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Interview with Perry Gilmore about “Kisisi (Our Language): The Story of Colin and Sadiki”

Kisisi (Our Language): The Story of Colin and Sadiki chronicles a charming and, indeed, remarkable friendship that developed between two five-year-old boys—one (Sadiki), the son of a traditionally pastoralist Samburu family in Kenya working as a wage laborer for wealthy British landowners; the other (Colin), the son of a white American couple of means, both students, living in Kenya for 15 months of graduate research.

Kisisi Cover

Kisisi was published in cloth, paperback, and e-editions by Wiley Blackwell in 2016

 

When they first met, the age-mate boys found themselves drawn to one another . . . but frustrated by their lack of a common language. Slowly, they developed their own language (dubbed “Kisisi” by Colin’s mother, Perry Gilmore), combining bits and pieces of Swahili and English into a constantly-evolving pidgin that they, alone, understood. Narrating the development of this unique pidgin, the book combines the engagingly personal voice of a proud and loving mom with the sharp observer’s eye of a trained anthropological linguist.

Renowned linguist, Deborah Tannen, has this to say about the book:

It’s part linguistic analysis, part gripping story of culture contact, part deeply moving memorial to a life tragically cut short. This book will fascinate anyone interested in language, children, or human experience.

The 136-page book has five chapters, and Gilmore writes like a dream. Once you start it, I dare you to put it down.

You can find a link to a sample chapter here (“Uweryumachini!: A Language Discovered”):

If you’d like to request an exam copy for a course you teach, follow this link.

You can find Perry Gilmore’s contact information here.

I recently interviewed Perry Gilmore online about the book. Here’s what she had to say (AG = Alma Gottlieb; PG = Perry Gilmore):

PG portrait

Perry Gilmore

 

AG: In the Prologue, you write of Colin and Sadiki:

[T]heir invented language helped them construct new identities and resist, transgress, and transform the marked postcolonial borders and harsh inequities of economics, race and culture that engulfed them and dominated the social power relationships and language ideologies that engaged all aspects of their daily lives (xvi).

As such, you call the book

a human story of irrepressible expressive creativity and the politics of language and oppression . . . an ethnographic exploration of young children’s critical and resilient discursive agency in their innocent yet effective quest for language equality and a place for their friendship on the rigid borders of their vastly different language and cultural worlds (p. xix).

Similarly, in the final chapter, you write:

“the children’s language . . . [created] opportunities for them to cross deeply entrenched colonial borders as effective change agents and as an official effective language policy makers” (p. 95).

Those are impressive claims. How would you respond to skeptics who might doubt the ability of five-year-old children to disrupt the intertwined and entrenched legacies of colonial domination and racism in East Africa?

Colin and Sadiki Planning a Pretend Hunt

Sadiki (left) and Colin (right) planning a pretend-hunt

PG: I agree that these are impressive claims! But I am convinced that they are reasonable and accurate insights about the social dynamics that Colin and Sadiki’s border-crossing friendship generated – for them and for those around them.

In the early pages of my book, I express the hope Colin and Sadiki’s story will be able to amaze the reader. The boys’ story urges us to look more closely and see all children with a little more awe, wonder, and respect.

I, myself, was almost incredulous when I first discovered that, before two months, the children were communicating non-stop and with great facility in a Swahili- sounding language that only the two of them understood. My own shock, disbelief, and curiosity prompted me to record their language carefully and document the full range of their social interactions. In 1975, when these events occurred, I, myself, was doubtful that Colin and Sadiki – at only five years of age – could actually be displaying such creative linguistic virtuosity, strong agentive social roles, and active resistance to the existing language ideologies and conventions that surrounded them.

Having been an elementary school teacher for six years, a language and literacy curriculum developer for school-age children, and a graduate student in developmental psychology with a focus on language acquisition, I had a strong background in child development and behavior. All that I had ever read about children and about language at that time completely defied what I was witnessing.

In Kisisi, I present what I hope is a range of convincing contextualized behavioral evidence to demonstrate not only the children’s language virtuosity but also their effective and impactful social agency. No doubt, some might be skeptical about the ability of two five-year-olds to interrupt an entrenched and oppressive colonial order. I, myself, initially struggled with these more speculative ethnographic insights. For example, I could answer questions about “what” they were speaking with empirical linguistic descriptions that identified specific lexical innovations and new syntactic constructions. I could answer questions about “how” they constructed meaning and negotiated shared information in an empirically detailed discourse analysis that, line-by-line, examined their turn-taking utterances. However, to answer questions about “why” they chose to invent and continue to use their own private pidgin language instead of the Up-Country Swahili that they were expected to use, I used an ethnographic analysis that is necessarily more exploratory in nature and more interpretive in identifying underlying meanings.

A skeptic – or any reader, for that matter – could, and probably should, question my ethnographic interpretations about the children’s resilient and transformative agency. It was my task in the book to provide enough of their story to convincingly demonstrate their effective resistance in a rich description. I hope I accomplished that. As with all ethnographic work, however, I did not and cannot “prove” my analysis; instead, I explore its underlying meanings.

The case of the boys’ friendship, and the ephemeral invented language that helped create and sustain it, presents a provocative extreme along a continuum of possibilities in examining language choices and behaviors in social practice. The example also provides a lens for understanding how young members of language communities use and think about language – how they clearly exercise language choice, change, and possibility.

It is only in recent years, especially in the new and growing field of the anthropology of childhood, that children’s agentive behavior and early language ideologies have been recognized and explored. In earlier anthropological studies, children had generally been seen as the recipients of generational cultural transmission, rather than seen as contributors to and co-constructors of their own worlds. The role of children as language innovators and de facto language policy makers has been largely understudied, undocumented, and even ignored. This case of language invention provides documentation of children’s language creativity; gives insight into the agentive roles of children as language innovators in multilingual contact situations; and sheds new light on questions of language genesis, change, shift, and maintenance.

Even two-year-olds make their own decisions about language choice in multilingual settings. For example, in my Indigenous language work in Alaska, I saw young Yu’pik mothers in tears when their two-year-olds could understand everything their mothers said to them in Yu’pik, but would only answer in English. Somehow, much to the pain of their families, these very young language learners had made their own decision to choose the dominant English language over their Alaska Native heritage language. Examples like these are widespread and clearly demonstrate that very young children can and do resist existing language ideologies and exercise their own language choices.

Colin and Sadiki’s isolated and remote rural situation contributed to their more extreme language innovation, collaborative language choices, and social practices. I have argued that the children, by choosing to sustain, expand, and develop their own private language, resisted the dominant language ideologies that represented the hegemonic, racialized, post-colonial order of newly independent Kenya. Their public uses of their private language made a symbolic statement about what I describe as their “cultural critique” of an oppressive regime in which their own cross-racial friendship was considered by many as a violation of social norms. The boys refused to docilely participate in the existing colonial order and rejected the Up-Country Swahili language that was designated to keep that order in place. They resisted being socialized into a language ideology they rejected, and instead created a new language ideology that allowed a safe and celebrated space for their friendship. Sadiki and Colin used their language to deconstruct a colonial culture of fear and silence and reconstructed their own counter-culture of courage and voice.

Their resistance and language ideologies may not have been articulated with theoretical vocabulary, but they were boldly enacted. The boys did not resist through anger or aggression. Instead their effective, border-crossing agency was accomplished through loving verbal art and play. Their joy-filled language practices challenged the oppressive colonial culture that surrounded them, identifying them as a distinct and separate speech community that valorized its own social justice values and allowed a space for their treasured border-crossing friendship.

Colin & Sadiki-Proud Pretend Hunters

Colin (left) and Sadiki (right)–proud pretend-hunters

AG: What a persuasive response! I dare a reader to remain unconvinced. . .

In the book, you point out that, until recently, scholars of language overlooked children’s linguistic experiences as unimportant. How does your book contribute to developing scholarship about children’s language practices? Does what you observed about the development of Kisisi suggest anything about the origins of our species’ linguistic abilities?

PG: For centuries, speculations about the origins of human language and the genesis of new languages have presented daunting questions for philosophers, language experts, historians, and scientists. These questions had always fascinated me. My primary reason for being in Kenya in the first place was to study baboon communication. This type of ethological fieldwork was in part driven by a fascination for primate studies and its potential for illuminating the origin of language in the human species. The study of nonhuman primates in their natural habitat was a relatively new research practice at that time. Naturalistic, long-term primate studies promised to be a valuable source of information concerning possible models of early hominid behavior and communication. I had no way of predicting that it would be my son’s unplanned and serendipitous close friendship with his Samburu neighbor that would offer me an even more provocative language origin story!

