The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart
In Works and Lives, Clifford Geertz comes at this question by suggesting that ethnographies are a strange cross between author-saturated and author-evacuated texts, neither romance nor lab report, but something in between. Instead, Geertz considers the later phases of the ethnographic process, the moment of writing and the recepion of the anthropologist's text. They are unique, irrecoverable, gone before they happen, always in the past, even when written up in the present tense.
Geertz, in turn, repeatedly shows us that anthropology-as practiced by greats such as Levi-Strauss, Evans-Pritchard, Malinowski, and Benedict-is resolutely person-speciic and yet somehow not "personal. Some of these people even have the patience and kindness and generosity to talk to us. We try to listen well. We write ieldnotes about all the things we've misunderstood, all the things that later will seem so trivial, so much the bare surface of life.
And then it is time to pack our suitcases and return home. Even Geertz recognizes there is a problem: "We lack the language to articulate what takes place when we are in fact at work. There seems to be a genre missing. In An Unquiet Mind, a memoir of moods and madness, Kay Reield Jamison reuses to conceal her transformation of anxiety into method.
These concerns are often well warranted. I am tired of hiding, ired of misspent and knotted energies, tired of the hypocrisy, and tired of acting as though I have something to hide. On a boat ride down the Mississippi River in New Orleans he asks her point-blank, "Why are you really studying mood disorders 7" She hesitates to answer and he goes on to tell her why he has studied mood disorders-because of depression and manic-depressive illness in his family. Nevertheless, she continues to feel anxious: "Will my work now be seen by my colleagues as somehow biased because of my illnes s 7.
It is an awul prospect, giving up one's cloak of academic objectivity. They have deeply affected my teaching, my advocacy work, my clinical practice, and what I have chosen to study: manic-depressive illness. With devastating honesty, she admits she has no guarantee she will remain healthy on a steady dose of lithium and therapy.
There is always a part of my mind that is preparing for the worst, and another part of my mind that believes if I prepare enough for it, the worst won't happen.aveleriltio.ga/map19.php
Ruth Behar Quotes
Science, in other words, has drained the shame out of depression. Increasingly, scholars are willing to take such risks. In Landscape for a Good Woman, historian Carolyn Kay Steedman offers an account of her mother's life that reveals the inability of British working-class history to account for her mother's resentul and unfulilled desires for the things of the world. The worst sin was to be "too personal. It is far from easy to think up interesting ways to locate oneself in one's own text. I would say it takes yet greater skill. But when an author has made herself or himself vulnerable, the stakes are higher: a boring self-revelation, one that fails to move the reader, is more than embarrassing; it is humiliating.
That doesn't require a full-length autobiography, but it does require a keen understanding of what aspects of the self are the most important ilters through which one perceives the world and, more particularl, the topic being studied. Vulnerability doesn't mean that anything personal goes. The exposure of the self who is also a spectator has to take us somewhere we couldn't otherise get to. It has to be essential to the argument, not a decorative lourish, not exposure for its own sake.
Rather than facing the daunting task of assessing the newly vulnerable forms of writing emerging in the academy, critics like Daphne Patai choose to ismiss them all as evidence of a "nouveau solipsism. This experience called into question my ability to depict Esperanza's mixed identity, on the one hand of Indian descent, on the other cut off from much of her Indian heritage by centuries of colonialism.
I have received several letters from women and men who say that relating my own story made the book whole for them. Translated Woman has brought both you and Esperanza to voice. You are both helping me come to voice, as well. These responses have taught me that when readers take the voyage through anthropology's tunnel it is themselves they must be able to see in the obsever who is seving as their guide. The Vulnerable Observer I 17 Even I, a practitioner of vulnerable writing, am sometimes at a loss to say how much emotion is bearable within academic settings.
What would I ind myself responsible for? Suddenly, she switched gears. Her tone grew passionate as she recounted her own experience of being brutally beaten by a former husband in a possession trance. She had not read this section of her work aloud before and her voice trembled. Soon the tears came to her eyes. She had to stop several times to catch her breath. By the end, she was sobbing. The room was packed. All the available seats were taken and there were people standing in the back.
In an effort to create a more feminist and egalitarian environment, the students had arranged the chairs in a circle, so there was a huge gaping hole, a cavern, in the middle of the room. A part of me wished the cavern in the middle of the room would open up and swallow us all, so we wouldn't have to speak. There was the wrenching personal story of the suffering anthropologist. What would that take? Everyone seemed relieved that I, the champion of personal writing, was putting autobiography back in its place as the handmaiden of ethnography.
My new colleaue had by this time calmed down and wiped away her tears. What kept me glued to my chair, unable to rise and embrace her? Like Omaira Sanchez, she'd been in trouble. Unlike Rolf Carle, I had watched her from a distance, sining into the cavern in the middle of the room. In fact, she went way over her time. After being politely asked to cut her reading short, she had become a furious prima donna.
Many of those clapping were crying, too. In Michigan, all that emotion scared us, scared me. So we stayed quiet, like obedient schoolchildren waiting for the teacher to scold us. And, sadly, I became that teacher, ruler in hand, making my own knuckles bleed. Who can say what will come lying out? When I began, nine years ago, to make my emotions part of my ethnograph, I had no idea where this work would take me or whether it would be accepted within anthropology and the academy. What does she want from others? What do the others want from her? The feminist in me wanted to know: What ind of fulillment does she get-or not get-from the power she has?
