What article or book that you wrote are you most pleased with? Could you talk about
the story behind writing it?
Oddly enough the article I am most proud of is the first one I published, while still a grad student: “Paradoxes of Visibility in the Field: Rites of Queer Passage in Anthropology” (Public Culture, 1995 N1V6:73-100). Not part of my stated research on Special Drama but rather fully within a genre of fieldwork reflections then considered the “soft” rather than the “hard science” side of anthropology, writing this essay as soon as I had returned to the States let me express so much about how I learned during my first years of fieldwork in India. I wrote about the welcome, open homosociality among women in Tamilnadu, and its flipside: how lesbianism wasn’t a recognizable “thing” at the time. Writing about this let me muse about thinginess itself, about invisibility as a cloak stitched of non-things that have no name, and the power of naming itself. A key concept of linguistic anthropology, speech as action is very much in play in the Tamil world.
In the same essay I wrote about the palpably uncomfortable continuing existence of White & English-speaking privilege in India, a colonial legacy of 150 years of the British Raj. This unwelcome inheritance cropped up interpersonally in deferential treatment tinged with suspicion. I managed to not personally drown in feeling the weight of all this on my shoulders by peppering my essay with embarrassing quotes from famous anthropologists (Malinowski, Mayberry-Lewis, Mead) that I used as epigrammatic subheadings. I took these from their own “softer” and more vulnerable writings (M’s posthumous Diary, M-L’s The Savage and the Innocent, and Mead’s Blackberry Winter). Their squeamish company helped me laugh at myself.
An unanticipated pleasure of publishing this essay is that it has turned out to serve prospective LGBTQ ethnographers as a kind of fieldwork guide. Evidently it was risky to write and publish such stuff if you wanted to have a career in anthropology. Carol Breckenridge, the Editor of Public Culture at the time, had offered to publish this piece without my having submitted it to the journal (I showed it to her to ask her advice, as I was a student in her grad seminar). Before publishing it however she wanted to make sure I understood the risks posed by doing so. I assured her that this did not feel risky to me, that I had been an out lesbian for fifteen years by then and had no plans to go back in the closet for any job where homophobia reigned. What a different time that was, when Anthro grad students could be so cavalier about T-T job options…. What neither Carol nor anyone else in my grad school milieu knew at the time was how uncomfortable I was grappling with a newly acquired “identity” I had been counseled to hide. Vision troubles in the final summer of my fieldwork landed me back home a month early, with a spinal tap and a diagnosis of MS (multiple sclerosis) the next day. Thus began a tailspin that has lasted now for almost thirty years. In comparison to keeping this bit of life-changing news quiet, outing myself as a lesbian in print felt easy and familiar, and writing a refuge. The irony is that I did write this essay in an actual closet. My first Apple computer – Grape! – sat on a desk tucked into a narrow coat closet underneath a dramatic spiral staircase with a sexy black leather banister. Perfect.
What class did you most enjoy teaching, and why?
I really enjoyed teaching using film, which I did in pretty much every course I have taught, to varying degrees. I use films of all types – documentary and fiction, indie and mainstream, foreign and not – primarily to enlarge the ethnographic picture students get through readings and lectures. Only one of my courses focused on filmmakers as well as their films. “India Lost & Found: South Asian diasporic feminist filmmakers” was exhilarating to teach. It allowed me to introduce Indiana students to a region and a history about which they generally knew very little. I focused on filmmakers from the South Asian diaspora in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., recognizing how diasporic distance allows these filmmakers to escape the rigid censorship of the region to offer both biting critique and fierce love to the homelands they’d left. We watched and discussed multiple films in the oeuvres of Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair, as well as films by other important filmmakers including Gurinder Chadha and Hanif Kureishi. I first developed this course while a faculty member in the department of Communication & Culture (CMCL), encouraged by my film and media studies colleagues there.
Apart from this relatively rare pleasure (I taught India Lost & Found only four times), the course I have enjoyed teaching most was “Stigma: Culture, Identity and the Abject.” I feel passionate about this course. It is also probably the course for which I will be most remembered. I taught it annually for over twenty-five years, and students from three decades continue to contact me upon encountering something that reminds them of the lens we developed together in this course. I approach the topic of stigma as a compassionate rubric through which to view the lives of those who are marginalized as “different” from the norm in some way. I draw on a wide range of material that students generally do not encounter in other courses, from history of science texts about conjoined twins to memoirs of carnival life, from discussions of eugenics to the attitude of wonder fostered by cabinets of curiosity (wunderkammern). To give the best sense of my approach, here is the course description
Cultural value systems in every society rely on sets of mutually defining terms — for example,normal/abnormal, able-bodied/disabled, free/enslaved, legal/illegal, white/non-white,heterosexual/homosexual — that largely determine local attitudes of acceptance or ostracismregarding particular categories of persons. Focusing on social stigma allows us to understandhow specific cultural value systems affect our most intimate senses of self, contribute to our verynotions of personhood, and inform the ways in which we communicate and engage with others inthe world.
Stigma theory speaks broadly to the nature of the social relationships that create markedcategories of persons, regardless of which particular attributes are devalued. In this class we lookboth at theory and at particular cases of stigmatized persons (individuals & groups), as attentionto the particularities of a given stigma keys us in to the cultural values that create and support it.Since stigmas do (eventually!) change over time, identifying strategies that have been effectivein creating such change is a primary focus of the course.
The theoretical centerpiece of this course is Erving Goffman’s 1963 study Stigma: Notes on theManagement of Spoiled Identity. We will read this text closely to appreciate Goffman’s insights,and attempt throughout the semester to update them (and the language he uses to convey hispoints) by applying his model to more recent historical and ethnographic case studies ofstigmatized persons & groups. Our focus will be on the range and efficacy of the variousstrategies available for countering stigma.
