Anthropological Fiction

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Anthropological Fiction

Paul Stoller and Cheryl Olkes’ In Sorcery’s Shadow is an example of an ethnographic monograph written in a fictive style:

Eventually, Susan came in and sat in one of her canvas chairs. She restated her belief that a Songhay spirit world did not exist. “I don’t believe in all these stories about witches, sorcerers, and spirits. It’s all superstition, you know.” Not knowing what to say, I remained silent. Susan continued. “Strange things happened here right after you left.” She described to me noises that sounded like the cat’s growl, but were deeper and louder – like a roar. My heart thumped. (In Sorcery’s Shadow, The University of Chicago Press, 1987, p.140)

According to Stoller long-term fieldwork and field-language fluency are very important for anthropologists. He is also convinced that deep respect for other knowledge, other worlds, and for other people is even more important:

As anthropologists we must respect the people among whom we work. We have long been concerned that our studies not produce difficulties for the people we have studied. For me, respect means accepting fully beliefs and phenomena which our system of knowledge often holds preposterous (Stoller & Olkes, 1987, p. 229).

Like Stoller and Olkes, I have tried to fully accept beliefs and phenomena which can be considered preposterous in a Western context, for example the samsaric world view. The purpose of this is to make the fictive story The Escape to Myanmar more alive. While writing on the text, one of my teachers in creative writing at the Linnaeus University, Vasilis Papageorgiou, gave the following comment (translated from Swedish):

It is a very warm, humane text despite the conflicts and the distance between and within some of the persons. The warmth I find in the narration, in tone and in the rhythm it has. (Creative Writing IV, Linnaeus University, Spring term 2013)

As Stoller and Olkes has created closeness to the reader in the monograph In Sorcery’s Shadow, I have tried to make the experience of exile more close and real to the reader in The Escape to Myanmar than in a detached scientific study about exile:

– Will you have the baby now, Auntie?
Lisa was annoyed by her habit of calling her auntie, but she did not show it. Satu had told her the kids were taught in school that older people would always be addressed by title and not by their name. Nowadays Tilda always dressed in myanmar clothes, although her parents did not like it. Her form-fitting white blouse had lace details and pink dots and she was wearing a matching htamein. On her cheeks were big yellow circles of thanakha, which myanmar women and girls used as makeup. Her light brown hair was in a ponytail and wrapped around it, she had white jasmine flowers that spread a sweet fragrance. She sat on the floor with both legs to one side like a mermaid. Oh my God, thought Lisa. My daughter will never get permission to look like that if I have a girl. A new wave of pain in her stomach disrupted her thoughts.

The purpose of the scene above is to give the Western reader an idea of ​​how difficult it can be for adults to accept that children change after moving to another country. It is hard for Lisa to accept her friend Satu’s daughter Tilda’s transformation after the arrival to Myanmar. A teenage rebellion in a society that is very different from one’s own can be quite different from what the adults have imagined before The Escape to Myanmar or migration, I think, and that is what I have tried to show in the text.

Instead of retelling what respondents have said in an interview concerning the experience of exile or describing the difficulties for families who have migrated to another country by referring to various studies, I have tried to portray exile problems through literary fiction.

The reader Laila Asplund gave the following response on the text above:

The description of Tilda and Lisa’s reaction to the girl’s appearance and behavior is spot on. Clear pictures and interesting details from a different culture emerge. (Laila Asplund, Creative Writing, Spring term 2013)

I have tried to mix fiction and my “fieldwork experience” as an interpreter for exiles from Myanmar/Burma. Since I have to observe silence as an interpreter, I have changed the setting and the time of the story. Instead of writing about Burmese exiles in Sweden in present time, I have written a story about Northern European exiles in a future Myanmar. Asplund gave this comment about the writing style the story:

Your knowledge of refugee issues with its problems and feelings that people have in this situation reinforces the text. I as a reader feel confident in your story and trust you as a writer and communicator. Communicator in the sense that I learn a lot, both about a country and also about refugee issues. A very useful text. But it’s also entertainment and literature, and as such it also works. It is a story with a plot that I want to read more of (Laila Asplund, Creative Writing, Spring term 2013).

The Escape to Myanmar is a way to make use of fieldwork material about exile that I would never be able to use in a scientific study. As an interpreter, I do not even have the right to save the notes I have made during interpreting assignments. Because of confidentiality, I needed to find another way to use my experience. Pure fiction has felt right in this context, as the anthropological fiction requires a greater scientific rigor than literary fiction, as I see it.

But what truth value does fiction have? Is it less legitimate than for example anthropology as the study of human life? According to Foucault, de Certeau and Eagleton, fiction is one of the expressive modes that have been excluded from the legitimate repertoire of Western science:

Since the seventeenth century, they suggest, Western science has excluded certain expressive modes from its legitimate repertoire: rhetoric (in the name of “plain,” transparent signification), fiction (in the name of fact), and subjectivity (in the name of objectivity). The qualities eliminated from science were localized in the category o f “literature.” (Clifford, James & Marcus, George E., Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. University of California Press, 1986, p. 5)

In Stoller and Olkes’ In Sorcery’s Shadow the collision between “Western rationality” and local faith is shown, and therefore it feels more objective (even if it is written in a subjective manner) than a study of magic made ​​with a Western, dichotomous construction of reality as a basis. Since I oppose exclusive dichotomies, I argue that also The Escape to Myanmar is objective in its subjectivity and that it is based on facts, despite the fiction…

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