Ethnographic studies of young children’s language socialization were just beginning to emerge as an area of interest and significance. In striking contrast to earlier widespread Piagetian language studies, which characterized children as developmentally egocentric and incapable of modifying their speech for an interlocutor, newer observational studies showed strong socio-centric abilities of very young children and even babies. For example, Elinor Ochs (1977) demonstrated that her infant twins were able to take conversational turns and repeat each other’s pre-linguistic babbling utterances. These findings in the late ‘70s defied the long-held Piagetian claims of egocentrism. Of course, Ochs’ work had not yet been written or published when I witnessed Colin and Sadiki’s socio-centric language invention.

The infamous “forbidden experiments” recounted by Herodotus and others, the failed and poignant attempts to teach feral children to speak (e.g., Itard’s Wild Child, and the case of Genie), questionable research proposals designed to create a new pidgin language by isolating speakers of different languages on a small island (e.g., Derek Bickerton), the study of a new sign language created by deaf children in Nicaragua, twin languages – all these cases were seen to hold the promise of finding the secrets of language origins and genesis. The study of pidgin and creole languages has similarly been seen as a fascinating place to see language develop and change over time.

The study of Colin and Sadiki’s language adds to this literature in captivating ways. It is a rare, first-hand account of an emerging language-in-the-making. Most of the examples of “new languages” are anecdotal and discovered after the fact. I was in an unusual situation whereby I could document the boys’ language practices as they occurred over time. Invaluable also was the benefit of seeing all of their behavior in social context. The ethnographic details of their situated everyday language practices were unique compared to other studies. These ethnographic data allowed for a more “emic” interpretation of the functions, uses, and meanings of their communication in context. This “ethnography of communication” approach enabled me to describe the children as members of a vibrant (if tiny) “speech community” who used their new language for specific purposes and in specific situations. I did not simply provide a structural description of their “language” in a vacuum but in the context of their complex, multilingual social life.

What can Colin and Sadiki teach us all about human language and about children’s language? One reviewer, a linguist and pidgin/creole scholar, has commented that Kisisi “shows that two five-six year old children can create a new grammatical system” and it “can happen fast.” I suggest that the boys can teach us many things about children and language. What seemed to me at first to be a small and simple story of two children inventing a language turned out to be a story that was complex, nuanced, and multilayered. Their experiences raise many profound questions causing us to rethink common assumptions about children and about language. Their “not-so-simple” story provides provocative insights about some very big ideas concerning language origins, children’s innovative language competencies, and the significant role of play and verbal art in language genesis. Their experience provides compelling evidence concerning the agentive roles that very young children can exercise in language and culture resistance, choice, and change.

Sadiki and Colin’s language began in response to a pragmatic need to understand each other in order to be playmates and friends. Their early genesis of an original, simplified Swahili pidgin served that immediate function, facilitating their play and budding friendship. As time went on and their close bonds deepened – even as they had learned and used other local languages – they continued to use and expand Kisisi, its linguistic form and structure, and its semiotic functions. It was fun. It was secret. It was theirs. It was an artistic verbal spectacle that surprised and captivated unsuspecting audiences. Their new language bonded them as much as it reflected their bonds. They created a secret language with a public function. Through their language use, they carved a new, exclusive, and symbolically resonant space, a separate universe for their controversial friendship.

Their experience taught me that we scholars of childhood need to view all children’s language, in its many complex forms, as inevitably intertwined with the lives and meanings of the children who use it.

Colin & Sadiki Closing the Paddock Gate

Colin (left) and Sadiki (right) closing the paddock gate

 

AG: You lived in Kenya, where the events described in this book occurred, some 40+ years ago. Some people might think that the data are too old to be relevant; others might think you’ve forgotten too much by now to write accurately about the events. Can you talk about the advantages of waiting so long to write about past events?

PG: Producing what Johannes Fabian would describe as a “late ethnography” that (re)presents and interprets historically situated events and practices, I have written this account forty years after I experienced it. I had deliberately accumulated a substantial archive during my time on Kekopey Ranch in Gilgil, Kenya. Like so many who had come before me, I intended to write a book about my time in Africa–although I originally thought my book might be about my life with the baboons I was studying. With that in mind, I was very meticulous about keeping lengthy journals and records. I also kept carbon copies of all the letters I wrote to friends and family back home. And I kept copies of the audio cassette voice letters we regularly sent back and forth to the States. Those voice letters included rich descriptions of our activities and environment, as well as many instances where Sadiki and Colin told jokes, recounted events, and sang songs for Colin’s grandmother, other relatives, and close friends. Because I was fascinated with their new language, I made regular tape recordings of Sadiki and Colin’s language interactions in a range of contexts and kept detailed notes about and translations of their developing language.

At the time, I was a professional writer for a nationally funded educational laboratory, Research for Better Schools, Inc. (RBS). I was on leave to do the baboon research but was able to do freelance writing for RBS drawing on my Kenya experiences. I mostly wrote children’s poetry and short stories for an anthology for a reading and literature curriculum we had been developing. (I had a wonderful supervisor at RBS who arranged for me to continue as a long distance writer on our project. This was amazing since it was long before fax machines, e-mails, Skype and scans! The international packages took six to eight weeks to arrive at their destinations.) I did this writing for the entire time I was in the field. The poetry and stories I wrote were largely focused on the boys and necessarily captured many subtle details and evocative descriptions of their daily life events.

The letters, journals, notes, recordings, and RBS writings all provided an extremely rich archive for me to draw on, decades later. Even forty years on, the accounts seem vibrant and vivid, and the now-digitized recordings bring the children’s giggling voices right into the room. I also maintained a growing library of local books, newspapers, documents, and articles that captured the local colonial life of the period. Furthermore, I drew on the parallel memories of many colleagues, friends, and Sadiki and his family, who lived with us in Kenya at the time. Many of them were kind enough to read early drafts of the book and/or talk with me about these past times and events.

You ask about the advantages of waiting to write about past events. One of the most exciting advantages of writing the book now is that over these decades, the field has grown so rich theoretically, and that has allowed me a range of theories, concepts, and language to work with that did not exist before. When I was first examining their behaviors, we didn’t really have the theoretical frameworks or the critical language to fully describe or understand what the boys were doing. Post-colonial studies, critical ethnography, language socialization, power and hegemony, decolonizing methodologies, agency, resistance and language ideologies didn’t yet exist as areas of study. I was better able to capture all aspects of their profound and complex story by relying more heavily on more recently developed ideas as central issues in telling their story. It was as if the field finally caught up to the boys!

 

AG: Ha, yes. We sometimes talk about scholars being “ahead of their time.” In this case, two five-year-olds proved “ahead of the scholars’ time”!

In that regard, in the Epilogue, you suggest that Kisisi offers pedagogical implications for language learning (including bilingual education) that could prove useful to teachers of students at various levels and in various contexts. Can you share some specific ideas you might have along those lines?

PG: Ethnographic inquiry about children’s language practices can inform and often enlighten educators. Ethnography can expose children’s language competencies that hide in plain sight, often unnoticed and unimagined. Kisisi can provide one ethnographic account of young children’s competencies that might help teachers look at their own students differently. Teachers might be encouraged to use an ethnographic lens in their own daily pedagogy. An ethnographic eye can reveal otherwise unseen or unrecognized competencies. Ethnographies like Kisisi can present strong counter-narratives to a dominant, destructive, deficit discourse that unfortunately persists in many educational settings. In a time when deficit arguments continue to hang heavy in US educational circles – fueled, for example, by the so-called “30 million word gap” research (Hart and Risley 1995, 2003), which falsely argues that low-income children in the U.S. at three years of age have been exposed to millions of fewer words than have been their wealthy counterparts – it’s a good time for teachers to use an ethnographic eye to confront the unequal power arrangements that obscure the potential linguistic talent, virtuosity, and strength we need to recognize and nurture in all children. By paying close attention and documenting children’s everyday talk, teachers can identify competencies and start to work from from a resource-rich stance rather than a deficit bias. All students come to schools with naturally creative and flexible multilingual and translanguaging capabilities. Colin and Sadiki are not unique. They demonstrate the fluid language abilities that all children are capable of. What is needed is a safe and respectful space to use language(s) in ways that enhance rather than threaten children’s identities and ideologies. When teachers create those meaningful contexts, language learning and use will flourish.