The novelist in me wanted to know: What, as she blithely goes about the privilege of doing research, is the story she isn't willing to tell? Unconsciously at irst, but later with more diretion, I chose the essay as a genre through which to attempt the original meaning of essai, or essay the dialectic beween connection and otherness that is at the center of all forms of historical and cultural representation.
The essay is at once the inscription of a self and description of an object. That really creative writing was being perpetually put on hold, perpetually postponed. So I began to write public performance pieces which were fringed with snatches of that other writing. Committed to speaing as a Latina, to speaing, therefore, from the margins rather than from the center of the academy, I was coming to see that I had been playing the role of the second-rate gringa.
As these ideas grew dearer in my mind, I found myself resisting the "I" of the ethnographer as a privileged eye, a voyeuristic eye, an all-powerful eye. Every ethnography, I new, depended on some form of ethnographic authority. What irst propelled me to try to write ethnography in a vulnerable way was the intense regret and self-loathing I felt when my matenal grandfather died of cancer in Miami Beach while I was away doing a summer's ieldwork in Spain. The irony was heightened by the fact that I had gone to Spain, knowing that my grandfather was dying, with a mission to gather material for an academic paper I'd been asked to write for a panel on "the anthropology of death.
The audience was moved, but I emerged shaken and uncertain. What had I done 7 By turning some of the spotlight on myself had I drawn attention away from "bigger" issues in the study of the anthropology of death 7 What was I seeking from my colleagues? Empathy 7 Pity? Two summers later, in , I pulled out the essay again. By then my status had shifted dramatically.
I had won a major award that conirmed for my parents that they were right to leave Cuba. It was a moment when I ought to have been happy, but I'd fallen into a state of mourning. I was mourning a loss for which I knew I deseved no sympathy-the loss of my innocence when I let Michigan toy with my most intimate sense of identity and buy me out. I idn't say a word about any of this in "Death and Memory. From Spain, I went to Mexico, where the whole course of my life and work changed as I felt in my own lesh how the border between the United States and Mexico is, in Gloria Anzaldua's words, "una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the irst and bleeds.
Yet, as I wrote Translated Woman, my friend Marta, also from Mexquitic, was settling down on this side of the border. In fact, she'd moved to Detroit, a half hour away from my home in Ann Arbor, and become my "neighbor. Marta's parents back in Mexquitic, who had shared their heart and house with us, had asked me to keep an eye on Marta, to try to save her from the dangers they knew all too well existed on the other side.
Jones has written that "all dance exists in memory. One foot comes down, followed by the other. It's over. We agree, dancer and watcher, to hold on to the illusion that someone lew for a moment. The material world is a place "that exists only in the moment, a place of illusion. It is about the anthropologist who can go nowhere, the anthropologist who has turned agoraphobic and is unable to move beyond her bed, the anthropologist who has lost her way in the long tunnel and, this time, is sure she will never ind the exit. The tunnel I grew lost in was the tunnel leading back to Cuba. But it may well have to be that or nothing.
And I ask myself: Back home, in Cuba, have I, the returning immigrant child whose parents spared her from having to cut sugarcane, become the ugliest of border guards 7 This anthropology isn't for the softhearted. NoR IS it for those who "marvel that anyone could choose a profession of such profound alienation and repeated loss.
Ebook The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart
An example of such vulnerability can be seen in the Italian movie rendition of "The Postman," which stunningly evokes the deep impression that the poet Pablo Neuda made upon "an ordinary man" in a small ishing village. We anthropologists-merely poor relatives of Pablo Neuda-leave behind our own trail of longings, desires, and unulilled expectations in those upon whom we descend. About that vulnerability we are still barely able to speak. This is not the only depersonalizing trend.
A number of anthropologists accord prestige value to "high theory" and produce accounts that are starkly unpeopled about concepts like neocolonialism, transnationalism, and postmodemism, among other "isms. Clearly, vulnerability isn't for everyone. Nor should it be. But it seems to me that some of these depersonalizing trends relect a fear that the personal turn in the academy has gone too far and must be stopped before all hell breaks loose. Isn't it a pity that scholars, out of some sense of false supeiority, should try to rise above it all?
In anthropology, which historically exists to "give voice" to others, there is no greater taboo than self-revelation. The irony is that anthropology has always been rooted in an "I" -understood as having a complex psychology and history-observing a "we" that, until recently, was viewed as plural, ahistoical, and noninividuated. Latel, anthropologists have been pushing at that irony, seeking another voice in anthropology that can accommodate complex I's and we's both here and there.
Personal narratives have a long traition in anthropology, stemming from the studies of Native merican cultures conducted by the irst generation of anthropologists in the United States.
It was practiced in Europe with Holocaust survivors, and in Latin America it was introduced in the s as a way of helping people come to terms with the psychic and social effects of political repression on their lives. Its use spread to Central America and it became a key genre for the expression of consciousness-raising among indigenous women leaders. These first-person narratives, written by those who previously had been more likely to be the ethnographized rather than the ethnographer, challenged monolithic views of identity in the United States, asserted the multiplicity of American cultures, and deconstructed various orientalisms, challenging the assumption that the anthropologist was the sole purveyor of ethnographic truth.
