Braided Words: Interview with Miriam’s Well on Anthropology, Writing, Parenthood, and more

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BRAIDED WORDS (University of Chicago Press, 2012) is a fascinating collaboration between spouses Alma Gottlieb and Philip Graham. Gottlieb, an anthropologist, is working with the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire, accompanied by her husband writer Graham and their six-year-old son Nathaniel. The time is 1993, and is the couple’s third stay among the Beng, so they have many friends and connections in the community. Gottlieb continues her ethnographic work, Graham his fiction, and Nathaniel is immersed in child world–both familiar and totally new.

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Nathaniel playing with his Beng friends

Miriam: For both Alma and Philip: I know you’ve been asked how a married couple can manage to write a book together and stay married, but reading your work I got an opposite impression, that working together was central to the relationship. You say you have no pat answer to the dealing with difficulties part–how about the positive?

Alma: As a young anthropologist I was encouraged to write scholarly articles jam-packed with academic jargon, and the passive voice felt like it had become something like an arranged-marriage partner in my early quest to gain tenure.  But as can occur in many arranged marriages, this road to respectability as a scholar was starting to kill my soul . . . and make me forget why I’d become an anthropologist.  Having the opportunity to write a memoir with my love-match husband, Philip, revived me as an author–the memoir form allowed me to write my heart back into my texts.  Once we wrote Parallel Worlds (1993)—the predecessor to Braided Worlds (2013)–my writing changed forever.  Learning from Philip the novelist’s craft–to write dialogue, set scenes, and draw character–gave me the skills to do what I hoped to accomplish as an anthropologist.  These writerly techniques encouraged me to portray the lives of the people I’ve come to know in other worlds, other places, and present them not as caricatured stereotypes, but as fellow humans.  And they gave me the tools to resist either exoticizing, or demonizing, Africans as Others—those twin sins of which Westerners observing Africans have been guilty for a good half-millenium.
Take birth control.  In the Western press, we are confronted with popular images of African women either pumping out babies year after year, or sleeping with man after man and infecting them with HIV.  Both depictions imply unbridled sexuality as a sign of the classic racist trope of the African as barbarian/primitive/savage.  In Braided Worlds, I chronicle two different stories.  One monogamously married woman, born in a village, is moving toward leading a middle-class life with her tailor-husband based in a small town; the couple seeks condoms to limit the number of children they think they can reasonably support.  Another monogamously married woman living in the village seeks a method of birth control she can conceal from her traditionalist husband; her motivation stems from fear of witchcraft during childbirth, following her previous delivery, when she nearly died from complications.  I hope these stories I present—so different from one another—allow readers to see these women as individuals with their particular resources and challenges, rather than stand-ins for some generic “African woman.”  

Philip: I think that writing about living among the Beng became another kind of fieldwork for us both, a way to use the page to discover more, through reflection, about the Beng, but also about ourselves.  Certainly we moved in each other’s direction as writers.  I’d never written nonfiction before, and Alma had never attempted to write narrative, so we leaned on each other’s strengths when we began writing our first collaboration, Parallel Worlds (echoing the support we offered each other in Africa).  Eventually, we grew more comfortable with our new writing domains.  For me, paying more attention to what actually happened (as memory could best dredge up), and resisting the fiction writer’s urge to invent, was a good discipline.  Alma often asked me to remember in greater detail; for my part, I squawked an annoying siren-ish sound I called a Jargon Alert whenever–well, you know.  And Alma and I had a lot of discussions about how the effective use of narrative can implicitly address larger issues.
For example, in Braided Worlds we tell the story of Matatu, the young village barber whose previous bout of madness bubbled up again when Alma and I returned to Bengland for the third time.  Facing our typewriters, cameras, water pump, and rental car daily served to renew Matatu’s despair over his poverty; perhaps partly in denial, partly in protest, he declared himself the Prime Minister of Côte d’Ivoire.  His delusions of power eventually led him to violence, and he had to be institutionalized again.  It turned out he was one of three madpeople in Bengland who thought they were the Prime Minister.  In Braided Worlds, while chronicling Matatu’s unfolding drama, we also observe that it was our supposedly “neutral” presence that had, in effect, bewitched someone. This narrative also embodies the contrast between African and Western medicine, and first/third world disparities of wealth.
In portraying stories such as this, sure, Alma and I might have the occasional dispute, but it helped that we have both achieved a measure of success in our separate fields—this gave us confidence to stand up for ourselves!  But we also have respect for the other’s writing and editing skills, and somehow a balance was achieved.  Balance has always been important in our relationship, and so I suppose it was inevitable that we would end up writing two books that alternate in first-person narratives, with the final page counts coming out virtually equal.

Miriam: The passage of time seems critical to the book.  You’ve been with the Beng three times, everyone is getting older, and after the book is finished, civil war wreaks havoc on people you know.  You even say, about your earlier book, “Clearly the last page of our memoir was not our last page with the Beng.” Can this also be said of BRAIDED WORDS?

