Parallel Worlds: An Anthropologist and a Writer Encounter Africa

PW-Turner Award-Certificate

Parallel Worlds-cloth front cover

My co-author/writer-husband, Philip Graham, and I wrote Parallel Worlds with two major aims: to craft a memoir, recounted alternatingly in our first-person voices, that captured the daily, continual, increasingly complicated difficulties and delights of inserting oneself into a radically different community from one’s own cultural background over a long period of time; and to use the proceeds of the book to help the impoverished Beng.

Parallel Worlds was published in cloth by Crown Publishers (1993) and in paperback by the University of Chicago Press (1994).  It was well reviewed in the scholarly and popular press and has been taught at hundreds of universities in dozens of countries around the globe.

All royalties from Parallel Worlds are dedicated to the Beng people via the Beng Community Fund, a 501 (c) (3) organization that Philip Graham and I co-founded and co-direct to benefit the Beng community.

You can read an essay by writer Michele Morano about Parallel Worlds and its sequel, Braided Worlds, in The Millions here.

The book’s Goodreads page is here.

If you’d like to purchase a copy of the book, some online bookseller options include:

  • Publisher’s webpage (University of Chicago Press) here.
  • Independent bookstore webpage (Book Depository) here.
  • Apple books webpage here.
  • U.S. Amazon webpage here.
  • U.S. Barnes & Noble webpage here.
  • U.K. bookseller (Waterstones) here.
  • U.K. bookseller (Blackwell’s) here.
  • Australian bookseller (Booktopia) here.
  • South African bookseller (TakeALot). here.

Advance praise for Parallel Worlds:

Parallel Worlds is a remarkable memoir that both reads like a novel and meditates profoundly on art and the human condition. This is a compellingly readable and richly enlightening book, a book that will endure.”
-Robert Olen Butler, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

“At once thought-provoking and entertaining, this compelling narrative offers the reader insight into the mysteries of magic, love, and life. Bravo!”
-Oscar Hijuelos, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love

“A beautiful memoir that will be savored with pleasure by seasoned fieldworkers, about-to-be fieldworkers, and anyone who is simply a fieldworker of the imagination.”
-Sherry Ortner, author of New Jersey Dreaming: Capital, Culture, and the Class of ’58

Parallel Worlds is a tour de force. Beautifully and carefully written, this book sensually evokes an African landscape filled with contradictions, passions, sorrows, and joys.”
-Paul Stoller, blogger for The Huffington Post

“A marvelously detailed and intriguing accounts of the hazards attending an attempt to embrace a radically different culture . . . . A unique collaborative achievement.”
-Norman Rush, author of Mating

Selected reviews of Parallel Worlds:

“The fine product of a husband-wife partnership conducted in the rain forest of Ivory Coast, Parallel Worlds is a candid and artfully written account of the dilemmas, hazards, and rewards attending ethnographic research. In this perceptive, at times suspenseful and often poignant memoir, anthropologist Alma Gottlieb and fiction writer Philip Graham re-live for us their two stays among the Beng. . . . Perhaps the most valuable message of Parallel Worlds is that there are different paths to knowledge: in Gottlieb’s case, knowledge of the Beng came through constant questioning; in Graham’s case, learning a new culture often took the shape of ‘a novel of manners written in a foreign language.’ . . . The fact that I devoured the book from cover to cover . . . attests to its engaging character. All those interested in the politics of fieldwork and the writing of culture should find this book enjoyable to read and useful to teach.”
-Adeline Masquelier, Man: The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“In America recent trends have led anthropology towards . . . literary approaches, and Gottlieb and Graham’s book is a worthy example.
-Alan Barnard, Africa

Parallel Worlds is that miraculous nonfiction book which reads so compellingly that one goes to bed wondering what will happen next and wakes up glad to find that there are still pages to go. It merges our own parallel lives as professionals who seek out ethnographies from duty and as readers who surrender to an engrossing book with joy.”
-Kirin Narayan, Anthropology and Humanism