As those who used to be "the natives" have become scholars in their own right, often studying their home communities and nations, the lines between pariipant and obsever, friend and stranger, aboriginal and alien are no longer so easily drawn. We no longer, as Clifford Geertz put it in a much-quoted phrase, strain to read the culture of others "over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong. As Sandra Harding puts it, "The beliefs and behaviors of the researcher are part of the empirical evidence for or against the claims advanced in the results of research.
Literary criticism has likewise been moving toward a more vulnerable and situated view of the critic's task. A famous early example is Jane Tompkins's "Me and My Shadow," a piece of literary criticism that is continually "disrupted" by relections about the author's bodily presence as she writes-her stocking feet, looking out the window, deciding whether or not to go to the bathroom. What did a poem or a novel or an essay mean 7 Or, if you were more sophisticated: How did a work mean, how was it 'put together' to produce a cetain effet? These were the questions we were taught to ask, and the Arst rule we learned was that in answering them, one must never say '1.
Some critics are now read as poets and novelists are read: not only for what they have to say, but for their personal voice and style. She rejected the traditional bourgeois position of the married woman, but emotionally Beauvoir was bound to Sartre. Moi suggests that Beauvoir's depression, rooted in the fear of loss of love, caught up with her as she grew older, though she reused to pay it any attention.
But this preisely is what Freud understands by disavowal. Beauvoir both sees and does not see her own sorrow. Critics can keep dismissing these trends as forms of "solipsism," but a lot of us are going to continue wearing our hearts on our sleeves. To what should we attribute these trends 7 Is it mere whining 7 Or have we entered, as they say in Cuba, a special period?
The cold war, it appeared, was over.
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The communist world was gone, toppled by free markets and capitalism. As doctors and dentists ixed up their cars and became cab drivers, and former revolutionaries swallowed their pide and dug up the addresses of their relatives in Miami to ask for a couple of dollars to buy cooking oil, the old revolutionay social values of reciprocity and laboring for the common good grew conused. What had the years of sacriice-always for the sake of a messianic time not yet arrived-inally yielded?
Cuba's special period epitomizes a more widespread loss of faith in master texts, master ideologies, steadfast truths, and monolithic ways of imagining the relation between self and community. You should know that my one major vulnerabilit, my Achilles' heel, which I always thought was a problem in my becoming an anthropologist, is that I can't read a map.
I'm the sort of person who gets lost just going around the comer. I think I got through school because they stopped teaching geography in American universities. Of course I've waited too long before writing this and now it is late, probably too late. Like beginning to write at twiligh t with no lamp as the darkness falls. And there is no light now. There was some a little while ago and I should have written then. I also had some within me, a deep blue light the colour of Iris which now and then I could see far inside my body and which glowed and gave me great comfort. But it is really dark now, my blue ligh t has deserted m e and it is getting very late.
I had been raised in New York City and had only the vaguest ideas about farming. I had gone on to learn what I could of Spanish peasant history and culture, producing a dissertation about a topic that life had not prepared me for, and embaring, a little hesitantly, on an academic career. In the summer of. I felt a great need to return, to show people my book and my child. Letters from Santa Marfa announcing one death and then another made it clear that these interlocutors, the elderly farmers of the village, were not going to last many years longer.
I had to get back to see them. But in that summer of. Why I adored him so much I couldn't begin to explain. A bond had been formed between us in a childhood I had no memory of, a childhood spent in Havana. Under our window he would clap his hands just once and I would go rushing out to meet him.
I loved him with a child's immense and selless love, but I had also grown to love him with the adult woman's appreciation of his independence and ulnerability. We spoke little since Zayde did not like to talk being suspicious of those who talked too much , and we always spoke in Spanish. He was dying and I wanted to call and ask if he wanted me by him. I had gone to see him in May shortly after his cancer had been diagnosed. When I entered the apartment he was asleep in the reclining chair in the cuartito, the little room with the big television.
He was already very thin. But when he woke up and we talked I could see that he was not going to accept death. Why was the doctor refusing to see him, he wanted to know. Why did all food smell and taste horrible? Yet Zayde cheered up so much during our visit that he almost didn't seem ill anymore. He took a bite of an omelette I made. He sat with us at the table. He held my child, his irst great-grandchild, on his lap. When we said good-bye at the door he said to me, "La primer nieta, eso es algo grande" "The irst grandchild [which I had been], that's a great thing".
I came back not believing that he was dying. I struggled that summer with the desire to stay in Miami Beach, to watch over him and help him to die. I had never helped anyone to die before and I had only the crudest idea of what it might mean to act toward an end that I myself deeply feared. Yet even if I could come to terms with his impending death, could he, could my mother, could the rest of the family? This led her to speak of her own guilt and preoccupations. She had already taken off all the time she could, and she was working ovetime mornings and afternoons to save up days to be with him later on, when she would be most needed.
My aunt told my mother that she thought it wrong to put aside one's plans and sit as if waiting for him to die. Life had to go on. My grandfather, I also knew, had never wanted to appear weak or pitiful before the family; if one patted him on the back too adoringly, he would double over and pretend to be a bent-over old man hobbling with a cane. He always stood very straight and had a brisk step. Not wanting to displace my mother, and hoping my grandfather would wait for me, I decided to go to Spain.
Angel Mirantes, another village elder and cousin of Leonardo, speking to me of the recent changes and improvements in village life, which had come too late for people of his generation to ully enjoy, said in his loud, clear shepherd's voice, "For us, there is only the tomb. Spain today is no longer the rural society that it was ifty years ago. Tomorrow's peasant Spain will be the source of our greatness and of our virtues. Thus the peasants who had been the object of so much romanticism were transformed into a marginal people, whose values and culture offered little worthy of emulation to a modern, urban Spain.
