In 1997, in the months between finishing my PhD [at Oxford] and taking up a post doc in 1998, I wrote my first novel. It was more by accident than design. I had been writing short stories, and it so happened that one of these short stories caught fire. It simply went on and on and on, to the point where I thought: this is looking suspiciously like a novel. Perhaps if I wrote an ending it might be one. That turned out to be the case. Eight years ago that novel was published by a tiny press, which paid me an advance which might have bought me a week’s worth of groceries. And a year after that, in 2000, upon completing my post doc, I made a choice, a permanent, life-altering choice.
Here I was, a newly minted anthropologist with that rare and elusive thing of an actual proper job offer in front of me, choosing to give it all up in order to do something that I’d never even studied and embark on a profession that probably has the least chance of success or of generating income than any other profession I could have possibly chosen, except perhaps that of poet. People naturally assumed I must be having some kind of breakdown.
Why did I do it? Two related reasons: First, the simple one: I had a burning, irrepressible desire to write fiction, and writing one novel didn’t satisfy me, it only fuelled that desire. Apparently I had more of that in me. And second, and very much related to this, is that fact that I seemed to be having something of a problem with anthropology. One I didn’t understand and felt rather ashamed about. Something about the way I felt—the way I wanted to write—didn’t seem compatible with the discipline, at least as I had come to understand it. And that left me feeling fraudulent, and no matter how much my contemporaries could reassure me that we all feel like impostors to some degree, they seemed much better to be able to reconcile whatever it was, where I couldn’t.
Mary Louise Pratt, who wrote the essay “Fieldwork in Common Places” that appears in the Clifford and Marcus’ collection Writing Culture (1986), articulated part of that problem for me. She writes:
“There are strong reasons why field ethnographers so often lament that their ethnographic writings leave out or hopelessly impoverish some of the most important knowledge they have achieved, including the self-knowledge. For the lay person, such as myself, the main evidence of a problem is the simple fact that ethnographic writing tends to be surprisingly boring. How, one asks, constantly, could such interesting people doing such interesting things produce such dull books? What did they have to do to themselves?”
I remember reading that and thinking: ouch, harsh! And not entirely true—I have read some beautiful ethnography. But at the same time, I recognized something in the question. The beautiful ethnography was an exception. What indeed had so many anthropologists, including me, had to do to ourselves to produce this work that while, I suppose, reasonably competent, was undeniably boring.
I didn’t know how it could be otherwise, though. This is what I was trained to do. The language in which I was educated. The language that I, for the most part, read. And it seemed to be what was rewarded.
In hindsight, it might be partly that finding another way of expressing things, engaging in fiction, shook my confidence in the ideals I’d always held on to—ideals that the academic world was a place where free and radical thinking took place, where conventions were constantly challenged— this is, after all, what had attracted me to this world in the first place, yet what I see now is that that very environment had engendered in me quite the opposite: a profound conformity, a rigidity, a conservatism and an internalization of the hierarchy of this universe which resulted in a dutybound performance that simply took me, very safely, from one stage to the next.
The thing about Mary Louise Pratt’s article that struck me hardest though, was the word “lament.” I thought that’s it—it’s that lament she speaks about. That’s what I feel and I’ve never heard anyone say it, or at least say it that way. For me it was the compounded lament of not only having to leave the field and lose the intimacy of that connection to people and place, but having to reconceive and abandon so much that was vital about that experience in the service of something academic.
As Pratt observes, there is a: “contradiction between the engagement called for in fieldwork and the self-effacement called for in formal ethnographic description… Fieldwork produces a kind of authority that is anchored to a large extent in subjective, sensuous experience… But the professional text to result from such an encounter is supposed to conform to the norms of scientific discourse whose authority resides in the absolute effacement of the speaking and experiencing subject.”
What happens then to your sense of what it feels like to be in a place, to your relationships to people in the field, people you care about? To the intimate experience of having been there? The sensory memory of it. What do you do with all that?
My fieldwork experience was, if I’m honest about it, much less defined in the end by the more formal aspects of my research than by my relationships with people in the field. I lived for a year with a Muslim family with nine children in their household compound in the middle of the small walled Muslim city of Harar in the eastern highlands of Ethiopia. The mother, daughters and I slept on raised red earth platforms in one room, and the men and sons in another room on the other side of the courtyard. I dressed very modestly, like the women around me, wearing a veil and trousers under my skirts. Every morning we rose with the call to prayer, and passed a water jug between us in order to bathe. Every day, three times a day, we ate the same watery stew out of the same bowl with our hands. Every day was a battle against rats and cockroaches and intestinal parasites.
