustrate, provide inspiration as well.
3) Observe the people and take copious notes. Replace “people” with “characters” and we’ve hit on another vital aspect of creative writing. Ethnographers are militant watchers, eavesdroppers, and note-takers. They carry a small notebook or “jot book” wherever they go to discreetly record observations or snippets of conversation. They often joke about “weak bladders” because they are constantly running to the bathroom to write something down for fear of making their subjects (or characters in creative writing terminology) uncomfortable. The details and nuances writers could gain from following this particular practice are invaluable.
The very process of throwing yourself out of the “writing,” of focusing strictly on observation and the acquisition of detail in and of itself can be immensely freeing. And you don’t need a “real” person or subject to do this either. Try taking a character from one of your short stories or a novel. Now close your eyes and “observe” that person from the time he wakes up in the morning until the time he goes to bed at night. Watch your character’s routines and rituals, find the beauty in his ordinary day-to-day life; Joan Didion’s shimmering image. How did he brush his teeth? Was he rude to the teller at the bank? Does he try to obey traffic laws? Does he run red lights? Does he wash his hands every time he uses the bathroom? Does he put his dirty socks in the hamper at the end of the day or toss them on the floor? Of course, every one of the details you acquire won’t and shouldn’t make it into your story (just as the anthropologist doesn’t simply photocopy his jot book and call it an ethnography), but how much richer will your story be for this new information? How much more depth will this character have now that you “know” him a little better? Try it with one or two of the characters at the beginning of this paper. Watch the crumpled, brilliant professor. Eavesdrop on the conversation between the bored, sleepy sorority girls. Now re-write my scene, and I bet it will turn out better.
In his Psychology of Anthropology course at UCLA, Dr. Alan Fiske discussed the importance of food across cultures. He told his students that one of the first things an ethnographer looks for in the field is which people eat together. Food sharing and food preparation is important in every single society, and often, important affine (such as a step-parent, or in-law) and blood kin relations can be deduced by observing who eats with whom.
One writer who utilizes the importance of food to full effect is author and poet Jim Krusoe. His relationship to his characters is complete …he appears to know every detail of their lives. Some of these details are included, some left out; but we never doubt for a second that Krusoe knows everything there is to know about the characters he creates. One way in which he brings his characters to life is through his referencing what they eat throughout the day. I have often read books and wondered why the people in the story never ate or went to the restroom. Not only does Krusoe’s use of food in his stories and novel provide a reality and sense of grounding, what a character chooses to eat can also be quite telling of his or her personality.
In Blood Lake and Other Stories, a series of connected short stories, Krusoe is masterful at writing to the reader’s sense of taste and smell. In “Remorse,” we can all but smell the gorilla’s “honey-and-wheat-germ shampoo” (Krusoe 32), and we can almost taste the police officer’s “tube of cola flavored lip balm.” (Krusoe 23) The smells and tastes are also used to subtly connect certain stories as when the protagonist of “A Distant View of Hills” sees “one solitary man in a white coat, like a lab jacket tossing health-food muffins to the gorillas.” He goes on to comment on what he sees: “Health food,” I thought. “Right.” (Krusoe 79) Including flavors, smells, and texture into your work not only breathes life into a story but also more fully engages the reader.
“Breakfast was a leisurely affair—we went out to a cozy country cottage complete with chintz curtains and china coffee cups, soft-boiled eggs from free-range hens, fresh fruit, French rolls, and free refills of fig preserves, but the zoo was a disappointment.” (Krusoe “A Distant View of Hills” 78)
“I ordered a mug of beer and a liverwurst sandwich, and finished them both quickly. I was hungrier than I had thought, and I ordered another of the same.” (Krusoe “Blood Lake” 38)
“In the mornings I would make a pot of coffee and set out the box of Sugar Frosted Flakes, Bud’s favorite cereal. Cissie usually ate only a piece of whole wheat toast with apple butter, and a cup of coffee. After they finished eating I did the dishes and had my own breakfast: fresh fruit, yogurt, and a muffin.” (Krusoe “A Cowboy’s Story” 55)
Take a look at the above three passages: each one revolves around food in some way, whether it be preparing a dish, sitting down to a meal, or a simple description of what is being eaten. And yet, through these simple observations about what is being eaten at these particular points in the stories, Krusoe succeeds in setting three very different moods.