Meanwhile, that modern, urban Spain, in a inal act of resistance against the previous social ascetiism, took refuge in rampant consumerism. Yet these villagers, who not too long ago worked and, in some cases, continue to work their ields with sickles, scythes, and teams of oxen, have come to feel socially excluded and useless. Sixto Mirantes, a longtime friend and paricipant in my work who is just about to turn seventy, wrote me a letter in June of.
That every time there are fewer of us. I think that before the year two thousand it will have disappeared. Most of the houses are closed up. Felicidad died. The house closed. You know, Vitaliano and Barista can no longer manage. They left to join their sons. Luis we buried a month ago. Onorina [his ife] went ith her daughter. As for our neighbor, Balbino, it [their house] is open only on Sundays and during vacations.
The rest of the time they reside in Le6n. The upper barrio, as you know, [is occupied] on weekends and during vacations, otherwise there are hardly any people. We want very much to see him and talk with you again. I am superluous in everything [Yo estoy de mas para todo]. Then life itself, what is its worth to us? Why have we bothered to live?
All this is at an end. For myself, growing old would be altogether a different thing if that little town was there still. All is ended. With each death, a part of that lived memory that connected every villager to a peasant past is erased, made unrecoverable. Sixto Mirantes's letter poignantly reveals that Santa Mana as a community is, in a profound sense, dying; at least the Santa Mana he and others of his generation knew is dying.
Death has acquired a harsh signiicance for him and other village elderly, who are acutely aware that the reproduction of their society and culture has been truncated, brought to a standstill. They are plagued, not by nostalgia, but by a sense of having lived anachronistically for too long. My thoughts that summer were mired in death. I couldn't forget that my grandfather was dying; that everything I was living an ocean away in the space of a village in Spain was being lived in the time frame of his dying.
We lived that summer, for the irst time, in the village house of an upper-middle-class family. Rui had generously invited us to spend the month at their house and to do so as their guests. Polonia began: "When it was my mother, we [she and her sister] shrouded her. And Justa. She died at night, at four, at three or so in the moning. We shrouded her between the three of us, my sister, Justa, and I. Florencio [her brother-in-law] was here too, my husband was also here, which was curious, it was the iesta-" Rui interrupted her to ask a generalizing question: "But how did you wash them 7" Her mother shrugged.
No, nothing, it doesn't mean anything, because it is a normal body. Death and Memory I 45 "I don't know. These are customs. Sometimes they dress them up in nun's or monk's clothes. Rui asks her mother what I, too, am thinking but dare not ask: How do you stand the sight and smell of death? Like her, I, too, want to displace the washing of a literal body onto some more palatable notion of a clean soul.
Polonia goes on to tell us that her mother had a prophetic knowledge of her death.
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Polonia recalled her mother's words: "No, I'm going quickly. It's better that you call Jose. Write to Jose and tell him to come now. Because you now he doesn't get much time off and then he'll have to leave. You stay calm, don't worry. But when her mother died the night of the iesta he admitted to Polonia: "That woman has made an impression on me. She seemed to have her days counted, she did. She new that if she didn't die on the day of the iesta that some time during those days she would die.
She would ask the Virgin, she was very devoted to the Virgin of Carmen. She had a book, with its worn pages, all worn. She was very devoted. My father was the one who was very afraid of dying. He was very afraid, and it weighed on him a lot. And the mailman came, and one day he gave the magazine to my father there in the street. And he was reading, and he said that even with-1 don't know how he said it. That with all the un that we have here, that not even the best of times that we spent here could be compared to what takes place in the other world-dying in the grace of God.
And he says, 'You know, I'm losing my fear of dying. I ind myself wavering in the same way between my ethnographic subjects and the family scene back home. Because I have seven children there. And she would say, 'It's that I have seven children there. They have to receive me well. We say that, but how serious is the jouney we have to go through. She hoped to be received well at the end of it; she even expected that she should be received well because seven of her children, sinless and therefore angelic, were already in heaven.
Her father had more doubts, but he too, after reading the magzine of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, learned to repeat over and over, to conince himself, that there is another world and that the next world is better. Yet even with their doubts, the language of salvation and God's Kingdom was not an absurd language for them, nor is it even for Polonia who can still tell the story with pathos.
For Rui, however, this religious language is at best a quaint form of self-deception that only makes sense when it is displaced onto a istant ural past. Rui's denial of coevalness with her grandparents seems too brusque to me. I want her to be less of an ethnographer and more of a granddaughter. I wish she wouldn't um the stories about her grandparents into folklore quite so readily.
She seems moved by death in general but not their deaths. It is an ugly story of the body's deteioration. My grandfather is dying as I listen in the aftenoon quiet to Polonia telling us how her mother ied, and I realize I am not there with him. I have chosen to be at enormous distance, to hear how others die because I have not resolved how to be there ith him. Or, is this what I think now, two years later? Later we brought down a bed for her here. Because she had a lot of trouble going up the stairs. And she would say, you wo [Polonia and her sister], be calm.