Expressive arts — including written & spoken word, film/video, and performance — will beexplored as popular strategies for disarming the stigmatizing gaze. We focus in particular onartists and activists whose work addresses contemporary cases of stigma. Weekly screenings oflandmark films in fields including American studies, disability studies, black studies, queerstudies, and gender & women’s studies supplement regular class meetings; viewing these films isa critical part of the course.
I am interested in passing the Stigma course on to anyone interested in carrying the torch. I would be happy to share syllabi and course materials I have honed for this course over the years; I changed at least some topics, films, and readings every year. The course has had many iterations: as a grad seminar, as an upper-level undergrad course, as a mixed 400/600 level, and most recently as an introductory GEN Ed course at the 200-level. In short, the rubric is malleable as well as valuable, and I hope the course will continue to be taught. DM me! (or find my syllabi on academia.edu.)
What object in your life do you make into a sentient being?
I call the lift in my bedroom Wall-E. It helps.
What is the worst piece of advice you have ever gotten?
When I was a grad student at the University of Chicago, Prof. John Comaroff was Chair of the Anthropology Department. He inaugurated and taught a Professionalization Seminar in which he advised female students to wear stockings – pantyhose — when going for job talks. I consider this bad advice for at least two reasons: the advice is itself uncomfortably intimate and sexist, and pantyhose are super uncomfortable. Not a good confidence builder for fierce-feminist-yet- nevertheless-vulnerable women entering the academic job market.
Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your workspace?
I stole my sons’ two downstairs bedrooms to make one generous, accessible downstairs study for myself. The boys were young, 7 and 11, when we moved them upstairs to my old study and small yoga room. Now that they are teens, they like it (maybe even too much). Meanwhile, in my new downstairs study, a big picture window onto our front garden is where I look when I write.
What article or book that you wrote are you most pleased with? Could you talk about the story behind writing it?
It is hard to choose between an article and book – they are very different in form and content. This is why I include favorite examples of both an article, or an encyclopedia entry, and a book here.
I was delighted to be invited to write an entry on “Writing Anthropology” (2021) for TheCambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology http://doi.org/10.29164/21writing and I am very pleased with it. In the entry, I argue for the importance of an accessible academic anthropology and acknowledge that:
Writing is key in anthropology, as one of its main modes of communication. Teaching, research, publications, and outreach all build on, or consist of, writing(…)While writing anthropology in a literary mode goes a long way back, it was not until the 1970s that writing began to be collectively acknowledged as a craft to be cultivated in the discipline. This led to a boom of experimental ethnographic writing from the 1980s, as part of the “writing culture” debate. The idea behind experimental narratives was that they might convey social life more accurately than conventional academic writing. Today, literary production and culture continue to be a source of inspiration for anthropologists, as well as a topic of study. Anthropological writing ranges from creative nonfiction to memoirs, journalism, and travel writing. Writing in such non-academic genres can be a way to make anthropological approaches and findings more widely known, and can inspire academic writing to become more accessible.
The story behind writing the entry was that I have a longstanding interest in the anthropology of writing, in different genres, which spurred me to teach master’s courses on writing such as “Anthropological Writing Genres” and “Writing Anthropology” in my Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University. This interest was also partly the reason I did a major study of the social world of writing in Ireland published as Rhythms of Writing: An Anthropology of Irish Literature (Routledge, 2017). This is then a book I am as pleased with as the entry. As usual, also when it comes to writing as craft and career, Ireland is an eloquent ethnographic case that speaks to wider issues from a rollercoaster economy, emigration and exile to borders and postcoloniality.
Ireland is often identified as a place of creativity where these issues, and others, have been expressed through storytelling, literature, music, and dance. All are prominent in Irish life. The title of the book refers to both the rhythms of the long hours writers spend writing by themselves in the private sphere, alternating with promotion appearances in the literary public sphere, anda distinctive rhythm of an Irish literary style.
Now as Professor Emerita, I keep developing my interest in writing by researching and publishing in relation to the project “Migrant writing in Sweden.” This was included in a major interdisciplinary research program “Cosmopolitan and Vernacular Dynamics in World Literatures.” I have also ventured into auto-fiction, even creative nonfiction.
What moment of fieldwork interaction do you still think about, amazed that you got to witness it and/or record it?
When I was doing fieldwork with American Ballet Theatre which is based in New York, they went on a one-week tour to The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Of course, I went with them in the bus and stayed in the same hotel as they did. Just like I had been doing for almost three months with them (and for almost two years with the Royal Swedish Ballet in Stockholm and The Royal Ballet in London) my days were spent watching morning class, rehearsals in the afternoon and performances at night, sometimes from the wings and sometimes from the auditorium. On the opening night at The Kennedy Center, the classical ballet Manon was performed. It was a grand occasion with Washington’s glitterati present. As I was watching from the auditorium, I was wearing a black suit with velvet collar and a crème colored top. This was when Bill Clinton was President and Hillary and Chelsea were in the auditorium raising the level of security considerably, with stern body guards talking to each other wirelessly all over the place. In the ballet world, it is customary that dignitaries who have watched a performance, are invited back stage after the performance. So Hillary came back stage, thanking the ballet director and all the dancers, shaking hands with one after another as they stood in a long line across the stage behind the closed curtain. I was standing discreetly in the background, observing. But Hillary noticed me and went up to me saying politely and with appreciation: “Thank you for the performance!” I was dumbfounded.
What is one of your favorite fieldwork stories to tell that you have never written about?
It was in 1982 and I was doing fieldwork for my PhD on ethnicity, friendship and youth culture in South London, England. There had been race riots in neighbouring Brixton, but things seemed to have calmed down. At least for now, at least in the streets. Having grown up in still homogeneous Sweden, I was (unlikely as it may seem now) an adult before I met a black person.
My fieldwork was going well. After the usual tentative start, I got access to a youth club, a school, a street corner, and even to some of the girls’ homes. I became a part of the daily life of the ethnically mixed group of teenage girls I was focusing on. My landlady, Beverley, who had moved to England from Jamaica with her parents when she was seven, and I became friends, spending a lot of time together. Beverley introduced me to her parents and friends, and took me to concerts and all-night blues parties. After a couple of months, I stopped noticing that I was the only white person in many contexts. But an incisive incident would remind me.
