Interview with Yun Chen
Yun Chen: Recovering Histories is an ethnography of the entanglements between individuals’ lived experiences of recovering from heroin addiction and their collective narratives of reimagining laboring lives in a rapidly changing social world in post-Mao Southwestern China. You talked a little bit about how you got involved in conducting research on this topic in Gejiu in the first chapter of the book. What interested me a lot was that you initially entered this field as someone working for international NGOs carrying out HIV/AIDS prevention harm reduction projects within the public health or global health contexts. Nevertheless, instead of writing a book on heroin addiction or recovery with a focus on these institutions or interventions, you chose to really attend to the everyday lived experiences and narratives of the group of individuals with heroin-use histories with a phenomenological orientation. Could you tell us a little bit about how did you come to study heroin recovery from this angle, in what ways did your public health training/working experiences influence your approach to this topic, and what was your main goals to research on heroin/recovery/China as an anthropologist?
Nick Bartlett:. Sure! I first encountered heroin addiction discussed as a problem in China in 2002. I was working on HIV prevention projects as part of the social marketing implementer of the China-UK project at the time. While we were funding programs in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, that year I spent a lot more time in our Beijing headquarters than I did interacting with the people who were directly impacted by HIV. I think part of why I initially became interested in this population in China was due to the absence of people with drug use history from public health conferences and meetings I was attending. CDC officials generally spoke on behalf of this group. It wasn’t surprising given the stigma that people with drug use history faced in China, but left me with a lot of questions about the lives of the people identified as part of this “high risk population.”
In the mid-2000s I got more directly involved in NIDA-funded studies of heroin use in China, and later started working for the Open Society Foundation’s International Harm Reduction Development program. Working at a foundation where one of our primary mandates was to support people with drug use history to organize and advocate for their own needs was an important opportunity for me. Questionnaire-based public health research had allowed me to meet a number of people with heroin use history in different provinces, but the interviews I was doing started to feel stale and narrow in scope; I wanted to build relationships that were more open-ended and enduring. The role I had at OSF allowed me to work closely with compelling people doing amazing work.
After my third year of grad school, I moved to Gejiu, where a number of grantees were based, leaving my part-time position at the foundation. Many of the people I met in Gejiu had been recently released from compulsory detox centers and were absorbed by the task of attempting to realize a “life after drugs.” I became interested in a new set of questions: Where does the work of recovery happen exactly? How is it experienced, specifically in relation to lived experiences of individual and collective time? These were questions that didn’t seem to be asked in other contexts, but they seemed vital to trying to understand what recovery meant in this time for this group.
Yun Chen: One thing that I really appreciated about your book was that you effectively showed the readers, against a common way of talking about heroin addiction, that your interlocutors’ broader lived experiences of laboring, family life, socioeconomic shifts fundamentally shaped the ways they understood their lives under the influence of heroin as well as what would be a life after heroin. In other words, you decentered the role of the drug itself in defining the experiences of this generational group, and repositioned them within the sociohistorical contexts that they shared with their non-user contemporaries. By doing this, rather than being a prerequisite for making sense of their lives, the use of heroin became a particular condition that in various ways constrained and enabled their experiences of the world. It was a condition among many other conditions which needed to be examined through the shared histories of the collective “we.” I was wondering that when you wrote with this perspective, have you had concerns about downplaying the specific (bodily, sociocultural, political) experiences of heroin addiction and recovery that were potentially distinguished from other forms of marginality? If so, how did you balance between not essentializing people with histories of heroin use/recovery and attending to the unique experiences of this specific group in your analysis and writing?
Nick Bartlett: Great questions! I guess there are a couple points I should make in trying to answer them. First, the move to decenter the role of the drug as you put it wasn’t initially a conscious decision on my part. As I spent time with people who were committed to various projects of recovery, I became aware that even people who I knew were actively using didn’t use in my presence and rarely brought up their heroin use in our conversations. I certainly could have tried to make heroin use a more central part of the research, either by being present when people were using, or through more detailed explorations of the direct effects use of the drug had on this group’s lives. My decision not to do this perhaps says something about my commitments, and theirs, during my fieldwork. At the time, even if the absence of a certain type of attention to heroin use was a form of collusion, I felt I was learning an enormous amount from participating in other aspects of their lives, that the direction my fieldwork was taking in was allowing me to understand recent history of Gejiu—even China—in new ways.