You wo go to sleep calmly and don't worry. When I see that you need to spend the night with me I'll let you know. But she wouldn't let us stay with her. No, no, no, no. And you know what, the day that she died, in the afternoon, just at dusk, she said to us, she said, 'Tonight, you can't go to sleep, one of you has to stay with me. A chill rushes down my spine. Rui exclaims, " j Hala! Now it is a sign of status, of being modern, to die in a hospital. Not to do so is strange, primitive, stingy.
A dying person is no longer allowed to wait patiently in bed, rosary in hand, for death to come, surrounded by kin, neighbors, the priest, Christ, and the Virgin. The modern death is not a clerical death but a medical death. I make these remarks after hearing Leonardo's story about Ramona's death. On a rainy day we sit talking in his dark kitchen. After talking about death customs in general, I ask, "So Se. There she was for twenty days or so. She had been at home too, very ill.
But the doctor wouldn't send for her. She had too many complications, who knows what. Then we had to take her at the last minute. And- One is always left with something. A lot of people came. Many, many, many. They had to take me out of there, because I had an attack of nerves. They brought me to the church. So many people. It was Good Saturday. She died on Good Friday in the moning.
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Should they bring her, should they not bring her? And I said, 'If you want to bring her, then bring her, she has always been at home. But you know, she's here, and I don't see well. A lot of people have to come. And where do I receive them all? And they were there all day. Wakes are now held in the hospital chapel and then not all night, but for certain hours set by the hospital, and without the presence of the deceased.
Death and Memory I 51 "It's all sad. When we went she was in that place where they put them so they will be conseved. And they said that we couldn't- 'Excuse me, listen,' said Ricardo, 'Please, it's that a sister who comes from such and such a place and comes all the way from Teruel and they have to leave this evening. And we all went in. We went in. Me just a little bit. I reached over to touch her and she had a handkerchief, not a handkerchief but some rags, wrapped around her mouth. It's dear that when what she had inside burst through she spit out water from her mouth.
And I tried to go towards her to kiss her, but I hit against the glass of-well, I wasn't doing well then-of the casket. And I would say, 'By ight I should die before you, because I'm four years older than you. But we didn't think she would die. One never thinks of that. Nowadays everyone feels that such things [illness and death] are better handled outside the home. And aftewards you always hear things said, that they didn't attend to her well, and so on.
But may God have received her in heaven. Moden death encodes a double sadness: grief stems not simply from the loss of one beloved, but from a consciousness of defeat-the sense that more could have been done, that the struggle ended too soon. We seem to grieve as much for the defeat as for the personal loss. And they would say to me at the funerl home that, of course, some die a normal death at home and in those cases the funeral home ends up making a proit, but not with those who die far away.
They told me that not long ago they brought someone back from Germany and that it cost , pesetas to bring him embalmed and in an aiplane. Dying takes place outside of the illage, yet the inal resting place is still the village cemetery. We go on to talk about the death of Leonardo's parents, both of whom died at home. When a person was in his or her last agony, the family would call the priest, and immediately the bells would be rung in the particular way that signaled to the village that one of their members was about to receive the last sacraments. At this sign, a spontaneous procession would assemble, consisting of the priest carrying the chalice with the Eucharist, the sacristan carrying the cruciix from the main altar that accompanied all of the dying from the moment they breathed their last to the moment they were laid to rest, two men carrying the lanterns that were used in all the processions, and women bearing lit candles.
The priest was a major actor in the inal scenes of death when it used to take place at home. Grave, grave, then the priest. And the priest himself, when someone was ill, he would go and make a consolatory visit, to cheer up the person. No, I don't know. Since eveyone dies far from home. Because in the past eveyone died at home. The saddest thing was after working so hard and with so many children, so much of everything, and then to go die in a hospital. We thought going to the hospital to die was the worst thing imaginable.
No, on the other hand, it is the most common thing. Now few die at home. Unless one dies of a heart attack, of something while at home. But because of illness, very few. Because before then the irst thing the local doctor does is send you to Le6n, to the hospital. Man, I don't know. Honestly, here we never called the priest, because she was never gravely, gravely ill. She was able to finish high school and attend to Wesleyan University where she graduated in with a B.
She then was admitted to Princeton University and graduated in with a M. She was also honored with the Distinguished Alumna Award in Recognition of Outstanding Achievement and Service from Wesleyan University in and Latina Magazine named her, in , one of the 50 Latinas who made history in the twentieth century ruthbehar.
Chapter one was the chapter that I found to be the most useful for my personal research and work as a feminist and scholar. Behar questions if a piece of writing that makes the reader cry or feel angry is truly successful or not. So you might be trying to communicate anthropological ideas to somebody in the English Department or somebody in the theater department—so they may be equally an academic but they have a different way of communicating and their disciplines.
So I think being a public intellectual starts with being interdisciplinary and being able to speak between and across disciplines. I think that's like maybe the first hurdle to get through, and then I think the next step is in being a public intellectual is just speaking to generally educated people. And I think our society or our contemporary global society is a very educated society many more people have college education now than they did, say fifty years ago. There are many people writing out there. There's many people reading you know, despite all the fears that, Oh my God we're not reading anymore.
But in fact people are reading a lot and all again and all these different formats and genres. And so I think we have generally speaking, a much more educated society. And so it makes sense to be a public intellectual, because you're trying to speak about things that you know that others may also know something about in a different way you know. RB : If I'm speaking about Cuba, for example which I know intimately and I go to Cuba several times a year and I'm up to date on everything that's going on and I've tried to read everything that's out there about Cuba, but maybe I'm talking to somebody who went to Cuba for a week you know?
