Ethnography

So I’m in the Upper Amazon basin doing ethnography. But just what is ethnography? The study of insects? Close. Ethnography is both what anthropologists do and the writing they produce.

The thing that makes anthropology unique is method: while surveys, archival research, and interviews are still employed, participant observation is what anthropology is all about. In participant observation, one arrives at one’s field site and proceeds to live there for extended amounts of time (months to years, often returning) to come to know something as close to peoples’ personal experiences as possible. Languages are learned, detailed notes are taken, and relationships are forged. Participant observation has two parts, as you cold probably assume: you participate in everyday life, but you are also observing and learning rather than passively slipping into a new life rhythm. Notes and notes and notes are taken.

So what kind of writing comes out of this? Ethnography is, on the whole, thick, detailed, and precise. Details are backed up from field notes (which are copious) documents, recordings, videos. To pick up a well-written ethnography is to be immersed in a rich new setting, while also being slipped critical information through the narrative which the author will call your attention to later.

Of course, there is not just one way to write ethnography. It needn’t even be written. One of the last courses I took was titled “Experimental Ethnography,” in which we explored currents of experimentation and creativity within ethnographic writers.

Anthropologists often turn out to be good fiction writers, and vice versa, because of ethnography: both the writing and the method. In my opinion, it is not only practice at representing people in the written word, but the process of coming to know people so closely in the first place, that makes this transition smooth.

This has been a scheduled post, as I am currently without reliable WiFi in the Ecuadorian Amazon! Returning in a month! 

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Thesis Thoughts

At this moment, I am sitting in my university library, exhausted, procrastinating, and did I already mention exhausted? Yeah. The future is pinwheeling towards me a little faster every day, and it’s not going to slow down until June 25th, when I get back from Ecuador. In between now and then: final thesis edits, final exams and projects, graduation, and right back to Ecuador without even a week to breathe, much less write.

All of that said, I’m here to do some reflection on the most arduous writing process of my life to date: my senior thesis, product of two summers of ethnographic research in Ecuador. Here are some observations about writing the damn thing that might be useful:

  • At every stage, I thought, “at least that’s done. the rest will be easier.” At every stage, I was wrong. Every part was just as hard.
  • I skipped my first class ever (unrelated to sickness or being out of town) to pull, not an all-nighter, but an all-evening-and-all-morning-er. I have since skipped another class. It felt very good.
  • Even after everything, I still basically have the first draft of a solid paper. Were I to take this process further, I would need to start from the ground up.
  • Breaks! are!! necessary!!!
  • Somehow, someway, it got done, and it will keep getting done. There’s just no other option.

I think most of that can apply to creative writing as well as academic…except the last one. When you’re not working under a strict deadline, there is not otherworldly force demanding it complete. There’s just yourself. So if I had to try to turn this into some advice about writing, it’s to cultivate some measure of intrinsic motivation in yourself. You need some way to guarantee, if not perfection, than completion.

Nit-Picking

As I am preparing for my thesis defense on Wednesday and also recovering from a rollicking drag show last night (my vocal cords are gone), here are some nit-picky writing resources. Take them all with a grain of salt: there are exceptions to every rule.

6 Questions and 6 Rules

8 Laws of Foreshadowing

43 Words You Should Cut from Your Writing Immediately

Phrase Frequency Counter

Rookie New Writer Moves

Writing Spaces

Two weeks later and I’m back in (west) Asheville, currently writing at Dobra Tea. It’s an amazing little tea shop–you can go sit in the back at low tables with cushions in dim lighting, or, like me today, you can sit up front in a cozy naturally-lit area near some wall plugs. You are given a bell and a tea encyclopedia and vegetarian snack menu. I am currently enjoying my favorite tea in the world (Black Dragon Tea) and some mochi while procrastinating on editing my thesis.

It’s a great environment to either focus or fall asleep, depending on which part of the shop you’re in and how tired you are. So much of writing depends on the space you’re in. I’ve generally conditioned myself to be productive in any cafe-like environment, but in libraries it’s touch-and-go: sometimes I can write for hours at a time, sometimes I get trapped in a loop of distraction. I’ve gotten a lot better about focusing over background noise/music, but if people are speaking loudly near me, I still tend to eavesdrop.

Anyone else out there have particular writing space needs? Feel free to comment with your own idiosyncrasies.

