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.
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.
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)
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)
As I said a few times, already, I am not a big fan of short stories. This, mostly, because I really like slow character development and a story that takes time to reveal itself on at least 100 pages. Which is a totally arbitrary approach, I know. Nevertheless, there are always exceptions to my rules, and Ponqué y otros cuentos (Laguna Libros, 2016) by Carolina Sanín is one of them. The collection contains 7 short stories, all of which star strong female characters. It is this aspect I liked most about the stories, which depart from everyday situations like riding a train, listening to the radio, or reading a hand-written note, and usually revolve around quirky aspects of the main character, if not her surroundings. Especially the last two stories stroke chords with me, the darker Carolina en su funeral for its factual approach to loss, and Ponqué, the title story, because it reminded me of the Satanic Verses. This, mostly, because it combines a story of a young woman from Bogota going out to live in New York with the biblical narrative of Joseph (son of Jacob) from the book Genesis.
I was utterly impressed by the accuracy of descriptions and wording. For a long time I haven’t read anything as precise and therefore enjoyable in Spanish, and I am often bored by too long and too forced sentences when reading Colombian authors. I was very happy to see that a different style is possible, and one that appeals to me both in topics and style. And as if marvellous writing wasn’t enough, the book is also really pretty. The edition and illustration are beautiful, and the thick paper makes for a pleasant tactile experience, as well. For so many reasons, this is a book I did not want to stop reading.
How did I come across the book?
I took a creative writing seminar with Carolina Sanín, which turned out to be a live-changing experience. Not because I think writing fiction could be a thing for me – I still don’t, really – but because it happened at a complicated moment in field work and brought back the curiousness about the topic and the willingness to write. I started reading her books only after the seminar, in a way attempting to continue the conversations on writing. Turns out Carolina is not only an amazing teacher, (so if you have a chance to take a course with her: GO DO IT!) but also sticks to all of the rules she teaches. Speaking of authenticity in teaching, she is most definitely a new role model for me to follow.
When and where did I read it?
I started on the plane back from Bogota to Zurich, to make the passage a little lighter. I finished it within the first days while trying to get rid of the jetlag. But fortunately, there are several other works from her left to read in my bookshelf.
This time, creative writing pratice was a collaborative effort. I invented two characters, another participant a conflict. The task then was to bring both together. Sorry, again Spanish only.
Gloria va al Estadio todos los años. Cada once de septiembre, se compra una entrada para asistir al evento que haya ese día. Es su forma de hacer memoria desde que la tenían allí detenida con los otros cinco mil. Estaba embarazada entonces, pero eso no les importaba. No sabe que pasó con ese niño que iba a tener. Algunas veces hizo el esfuerzo de buscarlo, pero nunca salió nada. Dejó de buscarlo, aunque sigue creyendo que está vivo. Pero tendrá su vida sin saber nada de su madre, o creyendo que es la que le tocó. No hay que despertar a los demonios de los demás. Sus propios demonios, sin embargo, están despiertos, y por eso todos los años va al Estadio.
Ese año le toca un concierto de los Red Hot Chili Peppers. Hay mucha gente joven y tatuada alrededor de ella, que a Gloria no le incomoda para nada. Viene también para conocer, ya sea otro estilo de música, o de deporte, o de vida. Un joven con el pelo mojado se siente a su lado y ella, chismosa, le pregunta si se mojó el pelo por el calor. Aunque es alto y tiene una espalda bien ancha, parece muy tímido. Mira hacía abajo cuando le habla y le cuenta que es nadador profesional y que acaba de llegar de la práctica en la piscina olímpica que tienen en ese mismo campo.
En ese mismo instante empiezan a volar los aviones. Gloria los reconoce de inmediato, pues se parecen demasiado a los que habían atacado a la Moneda. Todo el mundo los mira confundido y la tensión en el Estadio es palpable. Empiezan a dar vueltas y piruetas, con humo blanco, rojo y azul que les sale de la cola:
Únanse al baile de los que sobran
Gloria sonríe porque reconoce la frase de una canción y de pronto, todos empiezan a cantar: Nadie nos va a echar de más. Nadie nos quiso ayudar de verdad. Los jóvenes tatuados se levantan de sus sillas y saltan las rejas, reuniéndose en el centro del Estadio. Allí empiezan a bailar, y Gloria lo pregunta al joven nadador si la quiere acompañar. El la mira por primera vez a los ojos, y en este momento Gloria siente un rayo en su corazón.