And saw a little bit of the island and they know something too. They may not know all the things that I know but they know things too and you know, why should I put down whatever knowledge that person has who maybe hasn't done the full study. But they're interested, they're curious. They-they found some things quirky about Cuba and I come in and give a lecture about it.
And I want that lecture to be interesting to that person and to be interesting to the person who's never heard of Cuba, never gone there. You know so, I think it's about trying to speak to as many people as possible but understanding that they are as smart as you that maybe they have focused on something else. Maybe I'm talking about Cuba to a neurologist or to a corporate lawyer.
Obviously they're going to be equally smart but they have specialized in something else, but that doesn't mean that I should speak in a way that is so convoluted that they're not going to understand me. Or that somebody like my mother, who worked for many years in the diploma department of NYU, checking the spelling on people's diplomas. Why shouldn't she understand what I'm saying and what I think is important?
So I don't know, for me I think it comes maybe from a deep sense of democracy, that our knowledge should be available to all and that as as those who produce knowledge we should try to make it available as we can to all. KG : I mean that's an amazing perspective. And I keep thinking about everything that you're saying in the context of sort of, the critiques that I hear often about quote unquote public intellectuals or intellectuals or academics who sort of make this more public facing turn. And obviously when you're talking to a corporate lawyer or a neurologist or you know somebody who's checking diplomas at NYU, like, you have to not use the kind of jargon that we use in academia you can you can't use the specific terminologies that we share.
And so if you write an op ed for the New York Times or you write a little piece for the Washington Post or you do something that is really truly a kind of democratic engagement with society a lot of times what happens, is your colleagues or other people will say, oh but you haven't substantiated your claims or you haven't fully dived into the literature or you haven't cited the right people. I mean there seems to be this tension in some ways between the kind of evidentiary and rhetorical standards that we have in academia which many academics struggle to uphold—and the ability to as you say communicate with this wider audience.
And so I'm really fascinated by the fact that you've done more popular academic books. You've done documentary films. You've written a memoir most recently. You've written a novel, I understand you're working on another novel and so I'd love for you to talk a little bit about how working in these different genres and communicating with these wider audiences, how it complements maybe your more traditional academic work, and then further, like how you deal with the criticism of, when you do speak to these wider audiences and you're not using the correct jargon or the correct language or you're not citing everybody.
How do you balance the need to be the appropriately you know rigorous academic with the desire to have this more democratic form of communication with the broader public? RB : It's a challenge and then sometimes you know, you don't do it as well as you would like to. But you use the word balance and balance is what I have always searched for.
I—you know I love scholarly work and I love doing it and I love reading it and I love being in scholarly conversations so it's just something that, that I adore. And I've definitely worked very hard to to be part of the scholarly community. At the same time there's an artist inside me, or I think there is, and that artist also needs to express herself.
RB : And so sometimes there are poems or lately now there's been fiction that has been coming out of me and it's it's it's complicated. I think the first thing to be aware of, and I often say this to my students when they're concerned, like I want to do all the things you've done. I'll go, Well you can do it too, you just can't do it all at once. You're going to have a career. A career means that you know, hopefully you'll be lucky and you know you'll have many many years to nurture all these different sides of yourself.
And so you know you're starting out in scholarship, you know you want to get a PhD in anthropology, well then you know you've got to work at that, you've got to know the literature, you've got to do your research, all the things that we need to do to be good scholars you need to do them. You need to go to the archive. I mean whatever it is that you need to do to really be a fantastic anthropologist, you're going to do that.
So maybe it's not the best moment to be doing all the other things you want to do. Maybe you also want to write a novel. Maybe you also want to write a collection of poetry. You will be able to do that. Maybe you want to paint. I mean I've had a lot of visual artists. I had a student who was also a musician and an anthropologist. And so you know it's—I think you can do it all but you have to organize your time and kind of organize your life and sort of know that you can do things one by one right.
RB : You can't write ten books at the same time, but you can't write ten books over the course of a long career right? So maybe you write one and then four years or five years later you're on to the next book. So you have to have a certain kind of patience with yourself, which is really hard because I'm a very impatient person actually. But having you know having that patience with yourself and kind of knowing, OK there's all these things I want to do but right now I'm going to concentrate on this project. This story, this article, you know whatever it is, you're going to put your all into that one thing and do it as well as you can and then move to the next.
This is not to say that you can't multitask on the other hand, because you can, because sometimes you can. So when I was working on my documentary film in Cuba, I was also doing some other work because—you know documentary uses a certain part of your mind right. I mean you're you know you're there, you're trying to find people to interview, you know, you finally get them on camera.
You interview them. Then you've got, like, all of this material to sort through in the editing room. You can't possibly use it all because otherwise your film would be twenty hours long. RB : So you can't use all the material you have, and so you sit there editing and shaping and you know crying, Oh my God I'm not going to be able to use the story where oh this is so terrible. So you go through the process of creation with everything that you do, but with something like the documentary, it involved a certain part of my mind, a certain kind of attention that I had to give that work, and so that allowed me sometimes to do other things too.
Okay I can write a few poems in the midst of this because poems are short and I can write some ideas down I sometimes get an idea for a poem. Believe it or not, during a faculty meeting. You know I'll just be staring into space and you know, I just thought of an image. So you can multitask. So you can also multitask and do different things and I've always believed that different kinds of intellectual and creative work can nurture each other.
