Ethnographic Fiction!

I just discovered a new genre of literature called “ethnographic fiction”. I’m ridiculously excited about it. For those of you who might not be so familiar with anthropological jargon (and there is a lot of it), an “ethnography” is a detailed (mostly) scientific description of the customs and culture of a specific population. Picture the classic image of the bright-eyed university anthropologist striking out into the deepest jungle in search of uncontacted tribes. The young idealist spending a year or more with them – learning their language, their habits, their songs and dances and funeral rites, food and work and leisure. Then picture the vast quantities of notes jotted down during this time. There would be interviews with people, observations, reactions, opinions, stories, etc. The final product – the compilation and distillation of these scrawled and messy thoughts (undoubtedly filling multiple dog-eared and dirt-encrusted journals) is a formal, edited, presentable piece of writing. Something you wouldn’t mind other people seeing, even reading. An ethnography. The Nuer by E.E. Evans-Pritchard, for example. Or, Coming of Age in Samoa by Margaret Mead, as another. Ethnographies have been written for pretty much everyone you can think of. In fact, in a future post, we’ll explore the groundbreaking research under way at this very moment by anthropologists who are pushing the very boundaries of the science – having documented the vast majority of the world’s peoples, these bold (brash? brave? arrogant?) researchers are delving into the rest of the animal world, claiming to be able to do things as seemingly un-doable as “interview plants” and write “ethnographies of animals”. But that is for another day.

Today, we’re exploring ethnographic fiction. At a basic level, this type of genre-bending is not particularly new. Writers have been bending the “laws” of form since before the time of the printing press, and though the creativity that brought us from early translations of the Bible up to and through romanticism and postmodernism and beyond – though this creative process is nothing new, ethnographic fiction, specifically, is a rather unknown entity to most. So much so, in fact, that at the 2104 conference of the American Anthropological Association, leaders in the field were at a loss as to the exact definition of “ethnographic fiction”, despite its inception via an ethnography of the Pueblo indians in 1890*. Is it a work of fiction by a trained anthropologist? Is it fiction – by any writer – with an anthropological tilt? Is it simply very culturally-styled, “very thickly described” fiction? Is it all of these? None of these? This ambiguity spells excellent news for someone like me: a pretend anthropologist, a hack writer. Is it possible, then, to take the painstakingly described ethnography put together by one or more professional anthropologists completely unknown to me and turn it into a work of fiction by my own hand? Why not? As of now, no one is stopping me.

My discovery of ethnographic fiction was timely in that, when it happened, I was struggling to piece together my last piece, the one on Gaza fathers of children with cancer. As I was writing, I found myself being sucked back into the kind of vortex that I felt in college, trying to hammer out a dozen pages on some obscure poem by an equally obscure English poet, at 4am, without proper sources, and on a public computer that would occasionally restart, causing me to lose the whole thing. I wasn’t as anxious now as I was in those days. But I had a vague ache somewhere in my head (mind?) that I had no interest in revisiting. The writing was not necessarily hard – it just didn’t flow like I wanted it to. It felt like it was taking way too much effort. And this whole endeavor – the blog – though certainly bound to be harder at times, was not supposed to be an academic nightmare either. This was supposed to be a source for creative output, a way to keep my mind sharp, a way to interact with the wide body of knowledge floating around in the ether. And then I stumbled upon the post about ethnographic fiction on Savage Minds. (It’s an excellent, if esoteric, anthropology blog. It instantly became my favorite spot on the internet.) It dawned on me that this was, perhaps, by far the most accessible genre – for myself and for anyone who might be reading what I had written.

The article’s author, Jessica Falcone, has this to say about ethnographic fiction:

“In genre-normative ethnography, one can’t invent dialogue or scenarios that never were; one can frame, but not fashion. If I want to relate a conversation, I have to go back to my carefully typed transcripts. In our genre-normative writing culture, there are conventions that require diligence and care. As I write ethnographic fiction, I can transgress those conventions. I can flagrantly put real people in an imaginary situation to envisage an event that probably did not happen. I can construct hybrid people out of a multiplicity of known entities. While I acknowledge that there is something deeply unsettling about the liberties that we take in ethnographic fiction, it can be as profoundly liberating at the same time. And it doesn’t just feel good, it can be valuable. It can achieve things.”

This was all I needed as inspiration: I began writing a short story about a Gaza father watching over his sick child in an Israeli cancer clinic. The words flowed, the story came easily, naturally. So naturally, in fact, that it’s much too long to post as a single piece. I’ll post the first installment here soon, then the subsequent piece(s) a few days later. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and I hope I don’t get yelled at by any anthropologists. I’ll be sure to cite my sources, so my ass should be covered.

*Adolf Bandelier’s The Delight Makers


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