Category Archives: Humanistic anthropology

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.

 

AG Update: Check out the fabulous review of Kisisi here.

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!

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

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

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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

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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.

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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”

Writing Ethnographies that Everyone Can Read

Kristen Ghodsee’s new book, From Notes to Narrative: Writing Ethnographies that Everyone Can Read, was recently published by the University of Chicago Press (in 2016).

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The discipline of anthropology desperately needs good writers.  Our writings are often so dense, jargon-packed, and off-putting that I sometimes fear we deserve our reputation for being abstruse and irrelevant.

That’s a shame!

We promote a comparative perspective on the human condition that no other discipline offers.

We’ve created research methods specializing in deep and long-term immersion in communities and languages that no other discipline offers.

And the cumulative data base we’ve constructed is based on extraordinary amounts of research we’ve conducted around the globe, in communities ranging from some of the world’s most vulnerable populations to elites at the center of power.

We have so much to teach people–from political leaders and policy makers to ordinary citizens curious to understand the lives of their neighbors.

But who will listen, if readers can’t get past our first, boring paragraphs?

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Anthropologist Kristen Ghodsee has some great advice for students and scholars who would like their writing to have an impact beyond their professors, students, and colleagues.

And Kristen Ghodsee’s in a great position to teach us how to write.  Her book, Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria (Princeton University Press 2010), won four book prizes.  Another book she co-authored (with Rachel Connelly), Professor Mommy: Finding Work/Family Balance in Academia (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), has attracted wide attention from reviewers.  And a short story she wrote (“Tito Trivia”) won the 2011 Ethnographic Fiction Prize from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.

The author of seven books, Ghodsee has focused her research in Bulgaria, where she’s studied the lives of ordinary men and women, and the effects of political transition on Bulgaria’s Muslim minorities.  Her most recent works have been heavily influenced by humanistic anthropology; Ghodsee has experimented with ethnographic fiction, autoethnography, and photo-ethnography, produce intimate narratives and images of the disorienting impacts of the collapse of Communism on daily life.  She is currently serving as the president of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.

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Her latest, short book I’m featuring here, From Notes to Narrative, has fourteen chapters of only about ten pages each. In other words, it’s a quick, easy read—yet it packs a rich punch.

One of our discipline’s best writers, Ruth Behar, has this to say about Kristen Ghodsee’s new book about writing ethnography:

“Thank you, Kristen Ghodsee, for offering an absolutely essential guide to ethnographic writing. I fervently hope From Notes to Narrative will be read by every aspiring ethnographic writer, and, most of all, that its lessons will be put into practice. I can’t wait to read the books that will come from this book!”

And Paul Stoller urges: “[T]his work should be required reading for all social scientists.”

You can find a Table of Contents here.

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

 

Interview with Kristen Ghodsee

 

Alma Gottlieb (AG): What gave you the idea to write the book?

Kristen Ghodsee (KG): The idea first emerged from my undergraduate students. They reacted strongly to certain ethnographic books I assigned in my senior research seminars. My students are smart, motivated, and eager to learn, but they were impatient and critical of books written in what seemed to be deliberately obtuse language. As I removed the offending books from my syllabus, I started to wonder about the conditions under which ethnographies are produced. Ethnographers spend extended periods of time living in communities, but then turn around and write books and articles that members of the community cannot read. That didn’t seem right to me.

 

AG: Have you always loved writing?

KG: Yes. I always wanted to be a writer. I spent the entire summer between sixth and seventh grade writing my first novel. I wrote poetry and fiction throughout high school, and I majored in creative writing when I was an undergraduate student at UC Santa Cruz. I agree with Ruth Behar that many ethnographers are frustrated novelists, but I don’t agree that ethnography is somehow a “second fiddle.” It is a different type of writing than fiction, but good ethnography can be as well crafted, even if its purpose is education rather than entertainment.

 

AG: When you’re not reading anthropology, what do you like to read?

KG: I actually like reading books about writing and creativity, things like Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Stephen King’s On Writing, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. Right now, I’m reading Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style and David Lynch’s Catching the Big Fish. Occasionally, I also read memoirs and autobiographies. I just finished Susan Faludi’s In the Darkroom, and I can’t wait to dive into Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.

 

AG: In your new book, one of your chapters is titled “Minimize Scientism.” Since you’re writing for social scientists, can you explain what you mean by that?

KG: Many of the social sciences, but especially political science, economics, and psychology, have been seduced by the language and style of the natural sciences, creating neologisms or producing technical vocabularies. Sometimes these vocabularies are necessary, but often authors use complex words for simple ideas because they think those words make their work sound more “scientific,” and by extension more important. I think ethnographers should try to write their books for broader audiences, saving disciplinary-specific jargon for their conference presentations and journal articles.

 

AG: Another chapter is titled “Embrace Dialogue.” Some social scientists are nervous about writing dialogue –- partly because they’re unsure of the mechanics, but also because they’d be afraid of inaccurately filling in gaps in conversations they didn’t record. What are your thoughts about the space between fiction and non-fiction?

KG: Regarding the use of dialogue: Every ethnographer has to make a personal decision based on her own individual circumstances. There is always the risk of filling in the gaps of conversations they didn’t record, and this is especially true if you are working in a foreign language and translating other people’s words into English. But I think it is possible to be true to the content of a conversation while representing it in dialogue form. The problem is that ethnographers don’t learn the mechanics of dialogue and tend to rely on lengthy block quotations that are less interesting for the reader.

Producing accurate dialogue is hard work, and I understand that not everyone has the time or inclination to do so in scholarly texts. Some books are written for a handful of scholarly peers, and it may not be worth the extra effort. I recently saw the production budget for a book from a major university press, and it assumes that academic monographs won’t sell more than 750 copies in their lifetime. With such a small audience, why invest time in making a book readable? But maybe the reason only 750 people read any given academic book is because they are so damn difficult to read.

 

AG: The penultimate chapter is called “Find Your Process.” That might sound rather funky and even a bit mystical to some scholars. What would you say to social scientists who might be surprised by this chapter?

KG: It sounds mystical, but it is really about finding time to write, and optimizing the conditions under which you write. All of the academics I interviewed had specific writing rituals that helped them work, and this chapter is really about exploring the tips and tricks that people have to make them more productive.

 

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

KG: Is it easier to write a book about writing ethnography than it is to write an actual ethnography?

KG: Not easier, but more fun. Writing this book actually made me a better writer, because I have started taking my own advice!