So if you need to write the poem because a poem just came to you, there's something you know, deep that you need to say and you write that poem. Because you've got the poem down, then that might free you to go back to your ethnography, or back to your documentary film because you've got that poem out. That maybe it's about a loss in your family or a death or somebody that you just remembered in the midst of other things and you know, you put that down.
And then that frees you or charges you up in such a way that then you can go back to maybe the more intellectual the heavier work, in some way. So it is a question of balance and sometimes you can multitask. And then it is a question of also being aware that you're going to have time over the course of a career to do different things. You gain respect for the intellectual work you've done, or at least I hope I have, and then that frees me up to, OK well I've done a number of ethnographies, maybe I can write a novel now and people won't be too upset [laughing].
RB : I have written some ethnographic studies so maybe now I take some time and I write a few novels. And the novels in some way connect to my work as an anthropologist because they're about similar cultures and similar concerns. They have to do with immigration. They have to do with cultural intersections or you know themes that in fact are in my ethnographic work but now get carried over into a different genre.
And I always had this idea and I think again, it's because I'm first generation in the academy. You know I used to feel like, well maybe one day they're going to kick me out of academia, they're going to go oh sorry you're doing too many things that just don't correspond to what you're supposed to do. And I used to have those thoughts you know they're kind of innocent and maybe somewhat childish, and I would think, OK well I guess if they do that, I have some other talents. I could be a photographer you know, I could maybe work in publishing. So I would kind of console myself and say well you know cause.
I read a lot about the inquisition I sort of have this—. RB : This inquisition is going to kind of get together, this inquisition, real committee. No no this is heretical what you're doing, get out. So you know the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. So I think they'll expel me and then I'll have to go to some new intellectual country and start all over again.
So I think I had those thoughts, definitely when I was younger, and a feeling that you know, you needed permission to do things that I think as I got older I just started feeling, well I'm just going to do what I want to do and you know. I think I always had that kind of quirky notion at in the back of your mind. KG : Which leads me to my next question, which is about the reception of your work among your academic colleagues. Have you ever faced disapproval or lost opportunities because of your decision to produce work for a broader audience? I mean you're talking about the Inquisition, the academic inquisition, I can just imagine them in their robes with their hats and everything, you know telling you, you know, you're publishing too much fiction!
Or this poetry isn't academic enough! But I think that obviously, you know on some level it's it's, we all suffer from a little bit of imposter syndrome, we're always afraid. I think many people talk about being found out but it's also real. I mean there there are these tenure and promotion committees, there are these grant committees, as academics we're constantly being evaluated often anonymously by people we don't know, and so I think that people are quite afraid.
I think fear is actually quite paralyzing for a lot of people who might want to write ethnographic fiction or ethnographic poetry or who might want to branch out and do a novel or a documentary film. So can you talk a little bit about your own personal experiences with that, sort of maybe not just imagined disapproval but perhaps maybe real pushback that you might have gotten from your colleagues or different forces within academia over the years?
RB : Thanks for asking that, and I know certainly there there is there are real consequences to be paid when you move beyond what's academically acceptable. For sure. Back when I published Translated Woman , you know many years ago, more than twenty years ago, there was a lot of disapproval about the final chapter, "The biography in the shadow," that was just about nineteen pages long. And most of that book is is a study of one woman's life, a Mexican street peddler who I got to know very very well and spent lots of time with her and interviewing her and transcribing and translating interviews and talking with her about them and what she agreed upon to publish.
I mean, it was a very very long intense project that I put a lot of my self into. And that book incorporates a final self reflexive chapter about the impact that working with Esperanza had on me and how I felt that my own life changed in the course of doing this ethnographic work with her. And I talked about my family and kind of coming into academia and all of that was discussed in that chapter. And a lot of people viewed it as provocative. A lot of people really hated it. RB : A fellow anthropologist who reviewed the book, in the New York Times Book Review in fact, was very negative about that chapter and basically said, you know the life of the anthropologist is never as interesting as the life of our research subjects.
You know we didn't really need to hear about you you're not that interesting. RB : Yeah. So that was painful. And I heard from students too that the book would get assigned in courses and the professors would say to their students will don't bother reading that last chapter it's totally unimportant.
Or students would read it naturally because if you're told not to read something that's taboo it's going to be a lot more interesting so I heard that from people. So, so there was definitely, you know, some serious criticism there. Not everybody liked the book. And that you know that was painful. That was definitely painful. And I think also, at an earlier point in my life, when I was considering other job possibilities, you know, I never really was able to find other positions beyond Michigan.
I also had at some point decided this was really the place where I wanted to stay and that I had kind of a wonderful foundation here and I didn't need to go anywhere else. But at one point in my career, I was contemplating moving and I felt that people didn't quite know how to read me. They didn't quite know, perhaps, if I was anthropologist enough, if I was maybe doing, like you say like too many other different kinds of things. And I think a lot of people in our discipline feel uncomfortable with those of us that like to write and that, you know, get involved in our writing as writing.
I think that's less true now. But I think there was a moment when people were uncomfortable with that and felt that we shouldn't be thinking about writing, that we should be thinking about our research subjects, our-our topics of interest or our—. RB : Theory yeah. How could I forget theory. In fact the theory is so important to so many and then maybe I didn't come across this as theoretical enough in my work. And so I think I did feel that at a certain point years ago, probably twenty years ago that well that you know, that maybe not everybody liked what I was doing.
