Storytelling and the Politics of Reflexivity and Reciprocity

Late in May 2017, I took a walk along the Luit with M. I’d met her the year before, but we hadn’t had a conversation then. She had simply returned my perfunctory salutations and we had gone our separate ways. This year, I ran into her again, and she invited me to tea. As her husband H, brewed black tea for us, M asked me about my ethnographic work in her village. When I described my interest in understanding how riverine erosion shaped indigenous practices in Majuli, the island she has been calling home for over ten years now, she nodded and said, “you will have to experience the river with us.” That was my plan, I told her. I would be spending most of 2018 and 2019 in Majuli, getting to know how the Brahmaputra and its many tributaries, including the Luit slowly ate Majuli’s grounds and how in the wake this erosion of land created a crisis of identity among the indigenous communities. Two days later, M decided to give me a preliminary tour of Luit’s banks to prepare me for this upcoming year.

During this walk, M, with no invitation from me, began to graciously share her story with me. She told me of her childhood, her relationship with her siblings and parents, her marriage to H, her children, and then of her dreams to form a feminist collective that would form a source of support for Mishing women in Majuli. She was very particular that this collective would draw on Mishing history and not on the general experiences of all women in Majuli. As we walked home, I asked her if I could write her story in my ethnography. “Ho,” she said, immediately. Yes. She did not think much about it. And at a later date also added, “I tell you only what I think you need to know to write your story about Mishing people.”

In the months that followed, I’ve had conversations with very experienced anthropologists on the trouble with writing about “Mishing people.” One of them asked me to think of writing as the gift we give to our interlocutors in sharing their story with the world. He added very sincerely, “You don’t realize just yet how grateful people can be when we can share their story.” But this raises a methodological question about storytelling itself. We do live in a time when storytelling is acknowledged as a form of speaking to power. But what stories do we tell, and how much is that shaped by what people want to hear? In a blogpost written in 2010 and entitled, What is left of Queer, feminist writer Yasmin Nair examined how immigrations stories are produced, critiquing both the right and the left for reinscribing certain aspects of immigrant suffering, in an attempt to underscore their own roles in “allowing” or “disallowing” immigration. As Nair notes, these stories are not really about the immigrants, but about America.

One could argue that that is policy. This is ethnography. They may be stuck in a room of mirrors. We are reflexive. But we don’t have the privilege or the means to live in a world where the politics of one realm that shapes our lives doesn’t shape the other. I wonder then, as a woman who has often had to fight being subsumed under assumptions made about my nationality, ethnicity, caste, gender both in India and in the US, how do I tell the story of another woman whose life is also unfolding at the intersections of gender, race, caste, tribe, nationalism, but in ways that are markedly different from mine? How can I practice “reflexivity” as ethnographers are warrant to do, but write an ethnography which doesn’t make sense of her story only through categories that are normalized through my experience? How do I write this ethnography so that the story she entrusted me with remains hers, and does not become the story of an entire tribe, and certainly not mine?

These are of course questions ethnographers have been grappling with for many decades now. One of these many crises within the field culminated in the ‘writing culture’ movement. Close on its heels, there were other works, I admire: Abu Lughod’s essay Writing Against Culture, Ruth Behar and Deborah Gordon’s edited volume, Women Writing Culture, Kamala Visvewaran’s Fictions of Feminist Ethnography. And many more, of course: books, blogs, essays, lectures, discussions on this anxiety that cruises through the bodies of anthropologists. The extractive nature of what we do—taking/receiving stories, objects, images—haunts many of us, as it should. It reminds us of our history: anthropology’s entanglement with colonialism, the power relations within which those early ethnographic stories were extracted. But in spite of our many reflections, we are never going to be completely free from these anxieties. We can aspire to become responsible storytellers only by learning from our collective failures. Never are we more aware of the challenges and failures than when we are in our fields, when we are doing anthropology, or ‘anthropology-ing’ like one of my friends likes to call it.