In the first passage we can’t help but get a sense of a relaxed, wealthy decadence: the reference to eggs from “free-range hens,” and the free refills of the fig preserves. This setting is almost too perfect, kitschy, an easy to picture and entirely appropriate and telling setting for a breakfast for two people in the first blush of romance, which is exactly what is taking place in the story. The second passage gives the reader a sense of tension, distraction …as the character eats quickly, doesn’t even seem to register the meal, and so orders a second. An apt way of conveying this character’s feeling after driving his recently deceased friend from where they had been fishing to his home, many miles away. The third passage gives us a strong sense of each character introduced in relatively few words. The reader can easily imagine Cissie’s concern for health and appearance, Bud’s lack thereof, and the protagonist’s practical, easygoing personality.
Krusoe uses this convention in his novel, Iceland as well. The protagonist, Paul, regularly describes his cabbage-based meals, and the narrative often pauses as he takes his time to dine. This gives us insight into Paul in two very significant ways: 1) Most of the time he has no particular place to be, and his leisurely, extremely slow-paced meals are indicative of this and 2) Paul has to eat a lot of cabbage because he has heard it can be beneficial to his “failing organ.” The vague nature of the relationship between Paul’s illness and cabbage complements the overall sense of the obtuse that surrounds both his “orgagenic disintegration” and Paul in general.
Another important aspect of the jot book mentality is the inclusion of simple, straightforward lists. Ethnographers employ lists all the time: what people eat, what people do, the components of a certain ritual, the steps to a particular dance. Often this is an issue of practicality more than anything else, the ethnographer is trying to convey information about a group of people, and often lists are the easiest means of conveying certain details. However, an unadorned list sometimes has a funny way of telling a reader more about a person, group of people, or situation than a lengthy, verbose description. Let us, once again, look at the work of Marjorie Shostak:
Children, adolescents under fifteen, and adults over sixty contribute little to the quest for food, and others gather or hunt only about two or three days a week. Additional time is spent in housework, cooking and serving food, child care, and the making and repairing of tools, clothing, and huts. But this still leaves substantial time for leisure activities, including singing and composing songs, playing musical instruments, sewing intricate bead designs, telling stories, playing games, visiting, or just lying around and resting. (Shostak 10)
Averaging little more than two days a week in the quest for food, they gather from among 105 species of wild plant foods, including nuts, beans, bulbs and roots, leafy greens, tree resin, berries, and an assortment of other vegetables and fruits. They also collect honey from beehives, and occasionally small mammals, tortoises, snakes, caterpillars, insects, and birds’ eggs. (Shostak 12)
The !Kung infant has continual access to the mother’s breast, day and night, usually for at least three years, and nurses on demand several times an hour. The child sleeps beside the mother at night, and during the day is carried in a sling, skin-to-skin on the mother’s hip, wherever the mother goes, at work or at play. (This position is an ideal height for older children, who love to entertain babies.) When the child is not in the sling, the mother may be amusing her—bouncing, singing, or talking. (Shostak 45)
Three relatively clear-cut lists: one of daily activities, one of foodstuffs, and one
of mothering tasks. Even if I were to show these passages, separate from the rest of the text, to a person who was totally unfamiliar with !Kung culture he would probably still be able to intuit several things about this people from the listed information alone. The food, the parenting techniques, etc. all point to a culture that lives an existence far from urban life. Also, the first list would lead one to believe that the !Kung are generally a relaxed, easy-going people spending little time and worry on food acquisition and preparation. And both of the above assumptions are true (or, at least were, until the encroachment of colonial forces into village life).
The magic ability of the list to convey a lot of information in precious few words works wonderfully in narrative as well. In addition to developing your story in greater detail it is also yet another example of the tried and true “showing not telling” strategy. While the focus is on the list itself, the reader is free to pick up any meaning, detail, or subtext that lies within. Two writers whose use of lists are particularly noteworthy are: Mark Twain (in Life on the Mississippi) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (in The Great Gatsby). Lists are wonderful for getting the hidden nuances of a story across to a reader, as we will see in the examples from these authors that follow.
