15. Reading: After Life

Tobias Hecht’s After Life (Duke University Press, 2006) had me thinking. “An ethnographic novel” is the subtitle to this work at the borders of anthropology and fiction. It uses both real and fictional characters to tell the story of an anthropologist struggling with mental illness and investigating the life of street children in a Brasilian city. Her main informant is a transsexual adolescent called Bruna. But instead of outlining the story line, I just want to explore a few issues I had with the lecture.

First, there is the question of genre. An ethnographic novel is a novel based on fieldwork, so it seems. There are several other examples for this, as Laura Bohannon’s Return to Laughter, or Karen McCarthy Brown’s Mama Lola. It might even extend to novels about anthropologists, which would most prominently include Lily King’s Euphoria, based on the life of Margaret Mead. I still have to read all of these, and am curious how they will explore the possibilities of the genre, and what other characteristics I can make out in them. The anthropological approaches in Hecht’s novel are that he based his story on his fieldwork, and includes a real character and some of the transcripts of interviews with that person.

Second, there are the characters: I found the female lead seriously lacking authenticity. Why does she have to undress so often? Granted, its hot. Yet, it doesn’t advance the story, it doesn’t help characterizing her or her state of mind, and it certainly doesn’t break with the clichéd objectification of her body. I think I see that making the anthropologist a female helped Hecht to detach his own story from the one he was writing, but it certainly came at the cost of verisimilitude. His rendering of Bruna works much better, but much of what Bruna says is extracted from the ‘real’ Bruna, so I am not sure if this should be credited to Hecht.

Third, I find some of Hecht’s introductory statements quite troublesome. He seems to confuse a few categories, when he says “… struck me as real, as being the absolute truth, the one born of the fiction we want to be.” (p. 8) While I appreciate the idea of a truth born out of the fiction we want to be (speaking of authenticity…), I have troubles with the categories in more general terms. Because the relationship between reality and truth to fiction is not one of opposition. The opposite of fiction is non-fiction, and says something about the character and form of a statement, not its ontological status. That would be the domain of reality. Truth is yet another matter and relates to questions of epistemology more than anything else. But all that of course depends on who you’re reading.

Forth and finally, I really take issue with him being so gutless. In the introduction, he recounts a few incidents of situations that made it difficult for him to believe ‘the real’ Bruna. In one, he lends her a recording device, and she goes around interviewing ‘other’ street children, until in one recording he realizes Bruna is interviewing herself, changing her voice and name and all. In a footnote, he furthermore mentions how he helped her sell some paintings to pay for a house, but she instead decided to spent the money on something else. He starts a paragraph explaining how his research could have been rendered an ethnograpgy, but pointing out all the troubles he went through (“… the constant second-guessing on both our parts, the misfortunes of invented characters who brought forth real tears in Bruna…” p. 6), decides that “The only way to do justice to her life, it seemed to me, was to yield to her inventions.” There would have been other options to handle these problems anthropologically.  What is more, he is invoking outdated standards of what is allowed in ‘science’. What’s worst, he’s victimizing her when he assumes her life needs justice to be done to, and I feel a constant subtle impression of him advocating an ‘only fiction, not real science’ approach to his material. And that left me disturbed and deeply disappointed both in terms of what an ethnographic novel could be, and how it relates to the material behind.

21. Reading: Alto Rendimiento

Someone recently critiqued my closed-mindedness when it comes to different writing styles (I’m not a fan of traditional scientific prose, for example), so I made an effort to expand my exposure to text forms, genres and styles that would not be the easy choice for me. In the case of Carolina Sanín’s Alto Rendimiento (2016, Matera libros) it was both topic and form: a chronicle about the Olympic Summer Games of Rio, taken from her Facebook page. I have to say that it positively surprised me, especially because I didn’t think I was a fan of obviously ficticious fiction. (This might be worth a longer discussion at another point…) For now, suffice it to say that the chronicle is fun, and with the short entries an ideal bedtime treat.

Also, it is beautifully illustrated by Manuel Kalmanovitz (when was the last time you read an adult book with images that where not photographs?), and an interview with Sanín about the project and how it came into being. It gave me accute flashbacks to that writing seminar with her, as she poignantly corrects and reformulates the interviewer’s questions (not in the literal sense, though), so as to make them meaningful and be able to give a truthful answer.

