FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Literature Can Displace Anthropology

When I found myself well into my career as an anthropologist specializing in Himalayan peoples, I came across an historical episode concerning two no-longer living but obviously brilliant women who had performed remarkable political feats in the early 20thcentury. I undertook to uncover their stories, determined first because inspired by feminist revelations, I myself was in search of women heroes, and second because I had had enough of anthropology’s imperialist claims of scientific impartiality. This meant my breaking from both traditional research methodologies and from academic writing conventions.

I’d been a social anthropologist, (ethnographer, of the British School) relying on intensive interviews, and, as we claimed, ‘objective participation observation’. (Ethnography is in fact more akin to journalism than academics will acknowledge.)

Since my subjects were no longer alive I could not apply face-to-face interviews or behavioral observation– they were already becoming mythical characters– and the few people alive who’d known them were quite elderly. Moreover, those leaders had been political activists at a time when criticism of Nepal’s monarch, its officials and the powerful Hindu priest class was prohibited; any resurgence of interest would be stifled for another decade after my arrival at the site of the early protests.

Those women’s fantastic careers happened on the steamy shore of the roaring Arun Kola deep in the Himalayas. It was possible to imagine past glories there, however isolated and overlooked it now seemed. So I pressed on determinedly.

I was dealing with individuals wildly unrepresentative of their culture. Both were outrageous, atypical characters. A sociological approach was out of the question. And, although the women died only four decades earlier, there was no written record I could find, not initially. My determination proved rewarding because at the time (1980-85) I was welcomed by a small community of ascetics, all women, who’d known both of those radicals. Now quite elderly, they felt impervious to any government retaliation for assisting me.

These ladies enthusiastically spoke about Shakti Yogmaya and Durga Devi—the first a revolutionary, the second a reformer– who they‘d once followed. Recluses, now in their 70s and 80s, they vividly remembered how fifty and sixty years earlier, they’d been filled with fervor and faith in social reform.

Based on their accounts, I managed two academic reports. But these stories needed a more creative approach and I began my first attempts at biography. I was aided by the contemporary Nepali poet Parijat who introduced me to the perilous political work she herself was engaged in. She and I worked on translating the provocative quadrants of the long dead Shakti Yogmaya which in turn initiated me into Nepal’s political history.

Nepal was still a dictatorship in the 1980s and attention to events surrounding Yogmaya were risky. A known dissident across Nepal, Parijat was not to be intimidated and she encouraged me to persist.

My book Heir to a Silent Song appeared 17 years ago, published in English in Nepal. That effort propelled me out of the academic world and set me on my career in journalism. Meanwhile more revelations about Yogmaya, the most radical woman who Nepal had ever produced, attracted a new generation of capable, dedicated Nepali scholars.

Some historical characters, like this Nepali rebel of the early 20thcentury, are too wild and unwieldy for normal history to grasp. And today, we have a wonderful example of where literature can overtake and outshine scholarly efforts. Shakti Yogmaya, the subject of the eponymous novel published early this year, has just won The Madan Puraska, Nepal’s most prestigious prize in literature. It’s authored by the US-based Nepali writer Neelam Niharika, who writes in Nepali language and is already known for her ambitious historical novels.

Of course, I am thrilled that this novel builds on my and other scholars’ efforts starting almost forty years earlier. (It was a colleague of Niharika at Radio Nepal four years ago, who reading those histories, suggested she turn her creative energy to Yogmaya.)

Niharika had no obligation to remain within the boundaries of our accounts. Yet, she undertook more research. In a recent conversation she explained how she interviewed whomever she could in the very hills where Yogmaya’s political campaign occurred almost a hundred years ago. Not herself from the Arun River valley region, Niharika launched a visit there to know more about where Yogmaya was born. (This, after she’d reached locals through social media and phone, to schedule onsite meetings.) The area is much changed but this novelist still conducted her own fieldwork, using modern communications to her advantage. Not only this; she made a video of her arrival in the area, its ecology, recording conversations with local notables of what they remembered of that history.

The novel “Yogmaya” begins with an imaginary conversation between me and the novelist Parijat, thus emphasizing a line of women who helped shape Niharika’s own historical inquiry.