Mark Twain’s two and a half page list describing the details of a typical (or, actually in his wry terms, “every”) New Orleans house (circa early 1880s) is far too long to include here in its entirety (pgs. 275-278), but that is certainly a shame because it shimmers with author’s trademark evocative dead-pan wit. The close attention to detail and cultural significance to various items found would do any ethnographer proud. And while Life on the Mississippi is admittedly a blending of fiction and nonfiction, Twain’s exhaustive list would lead one to believe he had just spent a long, hard day in the field. Here is a small sample (he has already moved from the “sham” “Greek porticoed” exterior of the house, into the interior, where he is describing what can be found on the walls) of Twain’s “observations”:
Framed in black mouldings on the wall, other works of art, conceived and committed on the premises, by the young ladies; being grim black-and-white crayons; landscapes, mostly: lake, solitary sail-boat, petrified clouds, pre-geological trees on shore, anthracite precipice; name of criminal conspicuous in the corner. Lithograph, Napoleon Crossing the Alps. Lithograph, The Grave at St. Helena. Steel-plates, Trumbull’s Battle of Bunker Hill, and the Sally from Gibraltar. Copper-plates, Moses Smiting the Rock, and Return of the Prodigal Son. In big gilt frame, slander of the family in oil: papa holding a book (“Constitution of the United States”); guitar leaning against mamma, blue ribbons fluttering from its neck; the young ladies, as children, in slippers and scalloped pantelettes, one embracing toy horse, the other beguiling kitten with ball of yarn, and both simpering up at mama, who simpers back. These persons all fresh, raw, and red—apparently skinned. Opposite, in gilt frame, grandpa and grandma, at thirty and twenty-two, stiff, old-fashioned, high-collared, puff-sleeved, glaring pallidly out from a background of solid Egyptian night. (Twain 277)
Through this amusing and highly detailed list we not only get a humorous birds-eye view of the lifestyle of the inhabitants of this sort of house, but of the author’s feelings about this sort of people as well. As opposed to “Once in the house I couldn’t believe the hideousness of a large oil painting of the family. I thought it was absolutely awful.” We get simply, deliciously: “In big gilt frame, slander of the family in oil.” Often a list describing something a person uses, eats, drives, or lives in is far more effective in conveying character and emotion than an elaborate description of the actual person.
Da Fontano the promoter came there, and Ed Legros and James B. (“Rot-Gut”) Ferret and the De Jongs and Ernest Lilly—they came to gamble, and when Ferret wandered into the garden it meant he was cleaned out and Associated Traction would have to fluctuate profitably next day.
A man named Klipspringer was there so often and so long that he became known as “the boarder”—I doubt if he had any other home. Of theatrical people there were Gus Waize and Horace O’ Donavan and Lester Myer and George Duckweed and Francis Bull. Also from New York were the Chromes and the Backyssons and the Dennickers and Russel Betty and the Corrigans and the Kellehers and the Dewars and the Scullys and S.W. Belcher and the Smirkes and the young Quinns, divorced now, and Henry L. Palmetto, who killed himself by jumping in front of a subway train in Times Square. (Fitzgerald 62-63)
Oh those wonderful Gatsby parties! In this excerpt from the nearly two and a half page “guest list” of people enjoying themselves in Jay Gatsby’s palatial home, we get an idea not only of the type of people who attend these parties, but of the narrator’s (Nick Carraway) feelings about them as well. Not to mention the fact that this list also serves to introduce several characters that are seemingly unimportant at this point in the story, but become crucial following Gatsby’s death. By grouping these characters (Klipspringer, most notably) with the names and brief descriptions of people we are never going to hear about again, we both get introduced to players vital to the last half of the drama while also maintaining our illusions about who the central figures are in the story. Dropping bits of important information into a lengthy and seemingly innocuous list can be a wonderful way of foreshadowing …without foreshadowing.
In her recent seminar “The Hermit Crab Essay” at Antioch University Brenda Miller suggests lists and “how-to” guides as possible frames or “shells” for essays. Her highly amusing piece “How to Mediate” is an essay about her experiences at a New Age spa/ashram that is structured as a step-by-step guide. “DAY THREE: When you wake up, you might hear two women whispering in the bathroom. If so, take the opportunity to feel superior” (108). “DAY FOUR: Just when you think you have it down, when you’ve noticed yourself noticing your breathing for unbroken seconds at a time, your teacher tells you everything will change from now on” (Miller 109). And from DAY TEN:
In the afternoon, realize that Marybeth has been sitting behind you all along. Wonder how you missed her there, all this time. Before going to your seat, watch the back of her head, the set of her small shoulders. See her as a body already dead. See the flesh passing away until only a skeleton remains. Wonder how you will live your life from now on. (Miller 112).
Using this simple, second-person “how-to” structure, Miller is able to cover a gambit of emotions, ranging from humor, to frustration, to sadness. The deft touch with which this essay is written allows the reader to feel a direct connection to the narrator, allowing the truth and universal themes within the piece to shine through the stark, guidebook form.