How did I come across the book?

It was part of my book shopping spree for female Colombian authors. So far, none of the works disappointed me!

When and where did I read it?

In Konstanz, before bedtime, during the last weeks of the semester, and before I started A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

23. Reading: A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Rebbeca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2017 [2005], Canongate) is the first ever non-work related nonfiction essay collection I have read. And I have to say, I don’t think I have ever read something like it. I remember essays from my English classes, where we regularly had to hand in essays on course related topics, and I remember how I hated it. My essays, of course, were nothing like those of Solnit, who mastefully combines the natural, the experienced and the whimsical into thought collages that transport and transform. She elaborates on the theme of getting lost, or of losing the way in unexpected, yes: ways, and the paths she choses to go about her topic are the conversion of the very principle of getting lost, without, however, ever being random. They are not hard to follow, but hard to guess in advance, but Solnit takes you through them like the experienced guide on that tour through the Alpes/Andes/whatever your prefered mountain range is called. At the end of each chapter, you’ll be back to the point from where the excursion started, but most likely be transformed, having gained from the view.

How did I come across the book?

In a Verso christmas sale, I stumbled upon Wanderlust and emailed the reference to a friend. That was the first time I heard of Rebecca Solnit. Later, I found her name again when someone explained the origins of the term “mansplain”. I was intrigued about Men explain things to me, but wanted to make sure I wasn’t deceptioned again. (I tend to expect more radical thinking from nonfiction than the authors are willing to expose.) SO I decided to try something unrelated first, and the Field Guide spoke to the anthropologist in me.

When and where did I read it?

The last weeks of the semester seemed endless, and I really needed a tinyplace to go to on my own, so I got lost in this book whenever I needed a minute to focus.

Nonfiction seems to me photographic; it poses the same challenge of finding form and pattern in the stuff already out there and the same ethical obligations to the subject. (p.144)

16. Reading: Lo que no aprendí

Many novels are announced as treating memory and family, or memory and gender, or memory and politics, or memory and whatever else. Memory seems to be a particularly well vending attribute. Unfortunately, so many of the books announced that way don’t actually talk about memory, but in memories, and confusing these two, one could easily guess everything was memory. One of the blurbs to Margarita García Robayo’s Lo que no aprendí (Malpaso, 2014) therefore allerted me. It said, Margarita would unite memories as if they were flowers. Aesthetically, the comparison of her writing with flowers does most definitely hold. But what Lo que no aprendí has to say about memory is more complicated than that.

Contrary to the common-sensical idea, the difficulty of remembering (read: re-member-ing) in the novel might actually be the invention. To handle those flowers creatively, as if uniting them in a beautiful bouquet for the funeral of a controversial figure, effacing any trace of a more complicated, more nuanced, personality, is the real work for Catalina, the protagonist of the novel. The author presents us with this bouquet of Catalina’s mostly happy childhood memories in Cartagena. In a second part, however, she explains the uses, not of the flowers, but of the bouquet, to us readers, and we come to realize that beautiful flowers can be conventions covering up for the things that cannot, and in the case of funerals conventionally should not, be said. The flowers, it turns out, are memories of a different life, of a different Catalina who has little to do with the woman that today lives in Buenos Aires.

How did I come across the book?

I saw a good friend of mine mention it in a Facebook post from a bookstore in Bogotá, asking for the best book its customers had read in 2016. It is most definitely in the top three of my 2017, thus far.

When and where did I read it?

I found the time and place particularly matching in this experience: A warm summer week in Constance can at least temperature-whise keep up with Cartagena, where the first part of the novel is set. I finished the second part on a lazy sunday morning in bed, which also combined well with a loft in Buenos Aires. But it made me wonder: is Buenos Aires Latin America’s sunday morning in bed?

… si no te gustan mis recuerdos, empieza a juntar los tuyos; y si tampoco te gustán ésos, cámbialos, y así: es lo que hacemos todos. (p. 182)

What it means

I write a sentence that
goes something like
… the obvious signs
like massacres, bombings,
kidnappings, extorsions…

– and I‘m tempted to end it with

but realize:

How on earth are words
even remotely reflecting

What that means?