One summer night, Beverley took me and two of her friends to a reggae concert in Brixton. Happily chatting away, we were waiting in the crowd outside the theater. There was the familiar scent of ganja lingering in the air. Quite a few Rastas with long dreadlocks were there, wearing the bright red, yellow and green in clothing and knitted hats. “Yeah, man,” was echoing around us. We took out our tickets. That was when a black boy pushed his way towards us. Without warning, he ripped my ticket out of my hand! Before running away, he shouted: “I wouldn’t take a ticket from a black girl!” Beverley and her friends were furious. “This is why you start a riot!” Beverley burst out. They all wanted to leave with me. But I insisted that they stay for the concert. I went back on my own, upset, offended. On the subway my thoughts came rushing: Swedes never exploited blacks like the British did! Looking down at my white hands, I kept thinking the obvious: “You do not chose your parents. The color of your skin is not a choice.” Suddenly another thought came to me. It was the insight that this is what it is like, all the time, for them, for black people. They experience discrimination because of the color of their skin. The skin they cannot do anything about, that they did not chose. So this is what it is like to be black.
Do you have to be one in order to understand someone else’s predicament? Trying to make sense of the incident, I was reminded of the discussion in anthropology about this issue. While learning about difference is a way to discover new things about yourself or your culture, what is different to you is familiar to someone else and hence might not be identified at all by others. This is a premise in anthropology. Still, it was not until I had this bodily experience of discrimination that I – in a flash – felt that I really did understand, at least something about what it can be like to black. And it might all have been a mistake: Would the black boy have taken my ticket had he known I was not British?
What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?
Watching dance – contemporary or ballet – then I get a sense that “this is reality” which probably is a neurological reaction, a Bourdieuan body hexis, as my body remembers what it feels like to dance.
Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an academic?
When I saw my first book Ballet across Borders: Career and Culture in the World of Dancers (Routledge, 1998) for sale at a Barnes and Noble store in New York. Though I had edited a volume on Youth Cultures (Routledge, 1995) with Vered Amit-Talai before, I had only seen it for sale at book exhibits at conferences such as of the American Anthropological Association and the European Association of Social Anthropologists. This was the first time a monograph I had authored was for sale in a commercial book store. In fact, it was not only an academic success for me, it was also a childhood dream fulfilled: to write a book. But mainly I was excited that I had exceeded any expectation I used to have about what I would be able to achieve in my career. I got a sense of being inducted into the anthropological community, into conversation with fellow academics. As I left the book store uplifted, though, I spotted the ballet director Kevin McKenzie at American Ballet Theatre, turning a corner in front of me, walking briskly in the direction of the company’s studios in Broadway, lower Manhattan. He was such a good guy, having accepted me into the daily life of his company, even allowing me to join them on the tour to Washington, D.C. I would not have been able to do my research, and write my book, without him. He epitomized my fieldwork and my past as a dancer. There he was on his way to the world I had grown up in, come back to for my research, and just left for good and – despite my true delight over having had an academic career, with so much fun and many exceptional experiences – would keep missing.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I am turning your question around because I have had two professions each of which I have loved greatly; the first of which, classical dance, has been instrumental in what I have done in the second, anthropology.
At the age of seven, I began taking ballet classes. It was a neighborhood studio but the owner/teacher had had good training, a combination of Danish (Bournonville) and the American version of Fokine. She was strict and the yearly recitals demanded a command of the technique as well as interpretation. My last year of elementary school, I began commuting to the San Francisco Ballet school in the city—a bus to the F train at the top of the Alameda, the train to SF, a bus to the ballet school for a 90-minute class, then the reverse, doing homework on the way. By high school, I was taking 5 classes a week, taught by dancers who were trained by those Russian dancers of the Diaghilev company who came to the US as teachers after the great impresario died. It was thrilling! The demand for mastery built a confidence that was empowering, never mind the chance to be a lady-in-waiting in the annual Nutcracker on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House.
Then came a pause. I had been given a full scholarship to Stanford. Ballet was still my passion but trying to do both, I decided to go to school and continue my classes at SF Ballet. For that year, I commuted to San Francisco, bicycling to the Palo Alto bus station—bus to SF then another bus to the school. At the end of the academic year, I realized I could not continue this way. My Stanford Russian instructor had Russian friends and family in New York, and I was able to rent a room in the apartment of the Makedonovs. I went to NYC with one suitcase, $400, and their address. For the next three and a half years, I lived with them, took classes at the School of American Ballet and Ballets Russes, danced with the Brooklyn Ballet and for a year with the Deutsche Operetten Teatr, and lived on the upper West Side where I spoke Russian at home and Spanish on the streets. Money was always an issue. We were paid by the performance by Brooklyn Ballet and in good times, like the Nutcracker season which also had the opera’s Hansel and Gretel, I could pay the rent and feed myself. I had odd jobs otherwise; the best was processing checks at First National City Bank on the midnight to 8 shift during my last NY year.
In my time in NYC, I was a regular in the standing room line at the Met for opera, dance, symphonies on those nights when I did not have a performance myself. My access to the best of opera was made easier because opera was a staple at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and we were always hired for the dance interludes. That experience took my naïve love of opera and gave it a more knowledgeable base. I shared the BAM stage with the likes of Zinka Milanov and Robert Merrill in a memorable Aida. I met artists and impresarios like Marcel Marceau, Sol Hurok, Igor Moiseyev, Jose Greco and his dancers, Ludmilla Schollar, Anatol Vilzak, Sviastoslav Richter at Carnegie Hall for his first US recital, dancers from the Kirov Ballet whose first US performance overlapped with my time in NYC—I was one of the interpreters during their stay and got to take company class with them. Many of these artists became friends and mentors. And much of what I have written about the arts, especially those performance arts, comes from watching their performances and classes and listening to them, especially when we talked about what created those performances that lifted up both performer and audience.