 

AG: Speaking of which . . . President Trump began his presidency with an executive order founded in deep suspicion of immigrants and refugees. Your book seems founded in the opposite aim: the urge to find the common humanity linking young children from radically different cultural traditions, historical contexts, economic resources, and life options. Have you had any reactions to your book from readers who might have approached it from something closer to Pres. Trump’s position of skepticism? More broadly, do you think your book, and others like it, can make inroads among those who hold deep convictions about the unbridgeable divides separating people via discourses of “otherness”?

PG: In an era of division, I have had very positive responses to Colin and Sadiki’s story. I believe the boys touch a place of hope and optimism in the hearts of those who have read the book. In this Trump era, Sadiki and Colin’s story reinforces a vision of building bridges, not walls. I think it sparks a yearning for deeper human connections with the “other.”
Colin and Sadiki Running in the Tall Grass w Perry Gilmore

Perry Gilmore, Colin and Sadiki walking through tall grasses

 

AG: Who do you hope will read this book—among scholars/students, policy makers/politicians, and the general public? What’s your fantasy for the impact that this book could have, if it were read by the right people?

PG: I hope a wide array of people will read the book. The two boys offer us a beautiful lesson in humanity. Love and play are at the heart of their creative language virtuosity and their healing, social justice transformations. I hope those who read the book will forever after watch all children with more awe and wonder! Linguists, anthropologist, educators, policy makers, and the general public can all find something in the book for them. The boys have left us a unique gift – a rare language legacy; and a human story of irrepressible expressive creativity and resilience in challenging the politics of language and oppression.

And, finally, I wrote this book as a memorial tribute to my son, Colin Gilmore, whose life was cut short by a drunk driver when he was only 18 years old. One clear hope of mine is that readers will remember Colin and the courageous and loving lessons he and his dear friend, Sadiki, left us.

Poems about Refugees

Adrie Kusserow is one of an increasing number of anthropologist-poets.  Or maybe more anthropologist-poets are just willing to come out of hiding.

Either way, I was delighted to catch up with Adrie and interview her about her wonderful book of poems, Refuge, that was published by Boa Editions (a leading literary publisher) in 2013.  Although the book is now a few years old, the subject of its title poem, and many others collected in its pages, remains all too relevant.  For more information, and a sample poem, check the publisher’s website here.

Adrie Kusserow, Refuge, Front Cover

If you’d like to find out more about Adrie Kusserow’s work as a researcher, an author, and the founder of an NGO, check out her website.

Her latest, short book that I’m featuring here contains 61 pages of 30 poems. In other words, it’s a quick, easy read—yet packs a richly moving punch.

One of our discipline’s best writers, Brooklyn-based Renato Rosaldo–himself, a recipient of an American Book Award for his poetry–has this to say about Adrie Kusserow’s latest book:

“Kusserow’s splendid verses bring us devastatingly close to the recent horrors of the southern Sudan and its lost boys.  Her ethnographic gaze is compelling and her poems plunge us into unfamiliar social worlds, bringing us the news we need to know.  Both anthropology and poetry stand enriched by her work.”

I recently talked with Adrie Kusserow about her new book. Here’s a record of our e-conversation:

Interview with Adrie Kusserow

Adrie Kusserow Head Shot

Alma Gottlieb (AG): As a scholar trained in anthropology, what motivated you to write and publish this book of poetry?

Adrie Kusserow (AK): There were many reasons, but mostly I didn’t have a choice. Poems are always able to handle the emotions and subtle nuances of bodily habitus (to use Bourdieu’s term) that I encounter in field work. Poetry is also something I prefer to write and comes quite naturally. Once I had tenure I felt I could risk not writing as much academic prose. This is my second book of poetry, so I knew I could write another, and hopefully publish with the same great publisher (BOA Editions, New American Poets Series).

Ever since college I’ve had one foot in poetry and the other in social science, feeling like each “side” really needed more of the other. When I was in graduate school, anthropological writing seemed stiff. It was fascinating but not always engaging. At this point in my life, I write more poetry than I do academic writing. Poetry can take us into places of nuance and subtlety that can get pounded out by academic jargon. I use poetry to take me to places of insight and truth that I couldn’t get to through regular prose. For me it’s like moving from one- dimensional reality to three-. I wanted to write poetry because I felt it could hold all of the subtle dynamics and emotionality of doing work in South Sudan in a way that academic prose couldn’t. I also don’t just view it as trying to accurately reflect any given situation or ethnographic encounter. It is a tool for me that I use to get to places of deeper understanding. Connections and insights come up for me about my “data” in the process of writing a poem. I’m also a big fan of Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, and poetry allows me to depict the tremendously subtle nuances of habitus.

I also wanted to have a book that I could use in my teaching. I very often use fiction, plays, and poetry to help students understand and appreciate core anthropological themes. Most of the courses I teach (on refugees, medical anthropology, and inequality) have a social justice current running through them, and I always try to get readings that will move my students not just intellectually, but viscerally and emotionally.

I also love writing poetry because it can sometimes help me reach a wider audience than I might with a scholarly journal that attracts readers who are, in a sense, already converted to anthropological jargon.

 

AG: For most people, poetry inhabits a different universe from a social science such as anthropology. Yet Edward Sapir and Ruth Benedict, two of our discipline’s most illustrious American forebears, were respected as published poets, and we’ve had plenty more anthropologist-poets since then. Like Sapir and Benedict, you’re a scholar who writes and publishes in both academic and poetic genres. Do you see your two kinds of writing as fundamentally linked, or fundamentally discrete?

AK: Fundamentally linked….I have no interest in writing solely confessional poetry that has no insight into the role that culture plays in shaping individual lives, hence I tend to gravitate toward ethnographic poetry. I also have no interest in writing the kind of straight ethnographic prose that has no metaphor, rhythm, color and vivid imagery in it. So I am perpetually writing both. I see ethnographic poems as taking me to a powerful, liminal place that can harness both “sides,” rather than each having its own territory.

 

AG: You’ve done research in places ranging from New York City and small-town Vermont to Bhutan, India, Nepal, Uganda, and war-torn southern Sudan. What’s inspired you to research life in such wildly diverse fieldsites?

AK: I’ve always been drawn to the Himalayas. After my freshman year at Amherst College, I left school and lived in Nepal with Tibetan refugees and then in Dharamsala, India, the home of the Tibetan Government in Exile. From there, I became a religion major studying Buddhism with Robert Thurman, and then I went to Divinity School to study Buddhism. The landscape of the Himalayas, and Buddhism, are what pull me back time and time again. I love how small the ego feels there, the lack of a kind of hyper-individualism.

I never had an early interest in going to East Africa. It was the Lost Boys of Sudan that pulled me there and changed the course of my work for a time. I became so close to them in Vermont that I followed them back to Sudan to try and find their families, interview their friends in refugee camps, took students with me, and interviewed refugee girls about the challenges they faced. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, we had built a school for refugee girls in the very southern part of Southern Sudan on the Congo/Ugandan border.

The whole time I missed the Himalayas. And now, I’m unable to set foot inside of Southern Sudan because of the brutal civil war, so I’m back to working in India, which I love. In April I’m making a film to raise awareness on trafficking of girls from tea plantations in rural Himalayan villages around Darjeeling, which will be used by a local NGO with Nepali subtitles. I’m very excited, as I will get to combine my love of trekking with applied anthropology. The film is going to document the trek along the Indo-Nepal border as I follow a local NGO/Stop Human Trafficking team.

 

AG: You write poetry, you publish scholarly articles, you teach college students, you founded and run an NGO based in the Southern Sudan, and now you’ll be working on a film. How do you perceive these very different activities? Do they all feel part of the same project, or independent from one another?

AK: They all feel part of the same project, a kind of obsessive exploration of inequality and how people cope with suffering.

I teach not only because I love it, but I feel students need to wake up to and be challenged by worlds larger than themselves. I believe this leads to tolerance and compassion.

I co-founded an NGO (Africa Education and Leadership Initiative) because I couldn’t witness the extreme inequality in access to education that girls face in South Sudan, and not try and do something to help try and even it out.

Africa ELI School T-shirt (back) Africa ELI Students

I write poetry because I have to, and it centers me into a place of truth (the truths of what exist under the generic conventional wisdom that often parades as truth). It brings what is most meaningful and challenging for me to think about, into a kind of sharp, almost meditative focus. Poetry lets me describe and awaken to the world in all its true complexity.