Atmospheric Attunements

I was the lucky participant of a faculty writing workshop on Friday, wherein we discussed Kathleen Stewart’s paper “Atmospheric Attunements.” Stewart is a pretty significant anthropologist and writer, and you should probably go read A Space on the Side of the Road ASAP.

But today it’s really her concept of “atmospheric attunement” I want to discuss. How do you describe the ineffable and inchoate? How do you describe the affect of living? What does it mean to tune into the “background hum” of a situation so that the character of the place emerges from the text–the “sentience of a situation,” as Stewart puts it.

Stewart attempts to do so in this paper through an experimental format, jumping between evocative scenes, first in the Reagan-era rural south, then to her homeless stepson, and then to her mother in a retirement home, dipping in briefly but packing worlds of description into sensory and affective details.

I highly recommend the paper for those who would like to get a better grasp of evoking the atmosphere of how people exist together in the situation, in a moment. It’s a quick and beautiful read.

 

 

Resonances

The scene: a bunch of anthropology students in a van on the way to Asheville.

Professor: “I thought we could stop by the anarchist book store. What do you think?”

All students in tandem: “YEAHHH!”

I can’t think of a more fun group of people to go to Asheville with than my experimental ethnography class. We spent a day and a half going to both Black Mountain College campuses, the Western Regional Archives, and the Black Mountain College Museum in order to really get into the play we’re performing. But we still had time to visit Firestorm Books and Coffee, a really neat place that you should definitely visit if you’re in Asheville. It’s the kind of bookstore where all the queer books are on display in the window, and is an altogether refreshing place to be in. Everyone had a collective heyday. I picked up a lovely copy of Queer: A Graphic History.

Our trip was filled with strange coincidences and resonances, the most bizarre of which I shall share. It starts in my junior year of high school, when I made a collage, and then a painting of the collage. I consider this piece a breakthrough, when I stopped messing around with art and started getting serious. It’s technically rough, but my conceptual basis was doing a 180. This is one section of the painting–notice the two-headed snake (it’s hard to miss):

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The story continues six years later, yesterday, at Firestorm Books. One of my classmates has picked up the zine “Birds of a Feather: Flights of the Anarcho-Surrealist Imagination” by Ron Sakolsky. One of the pages catches my eye as my class mate flips through the book. I seize it from her and splutter incoherently.

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The very same snake. Rather unbelievable, no? I’m still coming to terms with it. My professor told me it means something, and I’m inclined to agree. The same motif appearing in my life six years apart–though in The Book of the Dead (my current project) there’s a two-headed snake as well, the god Nehebkau. So maybe it’s not that strange.

Resonances like these seem improbable and ridiculous, and require a certain suspension of disbelief when read about. But maybe they happen more than we think.

Sweet (on) Polly Oliver

So I just read the book Bloody Jack for no other reason than that it was on my to-read list and I wanted something short and sweet. It ticked of a lot of boxes of what I like to read about, primarily pirates and girls disguising themselves as boys to become pirates/sailors. It was a good book, written in a dialect but done well so that it drew you in instead of disengaging you.

However, it did bring to mind exactly what disappoints me about these narratives so often (these narratives being: girl disguises self as boy to accomplish goals). It’s that every. single. time. her disguise is blown when she falls in love with a boy/a boy falls in love with her and she “has” to reveal herself to prevent serious awkwardness on his part.

Number one, it’s heteronormative and usually comes with the implicit assumption that if the girl doesn’t reveal her “true” gender, and instead lets her love interest believe he’s interested in a guy, she’s the guilty party. If you’re wondering about the name for this post, it’s actually the name of this trope. Find out more here.

Number two, it places potential embarrassment on the part of the boy above an often life-threatening situation for the girl. Who’s the protagonist here, again?

Number three, it messes with her objectives–suddenly keeping her secret is no longer her prime directive, it’s shacking up with the guy. Her goals, which were so important that she disguised herself for (potentially) years, fall by the wayside in a way that breaks my suspension of disbelieve every time.

I’m not wringing Bloody Jack out here specifically–it’s a good book. But it happened to catalyze a lot of my frustration around girl-disguised-as-boy narratives. There’s so many interesting ways to take a plot like that, but inevitably they all end the same. It’s one of my goals to write one of those more interesting ones at some point.

If you know any books that take this trope in more interesting ways, please send them my way in the comments! I’d love to hear them (and, better yet, read them).