I left New York for San Francisco where I was a principal dancer with the San Francisco Russian Opera and Ballet Company and started teaching at the Temoff School. As is so often the case, I was injured during a rehearsal. My last performance was as Zobeide in the Fokine ballet Scheherezade. I decided to return to SI left New York for San Francisco where I was a principal dancer with the San Francisco Russian Opera and Ballet Company and teaching at the Temoff School. As is so often the case, I was injured during a rehearsal. My last performance was as Zobeide in the Fokine ballet Scheherezade. I decided to return to Stanford to finish my BA. I no longer had a scholarship, but I funded myself by teaching classes at the Temoff School in San Francisco, this time making the trips in my second-hand Volkswagen beetle. I planned to major in Comparative Literature because I had accumulated five languages. Then I took an introductory Social Anthropology class with George Spindler, one of the founders of the subfield of Anthropology and Education. He was a mesmerizing lecturer and I found the notion of listening to rather than reading about compelling. I became an Anthropology major with an outside major, Honors in Humanities. Luckily for me, the Ford Foundation had a program to fund undergraduate research over the summer. It had to be in Latin America but all topics were open. I applied to look at folk and indigenous dance in Mexico, the first month to be working with the Ballet Folclórico de Amalia Hernandez and the remainder of the summer to look at dance in Oaxaca and in Veracruz. I spent the first 3 weeks in classes and rehearsals with the Ballet Folclórico learning the repertory and the rationale for the choices of dance cultures and their restaging. The next months I traveled to Oaxaca for the annual festival of dance just outside of Oaxaca City and then to the coast of Veracruz to document dance. And that was the beginning of my work in Juchitán, Oaxaca, now in its 6th decade. I began that work first in the summer of 1968. My husband, Ronald Royce, and I were married just weeks before leaving for Mexico. Our combined fellowships allowed for few luxuries so we drove in my by-now well-broken-in Volkswagen. Ron’s grant was to investigate the state of social science research in Mexico; this was the summer of protests and strikes everywhere, much of it directed at universities, so we went to Juchitán planning a two-week stay. The car broke down on our way out of the city and was not ready to travel for another month. Despite all the unforeseen difficulties, we returned to our PhD programs determined to work in Juchitán. We spent our first full year there in 1971-72. Ron was a linguistic anthropologist working on the Isthmus Zapotec language and a brilliant photographer. I was looking at indigenous identities and the social and political strategies that supported a strong Zapotec community. Our partnership, our different projects, our different ways of seeing and listening, of being able to talk about what we saw and what it meant made us more productive—more field notes, maps, photos, questions, as well as helping us see more connections and through-lines; that second level of understanding and interpreting. Being there as a couple established us as more settled and responsible with different obligations and prerogatives. More than all those things, it was comforting to share the joys and heartaches of fieldwork.
Coming to Indiana University, I was able to satisfy my need for the performing arts as well as finding a wealth of support for my Mexico work. While based in the Anthropology department, I was invited to teach advanced technique and classical variations in the School of Music Ballet Department. More recently I have been a guest lecturer in the History of Ballet class. I was for many years the dance reviewer for the Herald-Times. The existence of great teacher-performers on the cello faculty allowed me to satisfy both a personal desire and a scholarly interest. I enrolled in cello classes with Helga Winold for three years and learned from the extended cello faculty, attending master classes and performances and informal gatherings. On some occasions, I was invited to play 2nd cello in an IU performance. In 1986, I collaborated with Thomas Binkley of Early Music, he as musical director and I as historical director for the Teatro Antico and Early Music Institute production of L’Amfiparnaso, by Orazio Vecchi (1550–1605), performed at the Creative Arts Auditorium, Indiana University. I was charged with reinventing the commedia dell’arte interludes.
In 2008, I began what has become an ongoing commitment to both teaching and research in Ireland. It was in that year that I was invited to be part of a small group at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick. Our task was to plan the next ten years of the Academy programs. In 2010 I was appointed an External Examiner in the MA Choreology program and in 2014 began working with the PhD students in the Arts Practice program. It has been an extraordinary time working with performance and performers as they situate their craft in cultural and historical contexts. With that as a base and my work on landscapes of transformation in Oaxaca, I was invited in 2015 to become a member of the UL LANDscape research group.
I am continuing to work in Oaxaca. A collaborative grant with colleagues in Juchitán will make 3D maps of the three most rural sections of the city, those that go from the settled to the wild. We will also be making 3D story maps of places in those sections that are important to the communities. For the last two years, I have been photographing the three sections. In addition, I am working on a book about ritual and especially pilgrimage in Juchitán. The latter map onto the work with the rural sections since at least three of the oldest pilgrimages originate in those sections.
What’s the story behind the publication of your first book?
Prestigio y Afiliación en una Comunidad Urbana: Juchitán, Oaxaca was first published in 1974, Translated by Carlos Guerrero. Serie de Antropología Social 37. México, D.F.: Instituto Nacional Indigenista/Secretaría de Educación Pública.
INI published a series of works on indigenous peoples and, at their request, mine was translated and published in that series. It has been republished twice, once in 1990 and then in 2016. The 2016 publication was part of a series of the 25 most important books on indigenous communities. Copies were given free to the young people in Juchitán. It has been used as a text in the Juchitán secondary schools. Any royalties go back to INI and now to the new publishers, the 2016 one located in the city of Juchitán and glad to have the income to work on projects for the community.
The book, based on my dissertation, focuses on the social, cultural, and political structures and networks in this indigenous Isthmus Zapotec community. I discuss how these shape relationships and prestige and support communal responses to change at both the local and national levels. It is the first book to address matters of tradition and change in this community. While still in the field in 1972, I had given lectures about my work to great interest on the part of the community. When I was approached by INI about a Spanish publication, I replied with an enthusiastic yes, realizing that this was an excellent way to continue the dialogue that I had begun in Juchitán. The book has not been published in English though much of its substance has been published in English in articles and chapters. As a book, it did not count toward my academic career because it was not in English. Works like mine, however, based on such a close and longterm engagement with the community, need to be available to that community and to my Mexican colleagues. I publish as much as I can in Spanish so that it is available to both. My longterm work was recognized in 2016 with the awarding of the Medalla Binniza (Medal of the Zapotec People), given by the Fundación Histórico Cultural Juchitán for distinguished scholarly contributions to the Isthmus Zapotec. It was the first time it was awarded to a non-Mexican.