The move to decenter the drug could be understood as pushing against the constant ways that heroin users have been represented in Chinese media. So much of people with heroin use history’s identities in China were defined by their status as “registered drug users” by the public security apparatus, “injecting drug users” by public health workers, or just “addicts” by the public. I can still remember the cookie-cutter news stories that would come out about heroin users every year on 6/26, International Day against Drug Abuse. But the reality was, many of the people I came to know, despite having been connected to heroin for over 20 years, actually hadn’t spent all that much time using heroin. Or they had used heavily early in their adult lives and then spent much of decade before I knew them bouncing in and out of state compulsory labor centers and periods of unemployment living with family members and receiving treatment at methadone clinics, where use of heroin was relatively rare. I was encountering particular sort of paradox: there wasn’t much heroin in Gejiu during my research, but there were a considerable number of so-called “heroin addicts.” In addition, members of this group were often eager to argue that they were in the process of becoming (or, in some cases, returning to) existing as a different type of person, that “drug user” or “addict” were never terms that accurately depicted who they were.
This leads us to the problem of the collective “we” that you brought up. As I was writing the book, I couldn’t escape thinking about the figures I came to know as being linked by a strong generational identity. Virtually all of the users I met were born between 1965 and 1980 and encountered the drug in the late 1980s and 1990s when heroin first began circulating in large quantities.. With time, I came to see that members of this generational cohort shared the challenges feeling they were becoming obsolescent economic actors quickly disappearing from the country’s history, and saw how recovery as intimately linked to navigating an economy that looked quick different from the one that they had entered as teenagers. In Chapter One, I argue that the figures in the group are part of what might be considered a Mannheimian generational cohort, sharing an orienting set of dramas in their youth and enduring common discursive landscape of historical problems and social imaginary and the horizon of the future. Against this common background, each of the book’s final chapters turns to a different way that an individual or small group of people with heroin use history came to answer and live the challenge of “returning to society” as they understood it. Inevitably, these later chapters grapple with evocations of “we” that take different forms; some of my interlocuters emphasized belonging to a broader community of displaced workers, others spoke of their connection to a vanguard group of grassroots civil society actors, still others as part of a cohort of unemployed idlers who had been deprived of previously existing government care. Sometimes these connections give the individuals I write about hope in achieving a “return”; for others, the collective identity they evoke is experienced as immutable and suffocating. I try to show how these fragile and shifting senses of collective life can be understood as communities of time that are linked in complicated ways with narratives and sensations of living within a broader trajectory of Chinese history.
Yun Chen: “Recovery” is another keyword appeared throughout this book. The narratives you laid out in those chapters really demonstrated the complex ways in which “recovery” was imagined, embodied, lived, and/or contested by your interlocutors. From recovering-without-hope to recovering-through-laboring, these narratives challenged existing conceptual accounts of recovery in anthropological and health literatures. In your ethnographic encounters, “recovering” was intricately linked to the idea of “returning (huigui shehui),” which in my view metaphorically presumed a status of normalcy from which one temporally diverged and was expected to get back to. Complications arose, in this case, when the status of “being normal” itself was constantly on-the-move with the flow of the rapidly changing social world. Those in recovery were thus expected (or demanded) to “return” without any clear path or anchor point. Or in other words, their labors of return seemed to have no reachable destinations. Then what might be the actions of “returning” really for when there was no place to return to? Could you elaborate more on your understandings of “returning” in this case, and what insights it might bring to future anthropological studies of addiction and recovery?
Nick Bartlett: I think that the way you formulated your understanding of “returning” in relation to “recovery” nicely articulates a key intervention that I was trying to make. As I was writing the book, I found a distinction between two Chinese terms—jiedu and huigui shehui —helpful in heightening a broader tension around the stakes of recovery. Jiedu was about the accumulation of clean time, a quantitative, empty time that could be easily measured and compared. Here, the prescribed goal of recovery isn’t a type of experience or way of living but simply the absence of the traces of an ingested substance that made you do something else. Huigui shehui, another term that could be translated as a form of “recovery” frequently brought up in China when discussing drug users but also many other vulnerable populations, emphasizes the action of moving to a previously existing state of affairs. But what is the “normal” that is presumed to exist in this collective? Especially in Gejiu, were the fabric of daily life had been changed so dramatically with the disassembling of state work units and rapid expansion of private sector, which understanding of collective life and economic roles were members of this group to attempt to achieve? While some had very clearly defined goals of what huigui meant, others claimed that huigui was impossible, or even that huigui was not a helpful way to think about recovery. I found the slogan a useful starting point to think about lived experiences of time located between the individual and shifting understandings of collective life.