But it is this very idea that anthropology can be a verb that raises questions about the process. Let’s take this act of gift giving, for example. If my writing is a gift I give my interlocutors, then isn’t it an act of reciprocation? M, shared her story with me without my even asking for it. Isn’t that where this cycle of giving gifts began? And of course, she gave me her consent. While that might satisfy the IRB requirements, we must know as feminist scholars that consent is given and received within a set of power relations, and therefore is almost always incomplete. Therefore, even when the ‘gift’ is ‘willingly’ given, do we not stand the chance of reiterating colonial methods and breaking the cycle of care, friendship, and dignity if we embed the ‘gift’ within discourses that reinscribe difference in problematic ways. And thus, coming back to what reflexivity sometimes precipitates: the story of the “other” as told in relation to the positionality of the ethnographer. (For more on how feminist ethnography too errs, please read, Gillian Rose’s essay, Situating Knowledges: Positionality, Reflexivities and Other Tactics [1997]).

As we parted ways on the banks of the Luit, M left me with this feeling that she had told me a story about Mishing people, not just her story. And yet, I know her to be very different from other women who have spoken to me? How do I write her story then? How do I perform reflexivity? If I perform a kind of reflexivity to describe myself in terms that are recognizable in Western academia, and then her in similar terms, haven’t I simply played into this politics of imperialist recognition? Can I however write her story as her story, one indigenous story among others, that does not need to be made sense of by comparing it with mine, but could perhaps be sensibly situated in a web of stories that shared the context? Can I be present in the scene and not in her story? Can I break free from the idea that she must feel grateful to me for translating her story for Western academia? Can I think of this gift cycle that binds me now to her until I have reciprocated and perhaps after that too as a form of responsibility for writing differently?

Reflexivity became a part of ethnographic writing so that the white male anthropologist may not remain unmarked. However, in practice, reflexivity has played a role in strengthening notions of cultural relativism. We are taught to make sense of our ethnographic interlocutors by reflecting on the “differences” that sets them apart from us, the ethnographers. In most cases, this method places the ethnographer in the West, and the interlocutor in the ethnographic “elsewhere,” reifying the locations of the West, of this “other” place, and of their related “distances.” But I am not exactly located in the West, in my life. I benefit immensely from being a part of Western academia, and yet, I it remains only one of the many places that shape my sense of self. However, I do know what it feels like to be read as a text, to be translated, so that my everyday life within Western academia makes sense to my colleagues and professors. I would be doing my interlocutors in my field site a great disservice if I inflicted the same violence on them. It would be poor reciprocation for taking me into confidence.

How do we then write an ethnography that makes our positionality as story tellers transparent, and yet  does not make us the primary site of inflection in our own stories? In one of our conversation a professor from whom I have learned a lot told me that writing must be humble. Perhaps, this is what Abu-Lughod means by the “ethnographies of the particular” (1991): stories that make sense within the social contexts which imbues these experiences with meaning, and will lose that meaning if extracted, interpreted, translated. I must be in the story only as much as I am within the matrix of the social context which elicited that story. Perhaps, this is what Donna Haraway (1988) means by partial, incomplete, situated knowledges: both the ethnographer and the ethnographic interlocutor are positioned in relation to each other, partially transparent, partially opaque, to each other and even to themselves. A gift that has the humility to admit the limitations of knowledge over the other might perhaps begin to repay the kindness we are shown when strangers take us into confidence. And perhaps this is a kindness, we shouldn’t forget even if, over time, these strangers become more familiar, and finally, our friends.

References:

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1991. “Writing Against Culture.” Pp. 137-62 in Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present, edited by R. G. Fox. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Behar, Ruth and Deborah Gordon. 1995. Women Writing Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Clifford, James, Ed. 1986. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspectives.” Feminist Studies 14(3): 575-599.

Nair, Yasmin. 2010. “What is Left of Queer: Immigration, Sexuality and Affect in a Neoliberal World.” Yasminnair.net, May 12, 2010. Accessed from http://www.yasminnair.net/yasminnairwhatisleftofimmigration on Jan 21, 2018.

Rose, Gillian. 1997. “Situating Knowledges: Positionality, Reflexivities and Other Tactics.” Progress in Human Geography 21(3):305-320.

Viswesaran, Kamala. 1994. Fictions of Feminist Ethnography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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