“an unusual and insightful book . . . one gets a full account of the trials and tribulations of an African rural community abandoned by government bureaucrats in the capital city.”
-Jacob Olupona, American Anthropologist

“This is a brave book, particularly for Gottlieb. It is well written and interesting reading. . . this volume documents the ways that knowledge of the self informs our knowledge of those exposed to a social scientist’s analysis.”
-Chris Hardin, African Studies Review

“Both authors write with intelligent sparkle, conveying a splendid sense of being there . . . Both writers know how quickly to sketch a scene or a personality, to build suspense, to convey their feelings.”
-Monni Adams, Journal of Religion in Africa

“[Parallel Worlds] sings, whether the voice is that of Alma, Philip, or one of their consultants. Not only is the anthropology engagingly presented, but also the writing is exquisite, even when the subject matter does not present Gottlieb or Graham in a glowing light. . . with the skilled, evocative writing–whether the pen had been dipped into Graham’s or Gottlieb’s ink well–readers may experience the full panoply of ethnographic fieldwork, in its glory and nastiness, in its joy and sorrow, in its satisfaction and embarrassment, in its poignancy and humor. This is ethnographic writing as it should be done.
-Claire Farrer, for the Victor Turner Prize Committee

“A remarkable look at a remote society [and] an engaging memoir that testifies to a loving partnership . . . compelling.”
-James Idema, Chicago Tribune

“Powerful . . . . [The authors] lead the reader on an adventurous journey . . . Offers Western readers a broader view of the state of affairs in Ivory Coast and of the continent’s vast complexities.”
Mwangi Ireri, Christian Science Monitor

“As their lives converge and ultimately meld with those of the Beng people in common humanity—childbirth, celebration, sickness and death—this book becomes strangely affirming of homo sapiens. In alternating passages, Ms. Gottlieb and Mr. Graham plot that convergence in precise, often arresting prose.”
-Marvin Hunt, The Atlanta Journal/The Atlanta Constitution

“. . . sensitive suspenseful and delicately textured narrative.”
Publishers Weekly

“A book of unusual candor, Parallel Worlds offers a unique introduction to Africa.”
-H. James Birx, Library Journal

“A lively, personal account.”
-DKM, World Affairs Council Booknotes

“The book becomes a blend of two very different authors: on the one hand, the story of a writer living amid fascinating subjects for his craft; on the other, the story of a fieldworking anthropologist, striving to find a context in which to describe a unique group of people who live as much among their ghosts and spirits as in the world we know.”
Washington Post Book World

“An intelligent, adventurous young married couple, Gottlieb and Graham arrived in Bengland with open minds, both eager for Gottlieb to begin her first serious fieldwork as a ‘novice anthropologist.’ ..Their beautifully written accounts of living with the Beng serve as a vivid testament to the fact that people of different cultures can find common ground.”
-Ann Collette, Creative Nonfiction

“[A]t once a beautifully written depiction of a single culture and a fine account of how anthropologists do their work.”
-Gregory McNamee, Outside Magazine

“The interweaving of the collective ruminations of two people well trained in observation and extremely sensitive to their surroundings has produced a book filled with extraordinary insights and fascinating stories. The level of writing is so polished and competent that once one begins the book, it is almost impossible to put it down. It moves forward with force and impact as the shifting points of view from which the two authors write provide the dramatic tensions that one might expect to find in a well-structured novel.”
-R. Baird Shuman, Magill Book Reviews for Dow Jones News/Retrieval

“The drama of an adventure novel.”
Chicago Tribune, “Tempo”

“[T]his account of the authors’ yearlong stay with a Beng tribe in Africa’s Ivory Coast is unique because its jokes do not come at the ‘primitive’ culture’s expense.”
-Alex Raskin, Los Angeles Times

Parallel Worlds on Amazon

Parallel Worlds on the University of Chicago Press website