 

AG: Some of your poems are obviously “ethnographic” in that they’re “about someplace else,” but others are more “personal,” about your children or your husband. Do you see those as “ethnographic” as well?

AK: No, I don’t really see those as ethnographic, but at the same time it would be hard for me to describe the exact line where a poem becomes officially ethnographic. When I write about my children, I am still writing about them from a white, American, upper-middle-class perspective, and I often try and convey this in a poem, so the personal is often intentionally depicted as seeped in the cultural. And yet, sometimes, I just write personal poems, like a love poem to my toddler son. I try not to force myself to write either kind of poem, but I’m noticing that most often these days, I’m writing ethnographic poems. It is a way to process and sift through all that I’ve experienced doing field work in another country in a way that I cannot do when I am there in the midst of participant observation. When I’m in India or South Sudan, I write in a journal and don’t attempt to edit at all, just pouring out impressions and reactions and observations. When I come home, I start the weighing and sifting and looking at the entries in a slower, more creative way, and that’s often when more insights come.

 

AG: In a poem titled “What to Give Her–A Confession,” you write:

In our clumsy home of incense and dog hair,

I crave the weight of old cultures,

Cranky and outdated as they may be.

I crave sediment,

whole layers of history upon us

like a wet blanket, but without the stink,

the itchy suffocation.

Some anthropologists might see that sort of cultural nostalgia as old-fashioned. Did you feel more comfortable writing about it in a poem rather than in a scholarly text?

 

AK: Yes, I did. In poetry, I can say things I’m not supposed to say as an anthropologist–visceral, gut feelings that don’t obey anthropological theory or political correctness. In this poem, I am describing a mother who feels lost, and without the guidance of an orthodox religion. Motherhood now involves hearing hundreds of different perspectives on the best way to raise your child. Sometimes this can feel dizzying and overwhelming, and I crave one solid Bible telling me what is right. Indeed, I can know on an intellectual level that the weight of old cultures is……..but that doesn’t keep it from rising up from the gut into a poem.

 

AG: What’s the one question you’re most hoping interviewers will ask you about the book?

AK: Oh, actually I love to be surprised. I love it when someone asks me a question that sheds a whole new light on the book or makes me think about field work or the writing process in a new way. I love when a question forces me into new terrain instead of the same old generic answers and stories about ourselves we come to rely on and just automatically offer up. I like when questions make me question some of the narratives I get used to giving. It’s important that narrative not become too predictable and one-dimensional; after all, it’s just a story, and no story can encapsulate any one reality .

 

AG: Since this book has been published, the US has elected a president in good part because of his hostility to immigrants and refugees, especially those from the Muslim world. You’ve worked intimately with refugees, who have already been targeted by our new president’s two restrictive executive orders. What are your thoughts? Do you plan to teach classes educating students about the issue? Write more poems responding to the issue? Write more scholarly articles about it? Write Op Ed pieces? Something else?

AK: I plan to keep teaching courses on refugees, working with refugees in Vermont, introducing my students to refugee field work, and promoting internships and careers for my students in refugee-related fields. Beyond that, I will continue my work with AfricaELI.org, and supporting refugee students in South Sudan when the civil war allows us to. (The refugees I work with are almost all Hindu or Buddhist, from Bhutan, or Christian, from South Sudan.) On a more personal front, I have lots of work to do with supporting my South Sudanese family here in Vermont, one of whom is struggling in a psychiatric hospital and the other just had another child who they named after my mother, Suzanne, which was a great honor. I also support a young Nuba student in a camp in South Sudan who is trying to just stay alive and be able to return to school some day.

In general, I’m tending towards writing that gets published in more mainstream journals and magazines, as I like the wider audience.

 

AG: The American Anthropological Association has embarked on many new initiatives to promote anthropology to a broader reading public beyond our students and colleagues. Do you see your poetry as contributing to this goal? What about your NGO?

AK: Yes, I do see my poetry and my NGO as contributing to this goal. Reaching a broader reading public is extremely important to me. I recently wrote a short story called “Anthropology” for a magazine called THE SUN which has a much wider circulation than many of the journals I’ve published in. I am in full support of trying to reach a broader reading public!

A Review of “Euphoria” by Lily King

The novel, Euphoria, by Lily King, published in 2014, became a national best-seller and won several major literary awards.  Based loosely on a brief period in the life of Margaret Mead as she hesitated between Reo Fortune (to whom she was married) and Gregory Bateson (who the couple met while conducting research in New Guinea), the book brought wide attention to the iconic figure of 20th century American anthropology.  How did the novel shape up as a piece of intellectual history?

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I should say from the outset that I enjoyed Euphoria (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014). I read it in a week.  At the literary level, it’s wonderfully written. I didn’t wince at awkward language or edit paragraphs in my head.  I understood why the book became a national bestseller and won several literary prizes.

Euphoria

Nevertheless, a few days after having finished it, I found myself increasingly critical and disappointed.

Spoiler alert: The rest of this review is all about the book’s ending.

Sorry about that. But for me, as an anthropologist, the ending is what really stuck with me as the book lingered in my mind.

So here’s the basic storyline.

Margaret Mead (“Nell Stone”) and fellow anthropologist, the New Zealand-born Reo Fortune (“Sedgwick Fenwick,” nicknamed “Fen”), meet on a ship and fall in love. Margaret Mead and another fellow anthropologist, Ruth Benedict (“Helen”), have an affair. Reo Fortune gives Margaret Mead a choice of him or Benedict, and she chooses Fortune. Mead and Fortune marry (in 1928) and travel to New Guinea to conduct fieldwork with two ethnic groups (in 1931-33). Their marriage is problematic. The more we get to know Reo Fortune, the more odious he seems. It’s easy to imagine why Mead is looking for an excuse to leave him. Enter yet another anthropologist, the British-born Gregory Bateson (“Andrew Bankson”).

Bateson, Mead and Fortune in 1933.

Bateson, Mead, and Fortune in Sydney, Australia (1933)

The rest of the book works out this steamy, jungle–based love triangle (sometimes morphing into a love quadrangle, with Ruth Benedict lingering like a shadow in the background, half a world away).  The local New Guineans serve as exotic and useful backdrops, with cameo appearances and disappearances of individuals but, unfortunately, no well-sketched characters rounded out the way Mead, Benedict, and Fortune are.

The plot is basically Boy Meets Girl (interspersed from time to time with Girl Meets Girl), Second Boy Meets Girl, Girl Agonizes over which Boy to Choose, Girl Gets Pregnant by Boy #1, and . . . Girl Dies in Childbirth?!

Anyone who’s familiar with the four protagonists knows how this story ended in real life. Reo Fortune lost, Ruth Benedict lost, Gregory Bateson won (he and Mead married in 1936), and Catherine Bateson was the result (born in 1939), attesting to this love tri/quadrangle’s outcome. At least, that’s how things turned out until Bateson left Mead in 1947, later to be replaced by fellow anthropologist Rhoda Métraux as Mead’s partner from 1955 until Mead’s death in 1978 of pancreatic cancer. Margaret Mead & Gregory Bateson

Mead and Bateson among the Iatmul in New Guinea (1961)

 

But not in Lily King’s book.

In this alternate reality, before Margaret Mead has a chance to decide to leave Reo Fortune, she miscarries while on a ship to New York, and she dies at sea from hemorrhaging. Gregory Bateson learns of the tragedy while preparing to sail to New York to try once again to convince Margaret Mead to leave Reo Fortune and spend the rest of her life with him.

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Well, Lily King is a fiction writer.  By definition, she’s allowed to make stuff up.  In fact, she could make everything up.  That’s her stock in trade.

But she’s decided to craft a novel populated by characters based on actual people whose actual lives are actually documented. She’s taken pains to conduct meticulous research on the lives of Mead, Fortune, and Bateson while in New Guinea. Of course, the love scenes are imagined, but the basic contours of what they were doing, and where, hews closely in many ways to their known biographies. Up to the bizarre ending, King has painted an entirely plausible portrait of three people’s lives based on their documented experiences. But then she suddenly switches gears to imagine a substantially alternate reality for these real people who lived real lives in the public eye. If King had good reason for doing so, I could have remained a fan of the book. But she never clarifies, at least for me, why she suddenly fictionalized the basic facts into a drastically alternate scenario.