Alma: Absolutely.  Although we haven’t been back to Côte d’Ivoire because of the nation’s civil war, which ended only recently, we continue to maintain contact with the Beng however we can.  Back in January 1994, we brought a young Beng man, Bertin Kouadio, to Illinois to continue his college education, and he’s just returned to Côte d’Ivoire to teach at the International University of Grand-Bassam, after spending nearly twenty years in the U.S.  Bertin became part of our family—an adoptive son of sorts, and our two biological kids’ big brother.  In Côte d’Ivoire, he’s been our eyes and ears, conveying information and gifts back to the villages for us whenever the security situation let him return.  He’s now helping administer some village projects we’re funding with the royalties from both memoirs.  In fact, we’re currently working to establish an NGO that will benefit the Beng community; he’ll be the local administrator.  
On another note, we’re also slowly connecting with some Beng folks via Facebook.  Just last month, the boy who was Nathaniel’s best friend in the village—now all grown up, like Nathaniel, of course—“friended” us both on Facebook.  The Beng world is expanding, too.

Philip: That’s the public story, but as my mentor Grace Paley used to say, there are always two stories, and for me, the hidden, invisible one has its own compelling power.  Living with the Beng for so many years, internalizing their culture as best we could, adding important moments and milestones of our own lives to that particular sweep of memory, has resulted in the Beng taking residence inside us.  This can’t be seen, of course, but it’s no less real.  Travel returns home with the traveler, and the Beng reside in a present tense of our inner lives, page after page of an invisible book.

Miriam: Philip–your father dies during your sojourn in Africa.  I’m reminded of how, when a writer sets out to observe one thing, there is no way to predict what else will happen.  You give your father a Beng funeral, and as a result he begins to appear in other people’s dreams and to enter a kind of Beng spirit world, with its cycle of reincarnation.  The whole experience seemed like a very original and creative approach to grief.  Now, many years later, can you comment more on how the experience worked for you?

Philip: You’re right, writing is full of surprises, a miniature portrait of life’s larger twists and turns.  I gave my dad a funeral ceremony in the village partly because I thought it would have tickled him—he’d never gotten to travel as much as he’d wanted.  But it helped me, too: I was far from home and needed a ritual of mourning to help process my sadness.  I’d attended so many funerals over the years in Bengland, so the Beng way of mourning was deeply familiar to me.  But I didn’t expect my father would become an honorary member of the Beng afterlife.  Yet after the initial surprise, it felt right, emotionally.  Given that my dad had never fulfilled his desire to travel, his arriving in an African afterlife, through the dreams of a revered animist priest, seemed like a gift.
And the very idea served as a form of inspiration to me.  While still mourning my dad in the village, I began a new fiction project—a novel set in America, but with an afterlife similar to that of the Beng.  I’ve been slowly writing about the many ghosts of this novel for years, while publishing a number of other books.  This year, while on sabbatical leave from teaching, I’m finally finishing the novel, Invisible Country (closest wood appropriately knocked.)

Miriam: Alma–I think I’ve heard you comment that in part you went to Africa to learn how to mother, and you were recording adult interactions with infants throughout BRAIDED WORLDS. And here you were as a mother in this unique setting. Did being a mother change your approach with other people–or theirs to you? Can you say more about having Nathaniel along?

Alma: In anthropology, we like to say that you don’t have to be a “native” to a community to study it—but it sure can help.  Being a mother studying child-rearing opened doors that wouldn’t have been open to me before becoming a parent, myself.  I felt comfortable trading stories of breastfeeding and weaning with other mothers, and the shared biology was sometimes all we needed to bridge cultural barriers.  
But the complicated role Nathaniel was offered also kept me on my mothering toes.  His welcome went far beyond anything I had anticipated: not only was he accepted as a friend by scores of village children, the elders announced that he had arrived as the reincarnation of a revered Beng ancestor.  I learned a lot about adults’ respect for children when we were advised that we could never spank or insult Nathaniel, given his ancestral pedigree.  At the same time, people couldn’t help commenting on habits of his that stood out as peculiar in this cultural landscape, and that prompted all sorts of conversations about what constitutes a well-behaved kid, and an adequate mother.  Whenever he talked to himself as he concentrated while drawing a picture, or interrupted Philip or me to ask a question, people tut-tutted laughingly, “N’zri Denju, dangana!”—meaning, Grandfather Nathaniel sure was a silly little rascal.  This prompted great conversations about adults’ expectations for children; the old English proverb, “Children should be seen and not heard,” would be a good motto for contexts when children (even reincarnated ancestor-children) and adults were together.
At the same time, Philip and I also learned to let go of Nathaniel in Côte d’Ivoire.  Before leaving the U.S, Philip and I had worried that our sheltered six-year-old would feel overwhelmed in a place with such new expectations, foods, smells, sights, bodily habits, language . . . and we expected that he would cling to us 24/7.  We couldn’t have been more wrong!  He loved joining the roving bands of multi-age play groups that morphed continually from household to household all day across the village.  Adults might keep a tight leash around their kids while other adults are present, but they also give their kids an amount of freedom that astonished Philip and me, coming from the slice of middle-class America where every moment of a kid’s childhood can be pre-programmed by adults.  Beng mothers taught me to let go, relax while Nathaniel went off to play on the other side of the village, trust that older kids and any other nearby adults would keep an eye out for him.  He really flourished.  Besides, if Philip and I occasionally wandered from our compound in the village, Nathaniel knew he could always find us by tracking the patterns that the soles of our shoes made on the village’s dusty soil!

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Alma holding Beng baby

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Philip reading to Nathaniel in the village of Asagbé

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About Miriam Sagan

I'm blogging about poetry, land art, haiku, women artists, road trips, and Baba Yaga at Miriam's Well (https://miriamswell.wordpress.com). The well is ALWAYS looking to publish poetry on our themes, sudden fiction, and guest bloggers and musers.

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