What moment of fieldwork interaction do you still think about, amazed that you got to witness it?
March 23, 1997, Palm Sunday in Juchitán (my 25th year of fieldwork in Juchitán)
I was not usually in Juchitán during Holy Week so this was a chance to see the week-long celebrations from the beginning. On the Saturday before Palm Sunday, the image of San Salvador is taken from his home in the parish church of San Vicente to the home of one of the members of the community that cares for him near the Panteón Domingo de Ramos (cemetery Palm Sunday). He is received and feted with garlands of flowers, and then spends the night. The next morning he is taken to the chapel in the cemetery where he oversees the blessing of the palms. Then he is carried in a procession back to the San Vicente parish church. I had seen the Saturday preparations and had returned with Na Mavis, an aunt, to the cemetery to arrange the flowers in the family tomb and to stop by the chapel for the blessing of the palms and the beginning of the procession. We then went quickly to San Vicente to await its arrival. The following are my field notes on that arrival:
Palm Sunday 1997…the sky is electric blue, cloudless on this early morning. I was in the courtyard of San Vicente Ferrer, the parish church, just having returned from the cemetery where I helped the family arrange the armloads of flowers necessary for this day of remembrance. I waited for the arrival of the Palm Sunday procession, winding its way through the streets after distributing palms to all participants at the small chapel of the cemetery. I could hear them now, voices raised in those joyous songs welcoming Christ the King to Jerusalem. The higher-pitched voices of children rise above with cries of “Vivo Cristo Rey.” Thechurch behind me is filled with flowers, white gladiolas, dozens of them, jasmine and frangipani scattered at the feet of all the saints. The fragrance swells with the heat of fat, beeswax candles. All is ready and the crowd is dancing with anticipation. A scout returns, “They are just turning the corner!” Then, as if my ears deceive me, I hear the low, elongated notes of funeral sones. Jesús Urbieta, one of a cadre of talented young painters who died in Mexico City two days earlier, is being borne by silent comrades to rest a moment in the Casa de la Cultura where his paintings had often hung. The parish church and the Casa de la Cultura sit next to each other, separated only by a wrought-iron fence. The two processions arrive simultaneously. San Salvador, borne on the shoulders of the men who care for him, heavy garlands of frangipani hang around his neck; jasmine, frangipani blossoms, and petals of roses of Castile rain down on him, making his way sweet. The children in white shirts too big for them wave their palms. Beaming women carry huge vases of white flowers. The Glorias fill the courtyard announcing the happy arrival. Urbieta too is carried on the shoulders of his closest comrades, men who have cared for him. His coffin is heaped high with flowers of the wild–white jasmine, long, ropy palm flowers, tuberose, hibiscus, frangipani all on a bed of the healing herbs–dill and cordoncillo. Everyone brought jasmine, guie-xhuba in Zapotec, in honor of the club Urbieta had founded by that name to help young artists. Urbieta has begun his journey to his new home among the dead. Christ, in the midst of celebration, has begun his death.
Field notes, March 23, 1997
It is the visible markers that catch one’s attention especially but not exclusively in early stages of field research. The meaning behind them and the why of them take much longer to understand. One of the demands on ethnographers is to record everything, even when you have no sense of what it means or where it fits. At some point, you can see the larger meaning. While our first field research is usually a year, succeeding visits must be worked around an academic teaching schedule, broken up occasionally by sabbaticals and fellowships. Much of my field work happens in the summers. The annual cycle is exactly that—a year’s worth of activities and ritual, so you miss much of it except via WhatsApp and Facebook. Your obligations continue even when you are not there.
This Palm Sunday was one of those moments in the field when suddenly disparate pieces come together and make a greater sense. In this case, it was realizing the fundamental importance of notions of “wild” (gui’xhi) and “settled” (guidxi) and the transformations that happen when one moves from one state to another. Christ comes from the cemetery in the gui’xhi to the heart of the settled parish church and to his new identity as Christ the King whose death is already assured. He has begun his journey to the land of the dead. Urbieta has also begun the slow forty-day progress from the land of the living to that of the dead. Both are accompanied by those who care for them and who rain down on them the flowers of the wild that will keep their journey slow, stately, and moist.
That journey is one of transformation and while we associate journey with physical movement, in Juchitán this is not always the case. For example, Ta Feli, the healer with whom I worked, would fall regularly into trance as part of his healing sessions. When he “returned,” he would relate what he had learned when going to this other place. Similarly, when one walks a pilgrimage—and I did not do this until 2011 (another 14 years!), you often walk it in the name of another. You are transformed by being a pilgrim but so is the person for whom you walked. It is the shared terrain of being human. That shared experience of death, above all its transformative nature, became my 2011 book Becoming an Ancestor: The Isthmus Zapotec Way of Death.I am currently working on the fundamental importance of transformation in a book on ritual in Juchitán.
Which book that you wrote are you most pleased with? Could you talk about the story behind writing it?
Anthropology of the Performing Arts: Virtuosity, Artistry, and Interpretation in a Cross-Cultural Perspective. 2004. AltaMira Press. It was in this book that I could bring together the experience of my work on performance and my life as a performer, with the social and cultural implications of embodiment. I examine performance and performers in their lives on stage, in the classroom, in rehearsal and creation. It includes the voices of great performers such as Marcel Marceau, Janos Starker, Violette Verdy, Maria Callas, Bando Tamasaburo and Peter Brook reflecting on virtuosity and artistry, silence and sound, movement and stasis. It also includes performance in daily life, the artistry of trance and altered states, an examination of Tewa ritual as a native aesthetic.
