Category Archives: Writing

The Anthropology/Poetry Nexus–An Interview with Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor

Can artists and social scientists inhabit the same universe?

Melisa (“Misha”) Cahnmann-Taylor embodies that nexus.

Her advanced degrees include an MFA in poetry . . . and a PhD in educational linguistics.

She’s published plenty of scholarly work in academic journals and books (about language learning, sustainable or fragile states of bilingualism, and teacher education) . . . and plenty of poems in literary journals.

She uses poetic and theatrical exercises to teach everyone from young children to future English language teachers.

Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor (in black, with hat) running a poetry program at an elementary school in Cajones, Mexico


Misha’s professional quest is to understand the complexities of U.S. bilingual education, second language teaching, and world language education . . . and, more broadly, the intersections between language, culture, identity, class, and power.  She dubs her work, “scholARTistry,” which she sees as spanning linguistic, cultural, and disciplinary boundaries.

Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor (back row, left) celebrating writing bilingual and trans-lingual creative writing with participants in a workshop for students held in Guanajuato, Mexico; sponsored by the Richard Ruiz Residency Scholar Program (a fellowship program for scholar-artists through the U of Arizona Resplandor program) 


Misha began her career as a bilingual (Spanish/English) elementary educator in south-central Los Angeles and went on to teach and conduct research among Latino/a communities in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and Mexico City.  She now works with bilingual youth and their families in Georgia, where she is Professor of Language and Literacy Education in the College of Education at the University of Georgia.

As a teacher, Misha seeks a humanistic approach–one that honors lived experience, and that cultivates the potential for cross-cultural dialogue and deep listening in and out of the classroom.  Some of her pedagogical activities are inspired by Brazilian activist Augusto Boal’s development of a Theatre of the Oppressed.  A book that Cahnmann-Taylor co-authored on Teachers Act Up! Creating Multicultural Learning Communities through Theatre explores the potential for theatre to inform teaching.


Misha also incorporates poetry at every level of teaching.

A student’s edited poem done in a workshop taught by Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor


Misha brings her creative approach to the classroom in training pre-service Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages [TESOL], foreign language teachers, and K-12 English language arts teachers.  To these different constituencies, she offers a wide array of courses on topics ranging from Spanish-language children’s literature and bilingualism/bilingual education to theatre for reflective language teachers, poetry for creative educators, and trans-lingual memoir.  

From her inspirational instruction, Misha received a national teaching award in 2015, the Beckman Award for Professors Who Inspire.  In 2016, she directed her first National Endowment for the Arts “Big Read – Jeffers Program.”

A moment with Edgar Allen Poe, while Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor (center) directed her second Big Read-Jeffers Program for the National Endowment for the Arts 


You can find Misha’s university webpage here and her page here.  And you can follow her pedagogically oriented blog (Teachers Act Up–Thoughts on Teaching, Language, and Social Change) here.

One academic home that’s helped Misha unite the poetic and social scientific sides of her identity is the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.  Having won the Ethnographic Poetry Award from their journal, Anthropology and Humanism, Misha is now Dell Hymes’ successor as poetry editor for the journal, and she judges their annual poetry contest.  In her life as a poet, Misha has won a Leeway Poetry Grant in 2001 and the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize in 2005.

Her book, Imperfect Tense: Poems was recently published by Whitepoint Press (2016).  

Many of the poems in this book reflect on what Cahnmann-Taylor learned while serving in 2013-14 as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Oaxaca (Mexico), where she researched American adults’ Spanish language acquisition.  In a pre-publication assessment of the book, distinguished poet Thomas Lux wrote: 

“These poems are about language and are brilliant evocations of what it is like to be human in a world that seems to make that more and more difficult. This is an original and powerful book.”

I recently interviewed Misha about Imperfect Tense.  Have a read (AG = Alma Gottlieb; MCT = Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor):


AG: Given your training as a social scientist, why do you (also) write poetry?