“Yogamaya”’s recognition by the nation’s highest literary prize rewards not only a skilled young author. The subject itself—a local woman warrior—will gain wider traction, inspiring a following which no amount of scholarly articles might. At a time when Nepal is sodden with questionable gender development projects that dwell on the ‘poor and vulnerable victim’ and where many educated urban women, following western feminists, express hardly more than institutional sympathy for their ‘deprived’ rural sisters, this novel offers a fresh look at what a village woman can do.

Perhaps anthropologists too may learn how to honor the natives they study with the creation of quality biographies they deserve.

More articles by:

Barbara Nimri Aziz is a New York based anthropologist and journalist. Find her work at www.RadioTahrir.org. She was a longtime producer at Pacifica-WBAI Radio in NY.

November 22, 2018
Bill Willers
Industrial Forest Science: Industry’s Bitch
Alexander Cockburn
Romanticism’s Revenge: From Vegetarianism to Nazi Animal Rights
Jennifer Matsui
Nothing Adds Up When You do the Alternative Math
Leonard Peltier
The War for Survival
Ramzy Baroud
The Tide is Turning: Israel Is Losing on Two War Fronts
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
Of Jackets, College Football, and Education
Wayne Clark
A Radical Strategy for Democrats: 2020 and Beyond
Abel Cohen
Europeans Are Thankful Americans Left
Heather Wokusch
The Case Against WikiLeaks is a Threat to All Journalists
Lawrence Wittner
Lurching Toward Catastrophe: The Trump Administration and Nuclear Weapons
Bruce Lerro
Nationalism, Religion and Sports Have Captivated the Working Class. Why Hasn’t Socialism?
Paul Kovacs
Coal-to-Diesel: Economic Development or Not?
George Ochenski
Being Thankful for Montana
Ted Rall
Force President Trump to Give Daily Press Conferences
Binoy Kampmark
Big Mouthed Blue-Eyes: Frank Sinatra in Australia
Raouf Halaby
I Am Thankful for … My Rakes
November 21, 2018
Manuel García, Jr.
Climate Change Action Would Kill Imperialism
Kenneth Surin
Return to Denver: Clouds on the Horizon
Jonathan Cook
Netanyahu’s Ceasefire is Meant to Keep Gaza Imprisoned
John Steppling
Liar Liar
Bill Hackwell
Paradise Lost
Gary Leupp
“Maybe He Did, and Maybe He Didn’t:” Reflections on Morality in 2018
W. T. Whitney
Criminal Behavior: US May be Developing Biological Weapons
Zhivko Illeieff
How Media, Tech, and News Networks Normalize Trump’s Propaganda
NEVE GORDON - NICOLA PERUGINI
Migrant Caravan: Branding Migrants “Human Shields” Has a Deadly Motive
Wouter Hoenderdaal
Jordan Peterson’s Disturbing Views on Inequality
Dean Baker
Nicholas Kristof and the China Trade War
Colin Todhunter
Approaching Development: GMO Propaganda and Neoliberalism vs Localisation and Agroecology
November 20, 2018
John Davis
Geographies of Violence in Southern California
Anthony Pahnke
Abolishing ICE Means Defunding it
Maximilian Werner
Why (Mostly) Men Trophy Hunt: a Biocultural Explanation
Masturah Alatas
Undercutting Female Circumcision
Jack Rasmus
Global Oil Price Deflation 2018 and Beyond
Geoff Dutton
Why High Technology’s Double-Edged Sword is So Hard to Swallow
Binoy Kampmark
Charges Under Seal: US Prosecutors Get Busy With Julian Assange
Rev. William Alberts
America Fiddles While California Burns
Forrest Hylton, Aaron Tauss and Juan Felipe Duque Agudelo
Remaking the Common Good: the Crisis of Public Higher Education in Colombia
Patrick Cockburn
What Can We Learn From a Headmaster Who Refused to Allow His Students to Celebrate Armistice Day?
Clark T. Scott
Our Most Stalwart Company
Tom H. Hastings
Look to the Right for Corruption
Edward Hunt
With Nearly 400,000 Dead in South Sudan, Will the US Finally Change Its Policy?
Thomas Knapp
Hypocrisy Alert: Republicans Agreed with Ocasio-Cortez Until About One Minute Ago
November 19, 2018
David Rosen
Amazon Deal: New York Taxpayers Fund World Biggest Sex-Toy Retailer
Sheldon Richman
Art of the Smear: the Israel Lobby Busted
Chad Hanson
Why Trump is Wrong About the California Wildfires
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail