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The Novelist as Ethnographer

July 16, 2014 Literary Criticism, Writing No Comments

Guatemala. Day of the Dead

by Christiane Alsop

When I am not writing fiction I write ethnography. Sometimes I cannot tell the difference – which at first glance doesn’t seem to make sense. Ethnography, after all, is a collection of methods that social sciences use as tools in their quest to describe and understand the self and others, to understand human experience in different fields, to understand what people do, what they know, and what they make and use.

NYC spiky shoesThe novel, on the other hand, is a book-long prose narrative, and although typically that narrative represents some degree of realism, it is different from ethnography in that it is made up, not fact but fiction.

So why do they feel so much the same?

An ethnographer used to be a white, colonialist male academic who traveled far and came back with reports that not only ignored his own presence in the field but also ignored any influence his presence might have had on the object of his observations. Two world wars and their aftermaths, mass migrations, and the women’s movement changed these dynamics. Ethnographers started to ask themselves who they were in their own culture and what they took with them into the field. Easier question to ask than to answer. After all, how can a fish know water? Both the ethnographer and the novelist have to take leaps out of their waters or suffer for a while on land in order to truly understand the other culture or the fictional universe. It is a balancing act: familiarity versus estrangement. Too much distance robs the process of cultural exploration of its lifeblood. Too much closeness makes you blind.

In other words, both the ethnographer and the novelist have to be stepparents, always a step away from the origin, insiders but on the margins in order to create and preserve a critical distance while not alienating those they describe. For example, take Jane Austen. She did not feel at home in her segment of British culture, called the landed gentry; her novels are considered textbook examples of the genre of the “ethnographic novel.” Herman Melville was a seaman before he wrote Moby-Dick, and thus was an ethnographer of sorts. Before she wrote the novel Hunger Angel Herta Müller interviewed deportees from her home village in Romania and used memories of her mother and her interactions and travels with the poet Oskar Pastior, both of them were deportees.

Novelists and ethnographers engage their material in similar ways: For their research they both practice participant observation and the interview. They both position themselves on the outskirts of their “field”, yet not completely outside of it, familiarizing the reader with the strange, estranging the reader from the familiar; and they both deliver “thick description”; all of this in the service of meaning making and truth seeking.

In order for a novel to work, it has to trigger a continual, dreamlike stream of images by engaging the senses, evoking sights, sounds and smells as though they were real. I see Captain Ahab’s scar as if lightning had hit his face, I hear the stomping of his wooden leg above on deck.

The conflict at hand has to feel real, too. The writer has to convince me that the protagonist’s struggle is mine. I have to sympathize with the characters and make their mission my own. Novels not only have to just deliver a vivid simulation of reality but offer the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s minds.

The ethnographer needs to strive for the same. She has to convince the reader that the other is real, and while the struggle may be different, particular, set in a strange terrain with unknown rules and rituals, the other is as human as you and I. Empathy is the magic word that makes the reader care about the epileptic seizures of a Hmong child or the workings of a Brooklyn Vodou priestess.

What then does it take to write a novel and to write an ethnography?

Discovery. I have to dare to write in order to discover. At the start, both, the novelist and the ethnographer do not know what the central theme of their work will be. When my students start the writing process, they expect to be done with research, they expect that now they just have to write it all down. No matter how much research you did, I tell them, no matter how precise your outline, writing is research. When I started my novel The Ideology of Love all I knew was that I wanted to write about guilt and shame, about German angst in the post-war generation. That’s awfully vague. In novel writing as in ethnographic writing, the process of discovering meaning and the process of communicating meaning are one act. It is an awe-inspiring act that takes many, many, many drafts and time in the drawer, and revision after revision. (You can tell I am speaking from experience here.) Many, many years ago I wrote a scene about a shooting gallery game at a carnival in mid-1960s Germany. I show the booth as seen through the eyes of Franziska, a 9 year-old girl. It is autumn and darkness has fallen. Franziska’s father raises the air rifle. He had promised to win her a toy horse, a black stallion. Franziska wants it badly, but she knows her father will miss and she’ll end up with a plastic carnation. Still, she has to make her father happy, no matter the outcome. I knew this scene had deeper meaning, a deeper truth I could not name. Now, multiple revisions later, I know I must make the scene the prologue because it symbolizes the novel’s major conflict: How can you love a father who might have been a Nazi, who might have murdered and slaughtered in the name of Nazi ideology? Can you set him and yourself free by pleasing him? And while you are busy pleasing him and those who matter most to him – how will you define yourself? Only through writing could I discover what I was writing about.

To engage the reader, on the other hand, both the novelist and the ethnographer need to create interest. The human conflict my writing describes has to reach beyond the significance of a particular historic era. After all, my reader might say: A Nazi father and his daughter? Couldn’t care less. It’s been dealt with in multiple books and movies. But who among us hasn’t experienced a suffering parent who seeks refuge in an insignificant accomplishment, showing off to cover the pain? Who among us hasn’t neglected her own wishes and needs in an effort to ease a parent’s torment? In other words, I want the reader to feel: this could be me.

The same is true for the ethnographer. No matter the difference in terrain, in material worlds, in habits and words, what makes the other human is what makes me human.

Needless to say, there are differences between ethnographic and fiction writing, many of them. To name but one, the novel has to make its point through the sequence of events (at least in the American-European tradition of story telling), through its plot, while ethnography can choose to use other means, such as a list of themes.

A novel only works when expressing a universal of human life, when making a statement of value, a statement so subtle, it can only be expressed through the narrative, not through theory, law, or any rule. Fiction, says John Gardner, results in wordless knowledge that is the truth. It is created again and again in the act of reading. An ethnographic account strives for the same. Ethnography at its best is a work of art. And all art strives for the same: Simplicity.

Ian's EuleSimplicity, says the visual artist Constantine Brancusi, is not an end in art, but one arrives at simplicity in spite of oneself, in approaching the real sense of things. Simplicity is complexity itself, and one has to be nourished by its essence in order to understand its value.

So all novelists are ethnographers of sorts. Then why don’t all ethnographers write novels? Because every question, every conflict, every truth demands its own process and its own form. No one form of writing is superior to the other. They just represent different ways to get to the truth. Both set themselves the most ambitious goal humans can set themselves. Once again, John Gardner nailed it:art produces the most important progress civilization knows. … Restating old truths and adapting them to the age, applying them in ways they were never before applied, stirring up emotions by the inherent power of narrative, … artists crack the door to the morally necessary future.”




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Christiane Alsop

Christiane Alsop
Christiane K. Alsop, is a writer and an adjunct teacher at Lesley University’s Graduate Program for Intercultural Relations. Her novel, The Ideology of Love, explores the trauma of history for the post-Nazi generation of Germans and is currently under agent consideration. Her personal essay, Presumed Guilty, was named Notable Essay of 2005 in The Best American Essays 2006. Christiane lives in Beverly, Massachusetts, with her husband and son. Read Full