I submitted to the rhythm of the place and my presence became more ordinary. After a month there was no longer any meat in our daily supper, and I had to fight like everyone else had to fight for whose turn it was to suck out the marrow from the one bone floating there.
My relationships with certain members of the family deepened, there was the growth of friendships with people outside the family that still exist today, there were superficial acquaintanceships to be managed, along with those who were suspicious of me, and maintained the belief that I was a spy. There was the habitual use of the mild narcotic qat leaf socially amongst my friends, there were people I knew dying of that unnameable disease AIDS, women begging me to adopt their children, lies to parents so that teenagers could carry on their clandestine affairs, visits to friends in prison, shotgun weddings, suicides, merciless gossip, the curse of the evil eye, and mounting political tension resulting in a curfew of 6 pm, not to mention the colours, the textures the smells of the place, all the visceral responses to it, and ultimately, the utter heartbreak of having to leave it.
Fieldwork is a total experience, not just an intellectual experience, and while nobody denies this, what’s required at the other end doesn’t necessarily reflect the extent to which this is true or offer you a way of dealing with it.
Of course everyone undergoes some degree of challenge re-entering life at home after a period of fieldwork, some degree of reverse culture shock. Most people move through it, as uncomfortable as it is, and get on with their lives. And getting on with your life as anthropologist involves coming to terms with what you have to leave behind, or omit, or in Pratt’s words—impoverish—in order to produce ethnography.
What I felt forced to dispense with was people. I had to put people I cared about—people whose place and culture I was writing about—at a distance.
And what I never sat comfortably with was the fact that these people couldn’t read my thesis—not because it was written in English, but because it wasn’t written for them. It was theoretically driven and written in an academic jargon that serves the purpose of advancing argument amongst a group of likewise fluent and initiated.
… [T]here is no doubt, that Mary Louise Pratt’s article had the effect on me that it did, because I had been doing such old-fashioned work. A lot of interesting, innovative writing was happening as a consequence of the Writing Culture debates. But at Oxford, there was some resistance and a fair amount of disdain for writing about subjectivity, because it has resulted in what a lot of people have dismissed as narcissistic, navel-gazing drivel.
But even if I had been writing a more modern, let alone post-modern kind of thesis, I was still up to no good in an academic sense—I was writing fiction.
Which made me an emerging academic with a secret and possibly dirty passion. A liberating and dangerous indulgence that provoked in me a battle—as if two languages were talking at once—this sophisticated, acquired language and a raw, untrained, native tongue.
I had been taught to value the former; I believed in education, I dismissed the worth of the creative writing because it was just something “instinctive,” not something I had been taught and therefore, to my mind, not of comparable value.
And this was reinforced by a piece of advice a professor gave me while I was a post doc and applying for academic jobs: don’t tell anyone you’re writing fiction, because no one will take you seriously as an academic.
I understood what was being said: because it was derived from a proud tradition that I had inherited myself. How to value art? Because no matter how much, within a postmodern framework anthropology’s image of itself as a discipline rooted in scientific detachment and objectivity was collapsing, no matter how much we moved toward reflexivity—self examination and critique, and the acknowledgment of subjective interpretations and positioning, no matter how we asked questions about authority and authorship, we were still academics, not artists.
And for all the talk about the boundaries between anthropology and fiction being blurry, and for all we were encouraged to seek new ways of representing cultural experiences—to consider ethnography as text, as narrative, as allegory, or as “true fiction”—fiction “proper” is still seen to lack the authority or prestige of academic writing.
And it seems to me, furthermore, that no matter how much we raise issues about accessibility, we do so while being fully complicit in deeming work that is “popular,” work that reaches a larger audience as lacking in intellectual rigour— the very thing that makes what we do, as academics, distinct and valuable.
So: there was every reason for me to not write fiction. In fact, there was not a single reason why I should write fiction. Not the least of which was the fact that those early stories I was writing about African men in prisons and lust on North African beaches? They were absolutely terrible. Not a single one of them—thankfully—was ever published. But I carried on because I simply couldn’t stop. If you ask most writers why they write? The answer is usually that simple. AM
Camilla Gibb has a Ph.D in social anthropology from Oxford University and is the author of three award-winning novels: Mouthing the Words, The Petty Details of So-and-so’s Life and Sweetness in the Belly.