MCT:  One answer is that I was mentored and inspired–directly or indirectly–by creative scholars and anthropologists such as Ruth Behar, Renato Rosaldo, Fred Erickson, Nancy Hornberger, Ivan Brady, Gloria Anzaldúa, Augusto Boal, you, and others who maintained lives as creative people . . . and whose social science was better because of their engagement with music, image, metaphor, and vulnerability.  

Equally true is that I write poetry because it’s how I’m built.  I use the tools of an anthropologist to listen deeply, and see and process what I’m experiencing and what I’ve learned from others’ scholarship.  I also use the tools in which I was trained as an artist.  Metaphor, image, meter, rhyme, stanzaic structure–these aspects of craft and form help me shape what Robert Bly referred to as a “leaping consciousness,” one that is unafraid to go back and forth between the head and the heart.  I can’t help but want to “feel” data and find the right words in the right order.  With any luck, my poems may also help others feel the compressed complexity of human experience through lyric form.


AG: Does writing poetry also inform your ethnographic writing?

MCT:  Only now, so many years after writing about “arts-based research” (culminating in a book I co-edited, Arts-Based Research in Education:Foundations for Practice), have I begun to defy separation between these two genres and look at them both as forms of “trans” writing–writing that’s often trans-lingual and trans-genre.  Writing poetry has helped me clarify and claim my own voice as a poet scholar, or “scholartist”–one who wants to move away from tired explanations of method and theory.  

That said, when I wrote my 2013-14 Fulbright application to study adult North Americans’ Spanish language acquisition in Mexico through poetry, I did so with trepidation, as well as a healthy dose of “conventional” methodology–interviews, planned participant-observation.  I went into the field to collect ethnographic data much like any conventional anthropologist.  

Observing Jonathan Blasi teaching Spanish to an adult American language learner in Oaxaca


But doing so as a poet, perhaps, also meant that I was open to the unconventional, that my fieldnotes and poetry notes intermingled, and that the ethnography study I might also write might never get written.  The poems felt more accomplished than my ethnographic prose writing.  That said, there was one interview that I found too big and too important to compress into a single poem or series of poems.  This is why I took up ethnographic playwriting and wrote my first play.  But I don’t think I’ll do that again because it requires a commitment to working with staged readings and theatre companies that I just don’t have.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I prefer poems because I can craft them virtually alone.  


AG: Ha, yes, that’s probably something many poets might identify with.

Many of the poems in your new book have a “meta” foundation—they address different aspects of language itself, from being bilingual, or trying but failing to learn another language, to nuances of modal verbs and the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. Can you talk about the grammatically-themed title to this collection—“Imperfect Tense”?

MCT: The title is a direct result of an interview with an English-speaking, American woman I met in Oaxaca, Mexico in her 60s who described her own painful process toward the never-ending goal of “fluency” in Spanish.  Like many of those I interviewed, she was disappointed with traditional language classes for foreigners where verb tenses are taught in isolation.  She told me how accomplished she felt when she could describe a film she’d seen all in the “imperfect tense” rather than in the present or fixed past–a tense that doesn’t exist in English.  “The imperfect is so good for telling stories,” she said.  

I got a chills as soon as she’d said it.  That’s it!  What we tell ourselves as language learners are all stories of imperfection–I’ll never know enough, I’m not a good enough student, I’m not native–all these negative messages we tell ourselves and others.  These seemed to help me better understand the grit of those who study a second language in spite of the hardships–it’s a reckoning with permanent imperfection.  


AG: I love that.


MCT: In putting together the book manuscript, I had poems from earlier phases of my life as a bilingual teacher, a bilingual daughter, and future aspirations as a bilingual mother.  So the “past” and “ever-present” tenses seemed like good additions to the “imperfect” for drawing together different sections of the book and the poems that have composed my life.  

I should add that I’m teaching a course now on “translingual writing” and work toward changing my language from describing “bilingualism,” implying two separate codes, towards translingualism or code-meshing.  I’m grateful to Suresh Canagarajah for inspiring this movement.  Translingualism helps me grapple with my own imperfect command of Spanish, English, Yiddish, and other codes that transgress my system.