They didn't know how to place me. But what I have found is how much the discipline has changed and how much my colleagues have changed. Like some of my most, what I would think of as my most hard line theoretical academic colleagues, some of his colleagues have now wanted to write more personal creative work and they've come to me for advice. They've come to workshops that I've taught at the American Anthropological Association meetings. They've actually come to those workshops. They've asked me for blurbs—like people that I thought really disapproved of my work about twenty years ago.
And now like the grad students come to me, and they'll say, oh we want to put together a workshop on anthropology and poetry. Do you think you could offer the first workshop? You know, you go what? The grad students today, they are looking for ways to think about writing and creativity and how can they write better? How can they tell stronger stories?
And so I feel like, because I've been in anthropology now so long, it's like come full circle. You know like, I passed through that period of disapproval and now this kind of this period of, the students you know want to know like what possibilities are there for our writing? And they want to at least explore. You know maybe ultimately they won't do the things that I do for example, but but they at least want to explore.
They have an open mind. They want to know about this, You know, this way of doing ethnography or this way of bringing other kinds of writing and other kinds of thinking into ethnography. So I would say that yes, there have been some very hard moments and sad moments and definitely moments where like I wept about losses and you know the things I didn't do or the people that disapproved of me or certain fellowships I didn't get or you know those sorts of things. RB : There have been disappointments I know. I wouldn't want to say that there haven't been; they have been there.
But at the same time I, I've tried to kind of cushion myself a little bit and and always try to just think of, what is the next project I want to do? What is it that I want to do? And not, not get involved in in those kinds of politics that I think ultimately could hurt you. I think I just cushion myself a little bit and I'll just go, you know, what matters now? What do I have to do next? In the time that I have left, what what would be worthwhile to do? What do I care about? So I try to, I try to always go back to that thought and remember my mortality and remember that there's only a certain amount of time to do things and what are the most beautiful and worthwhile things I can do.
And so that's what I do when I feel hurt or when I feel that I haven't been understood. I think really, ultimately, I feel that I've been very fortunate and that the people have actually been—in the end, the majority of people I think—have been very open to what I do. And I think of anthropology as a discipline where there's space to do so many different kinds of things. We have such a broad spectrum of possibilities right from the most scientific, taking blood you know and using that to, you know to understand hormones or you know whatever it is, to you know, to to writing a poem and I think we've we've always had that spectrum and anthropology has always been this amazing discipline that unites the arts, the humanities and the sciences.
And so I think it's a very very broad spectrum and I think ultimately I feel very fortunate that I have been able to do all the things that I've done and that people have been supportive. So for example you know, I wrote this children's novel Lucky Broken Girl , and I've been so touched that so many of my colleagues in the Anthropology Department at Michigan come to me and they'll say, Could you autograph this book for my daughter or for my son?
So, so they know about it and they're not being critical, they're like giving the book to their kids to read. It's so touching and so sweet and so I think that you know that maybe, we're just becoming kind of more holistically human in how we think about things which is really what we should be doing as anthropologists, and kind of being open to all these different ways of expressing ourselves. KG : First of all I want to say that, I think you're a little too humble because I think that you played a big role in this coming full circle in anthropology.
I think you were really a trailblazer and I know for me personally when I first read The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart, it was a kind of an epiphany. And I don't remember exactly what it was, I think it might have been at the American Anthropological Association meetings, but there was a panel in honor of you and your work and I remember sitting in the audience and really thinking, wow you can do everything! You can combine the artistic and the creative with the ethnographic and the theoretical.
And you can be this much bigger thing than the boxes that we often, I think especially in academia with hyper-specialization, we put ourselves in. And so I think you deserve a lot of credit for opening up that possibility and also you know just being a role model to a lot of younger scholars. What I remember about that panel were a bunch of your former students and some of your mentors and you know just the discussions around the impact of, I think it was called the stew , in anthropology.
It was beautiful and so personal I just want to say that I think that there's always been this incredible spectrum of work possible within anthropology. But I also think that it has taken certain people to burst through some of these barriers to actually talk, you know subjectively about their position within the work, and in relation to their subjects, and to talk about what it means to be a vulnerable observer.
And I think that was very brave of you and I realized that you know, sometimes you're protecting—you said you're an artist as well as an academic and so this comes from a place of wanting to express yourself and be true to this larger artistic vision. But it's also really incredibly inspiring for those of us who read that work and who, kind of, you know, starting to think about the possibilities of, you know, thinking outside of the academic box, really.
Okay I want to write a novel, I want to write a short story, or I want to write poems or I want to do documentaries or I want to write op eds or whatever. That it's really important I think that more anthropologists speak about these different possibilities of presenting our work to these broader audiences. Because I want to emphasize something that you said earlier in our conversation, which is just fundamentally more democratic—to reach out beyond the ivory tower to these wider communities that are interested in some ways and what we're doing and so that brings me to my next question.
So I've also talked to anthropologists and you know I've also run workshops at the American Anthropological Association where I hear from anthropologists that they want to speak to wider audiences but they don't know how. And so I was wondering—and you said you have run workshops as well. Can you talk a little bit about the process of learning how to reach these non-academic audiences?
Like how did you learn? Because you didn't learn in graduate school right, how to write nonfiction. So how did, how did this knowledge come to you?