Yet another practice in fiction, this time in English. Enjoy!
I’m not exactly sure what it is about mermaid hair that fascinates me this much. It exudes an air of peace and tranquility in otherness, I think. Colors flow in ways that make it impossible to know which one exactly it is one is looking at, because it always already changes into something else. People with mermaid hair look strange, unnatural, as if from outer space, and yet known and familiar (it is still hair, like most of us have on different parts of our bodies). It is irritating to the same degree as it is serene.
Mermaid hair is exceptional, unruly, yet never dangerous. Somewhat like Berlin in the 90s. Or that’s what I’ve heard, because I myself was to young to remember. In 1993, I was only five years old, and even though my mom and I lived pretty close to the ctiy, I seldom went there alone. When we went together, she would take me to the Tierpark, the theater, and sometimes the movies, too. (Note the Tierpark is just like a Zoo, but it’s the one in the eastern part of town, and designed much more like a park. The one in Western Berlin is called Zoo.) I love the stories she tells me about that time. There’s this picture of me on a swing in the Tierpark. I am wearing a sky blue snow suit thick enough to protect me from the Berlin winter, but also making me look like a tiny version of the Michellin figure. My aunt is pushing me from behind, and I have this utterly satisfied smile on my face. A memory made of cotton candy.
When I was about 9 years old, I remember I wanted to dye my hair green. It has always been my favorite color, because it is not pink or blue, but something in between. Everybody back then said their favorite color was blue, boys and girls alike, and I just found that lame. First, because everybody said it, and at age 9 I didn’t want to be like everybody else. And second, because the color blue just doesn’t appeal to me. When I look at something blue, nothing happens. I just get bored. Green in turn always intrigues me, as if there was something more to understand about it, something that didn’t give itself away with the first glance. And I’m not talking forrest green, which has its own charm for sure, but more in an earthy way. I’m talking garish green, the woodruff soda variant. Which is also not exactly the green in mermaid hair, but it is precisely this “not exactly” that is so attractive to me, and which might be the reason I’m fancying mermaid hair right now.
Back then, I didn’t dye my hair green. My mom wouldn’t prohibit it, she never really did that with anything. She would rather tell me about how damaging this would be for my hair, and explain the long process of first having to go blond and then green, and about how terrible it would look once it grew out. Instead of prohibitions, she persuaded me with reasons. As a social worker in the city’s youth clubs, she gave seminars about drugs and addiction, and so from early on I knew exactly how Ecstasy pills looked like (from photographs), and about the dangers of more mundane drugs like cigarettes and alcohol. As with the green hair, she would never tell me not do do drugs, but instead explain to me how they worked and what dangers lay in consumption. She would always advise me to talk to her first before trying out something, but since I had the feeling I already knew everything about drugs thanks to her, I never did.
I was a 20-something when I smoked my first joint, at a party of a high school friend of mine and all her Greenpeace buddies. That was the Neukölln of the late 2000s already, but it would still take me another three years to finally feel something that could be called a fine frenzy. I had just moved into a flat with my best friend, not to far away from that Greenpeace party, and he had bought some dope in Görlitzer Park, which back then wasn’t that overcrowded with police. He was the one introducing me to laughing gas when we were teenagers, and would have done the same with magic mushrooms, had I wanted to. That lovely summer evening at the open window of our kitchen, I challenged him to smoke until I would finally feel something. About four joints later, our kitchen was painted in the loveliest version of mermaid hair colors I can imagine.
Looking at it now, the “not exactly” of mermaid hair is also the “not exactly” I feel comfortable in. The sense of something that is not one way or another, but always something in between. It’s nostalgia what is condensed in mermaid hair, and the longing for a time in which having a certain gender didn’t mean to subscribe to either pink or blue (and everything that goes along these lines). Mermaid hair moments are the ones in which I didn’t feel the need to explain anything to anyone, in which ambiguity was the state of being, and it was fine.