Had King’s fictional scenario come to pass, the history of anthropology in the 20th century would have looked different. If Margaret Mead’s life had been tragically cut short in the 1930s, as this fiction proposes, what might have been the result? After the years chronicled in the novel, the actual Margaret Mead became the only true public intellectual American anthropology has yet produced–with household name recognition, thanks to her monthly columns in the Ladies Home Journal. If Mead had died in the 1930s, the discipline might well have languished with far less funding, far less prestige, many fewer students taking courses, fewer departments in universities, and far fewer women entering anthropology (and maybe other social sciences as well). Mead not only publicized anthropology, she forged and publicized the possibility of a major female scholar gaining international attention.

Mead Speaking on UN Radio, 1958

Mead speaking on United Nations Radio about the Seminar on Mental Health and Infant Development sponsored by the World Federation of Mental Health (1952)

Mead on Steps of US Capital Bldg, 197

Mead on the steps of the US Capital with the staff that created her signature look in her later years (Jan. 1, 1973)

Of course, we can’t ever know, for sure, what the discipline of anthropology might have become without Mead’s last forty years —that’s the nature of counterfactual stories. But it would have been intriguing for King to speculate on this “What-if” scenario that she postulates. Instead, the story stops short at Mead’s untimely death, with only a brief postscript of sorts, decades later–recounting a brief scene with Gregory Bateson in the American Museum of Natural History in New York (where the real Margaret Mead in fact worked as a curator of ethnology for most of her career, as sexism kept her from a tenure-track or tenured position in any university).

Absent any speculation about how different anthropology would have looked without the giant figure of Margaret Mead, who publicized our discipline as no one, before or since, has ever done, the book’s ending thudded hard for me, with a crashing weight. Lily King hasn’t gifted us with her vision of how her counterfactual narrative might have played out. Right at the moment when the book promises to get insanely interesting, the story aborts.

And why did Lily King even imagine an untimely death of Margaret Mead, preventing her character from having the impact both on the discipline, and on American society, that she went on to have? Again, with that abrupt ending, that question is never answered.

Okay, fiction writers are allowed to pose questions they don’t answer. But, why this question for this character?

This reader was left frustrated.

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Meanwhile, young women seeking professional role models could do far worse than to read the works of Margaret Mead, memoirs of her life (1901-78) by those who knew her, and Mead’s own early autobiography (Blackberry Winter) and her fascinating Letters from the Field. She was an amazing woman, ahead of her time on so many levels. King starts to show us how. I wish she’d finished the job.

 

Howard, Mead-A LifeBowman-Kruhm, Mead BioGrainger, Uncommon Lives-My Life w M Mead

Lutkehaus, Mead-The Making of an American Icon Mead Bio for Kids Med, Blackberry WinterMead, Letters from the Field
  Saunders, Mead-The World Was Her Family

An Anthropologist at the Women’s March on Washington, Part 2: The Posters

 

Mass of Women, online photo by Noam GalliPhoto by Noam Galai

Women (and some men) with signs, as far as the eye could see.

In my first post about the Women’s March of January 21, 2017, I chronicled the social and emotional ties I saw created in this space of massive communitas, feminist style. Here, I offer a textual analysis of the posters I observed.

Mass of Demonstrators, Pink Hats, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Above the sea of pink knit hats, thousands of posters claimed the sky. Their messages ranged from instructive to witty, from loving to outraged. Let’s browse through a small selection of some of the most creative and impassioned, and see what they can tell us about this extraordinary moment in America’s still-young democracy.

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Poster, Tell Us Why You Came, cropped

Photo by Linda Seligmann

 

At the entrance to the event, a team of independent filmmakers documented the day’s events. They didn’t need to pester people to beg them for interviews. Instead, they staked out a prominent spot and simply held up an appealing sign: “Tell us why you came.”

Everyone had her story, and these filmmakers wanted to document as many as they could.

Mine was simple. I told them: “I came as a feminist dedicated to the radical proposition that women are human.”Poster-Feminism is the Radical Notion that Women are People (Photo by Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post), cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/The Huffington Post

Later, I was gratified to see a man bearing the same conviction. The strategy behind the motto works best when men are on board, too.

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Poster, Women Are Watching, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

 

I like the multiple layers of this poster.

The long lashes and bright blue eyes evoke women’s beauty—a classic subject of men’s gaze.

But the message below up-ends that practice and puts women in the active position of viewer rather than viewed.  That message challenges the gross misogyny of Donald Trump’s outrageous comments about women (the infamous “pussy-grabbing” remark being only one of many).

More broadly, this poster announces that women are paying attention to any gross misdeeds Trump may attempt. The women’s movement that re-birthed on January 21st, 2017 attests to this poster.

 

Poster, We Cant Unhear What Youve Said, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

This poster adds another sense modality to the sentiment of the last one. Not only are women watching the antics on the House and Senate floors, they are also listening to the outrageous speeches. And they are not forgetting. Trump’s bank account can’t buy amnesia for the rest of the world.

This poster implicitly evokes the power of the Internet. Pre-Digital Age, politicians could conceal their misdeeds, their offensive statements, and even the bills they introduced into the legislature, far more easily. Now, digital cameras and cell phones-turned-tape-recorders document politicians’ back-door dealings; investigative reporters “follow the money”; and any citizen can hold police accountable with a simple snap of the shutter.

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Poster, Trump Quote, Pussy Grab

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Donald Trump’s infamous comment resonated everywhere that day in Washington. In case anyone had been living under a rock all fall and needed help decoding the pink knit caps with “cat ears,” this poster reminded everyone of the odious Say what?! statement that outraged even Republicans.

“Pussy” used to be an X-rated term used by men to refer insultingly to women’s genitals. With a president as an avowed, enthusiastic sexual harasser,  women have now re-appropriated the metaphor and turned it against would-be “pussy grabbers.”

Poster, Dont Grab on Me, croppedPoster, Keep Your Laws off My Pussy, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Poster, Real Men Grab Patriarchy by the Balls, Photo by MC

Photo by Mina Cooper

“Pussy”-as-vagina and “pussy”-as-cat have now combined such that women are re-claiming their gendered identity as a space of agency rather than victimhood.  Effectively using the strategy of the gay rights movement, which re-appropriated “gay” and “queer” as terms of pride and self-identification, feminists have re-appropriated “pussy.”  Not only was “pussy” a degrading term for women’s genitals; “Don’t be a pussy” previously meant, “Don’t be a coward,” with the vagina standing in synecdochally for cowardice. The thousands of cat-pun-themed posters and -knit hats in view everywhere in D.C. signaled a powerful message: these women would not be bullied into submission. Rather, women own their genitals and feel empowered to push back against the sexist agenda of the Trump regime.

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Poster, Trump Grabs Crotch of Statue of Liberty

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

This poster distressed me more than all others I saw. I kept finding myself somehow compelled to look at it, then compelled to look away.

The idea of a sexually harassing president is odious enough. Taking that image as a metaphor for raping democracy, as symbolized by the feminized Statue of Liberty, is, if such a thing is possible, even more disturbing. Whether from direct experience or from hearing about it from friends and relatives, all women know what it is to be sexually assaulted. Imagining our collective polity and shared values assaulted in this symbolically resonant way is almost too painful to contemplate.

Yet Trump’s abhorrent statement from long ago, now immortalized, has spawned a new generation of feminists. The feminist artist who visualized this metaphor has created a powerful image that is bound to speak for months and years to come, for all who so much as glimpsed her horrifying poster.

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Poster, Embarrasser in Chief

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Donald Trump’s personal history as a proud sexual harasser may even include rape—several accusations have been neither fully proven nor discredited. As such, the individual representing our nation to the world is deeply problematic. How can such a person have been chosen as Time magazine’s “person of the year”? This poster mocks Time’s decision by applying a new, degrading title, along with an iconic image of evil–the horns of the devil in Christian iconography (inherited from the satyrs of Greek mythology)–to our commander-in-chief.

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Poster, Dr Seuss Rhyme, Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post, cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/Huffington Post

Why does everyone like Dr. Seuss? Because he distills complex concepts into simple rhymes that even young children get.

This brilliant poster takes advantage of that strategy. Donald Trump’s disturbing history of sexual aggression towards women is protested via a child’s rhyme—not to belittle the seriousness of our president’s outrageous misogynist history, but to insist in the clearest and simplest possible terms on the basic fact of its unacceptability.

And, in case anyone missed the Dr. Seuss connection, the poster mad that inspiration explicit with a signature red-and-white-striped hat.