4) Write. Composing ethnography is a lot like writing a good story. You need plot: what was important, resonant at the beginning, middle, and end of your time with these people? You need theme: why did you choose these people to study? What led you to them? (This pertains to the issue of finding a relevant question we discussed above in #2) In spending time with them, what are you learning about yourself? Your culture? (Those who still eschew “reflexive” anthropology would quibble with these last two questions, but I am of the camp that in order for an ethnography to be complete, the ethnographer must be present, with all his/her biases, opinions, and culture-shaped paradigms intact). You need setting: this is one of the most important aspects of ethnography. In order to orient the reader to the lives of the people being discussed, a full rich description of location and environment is vital. And often environment, location, and climate are major factors in the development of culture. You need strong, pertinent dialogue: how do these people interact with each other? With you? Just like in a good story, dialogue makes an ethnography come to life.
Only recently have ethnographies been freed from languishing away in the ivory tower. Writers like Oliver Sacks, Denis Johnson, Karen Tei Yamashita and early on, Marjorie Shostak and Chinua Achebe have brought a modified ethnographic style of writing more into the mainstream. Why did it take so long for culture memoirs, rich with drama, excitement, and action to make their appearance into the mainstream? The answer is twofold: 1) The field of anthropology has always suffered somewhat from a bit of an inferiority complex in regards to the other “hard” sciences. The dominant thinking was (and in many circles still is, unfortunately) that if an ethnographer’s data could be followed and appreciated by a layperson than it simply wasn’t “academic” or “scientific” enough. Therefore dry language, mechanical, obtuse language was purposely used. However some accomplished, progressive anthropologists would disagree with this, consider Dr. Fiske’s words on the issue of whether ethnography has reached the mainstream in recent years: “[Ethnographic works have made it into the mainstream] Not often, but not that rarely. Few ethnographies are intended for a general audience.” (Personal correspondence, 2002) Actually I agree with Dr. Fiske to the extent that there are certain marked differences between composing ethnography and composing creative literature, and the issue of audience is certainly among these differences. An author (even a memoirist or other creative nonfiction writer) can tweak and alter a scene to dramatic effect, or to shift the power and balance between characters, an ethnographer, of course, shouldn’t. Anthropologists are wedded to “facts” in a way that authors aren’t …and shouldn’t be. However we must remember that at the end of every bit of ethnographic data, there is a human anthropologist who can’t help but view through world through his own lens of cultural and individual biases and beliefs. In other words, authors can stretch and bend for the sake of art of craft, anthropologists, technically, cannot (although sometimes the truth does end up slightly bent anyway). What anthropologists can do, as Shostak has shown us, is experiment with form and structure in order to present the ethnographic data in a way that is both striking and factual.
2) Many anthropologists, even cultural anthropologists, have a background in science, and come into the world of ethnography lacking any sort of training in how to effectively tell a story. Although some anthropologists do recognize the similarity between good ethnography and good storytelling: “Definitely I feel it is [ethnography as similar to creative writing]. You need to engage the reader in what you write. I feel it should not (generally) be fictional, but rather report what is happening and not try to embellish what is going on, because I want to capture the give and take of everyday life,” according to Dr. Goodwin. (Personal correspondence, 2002) Capturing the give and take of everyday life, isn’t this the crux of what all of us, whether writers of nonfiction or fiction are trying to accomplish?
Ethnography hasn’t nearly hit as big as I feel it could, and should with the mainstream in the United States. But as people become more aware of cultural issues there is more and more demand for studies and inquiries into how people’s beliefs, customs, and even daily rituals develop and why. Even looking no further than the events of September, 2001 we can see that perhaps our society is finally beginning to pay attention to the importance of culture, religion, and custom in all of our lives.
Marjorie Shostak played a crucial role in the push to give cultural anthropology a position in the mainstream, and much of the fluidity of Shostak’s book is due to the use of Nisa’s own words throughout the text. She is a natural storyteller and her cadence and phrasing creates as rich a narrative as to be found in any work of literature:
Then the pains start to come, again and again. There’s hurt and pain and it comes like it’s fire! Again and again it comes, then it rests. It’s quiet, lying still. Then it rises again, jabbing and hurting, bigger and bigger, coming over and over again. There’s another rest; even if it’s already pushing out, it just rests. But it rises again and there’s more pain and pushing and it starts to come out from the mouth of your stomach. It’s on its way out. Another quiet and another rise. Then a pain like fire is at the lips of your vagina and the head and the hair on the head start pushing through. Those are the things that hurt; not the body, that doesn’t hurt at all. Then more quiet and more pushing. With the next rise, it pushes against and rushes out.
