I read Alan Moore's The Watchmen, and my fellow students were absolutely unable to understand that the story was a satire on the Cold War -- people didn't even know what the Cold War was, couldn't even tell a basic outline of what was going on much less come up with some sort of analysis of the history of that period. So I think in a lot of cases the history surrounding writing -fictional or not- is important to understand.
A professor of mine was complaining to me once of how his students never read the assignments and how he didn't know what to do about it. I told him to "restart the labor movement to fight for better wages and benefits for service workers so your students can afford to go to school while working only one job instead of three" (our state has the highest instance of people working 3 jobs in the U.S.). He gave me a strange look, then the ah-ha moment and he realized that intellectual culture, or lack of it was largely an issue of class.
Fiction writers base their imaginary worlds on real people and events (or better yet, they weave existing "webs of significance" lol)... Otherwise it would be impossible for others to understand as it would be too imaginary!
Hello Keith and all
I vaguely remember reading Achebe’s No Longer at Ease and later comparing it to Phillip’s A State of Independence a long time ago to understand the play of self-other in dealing with identity as doubled, hybrid, and unstable shaped by writers of Nigerian and West Indian origins, Western educated men reflecting on their colonized worlds. I’ve found such complexity expanded even further in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, only this time it was the so called colonized looking back to find themselves torn between the act of abrogating or appropriating changes. I see the presence of agbala, which means woman, and chi, related to free will and destiny, play along Okonkwo’s inner struggle to come to terms with the changing world. Raising Achebe’s TFA reminded me of my recent fieldwork in the rural areas where I met several women migrant workers who returned back from their overseas jobs to bear or raise children in their villages (couldn’t help thinking of the blues in the North pacific and Atlantic) while their husbands were still abroad. Their stories hinted an irony of their struggles and survivals in experiencing two worlds. When I questioned them on how they dealt with poverty back home, one of them stared back at me and said: “Out there, I did everything I could to survive and I did survive. In here, the battle is different, but I wouldn’t hesitate to do what I did out there.” That woman who wore a colorful-loose muslim dress plus a headdress is well-known throughout her village for beating the crap out of other people, mostly men, when they tried to mess around with her. We often heard stories about women migrant workers from the Third World working as domestic workers abroad who beat their employers or worst killed them for harassing them. But back home, while some of them continued doing what they believed, some others, perhaps like Obierika, or vice versa, … whatever … , ferociously commenting on Okonkwo as the greatest men in Umuofia, had to stand behind the culture that puts men first, leaving them only with bruises and scars or worst death. (There is a woman in Iran awaiting for her chi, to be stoned to death. http://www.aavaz.org)
Well, what I’ve been trying to share is that I always turned to fiction (whatever, novels, plays, including those outside literature genres like films, comics, paintings, music, nano technology, testudinata, …. ) to make sense of what I’ve been observing and put it perhaps as metaphors to better write ethnography, (cf Michel-Rolph Toruillot Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness) I even turned to those autobots, Transformer, the cube, and its famous quip at the end, “there’s more than meets the eye” in coming to grip with the issues of digital inclusion in my research. Does fiction have anything to do with my research or ethnography? Yea and nay, it does both.
I believe as anthropologists we should rely on many factors, from science to fiction, to come to terms with the culture we observe. For me, there’re no definite models or strategies yet of the role of fiction in anthropology or vice versa because what counts is those voices that talk back to us. Reminded as always by Geertz who said how he had a difficult time convincing his students not to think of themselves – “I had a hard time convincing students that they were going to North Africa to understand the North Africans, not to understand themselves!” or challenged by Ursula LeGuin’s saying how anthropologists and fiction writers were having the same dilemma of being subjective practitioners of objectivity, except that some of us have preferred subjectivity over objectivity as we couldn’t resist its dialogic freedom for the contesting views and the play of power.
Of course, there’s more than meets the eye to what I’ve tried to share here ….
This is a very stimulating discussion, and I'm not sure that my contribution is helpful, but it makes me recall a time, long ago, when I turned up to a creative writing class for anthropology PhD students at SOAS (in London). Since everyone was asked to bring a short passage from something (anything) that they liked, I came armed with a paragraph from Michael Herr's Dispatches, a slice of writing ostensibly about helicopters ('It made you feel safe, it made you feel Omni, but it was only a stunt, technology...'), but at the last minute, for some reason feeling this wasn't properly 'anthropological', I ditched it in favour of a passage from Tristes Tropiques, all about cloud formations, which my ex-girlfriend especially liked. Actually, I hadn't read Tristes Tropiques (and still haven't - an embarrassing admission). But I find that I reach for Herr's Dispatches rather a lot when I want to write something. To be sure, his book isn't fiction, it's an account of his time as a journalist in Vietnam during the Vietnam war; but his book isn't strictly history either. The appeal of it, to me, is that his writing is absolutely saturated with the time and environment he was living in.
This, for me at least, is one of the major aims of anthropological writing - that it saturates itself in the thing that it is trying to understand. (It works in reverse too. I regret that I haven't read half as much fiction as I wish as had, but I did read Melville's Moby Dick this year, and it read like fiction as ethnography - the wealth of detail about the lives of whalers, etc. Talk about saturation - somehow it seemed like sea-water had got into his prose.) In any case, fiction is hugely important to anthropology, I think, not only because, as Keith says, it enables the imagination of alternative worlds, but also, for that reason, as MAI Saptenno suggests, it helps us to write better ethnographies of those worlds.