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Poster, My Body, My Choice, Photographing Crowd

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

This sign echoed hundreds of others referring to so many issues important to America’s women. Having a “pussy-grabbing” president terrifies young women, who keenly appreciate the battles their mothers and grandmothers fought to keep abortion legal and safe, breastfeed in public, name sexual harassment as a crime, and put rapists behind bars.  In other words, “My Body. My Choice” resonates across multiple registers.  It indexes the many struggles women have waged across multiple centuries and communities to assert somatic autonomy; the battles that have already been won to achieve this aim; and the precarity of those successes in the new U.S. administration.

This particular sign was silk-screened, along with hundreds of others, by members of an arts collective who donated their expertise and services at the Nasty Women Exhibition, a six-day art fair held in Queens, NY, the week before the Women’s Marches. All artwork at that exhibit sold out, and the entirety of the $42,000 raised was donated to Planned Parenthood. In this photo, my daughter, Hannah Gottlieb-Graham, doubled as sign-holder and photographer as she observed and marched.

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Poster, Never Again, Coat Hanger, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Another devastating combination of 2 words + 1 image.

Roe v. Wade represents just one of many rights that people at the Women’s March aimed to defend. But it epitomizes the anger that women feel at the life-threatening medical risks they would incur if Roe V. Wade were reversed.

This poster speaks poignantly to my own family history.

My maternal grandmother had thirteen dangerous and illegal abortions.

Or so my mother once told me. Out of a combination of shock and embarrassment, I never asked my mother any details. And I certainly never queried my beloved grandmother about what must have been painful memories, as the topic was entirely taboo during the years when my grandmother was alive. But from what I know of my grandmother’s life, I find the claim entirely plausible.

As Jews living in extreme poverty in shtetls of Eastern Europe, both my maternal grandparents had only managed to attend grade school, through maybe the third or fourth grades, before they managed to flee religious persecution and make new lives for themselves in the U.S. Once here, they found religious freedom but continued to live in poverty: they rented the same three-floor-walk-up, one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx for 50 years. They both worked long, hard hours for decades—my grandfather, as a waiter; my grandmother, as a licensed practical nurse.

My grandmother had two daughters, but the second (my aunt) was born with a serious kidney disease, and the doctor wasn’t optimistic about her chances for survival. My grandmother devoted herself to her sickly daughter’s health, and through her love combined with her basic nursing training, she managed to keep her daughter alive.

According to my mother, this medical and emotional trauma, combined with the family’s poverty, convinced my grandmother to put an end to her childbearing years after my aunt was born in 1923. But reliable birth control methods were still decades away. My grandmother’s only recourse to thirteen more pregnancies was to have thirteen back-alley abortions. Here’s where my pre-anthropological days fail me. I don’t know the details of who did the work, where, and how much they charged, although I imagine that coat hangers might well have been involved.

Until Jan. 21, 2017, this old family story, while a part of my maternal lineage, seemed worlds away from the lives of modern American women. As we await the drama unfolding in the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, images of coat hangers sometimes invade my dreams.

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Poster-Decriminalize Womanhood, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

A personal favorite. This poster says so much with two words and one powerful image.

So many women–in the U.S. and elsewhere—are sexually assaulted. So few rapists are ever even tried, let alone convicted and jailed. And in recent years, so much legislation has been proposed by Republican politicians at both state and federal levels in the U.S. that aims to curtail women’s hard-won freedoms.

Moreover, in middle schools, girls across the U.S. and elsewhere view textbook drawings that make the inside of their bodies seem like alien territory.

The net effect of these efforts is that, to some young women, it feels that the simple state of being a woman is being criminalized.

The artistic creator of this poster has used warm colors to draw the uterus as an object of beauty. Along with the über-short and über-clear text, she declares that a woman’s genitals should be the source of pride, not fear, much less invasion–whether physical, symbolic, or legal.

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Poster, My Pussy Bites Back, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

And this poster individualizes the determination to protect women’s bodies by evoking a veritable vagina dentata motif. Here, we see an empowering response to Trump’s threats to women’s reproductive rights and sexual autonomy.

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Poster, Grow a Vagina, Betty White Quote, photo by Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post, cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/The Huffington Post

For many years, “Grow a pair” or (more explicitly) “Grow some balls” has served to urge men and boys to gain courage. In that idiom, testicles function as a metaphor for all that is stereotypically associated with masculinity — physical strength, emotional steadiness, tenacity.

This women’s march not only challenged the economics of patriarchy. With posters such as this, the protest challenged our deepest assumptions about gender.

“Grow a vagina” as an exhortation to be brave urges girls and women to think of their genitals as organs of strength. Any woman who has ever menstruated gets it. So does any woman who has lost her virginity to a man. And what about childbirth? There’s a reason Asante women of Ghana liken childbirth to going to war. And don’t even get me started about rape. As every woman knows, women’s genitals are the site of almost super-human strength.

 

Poster, Fight Like a Girl, Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post, cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/Huffington Post

This poster expands the notion of female strength from the genitals. Here, women are depicted categorically as strong. The poster’s motto overturns two phrases commonly used to encourage boys to be strong: “Don’t cry like a girl” and “You fight like a girl.” Here, fighting like a girl is taken as a badge of honor, with girls depicted as a model to emulate, not avoid.

 

Poster, Resister, Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post, cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/Huffington Post

In this poster, the beloved fictional character of Princess Leia stands dramatically for women’s ability to defend themselves. The double-entendre, single-word text packs a powerful punch. With those eight letters, women are at once offered Princess Leia as a role model for resistance, and a vision of sisterhood both with that fictional character, and with one another.

Montagu, The Natural Superiority of Women

Years ago, the renowned anthropologist Ashley Montagu argued that men are, intrinsically, the weaker sex. His book, The Natural Superiority of Women, first published in 1952, was an inspiration to the founders of the National Organization of Women in 1966.

The set of posters just analyzed suggests it might be time for Ashley Montagu’s book to become required reading in high school social studies classes across America.

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Poster, Womens Rights are Human Rights, Black, Worker, Immigrant, Trans, Poor, Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

If the hundreds of posters I saw shared an overarching theme, it was probably, “Intersectionality.”

Unlike the “second wave” of (largely white) feminists of the 1960s, feminists of the 21st century understand that the fates of the world’s women are interlinked, and, moreover, that our struggles are also interlinked with those of other marginalized and oppressed populations. At the Women’s March in Washington, everywhere, I saw religious minorities, immigrants, sexual minorities, racial and ethnic minorities, and the economically vulnerable—both in person, and represented on signs.

Poster, Build Bridges Not Walls, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

I took the “bridges” on this sign both in the literal sense, concerning the US/Mexican border—and as a metaphorical sign urging political alliances to link the many marginalized and vulnerable groups now targeted by the Trump administration.

 

Poster, I Want as Many Rights as Guns Have, cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos /Huffington Post

This poster makes ironic ties to another bitter controversy in the contemporary era: the rights of gun owners vs. the need for public safety.

Are women really less valued than guns in American law and American society?

 

Latina Girls with Posters

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

These young Latina girls probably ranged from 13-16 years old, but their posters testified that they already identified as women. And their posters signaled their early understanding that in 21st century America, this identity comes with political baggage, and demands solidarity and pluck.

The energy and positivity of this cheerful but powerful young group felt infectious.

 

Muslim Woman Holding Poster, LS Photo, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

This young Muslim women displayed a dazzling understanding of intersectional issues. Islamophobia, reproductive rights, racism, misogyny, ignorance, hatred, climate change, the school-to-prison pipeline, the Black Lives Matter movement, and love all found a place on her packed poster. As such — and in contrast to her own headscarf-wearing body — her poster proclaimed a subliminal retort to the common American stereotyping of Muslims as “other.” Through her poster, this young woman asserted her common humanity with so many “others,” thereby deconstruction the “othering” impulse itself.

 

Poster, Republicans Will Protect Your Rights if You Are a Fetus, Photo by LS, cropped

Photo by Linda Seligmann

If the protesters understood acutely the ways in which seemingly disparate issues intersect, the same cannot be said for Republicans who see these issues as unrelated. This poster in effect offered a meta-critique of those conceptual blinders. The ironic result it pointed out: the unborn have more rights than many groups of people outside the womb.

 

Button, Dissent is Patriotic, ACLU

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

The movement began with women, and attracted over a half a million of them in Washington, D.C. alone. But men joined in as allies, often pointing out the intersections with other issues.

The legal right to protest Trump’s policies was on people’s minds early on. The button I spotted on this man’s hat proved prescient.

