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.