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VIDEO DOI: https://doi.org/10.48448/q2z6-7909

technical paper

AAA Annual Meeting 2021

November 18, 2021

Baltimore, United States

Anthropology into Literature: Voices from the Past, Echoes in the Present





In response to the AAA 2021’s theme on truth and responsibility, this panel explores the relationship between truth-telling in fiction and in anthropology. What responsibility is shared by anthropologists and fiction writers in bearing witness to the social world? This panel explores imaginings and re-imaginings of the world, and deals with both practical and literary forms of “wisdom.” Panelists bring to light the influences of anthropology on fiction inspired by ethnography as well as the influences of the techniques of fiction writing on anthropological reportage and narration. Storytelling evokes truths about humanity and its past, present, and future through various media and genres, including popular culture. How can anthropologists best convey the stories we gather in our work in ways that inspire engagement and action in areas such as climate change and social injustice? This panel suggests that not only the ethnographic imagination, spurred by participant observation of social life, has the capacity to convey an understanding of the world by relating it to wider structures • so too has the fictional imagination. For anthropologists, it goes without saying that fiction is inspired by real social, political and historical events, more or less: fiction cannot be detached from society. Certainly the style and structure of a text are inspired by social and cultural contexts, as well as by the mood of the specific time period when it was composed. Relevant to this discussion is Oscar Hemer’s (2012) work on fiction, truth and postmemory in relation to political transitions in South Africa and Argentina: both societies have seen the issue of truth being controversial, even the source of legal investigations into violations of human rights. Fiction was key; it was a way “to speak about the unspeakable” during apartheid in South Africa and the repressive dictatorship in Argentina. This evokes questions of responsibility. Didier Fassin (2014) points out that anthropologists discover in fiction “more compelling, more accurate, and more profound accounts of the social worlds” they study than what anthropological texts can offer. While fiction cannot simply mirror the real, Fassin goes on to say, traditional ethnography is expected to be faithful to reality -- which provides an authority with ethical and political consequences. While acknowledging overlaps between fiction and ethnography, Kirin Narayan (1999) maintains that there is still a border separating them. Karin Barber (2007) points toward the relationship between anthropology and indigenous texts, and the ways in which “people put words together to make a mark, leave a trace.” With its eclectic stance, the panel will discuss methods for the anthropological study of fictional narrative as speaking truth and bearing responsibility. This also applies to the writing up of such research, and thus an inclination to cultivate an openness to different writing genres, which includes the possibility of collaboration (in both a literal and more figurative sense), especially with fiction writers.


Transcript English (automatic)

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