With a president who has declared that journalists are “the enemy of the people,” the ACLU — staunch defender of free speech — should become a major player in the next four years.

Thankfully, in the weeks following the inauguration, the American Civil Liberties Union attracted unprecedented donations by ordinary Americans. According to a report published by CNN on Jan. 31, 2017:

“The American Civil Liberties Union said it received $24.1 million in online donations over the weekend.

In a normal year, the activist group makes about $4 million in online donations. In one weekend, it raised six times as much money.”

The ACLU will doubtless put these funds to important use.

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Poster, So Mad, Blood Coming out of Wherever, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Another personal favorite.

Back in Aug. 2015, Fox news journalist Megyn Kelly moderated a debate among Republican primary contenders. Kelly was especially tough on Trump for his anti-women agenda. After the interview, Trump dismissed Kelly’s challenging questions by referring to her genitals: he implied her questions lacked legitimacy because they must have been produced by menstrual processes — “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her . . . wherever.” Reverting to an age-old patriarchal habit of delegitimizing women’s claims for equality by suggesting out-of-control hormonal processes signaled that Trump’s misogyny was unlimited.

This poster revisits that moment and turns it against Trump. The sign holder owns her anger, and even associates it with her menstrual cycle. As with the pink knit “pussy hats,” in so doing, she is, in effect, using the logic of the gay rights movement, once activists re-appropriated the previously insulting terms used against them–“gay” and “queer.” This sign-maker’s menstrual anger does not control her; rather, she controls it, and for a political purpose: to push back against the sexist agenda of Donald Trump and others of his ilk.

Note, too, the angry tampon in the upper-right corner. Animating that piece of menstrual technology gives life to an inanimate object that is an intimate part of many modern women’s monthly bodily regimes. As such, the angry tampon re-channels the anger of all women, everywhere, who were denigrated by Trump’s insulting dismissal of Megyn Kelly’s professional journalism.

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Poster, Legitimately President like a Ham Sandwich is Legitimately Kosher, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Not all posters were grim or angry. Even through their outrage, some protesters found ways to make us laugh. This clever Miller analogy offered a bitter chuckle for Jewish protestors.

 

Poster, An Actual Ikea Cabinet, LS Photo, cropped

Photo by Linda Seligmann

Another punster targeted not Trump, but his Cabinet picks.

At the time of the Women’s March, Trump had already announced many outrageous choices for top Cabinet positions, including Betsy DeVos for Education, Rick Perry for Energy, Tom Price for Health and Human Services, and Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development. Just a day after the inauguration, reasonable people educated about these picks were already furious.

Nevertheless, this protester’s play on words earned a smile wherever she went.

 

Poster, Girls Just Wanna Have Fundamental Rights

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Another poster offered a different play on words. The time for Cyndi Lauper’s celebration of girls protesting against sexism via partying is over. With the assault on women’s bodies on many registers, today’s girls just wanna have fun-damental rights.

Even in the most urgent of political crises, a joke can keep us sane. As H. L. Mencken once said, “What restrains us from killing is partly fear of punishment, partly moral scruple, and partly what may be described as a sense of humor.”

 

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Poster, I Cant Believe I Still Have to Protest this Shit, Cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

The last theme I want to signal is the set of inter-generational conversations that abounded on many posters.

Women who remember earlier women’s rights struggles displayed their frustration with old battles that they thought they had won, only to see them re-appear with new force and Hydra-like terror.

Poster, Hello 1955 Please Hold for the Republicans, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

In the U.S., Republicans often point to the 1950s as a Golden Age. Women, and minorities of all sorts, know better.

American schools were still segregated, and Jim Crow laws were still on the books and followed across the South. Gays were still either closeted or bullied. Women were still expected to marry, have children, and devote themselves exclusively to their families while abandoning all career aspirations. The “military-industrial complex” was just being born. The Cold War divided the world into “us” and “them” while starting to outsource military conflicts to the global South. No concept of rights for the disabled even existed. Public awareness of any religions beyond Christianity was nil. Industrial expansion produced unprecedented toxins polluting the water, air, and land, without nary a protest.

Today, our nation is far from utopian, yet the gains made over the past half-century in rights for women, for minorities of all sorts, and for the earth, are undeniable. The Trump administration’s efforts to turn back the clock and undo those significant gains reminds women old enough to remember the 1950s of a nightmare that, until now, seemed like it was just a distant memory.

 

Poster, We are the Granddaughters of the Witches You Could Not Burn, Photo by Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post, cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/Huffington Post

This poster reminds us of a far longer timeline. Evoking the Massachusetts’ Salem witch trials of 1692-83, the women carrying this set of posters performed a sort of moving political theatre.

Feminist scholars such as Isaac Reed have argued that the Salem witch trials must be understood as a component of gendered history — rooted in patriarchal institutions and mindsets of colonial America. These contemporary protesters argued that the Puritan patriarchal mindset is still with us. They also saw the accused witches as early feminist rebel-heroes — and themselves, as their heiresses.

 

Poster, Now Youve Pissed off Grandma, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

 

As a feminist grandmother, I can relate to this one.

If women in general are supposed to demonstrate infinite patience, that gendered stereotype applies tenfold to grandmothers. They’re the ones kids turn to when parents are mad. If even Grandma is pissed off to the point of making a crude hand gesture, something is seriously amiss.

This poster highlights issues of special concern to the elderly — having enough money to live on after retiring, and a good enough medical insurance policy to cover the increasing costs of staying healthy.

And, yes, the poster also reminds us: old women are also vulnerable to sexual assault.

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Poster, This is Not a Moment, It Is a Movement, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Finally, lurking at the back of all our minds that day was the unstated question: “Now what?”

Posters abounded proclaiming, in one way or another, that the sun would not set definitively on that day. The momentous event — with its global impact — will be hard to dismiss or forget.

Although the Washington protest was the largest and, because of its location, the most symbolically most potent, it inspired sister marches around the country, and across the globe. Crowd estimates by scholars tell us that something like 4.5 million people marched in 915 individual events around the world.

These extraordinary numbers suggest two striking facts: a great deal of passion, and a great deal of coordination. When passion and coordination are harnessed, a powerful cocktail is created.

Which brings me to the next poster.

 

Poster, Make Feminism Great Again, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

During the campaign season, Donald Trump’s campaign motto, “Make America great again,” resonated with many white voters who feared global flows. But others saw in that slogan an unrealistic effort to close our borders to the world, and a dangerous evocation of earlier nationalist moves that produced imperialist invasion/expansion in places ranging from Vietnam and the Philippines to Iraq and Afghanistan.

This poster bitterly mocks that motto. Here, “Feminism” substitutes for “America” — thereby, implicitly, challenging not only the nativist/xenophobic agenda of Trump, but his longstanding misogyny, as well. This especially subversive slogan is bound to irritate Trump (and his supporters) greatly.

 

Poster Display on Floor in Metro Station from Distance, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

What to do with all these posters at the end of the day?

Many marchers felt reluctant to ditch them in trash cans.

A spontaneous art exhibit formed at this metro station, as protesters donated their signs to thE subway floor-turned-impromptu art-gallery that expanded by the minute.

Only two days later, museums and libraries around the world, from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. to the Royal Alberta Museum in Vancouver, announced that they would start collecting the posters.

 

Poster, Mobilize for Midterms, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

While museum curators soon presented exhibits protesting President Trump’s executive order against Muslim immigrants and refugees either by removing (or covering over) all artwork by immigrants, or by featuring such works, political activists forged their own plans.

Across the US, a new organization has formed: “Indivisible.” Already, 7,000 chapters have been created. Members are busy protesting the Trump agenda, while mindful of the numbers necessary in Congress for Democrats to reclaim the national agenda. The most effective way is to “Mobilize for Midterms”—that is, the “mid-term” elections that will take place in 2018, in the middle of the current presidential term.

This poster featured the pragmatic side to the march, complementing the poetic and the artistic approaches featured in the posters highlighted above.

All approaches were in full force in Washington, and equally welcome.

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A, H w Matching Tshirts, Cropped

Photo by Linda Seligmann

The joy of raising a feminist.

My daughter, Hannah Gottlieb-Graham, had accompanied my husband and me to smaller protests over the years, but this massive scene made an impression like no other.

To plan for our trip to Washington, she’d bought us matching t-shirts. No offense meant to men, but given the past few millennia ruled by patriarchy, redressing the balance seems in order.