AG: The notion of “translingual” writing seems especially apt these days, with so many conversations about “transgendered” identities.

At the same time, another set of poems in this book addresses mothering, child-rearing, and childhood.  

A somatic statement on the politics of motherhood


The poem, “Mother Less, Mother More,” especially blew me away (and I love your dramatic reading of the poem, online here):

I can imagine that poem speaking to any mother, anywhere—no small feat.  If you agree, would you still see this poem as ethnographic?  Or do you think a poem must treat a culturally specific experience in order to qualify as “ethnographic”?

Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor with her daughter in Mexico


MCT: That is a very good question, and quite a compliment.  That poem was published in a journal called “Mom Egg Review: Literature & Art” that targets mothers as its primary audience, so I was happy that this poem was showcased there.  While its audience, if I’m lucky, may find it compelling to mothers in general, its trigger is partly personal (I have two small children ages 8 & 10), but also ethnographic.  My training was in the Department of Educational Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania founded by Dell Hymes.  I was informed by many linguistic anthropologists, including Elinor Ochs and Shirley Bryce Heath, who drew my attention to the different ways language is used according to race, class, gender, age, and a host of other variables.  

If I were restricting myself to terms current in linguistic anthropology now, I might replace “motherese” in the above excerpt with “caregiver speech” or “infant-directed speech.”  But that’s head language and not poetry.  And this is a poem, not ethnographic prose.  Or is it?

I had poems informed by theory, by the many academic disciplines in which I was trained, and the permission that making art has given me to defy boundaries and write it! (a nod to Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”), anyhow.  I trusted that coherence between individual poems would happen.  It took quite a while, but the centering work of ethnographic fieldwork in Mexico gave me the backbone I needed to hold these varied language poems together in one book’s spine.


AG: They do hold together, even as another set of poems in this collection addresses your experiences with Judaism.  Religion is a classic topic for anthropology.  Why have you chosen the genre of poetry to write about it?  Do you think there are things you can say about Judaism (or any other religion)—or ways to say it—that work better through poetry than through social science?


MCT:  For me, the theme in this book is imperfection.  Speaking a “standard language,” or becoming a “good mother,” or abiding by the tenets of one’s “religion”–these are all socially constructed roles which privilege an unattainable ideal.  The poems are informed by interviews, participant-observation, library research, theory, and of course life experience.  I would say that choosing to write religious poems was the choice made by my unconscious mind, a choice I might not have made had I restricted myself to writing only about my ethnographic focus of Spanish-English bilingualism.


AG: Can you compare your process of writing scholarly texts (including the research necessary ahead of time) with the process of writing poems (whether or not this ever involves “research” for you)?  Any overlap, or are they two entirely different processes?

MCT:  Earlier, I said that I am taking advantage of aging into a voice that isn’t one or the other but is always both.  This may also be due to restrictions in the time I find I can spend doing extensive, planned fieldwork abroad, and to the increase in time I spend researching communities around me.  Recently, I have been teaching poetry courses to international students enrolled in graduate-level TESOL programs [Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages].  They will return to their home countries to teach English, and I am teaching them to consider their own poetic voice and those of their future students.  

Misha also incorporates drawing as a visual complement to writing in her pedagogy; here, students drawing on the streets of Oaxaca


Studying this process involved collecting data in the form of interviews, but also these students’ poems as well as my own poetic response to the shared educational experience.  I am constantly searching for ways to merge my thinking and my poetic voice.  Recently, I did this in a “manifesto” I wrote for a journal called Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Journal.  I needed a new genre as a way to find language for grappling with #BlackLivesMatter as a white, female academic.  Finding this journal and their open call for the “manifesto” form felt like finding a “home”–one I didn’t know existed but have been seeking.


AG: That “manifesto” genre is an unusual one for a scholar.  Did having anthropologist-poet role models like the ones you mentioned earlier help give you courage to explore new writing styles? 

