Braided Worlds

Braided Worlds Cover

Co-authored with my writer-husband, Philip Graham, Braided Worlds continues the story introduced in Parallel Worlds, our earlier memoir of our time living among the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire–this time, with our son, Nathaniel (then, six years old). We chronicle intimate family stories–both our own and those of our village neighbors, as they increasingly become intertwined by three adoptions: our son’s adoption into a venerable Beng lineage; Philip’s recently deceased father’s adoption into the Beng afterlife; and our adoption of the college-student son of one of our village hosts as he joins our U.S. lives as a student at our university in Illinois. At the same time, this sequel brings the narrative forward through a wider lens, into Côte d’Ivoire’s modern era of political turmoil and intermittent civil war. In short, through narratives we hope readings will find compelling, we trace multiple braidings, and at multiple levels, in this set of stories of lives interlinked both globally and intimately.

Braided Worlds was published by the University of Chicago Press (2012). Selections from Braided Worlds originally appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Anthropology and Humanism, Mid-American Review, and Being There: Learning to Live Cross-Culturally, edited by Sarah Davis and Melvin Konner (Harvard University Press, 2011).

As with Parallel Worlds, all royalties from Braided Worlds are dedicated to the Beng people, via the Beng Community Fund, a 501 (c) (3) organization we co-founded and co-direct to benefit the Beng community.

Girl at Kosangbé Water Pump

Water pump for the village of Kosangbé, recently repaired with the help of royalties from Braided Worlds.

You can listen to a podcast of Alma Gottlieb and Philip Graham reading short excerpts from Braided Worlds here.

If you’d like to buy a copy of the book, it’s available on many online sellers, including:

Advance praise for Braided Worlds:

Braided Worlds is ethnographic storytelling at its best, rich in its evocation of the daily surprises of fieldwork, warm in its compassion for the Beng people, and haunting in its description of a moment of being that was as unforgettable as it was elusive. Gottlieb and Graham are a perfect duo, counterpointing and harmonizing with one another. Their book is filled with love, for each other, for the art of writing, and for the journey that led them to find another home in the world.”
-Ruth Behar, author of An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba

“More than a sequel to the much-celebrated Parallel Worlds – which entranced several generations of my students – Braided Worlds takes readers deep into the heart of West Africa today, treating the fraught encounters and ethical dilemmas of anthropological fieldwork with remarkable empathy. A beautiful book that resists romance while remaining soulful, Braided Worlds is filled with seductive storytelling and sparkling prose.”
-Charles Piot, author of Remotely Global: Village Modernity in West Africa

Asagbe overview - thatched roof houses and trees, 6-19-93

“This powerfully evocative text has much to teach us about living in the world. Between the beautifully crafted lines of Gottlieb and Graham’s work, one finds not only profound insights about the craft of anthropological fieldwork, the art of writing and the texture of social life among the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire, but also deep truths about birth and death, courage and cowardice, sanity and insanity, and love and loss—the very things that transcend what at first glance seems to be unbridgeable cultural difference. A worthy sequel to Gottlieb and Graham’s award winning, Parallel Worlds, Braided Worlds charts new ethnographic and conceptual territory with a refreshingly understated daring, and is a great pleasure to read.”
-Paul Stoller, author of Stranger in the Village of the Sick

Braided Worlds is a gripping and instructive curl-up-in-a-chair book, appealing to anthropologists, Africanists, and to travelers and wannabe travelers who like to think and read across cultures and about fascinating encounters. The memoir weaves together the alternating voices of an anthropologist and a writer, both keen observers of character and context, and unforgettable local actors such as Alma’s friend Amenan, the mad to be modern Matatu, and the authors’ young son Nathaniel with his Beng buddies. Through moving stories, such as Philip’s father’s African afterlife, we get a sense of worlds once parallel that have become progressively braided over time. Having successfully taught Parallel Worlds, I like Braided Worlds even more, and plan to use it in courses on fieldwork ethics, anthropological writing, and African ethnography.”
-Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg, Director of the African and African American Studies Program, Carleton College