 

Tshirt, Im with HerPoster, Im with Her

                                           Photo by Alma Gottlieb

When Hillary Clinton was still running for president, people from Kim Kardashian and Oprah Winfrey to Barack Obama declared their allegiance by announcing, “I’m with her.” The un-referenced pronoun easily stood for Hillary Clinton because she was the first woman ever to win the nomination of one of the two major political parties of the United States. T-shirts supporting Hillary didn’t even have to mention her name—the “her” in question was obviously Hillary.

At the march in Washington, these simple three words took on a powerful new meaning when added to multiple arrows pointing in every possible direction. Once Hillary lost, “I’m with her” referred not to one woman, but to Every Woman. The power of a gendered political movement was born with those arrows.

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The official Women’s March on Washington has called for a national Women’s Strike on March 8th. Let’s join them!

 

When Feminism Starts in Fifth Grade

Can ten-year-olds be feminists?
Absolutely.

This group of fifth graders just voted to forfeit their basketball season unless their co-ed team is allowed to compete, girls included.

Feminism is not a radical world view.  It’s simply the proposition that women and girls are human.  These ten-year-old boys and girls in New Jersey got it.

5th Grade Basketball Team in NJ Votes to Forfeit Season for Feminism

The Joys–and Uses–of Teaching Anthropology

Yes, I’ve retired from full-time teaching.  Yes, I sometimes miss it, and may well return to the classroom from time to time.

For now, I was tickled to read of the impact that a research methods class I taught a few years back has had on a student.  Apparently, he’s now using those interview methods I taught him to figure out how people interact with the Expedia website, then using those interviews to improve users’ experiences online.  Who said anthropology is old-fashioned and irrelevant?

 

Chris Nixon Interviews Shopper, Seattle Mall

An Anthropologist at the Women’s March on Washington, Part 1: Finding Communitas, Feminist Style

Mass of Demonstrators in Front of Capitol 1, cropped
(photo by Alma Gottlieb)
The doors of our metro car opened and closed, opened and closed with increasingly alarming dysfunction.  On any other day, the many more dozens of people jammed into our subway car than (for safety reasons) should have occupied our tight, air-deprived space would have panicked–jostled, elbowed, and accused one another.  Instead, taking the occasion as an opportunity to befriend new neighbors, we asked from where and how far our companions had traveled, asked where they were staying, asked if the growing-short-of-breath needed water.  In other words, we bonded.
Anthropologists have a name for that feeling of spontaneous community that developed in an unlikely place: we call it, “communitas.”  Coined by the great Victor Turner (one of my long-ago mentors), the term originally referred to feelings of solidarity forged in African initiation rituals.  But anthropologists now apply the word to all sorts of places beyond rain forest groves.  Two days ago, an urban subway offered my first sighting of communitas in Washington, D.C.–but certainly not my last.  On Jan. 21, 2017, feminism and anthropology converged, as women around the country–and around the world–forged a sense of communitas that, unlike many temporary feelings of communitas, may well have lasting effects beyond the day’s euphoria.
Indeed, after it was over, yesterday’s march in the nation’s capital felt, if anything, infinitely grander and more important when we learned of the 600 or so sister marches around the world attracting some 2 million protestors, begun on Facebook and coordinated by the miracle of social media.
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I’m old enough to have intense teenage memories of participating in the huge marches on Washington of the 1960s, supporting civil rights and protesting the Vietnam War.  But my anthropologist friend, Linda Seligmann, and I were accompanied to yesterday’s march by three young women (aged 17 to 21 years old) who had never participated in such a momentous event.
A, H, Mina, Charlotte on Subway
(photo by Linda Seligmann)
I watched their wide-eyed wonder with delight as some 500,000+ strangers, mostly women, found a new pink-knit-capped sisterhood.
Mass of Demonstrators, Pink Hats, cropped more
(photo by Alma Gottlieb)
My day’s companions had their own somatic challenges.  One became dizzy and nearly fainted in the overcrowded, under-oxygenated metro car we occupied for nearly two hours; another exercised all her willpower to control her bladder, when toilet facilities proved elusive during six hours of enforced standing.  And yet, they never complained, never begged for an exit strategy.  Instead, they felt that strong pull of communitas.
I, myself, felt the tug of an old back injury asserting itself as those six hours of standing activated muscular fatigue.  And yet, communitas asserted a stronger pull.
After three hours of listening to inspirational speeches, many in the crowd became restless. “Start the march!  Start the march!” some began chanting.  And, indeed, some began marching (or, truth to tell, shuffling, amidst the thousands of protesters barely able to move), while others remained at the rally, to listen to yet more speakers.  Yet even that splintering of attention didn’t fracture our sense of common purpose.  Among those who stayed behind and those who forged on, communitas asserted a stronger pull.
Some protest signs and speeches signaled disturbing acts of police abuse across our troubled land.  And yet, even when faced with police officers and security guards trying to direct our unruly numbers, communitas won out, as protesters and cops responded with noticeable civility to one another.
The people who flocked to the nation’s capital looked more diverse than those at any march in my memory.  Judging by what I saw and heard, the event attracted white, brown and black folks; Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus; straight people, gay people, drag queens, and everything-in-between; breastfeeding babies and grandmothers in wheelchairs; sighted walkers and white-caned walkers; people sporting designer clothes and others wearing hand-me-downs; groups of teachers and groups of students; executives and labor union members; English-speaking and Spanish-speaking youth.
Latina Girls with Posters
(photo by Alma Gottlieb)
And yet, despite this extraordinarily diverse concatenation of humanity, we forged communitas.
Muslim Woman Holding Poster (LS Photo) cropped
(photo by Linda Seligmann)
Or perhaps I should say, because of that extraordinarily diverse concatenation of humanity, we forged communitas.
Poster-We Are All Immigrants (LS Photo)
(photo by Linda Seligmann)
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I don’t mean to paint an overly Pollyana-ish portrait of an admittedly extraordinary day.  The challenges to maintaining momentum and organizing such a diverse constituency into a viable political movement are far from trivial.
But in the right circumstances, communitas can also cast a long shadow that can even produce some staying power.  Maybe, just maybe, it may prove powerful enough to help the organizers of these diverse groups–both those with impressive experience, and those just cutting their eye teeth on their first demonstration–mobilize the global energy, incorporating both love and anger, that asserted itself yesterday on all seven continents.

And Our Winners Are . . .

Many thanks to the 1,152 people who entered our publisher’s Amazon Giveaway to receive free copies of A World of Babies, and to Cambridge University Press for sponsoring the Giveaway!

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We’ve now got four winners (selected at random): Kellie Hopstein, Thelma Henderson, Jean Ann Bates Martin, and Sarah Allen.

We hope you enjoy the book, Kellie, Thelma, Jean, and Sarah!

For everyone else: the book is available (in paperback, hardcover, and Kindle editions) with a good discount on Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon France, Amazon Germany, Amazon India, and Amazon Australia!

 

 

Enter to Win a Free Copy of “A World of Babies”–Deadline, Jan. 12, 2017!

Win a free copy of “A World of Babies”!

book-cover-rev-2-16-16

To celebrate the official publication of the book, which is January 2017, our publisher is sponsoring an Amazon Giveaway.

Act soon: the deadline to enter is Jan. 12! Just click here to enter . . .

https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/be7654b0f8213fc9?ref_=pe_1771210_134854370#ts-fo

fb-post-01-06-17-re-free-limited-time-offer

 

The Story behind “A World of Babies”

Interested in learning some behind-the-scenes stories about how “A World of Babies” came into existence?

Check out a new interview with my co-editor, Judy DeLoache, and me in a newsletter published this month by the Jacobs Foundation, a private organization (based in Zurich, Switzerland) dedicated to improving the lives of the world’s youth.

jacobs-fdtn-newsletter-screenshot

Here’s a sneak preview:

Gottlieb: “For urban populations in Europe and the US it always sounds amazing to imagine what it would be like if we had a more collectively oriented child-rearing style. But the truth is it doesn’t easily fit most of our lifestyles. When both our children were young, my husband and I were living a thousand miles away from our family. Unlike Beng mothers, I didn’t have nieces, sisters, aunts, and cousins to help carry our children. It would be wonderful if we had a more communal approach to child-rearing, but in practical terms, it’s hard for those of us who arrange our lives in nuclear families. Implementing a different baby-carrying regimen really means implementing a different family structure and residential pattern, and creating a sense of community such that a much larger group of people than a mother sees itself as responsible for the well-being of each child.”

Check out the full interview here:

“There is not one right way to raise children, there are many ways”

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