Writing it made me see the bones and blood of the ethnographic enterprise. If we examine ethnography as a kind of performance requiring us to be interpreters then we see that, whatever the unique circumstances of our work, we must refine a craft, making ourselves into the most finely tuned instruments possible. And lest anyone think that this means the absence of passion, let me offer up the examples of all the great artists and performers who knew and know that the presentation of the deepest emotions requires the greatest discipline. It was one of our former colleagues, poet Yosef Koumenyaku who said that “passion without discipline is sentimentality.” My years of working with performers and as a performer made this book inevitable and collaborative. Conversations with my community of friends in the world of performance, some the best in the world, some just beginning, made it possible to see commonalities and differences, to discover the through-line that made a performance inevitable rather than predictable, to see cultural similarities and differences across genres. It was extraordinarily satisfying to see the fundamentals of staged performance genres (usually assuming a fourth wall) appear in communal performance like Tewa ritual, in the practice of trance and healing, and the ways in which we perform in everyday life. The time and place for writing much of this book was made possible by the Bogliasco Foundation where the staff and a small group of witty, serious, creative colleagues with whom to share ideas freed me from all responsibility except to write, and in the writing to find the through-lines that characterize all good stories.
How has teaching changed for you over the years?
More listening, less talking. A distinguished scholar and teacher came to watch me teach a ballet class at the SMU campus in Taos. Afterward, she said, “you were so quiet; you said hardly anything.” I answered, “I was listening to their bodies.”
In my first year at IU, when I stood in the classroom in the old School of Education building, facing the 35 undergraduates in the Anthropology of Dance class, I wanted to disappear. I had never taught–at that time no one thought it might be an important part of graduate education. I suffered from an excess of information about a very narrow subject and the absence of any method for communicating it.
Parker Palmer once used a strip of paper as his only prop to deliver a masterful lecture about front stage/backstage personas. He introduced it as an example of just how high-tech Quakers ever got! In my case, imagine two funnels with the small ends coming together–I call this “Lifelong Learning” –babies, children, even teen-agers set no limits on what might be interesting to explore, try out, or learn. Our system of education is like a funnel, gradually narrowing the possibilities until our children enter a track that corresponds to their career choice (one they probably make so that we will stop hounding them). This point where the two funnels come together is the PhD or highest terminal degree. This is the point where we have a great deal of information about something that few people have any interest in and, in the process of getting it, we have stopped living a balanced, explorative life. Fortunately, there is life–and learning, after the PhD. We realize, perhaps in the process of trying to convey our passion for the field to others, that there are more skills, more areas, more challenges, and that, if we work at it, we might become knowledgeable rather than simply stuffed with information.
How do we ever get to be reasonably good teachers? I think that it is like becoming a good ethnographer–we rely on the kindness of strangers. Strangers who are our students and who, generally, respond with good will when we need help.
For us to do this requires three things. First is to acknowledge that there is a craft and that we don’t control it; second, and I take this from performing, that the audience/students matter and shape our performance. These are hard enough but the third is the greatest challenge: to acknowledge that, while we too learn in the classroom or lab or one-on-one with graduate students, we are not the main event in any learning context. We may be the facilitators, but it is not about us.
Watching colleagues whom I thought were fine teachers, I realized what they had in common. They gave students permission to bring their own personalities and experiences and passions to bear on the topic at hand. The best teachers are those who are passionate not only about their subjects but about the world in which they and the students live. We teach ways of thinking and being using our discipline as an example or point of departure and return. Given the balance of power, if we as teachers bring our egos into the mix, the students will simply disappear because we expand to take up all the space–the talking space, the thinking space, the reflecting space. Students deserve to know what we think, however, especially about topics that matter to them. And the most difficult teaching situation, at least for me, is when we feel most deeply about something. My best teaching has been setting a context in which I help students confront the subject on their own terms. And in which you resist commenting on everything from your own point of view. We know most of the disadvantages–we give up control (in the blatant form that we know it); and we must forget trying to cover everything and be selective about what is important. Acknowledging that they can learn a lot of material quite well on their own is a humbling experience. We must somehow make our own passion for the subject clear without talking about it all the time– showing, not telling. Showing makes us more vulnerable–telling lets us stay one remove from both the subject and the students.
The last class I taught before retiring was E500 the required class on theory for our social/cultural graduate students. COVID meant it was online. I asked the students to use the Canvas discussion link to post their reflections on the readings each week. Everyone posted theirs, reading and commenting on each other’s. I read them and posted my comments as well. The zoom class at the end of the week was lively, a conversation, with students commenting on the assigned readings and acknowledging each other’s and my interpretations. They were thoughtful, generous, smart, and supportive. While their research interests were varied and quite different from mine, their work and the way in which they collaborated made me realize that the field was going to be in good hands.
My teaching has included just about every context in which we share our craft and hold out the promise of discovery: undergraduate classes, graduate seminars, doctoral mentoring, our field school in Oaxaca, 30 years of MINI University lectures, Lifelong Learning seminars, coaching classical ballet variations at the Jacobs school, as an Erasmus visiting scholar in Budapest and Szeged, and as an External examiner and adjunct professor at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance.
Some final thoughts about what being a researcher and a teacher means:
*listening, hearing people into speech;
*seeing worth in every person and valuing their particular perspectives and histories;
*building collaboration and community so that learning takes advantage of unique backgrounds and experiences
*Working on the principle that both kinds of knowledge—the poetic and the practical, are necessary and reinforce each other. Irish poet Seamus Heaney elaborated this. I found it too in Juchitan in the Zapotec recognition of two kinds of knowledge, remarkably similar to Heaney‘s: binni naana—people with words and binni guendabianni—people who create light.
*Being comfortable in that middle-ground between what we know and what we might discover is essential to continued learning. Or in the words of another mentor, Sir Peter Brook: “Not knowing is not resignation…it is an opening to amazement.” From Between Two Silences: Talking with Peter Brook
What moment of fieldwork interaction do you still think about, amazed that you got to witness it and/or record it?