Nathaniel & Friends (Meda & 4 Others) Sit on Palm Leaves, 7-2X-93

“Fourteen years after the events of their successful travel memoir, Parallel Worlds, Gottlieb and Graham headed back to Côte d’Ivoire, young son in tow, to conduct research and share the proceeds of their book. In alternating, harmonizing narratives, Braided Worlds recounts this return to Bengland, offering a tale filled with intelligence, humor, and humility. Gottlieb and Graham invite readers to travel with grace and insight through the external landscape of Africa and the internal geography of marriage, parenthood, and ethical living. I would accompany them anywhere.”
-Michele Morano, author of Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain

Kofi Ba carves statue, Nathaniel watches, 8-2-93

“In this lively, engaging memoir, Gottlieb and Graham conjure the confluence of multiple experiences and worlds. Their deep connection with the Beng people over the years offers an authoritative and, even more important, a touchingly personal account of life in one West African culture. This book is a wonderful addition to our contemporary creative nonfiction literature, combining the best of immersion journalism, personal memoir and academic study into a delightful and enchanting narrative. This literary journey reminds us, again and again, of the unbreakable bonds of our common humanity.”
-Xu Xi, author of Habit of a Foreign Sky: A Novel

“At this moment in the history of our divided and violent world, we profoundly need to hear the voices of Philip Graham and Alma Gottlieb as they return to the Beng people of the Côte d’Ivoire and write not just about this remarkable people but about the ways that all of us are inextricably ‘braided’ together by our love, through our humanity, sharing the great mystery of existence. Braided Worlds is not only an enthralling book but an important one. And linked with Graham and Gottlieb’s earlier Parallel Worlds, the two books form a masterpiece of travel memoir.”
-Robert Olen Butler, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

Guys slaughter goat, Philip and Kofi Ba grasp hands, Nathaniel holds goat leg, 8-12-93

Selected reviews of Braided Worlds:

” . . . an eloquent testimony to how far a Westerner may go, using ethnography as both . . . pretext and medium, in not only understanding a rural African lifeworld but also in becoming a part of a family, embroiled in its networks of obligation, its life crises, and its interpersonal stresses and demands. . . . If we are to take seriously the proposition that beyond cultural difference lies a common humanity, then we must learn to place our own worldviews on the same footing as all others, even if this means abandoning the antinomies with which we have distinguished ‘us’ from ‘them’—reason versus faith, science versus religion, modernity versus tradition, knowledge versus belief. We can best do this by not seeing alternative views as competing epistemologies, whose truth can be decided by determining whether they cohere logically or mirror reality but, rather, as ways of serving our interests and defining our values. If truth is a matter of whether or not a ‘belief’ enhances the life of a community, then an obsession with identifying it gives ground to a concern for humanizing it. This is the accomplishment of this elegant work of cross-cultural and conjugal collaboration.”
-Michael Jackson, American Ethnologist

“The writing is clear and readable; the emotions are honest and accessible. This book is a fascinating study of cultural differences, which develop in response to variations in need and circumstance. By introducing us to real people living real lives, it also portrays the universal experience of being human and the absolute equality of individuals and societies that bridges education, science, politics, and wealth. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know what it’s like to live somewhere else, in a world unlike our own, with people who are very much just like us.”
Rating: 5 stars out of 5
-Regge Episale, Hippocampus Magazine

Alma Holding Smiling Baby in Lap, Asagbe

“Throughout Braided Worlds they revise their assumptions about their interlocutors, and describe their misjudgements and potentially unfair portrayals of the people they introduced in Parallel Worlds. This is but one of this intriguing and original work’s contributions to anthropology. . . . The book’s real contribution is in the admission that anthropologists cannot take for granted their presence in any cultural encounter. The lives of anthropologists and their interlocutors are braided by design . . . only years of engagement can reveal the intricacies of these braids. . . [The book is] an accessible and readable introduction to the wonders and perils of doing anthropology.”
-Catherine E. Bolten, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“What make their accounts extraordinary are not only the intimate portrayals of a culture and its members, but the authors’ honesty in assessing their role. Yes, they documented a culture. . . would I, or my neighbors, welcome an African researcher who landed on our doorsteps, pen and camera in hand, to record the mysterious ways of Brooklynites? (I might after reading this book.)”
-Julia Lichtblau, The Common