There‘s no way to convey
the meaning of a
through the word

And that clearly is
the preferable solution.

and I guess, this is
the heart of the matter
for me:

I must tell you about it,
about the massacres.
Worse maybe:
I must let you know
what it means.

14. Reading: Chapinero

Without knowing, I already had a book (edited) by Andrés Ospina, of which I am very fond because it has a CD with it. On that very CD is a song called Río Bogotá by a band named Sociedad Anónima. This song has always fascinated me for a line that goes: “Nunca se te ocurra ir con tu novia al Río Bogotá”, which translates to “It should never occur to you to go to the Río Bogotá with your girlfriend”. In the rest of the song, the singer explains that people throw trash into the river and that it’s a health risk to go swiming there. I who I only know the smelly and murky version of the river, was fascinated by the very idea of people actually bathing there. What is more, I never really considered the climate quite warm enough to go swiming outside. But as a Colombian saying goes, gustos son gustos. You can listen to this precious late 1980s rock jewel on youtube.

However, Chapinero (Laguna Libros, 2015) is a novel in which the river Bogotá is never mentioned. But those familiar with the city’s geography might have guessed, rightly, that it’s about the Chapinero district. The history of the quarter, which when Bogota was founded was a distinct settlement, is told in the voices of five different characters through various generations. The first is a Spanish shoemaker arriving around 1655, followed by a struggling father of the late 19th century. Then follows a young adult witness of the quarter’s transformation of the 1930s. The era of rock and hippiedom, in turn, is recounted by the only female character. They are all related to the main protagonist of the novel, who lives in todays Chapinero, through an antique shoehorn.

How did I come across the book?

I was hanging around in bookstores somewhat frequently during my last field trip. And I literally saw it in any one of the ones I visited. Plus, it was on the “Colombian authors to check out” list I had made when I got a gift certificate for a bookstore, together with Carolina Sanín, and Margarita García Robayo.

When and where did I read it?

It took me a while. As can be guessed from my bookmark – a plane ticket from Msocow to Riga – I have started it during my vacations to Moscow. I needed almost a month to finish it, because the number of characters was a little overwhelming in the beginning, and the middle part had it’s lenghts. Only as I started to realize all the characters could be related through family ties and the antique, did I become curious how their stories would unfold. I might read it again, reading not in the order of the book, but each character’s story by itself to better grasp the connections.

Para eso están los vivos. Para preguntales, y no esperar a que se vayan ausentando, hasta eternizarnos la duda. (p. 212)

11. Reading: The Republic of Cousins

Germaine Tillion’s Republic of Cousins. Women’s Oppression in Mediterranean Society (Al Saqi Books, 1983), apart from being a study about kinship and marriage in the southern meditarranean countries, is also an impressive plea for a political approach to the study of culture. From a feminist point of view, Tillion engages in the study of historical and current gender relations in the Mediterranean. She compares data from her own field work with historial sources back to the prophets to show how the place of women in Mediterranean societies is – just like anywhere else – anything but a natural given.

Tillion proposes, furthermore, an “ethnography devoid of virtue”, if it’s a virtue to observe and participate without interpreting what is observed and described. Since Geertz, latest, anthropologists understood that no such thing is actualy possible, because every observation is already shaped by our understandings, and therefore, interpreted in terms of the things we already know. However, it was interesting to see, that these ideas had been around way before Geertz wrote them down (the original work is from the late 1960s). Tillion’s writing offers an interesting mixture of scientific discourse about marriage rules without the pretence of a false objectivity, yet manages to include her political position. She does this transparently but without ever using “I”.

How did I come across the book?

It was recommended to me by my supervisor, because I was searching for more experimental/engaged forms of anthropological writing. I’m not sure it fulfilled this purpose, because I expected something more in the style of Michael Taussig. But it was good to see that “experimental” could also mean something else, and especially Tillion’s willingness to judge other’s customs was interesting to see in an ethnography.

When and where did I read it?

I started during a vacation I was taking right after my latest field trip. I read the first part on my way to and in Berlin, mostly on trains. The second part I finished in Moscow on several nights before bedtime.