While doing fieldwork in 1981 for my doctoral dissertation, I was using my stereo cassette player and pre-amped external microphone to make audio recordings of a shamanic curing ritual in an indigenous Wakuénai (Curripaco) village. As usual, the shaman had set up his bench, hallucinogenic snuff, maraca, tobacco, and other materials facing the eastern horizon. That day was sunny and hot without a cloud in the bright blue sky. I recorded songs and took photographs all morning. The shaman looked straight up through the feathers of his maraca at exactly twelve noon, and soon a patient and several curious villagers gathered in the space behind the shaman. As the ritual progressed, the shaman repeatedly blew tobacco smoke over the heads of everyone present, including the patient, her family, the gathering of villagers, and even the visiting anthropologist and his tape recorder. After another two hours, I began to feel a kind of energy that I can only describe as exhilarating. It was a hot afternoon less than two degrees north of the Equator, yet I wasn’t sweating or even feeling hot. I hadn’t eaten since early morning but didn’t feel hungry at all. In the mid-afternoon, as the shaman sang and chased after shadow-spirits in the eastern sky, a powerful thunderstorm became visible in the distance and quickly approached the island village. But when the storm began dumping heavy rains on the manioc gardens just across the east channel of the river, it stopped approaching. The shaman was standing up and singing to the thunderclouds in a sort of antiphonal musical dialogue with flashes of lightning and peals of thunder. I had interviewed shamans, other ritual specialists, and non-specialists who claimed that powerful shamans had the ability to control weather events. Later in my fieldwork I learned that the reason shamans blow tobacco smoke over the heads of all people present is to gather up the life force of their bodies to help bring patient’s lost soul back to the world of living people. My tape recorder was also said to be pulling in the patient’s lost soul, so it was also included in the effort. I still wonder about that day, the energy I felt, and that mysterious thunderstorm.
What article or book was hardest for you to write, and why?
Probably the hardest essay for me to write was the chapter in the Cambridge History of Native Peoples of the Americas: South America, Volume III, Part 2 (1999, “Indigenous Peoples and the Rise of Independent Nation-States in Lowland South America,” F. Salomon and S. Schwartz, editors, pp. 704-764). I had been invited to contribute a chapter on this topic but not given clear guidance on how much of lowland South America was to be covered. I realized immediately that the topic would be unmanageably huge if it were to include all of Brazil in addition to the Guyanas, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Fortunately the group of anthropologists and ethnohistorians at Universidade de São Paulo (Núcleo de História Indígena e do Indigenismo) organized by Manuela Carnheiro da Cunha agreed to cover Brazil, and the volume’s editors were kind enough to accept this division of labor. Yet that still left a huge swath of lowland South America and an incredibly diverse assortment of Indigenous peoples with a multitude of culturally specific histories. I realized then that as an ethnologist I had detailed knowledge of deep histories for a finite number of specific Indigenous regional communities but needed to find some way to connect them all into a broader, macro-level history of the profound political transformations taking place in South America as the colonial power structures began to unravel after the expulsion of the Jesuits and official abolition of indigenous slavery in 1767. Also, the newly independent states of the 19th Century needed to be interpreted as new systems of power that used rationalist social theories of the Enlightenment to radically dehumanize Indigenous peoples and to justify the erasure of their territorial rights and cultural identities. Finding a way to write about these macro-level transformations while still being able to hear culturally specific histories in which Indigenous peoples understand themselves as the agents of their own transformations was extremely challenging.
What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?
For me, a productive writing day cannot be measured in quantitative terms. Productive writing can only result from clear and coherent thinking. Scribbles, notes, outlines, and fragments of ideas are important prerequisites to translating complex and often ‘fuzzy’ thoughts into effective prose. It is important to think what one is going to say rather than just say whatever one happens to be thinking at any given moment. Likewise, it is essential to think what one is preparing to write rather than vice-versa.
Which class did you most enjoy teaching, and why?
I really had fun creating and teaching a graduate seminar on “Narrative Practices, Music, and Social Cognition” in Fall semester 2009. At the time I was participating in an interdisciplinary research and publication group of linguists, psychologists, philosophers, and anthropologists who were working to understand the importance of narrative practices known as folk psychological narratives in the development of human social cognition. I had just published a book on Trickster Myths, Music, and History from the Amazon (U. Illinois Press 2009) and was co-editing a major comparative study of indigenous Amazonian instrumental music (Burst of Breath, U. Nebraska Press 2011). In addition to the close fit between the topics covered in the graduate seminar and the research I was doing at the time, the graduate faculty and doctoral candidates in sociocultural and linguistic anthropology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale had reached an unprecedented level of quality and productivity. It was a time when a group of junior and senior scholars, each having their own unique research interests, were able to find common ground that allowed for openly sharing ideas and knowledge and significant intellectual growth.
Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an academic?
Yes. In the fall of 1989, the start of my fourth academic year at SIUC, the Chair of the Department of Anthropology suggested that it was time for me to assemble a dossier in order to be considered for an early promotion and tenure decision. My first book had come out in 1988 while I was on a postdoc fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution, where I had written the first draft of my second book. In the summer of 1989, I had been invited to participate in a research project in Colombia and to present a paper at a Wenner-Gren International Symposium in Brazil. I had been working since 1986 as a contributing editor for the Handbook of Latin American Studies, U.S. Library of Congress, and the new Editor of American Anthropologist had recently appointed me to serve on the editorial board. I felt strongly supported by the senior faculty in the Department, and their support in turn motivated me to keep expanding my professional and intellectual horizons with the knowledge that what was good for my development was also good for the faculty and students in the Department.