Braided Worlds is something of a literary miracle. First the story: In 1979-1980 anthropologist Alma Gottlieb and her husband Philip Graham spent 13 months among the Beng, a small language/cultural group in Ivory Coast in West Africa. A decade later they published Parallel Worlds, a gorgeously conceived and beautifully nuanced co-discovery of the Beng, part ethnology, part narrative and part family conversation. In the intervening years, Philip and Alma have returned twice for extended stays with their friends, the Beng. They brought their children; they immersed themselves in the village. But wars and revolution have torn up that part of the world, too. Darkness descends. The result of these later visits is a brand new sequel to the first volume, the just-published Braided Worlds.

The literary miracle part comes from the neatly contrived cross-perspective of two gifted writers with different yet co-operative points of view. Both Alma and Philip bring different life interests, education and obsessions to bear: the one is studying the Beng with an arsenal of anthropological concepts and tools; the other is writing a novel while living amongst the Beng, bringing his literary sensibilities and his native curiosity to bear on his experience at every turn. The result is an amazing book, an amazing conversation, and a sense of life energized by difference, surprise, sympathy, respect and intelligence.”
–Douglas Glover, Numéro Cinq

“Aptly named Braided Worlds, the authors try to fairly represent Beng realities, while acknowledging how those depictions are mediated through the perspectives and compromises of anthropologist Gottlieb and creative writer Graham. While they comfortably categorize their book within the genre of fieldwork memoir, Braided Worlds is also a testimony to the long-term, family-affair commitments that Gottlieb and Graham have made to their Beng hosts, and vice versa. This is a wonderful quality of the book—it is deeply personal, respectful, and yet not so precious as to overshadow what we can learn about being Beng, and Beng-like. . . Braided Worlds is at once literary anthropology and public anthropology, grappling with and personalizing big issues like globalization and inequality, racialization, and post-colonialism. . . All proceeds from the sale of this book go to Beng communities.
 . . . I applaud Gottlieb and Graham for what they are doing for the communities who have also given them so much.”
-Jennifer Coffman, Anthropology News

Beng youth meeting, Abidjan - Philip at table with guys, 6-13-93

“In Braided Worlds, their ethnography-reflection-travel memoir, Alma Gottlieb and Philip Graham work extremely well with the metaphor of a braided narrative. . . The authors bring a unique set of skills and expectations to their collaborative writing effort. Gottlieb (an anthropologist) offers her ethnographic field expertise and the commitment of continued work to make sense of the socio-cultural complexities of the Beng. Graham, her husband and a writer, brings his sense of narrative structure. . . Braided Worlds offers the reader a great sense of what being ‘outside’ of different circles means. For example, Gottlieb and Graham are ‘other’ to the Beng, the Beng are ‘other’ to most Western audiences—and even Graham sits a bit as an ‘other’ since his work with the Beng doesn’t depend on the observer/observed interaction that Gottlieb’s does. . . These sets of experiences seek to bring together (weave or braid together, perhaps?) experiences and people that were running more “in parallel” in their previous work. . . . Braided Worlds offers a unique opportunity for readers to encounter the plaited complexity of the Beng world and the turbulent politics from Côte d’Ivoire that surround the community.”
-Lydia Pyne, New Pages

Alma & Research Team

Description of Braided Worlds from the back cover:

“In a compelling mix of literary narrative and ethnography, anthropologist Alma Gottlieb and writer Philip Graham continue the long journey of cultural engagement with the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire that they first recounted in their award-winning memoir Parallel Worlds. Braiding their own stories with those of the villagers of Asagbe and Kosangbe, Gottlieb and Graham take turns recounting the dilemmas and dramas of cultural contact while chronicling a living, breathing village community where two different worlds meet.”