That’s the birth of a baby. (Shostak 185)
As creative writers, it is often difficult not to crumble under the constant pressure of creating, “making up” a story, “inventing” a character. But if we aren’t afraid to rummage around a little in the anthropologist’s toolbox, we can open ourselves and our writing to unexpected, exciting, and freeing opportunities. By treating the characters on the page as flesh and blood, we can allow them to grow and develop in ways that aren’t possible when they are being regarded merely as our “creations.” By following the ethnographer’s guidelines for successful social science, we can breathe new life into those who inhabit our stories and add dimension, clarity, and universality to the stories themselves.
In addition to providing us with useful tools and prompts for creating solid, innovative literature, cultural anthropology and ethnography can assist us in an exploration of some of the weighty issues of ethnicity and culture facing writers today. Consider writer Lakin Khan’s words in a recent posting to Antioch University’s online “Risky Business” conference (created by alumna Wendy Ortiz, and dedicated to the risks inherent to writing):
I think a greater challenge and bigger risk, though, is creating a convincing portrait of a person in their environment who is emphatically not the author. As a woman of a certain age and cultural background, readers probably would have little problem when I write about characters of similar background and gender. But what if my narrator is male of African-Jamaican descent? What if I wrote a novel about life as an Eskimo shaman, or Filipina grandmother, or indigenous American teen? Do I have the right even to go there? (Khan, 2002)
Do I have the right even to go there? This is an issue facing writers more and more each day. With books centering around multicultural characters increasing in popularity, questions of ownership and who has the right to write what rise to the forefront. Marjorie Shostak let the words of an African woman weave a spell of rich, beautiful language around what could have been just another dry, data laden ethnography. But what if Shostak had been a novelist, and Nisa her invention? Does it matter to us, as readers, that Nisa is real? Does it assure us somehow that it’s okay for this white, middle-class woman to be writing about the harsh realities facing a displaced African people? How would we feel if this was a work of fiction? How do we feel about similar works of fiction? Arthur Golden’s Memoir of a Geisha, for example, a work dazzlingly similar to Shostak’s ethnography in style and tone?
I felt his hands at my waist, caressing the fabric of my underrobe. When at last I opened my eyes again, he stood behind me still, taking in the scent of my hair and my neck. His eyes were fixed on the mirror—fixed, it seemed to me, on the waistband that held my underrobe shut. Every time his fingers moved, I tried with the power of my mind to keep them away, but all too soon they began creeping like spiders across my belly, and in another moment had tangled themselves in my waistband and begun to pull. I tried to stop him several times, but the Baron pushed my hands away as he’d done earlier. Finally the waistband came undone; the Baron let it slip from his fingers and fall to the floor. My legs were trembling, and the room was nothing more than a blur to me as he took the seams of my underrobe in his hands and started to draw them open. (Golden 261)
These are the words of Sayuri, a 1930s Kyoto geisha, who is entirely Arthur Golden’s creation. While he based this character and others in the novel on exhaustive research and interviews with former geishas (Golden has a Master’s in Japanese history from Columbia), the novel is still just that, a novel, and the characters are still, for all intents and purposes, made up. However Golden writes this story as a “true” memoir, even going so far as to add a fictitious “Translator’s Note” in the beginning of the work that discusses extensive interviews and meetings with the fictitious Sayuri. While I’m certain much of the motivation to use the memoir convention came from a desire to tell a historically based story in a unique way, I have to wonder if part of the decision to use this form came from an attempt by Golden to separate himself, who he is as a middle-class Caucasian American, from the text. Is this story any more or less real because the author’s personal background is far, far away from Japan? Can we ask the same question of Nisa as well?
Unfortunately, these questions lend themselves to more questions than they do to any solid answers. I tend to vacillate on the issue of ownership in writing. While I think anyone should be free to write whatever story drips from his or her pen, I also think writers should practice careful research and study when creating an environment other than their own. Not only does this make for more socially responsible writing, as shown earlier, careful research and detail adds to the overall quality of the work as well. I don’t think writers should let our postmodern politically charged world to discourage them from experimenting and feeling free in their work. I think it’s okay to have a character that is mean and spiteful, or a criminal, and also African-American and in a wheelchair. I think it’s okay to have a homophobic narrator. I believe there is a danger in sanitizing writing to the point that we ignore society’s unpleasantness and dangers. Writers more than anyone else are charged with holding the proverbial mirror up to humanity. Airbrushing out our more unsightly cultural and social blemishes will only lead to forgetting, which would be foolish as well as dangerous. The trick is to write with abandon, but with responsible abandon. A writer should know exactly why he is writing what he is writing, not just for the social implications, but to remain true to the characters and story as well.
An awareness of ethnographic practices can serve as an essential tool for creative writers; not only for the tricks of the trade that can help stimulate good storytelling, but also as a guide into the murky territory of culture, ethnicity, and ownership.
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