I’m a night owl with frequent insomnia. On a good morning, the CBC radio alarm plays local and global news from 7:30-8:30. I frequently wake up when it stops playing and turn it back on to catch the news again at 9 while doing a modest exercise routine supervised by my two manic cats. I wander downstairs, feed them and make a pot of tea before reading the Toronto Globe and Mail and doing the morning crossword. Then it’s time to check the e-mail. With an overview of what has erupted there overnight, I adjourn to the kitchen to scrounge breakfast, usually leftovers. Back to the e-mail for what can be done fairly easily. By 11 or 12, I’m ready to face the office or various meetings. I can manage earlier if I set extra alarms, but then I fade mid-afternoon and ruin my customary evening spurt of productive work.
William Leap is retiring after being a professor of anthropology at American University for 46 years. Ilana Gershon asks him to reflect on his career.
What article or book that you wrote are you most pleased with? Could you talk about the story behind writing it?
Easier than citing a single book or article, I’d prefer to talk about how I am most pleased to find how I have maintained certain consistencies of argument over several years of inquiry, despite my changes in research topics and theoretical paradigms and despite academic and broader politics.
For example, my current studies of language and sexuality have moved far from the ideas outlined in Word’s Out, but one issue addressed there still haunts my research and writing: how do people learn to talk about same-sex desires, practices, and sexual sameness when such talk is so often assigned negative values by peers, parents, news media, political officials, officer co-workers, department chairs, and other regulatory sources.
I addressed similar regulatory questions in my earlier studies of American Indian English (AIE), when I suggested that AIE fluencies helped maintain ancestral language receptive competence in settings where ancestral language fluency (and fluent speakers) were widely despised. The parallels between AIE and the discussion in Word’s Out were not exact, but the processes of overhearing, and the ensuing accumulations and conditions of hyperdiversity were similar.
So how did your research in Cape Town fit into these continuities?
I revised the “language socialization paper” while in residence at the Centre for Rhetoric Studies at University of Cape Town. I heard many stories about language/sexuality socialization from people living in Cape Town’s City Center and in the nearby Coloured and Black townships, thanks to the support of the Triangle Project, a Cape Town area AIDS advocacy group. This was my introduction to the uneven inflections of language, sexuality, gender, race, and class that were reshaping sexualities as apartheid transitioned to representative democracy in the western Cape. I was tracing how those inflections impacted sexual language learning in the late apartheid period and this disclosed details of Cape Town area sexual geography. I could locate moments that language shift exposed competing loyalties between sexuality and place. The book project I am now finishing explores the not-so-secret “secret codes” linked to homosexuality before the Stonewall moment in the US, and was inspired in part by the Cape Town research, especially its demand that linguistic history engages with racial and class diversities and the material conditions that sustain them, instead of ignoring these diversities.
What article or book was hardest for you to write, and why?
Every article and book has been difficult for me to write. I grew up in a small town in North Florida in the early 1950s, so Standard English was not my first language, either for speaking or for writing. Many of the conventions of standard speech still elude me. Plus, what might fashionably be termed late-onset dyslexia ensures that revising, editing and proof-reading become time-consuming tasks. But even if writing takes much longer to complete than the assigned deadline allows, writing is still an exciting activity. Writing gives me a chance to experiment with ideas and it always leads to unexpected outcomes. I learned long ago to stop trying to create a detailed outline in advance of the first draft: I sketch out three or four intended themes, assemble some data, and see where it leads—hopefully to successful, if at times unexpected, outcomes.
You started the Lavender Languages Conference in 1993 and are the founding co-editor of the Journal of Language & Sexuality. What motivated you to do this important organizational labor?
The Lavender Languages Conference has been creating space for conversations about language and sexuality since 1993, and it still does as, I explained elsewhere. We named this event “Lavender Languages” to avoid taking sides with people doing “lesbian/gay studies” or “queer theory,” a hot-button issue in the 1990s that probably doesn’t matter so much anymore. The phrase remains because of name recognition, but that too might change as time passes. The point is to maintain a space where people can discuss language and sexuality without fear of risk or retaliation. People already face enough of that in everyday settings, inside and outside of the classroom.
The Journal of Language & Sexuality is “indebted to queer linguistics” as an orienting theme, as my co-editor (Heiko Motschenbacher) and I explain in the journal’s mission statement. And queerness is always about messiness and irregularity. The Journal is a site where discussions of language and sexuality need not be contained within traditional disciplinary (or similar) boundaries. Our reviewers draw heavily on those criteria as they read and evaluate manuscripts, and so do the editors as we make final decisions regarding the contents for each issue.
What moment of fieldwork interaction do you still think about, amazed that you got to witness it and/or record it?
Doing linguistic fieldwork in sex clubs in the 1980 and 1990s. There were those (in anthropology and in the federal government) who said such work could not be done; and even if it were attempted, the results could not have any claim to scientific validity, and thus no impact on AIDS-related (or other) policy-making. Following ethnographic work of Ralph Bolton and Michael Clatz, I insisted that there had to be ways to conduct linguistic research in the erotic moment, a point which a group of us confirmed in the publication of Public Sex, Gay Space. For me, this meant conducting linguistic fieldwork at cruising sites, although as always, linguistic inquiry soon moved far beyond the scope of the linguistic moment.
In one instance, the cruising site data provided a basis for expert witness court testimony on behalf of a bath house which local government had designated as a health hazard and was seeking to close. My field data demonstrated that activities at this site were no more a “threat” to public health than were activities in the saunas and steam rooms in the area’s upscale health clubs and gyms, sites which local government had never attempted to raid or regulate. Why, I asked, was the category “health hazard” being applied so selectively to the health club I was defending? And whose long-term real estate investments were being secured as the uneven inflections were applied?
What piece of furniture do you most often talk to or about?
My swimming pool. This was my retirement gift to my partner and me. There are no Esther Williams-type water features or Olympics-like illuminations. This is a simple 25’x16’, cobalt blue-tiled, heated structure, providing room to float on a buoyant raft while enjoying the south Florida sun and listening to thematically appropriate CDs.
Cite as: Leap, William. 2018. “William Leap’s Reflections upon Retirement.” Anthropology News website, August 13, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.943