MCT: I feel so “at home” when I meet members of this hybrid tribe.  I began to find community through the Society of Humanistic Anthropology where I first met Dell Hymes in person and was awarded the ethnographic poetry prize so many years ago.  


Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor receiving Ethnographic Poetry Award from Alma Gottlieb (president of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology), November 2003


Then I became a judge for this prize, and not long after, Ather Zia came to my attention. She was one of the prize winners, and she has been a dear companion and now co-judge ever since.  Nomi Stone, Adrie Kusserow, and Dana Walrath are some of the many other poetic anthropologists I’ve met through various meetings, often organized by the late, great Kent Maynard who I will forever miss since his early passing.

I continue to be drawn to panels at AAA that address creative crossings and genre bendings. At this last year’s 2017 meeting, I met wonderful poets and poetic anthropologists through the This Anthro Life [podcast series] and the wonderful new Sapiens [blog] from Wenner Gren.  I’m also newly connecting with ethnographic songwriters like Kristina Jacobsen, as well as with ethnographic fiction writers and ethnographic dancers.  My new heroes are often younger than I am, pushing and changing the field, daring to do things that might have felt impossible or taboo to do earlier.  


AG: What’s next?  More poetry?  More anthropological writings?  Both?

MCT:  I just came out with a second edition of my co-edited book on “arts-based research” as I continue to articulate what it means to create new transdisciplinary work spaces that sit between the social sciences and the arts.  I keep my creative writing alive, and I am open to more poems as well as finding new spaces for trans-genre writing that is both empirical and aesthetic.  

Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor (second from right) leading students and colleagues from the Autonomous University of Oaxaca at a poetry reading at the Oaxaca Lending Library


Finally, I am still doing some conventional qualitative inquiry, especially as I mentor students. It’s very important to me not to lose touch with the nuts and bolts provided by theory and ethnographic research design.


AG: As a scholar-poet, have you found a space in the academy that accommodates that dual career?  Or, do you bifurcate these parts of your life into two separate career tracks?  Based on your own experience, how would you advise young scholar-poets to construct their professional lives in the present moment of the academy?

MCT:  In the last chapter of our new book, Arts-based Research in Education, I answer this question.  I am tired of bifurcation and am teaching new generations of students to defy binaries.  They push and pull, and I push and pull back, and this is happening in different ways in creative writing, the arts, and social sciences both in the U.S. and around the world.  Based on my experience, I train students to strive to do “double”–to train in conventional research methods and theory as well as in poetry or other creative genres, and discover ways they can fuse them.  In this way, they can play more than one game, to be able to get through the dissertation process and find a job in various possible homes.  

But I feel I have a lot to learn from daring and younger scholars who won’t necessarily seek or find the same kind of academic jobs I was prepared for, and that I uphold.  Based on my experience, I encourage younger “scholartists” to take my advice . . . but I know that only 50% or less will be relevant for them, their particular identity, and the new market in which they find themselves.  To be relevant means to be present in the moment as you learn all about what has come before.  My job is to nurture confidence and humility, and try to exercise those skills myself as my students continue to teach me about unknown futures.  The poet in me tries to train the pedagogue to share what I have learned, but also to invite students to surprise me with what they know or can newly conceive.  

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, 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?


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.


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.


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.


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

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!


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”!


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 . . .



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.


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”

Anthropologist Author Interviews

Today, I began a new series on my blog: interviews with anthropologists about their new books!


We anthropologists often write wonderful books . . . that find too few readers.

What better way to find new readers for a book than to interview its author?

I begin this series by interviewing Kristen Ghodsee about her fabulous new book about the craft of writing readable ethnography (From Notes to Narrative: Writing Ethnography that Everyone Can Read).  You can find this inaugural interview here.

Watch out for upcoming interviews with Rosa DeJorio (Cultural Heritage in Mali in the Neoliberal Era) and Jennifer Cole (Affective Circuits: African Migrations to Europe and the Pursuit of Social Regeneration)!

Anthropologists: If you’ve got a new book coming out (or just out recently) and would like to do an e-interview with me about it, let me know!

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).


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?


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.


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!