Yun Chen: To account for how people with heroin use history connected their understandings of their own past, present, and future to the collective shared experiences of China’s rapidly changing society, you laid out three approaches to historicity which effectively demonstrated that there was not an overarching framework for experiences of time. Such an attempt to connect the phenomenological lived time with the historical shared time was achieved through your emphasis on narratives and narrative structure. Can you further unpack the conceptual connections between narrative and historicity as demonstrated by your ethnographic encounters, maybe in dialogue with Mattingly’s “narrative emplotment” (1998) or Carr’s “doubly practical narrative structuring” (1998)? I was also wondering, in your view, that to what extent and in what ways may this conceptual emphasis on narrative and historicity be applicable to medical anthropology topics other than addiction/recovery?
Nick Bartlett: Some people tend to be energized by how their fieldwork can facilitate making an intervention into particular conversations. I have been more motivated by trying to figure out how to write the book as a whole, how to interpret recovery as a lived experience and then connect the recovering histories that would take the reader through a particular progression. So instead of trying to articulate “this is my position on narrative or phenomenology,” I found myself returning to authors who could help me make sense of a particular dynamic that I was struggling to understand in from my relationship with the people in the book. Writings by Sara Ahmed, David Carr, Paul Ricoeur, Pierre Bourdieu and others were very helpful in attending to quite specific questions or problems that I was trying to work through based on fieldwork encounters.
I can say a bit more about Cheryl Mattingly’s narrative emplotment, since you brought it up. In her work, narrative tends to be connected to preserving hope in the face of uncertainty and pain, often in response to a grim medical diagnosis. But I was interested in exploring what seemed to be an inverted dynamic occurring in my own fieldwork. For a small number of people I came to know, the narrative that they came to repeat and lived seemed to shut down the possibility of a future different from the present, giving a finality to a story of their stories about the “dying out” associated with a broader cohort of heroin users and, by extension, their own premature obsolescence. I found Mattingly, Carr and others helped me to think about the potential devastating power narrative could have on individuals and groups.
One challenge for me was how to make the particular recovering histories presented in the individual chapters have their own internal coherence while contributing to the broader themes of the book. Given the different ways anthropologists, postcolonial scholars, and philosophers have come to take up the term, historicity had this elasticity to it that seemed to encompass and help organize the interventions I made in the book.
As for the potential relevance for narrative and historicity for medical anthropology, these are areas where others have done incredibly thoughtful work; I would leave it to the reader to say if the book’s approach resonates with their research or experiences. I will say I have a real fear of allowing concepts to become too rigid in my interpretations. It is so easy to lose the complexity of what happens in fieldwork encounters As I finished writing, it was quite important for me to figure out a way to allow some of the neatness of previous chapters to unravel. Examining my relationship with a close friend and collaborator where I really didn’t have a sense that I could comfortable say what his “return” related experiences were gave me the chance to question some of the way the book was structured.
Yun Chen: You talked about your 2018 visit to Gejiu in the Epilogue. I’m curious that, given the rapid changes happened to your fieldsite in these recent years, to what extent or in what ways (if at all) would you shift your focuses and/or the ways in which you approached the topic?
Nick Bartlett: It’s been difficult to not be able to go back these last years; I was hoping to be based in Yunnan this past year but wasn’t able to get visas for my family. I think in some ways I was lucky to be there in the 2000s and early 2010s. Already during that 2018 trip, there was this sense that certain kinds of collaborations that were possible earlier could no longer happen. I have felt a lot of sadness about that.
I could imagine writing more about shifting understandings of labor within the context of ongoing changes to how Gejiu city and nearby mountainside communities relate in what is an increasinglypost-mining moment for the region. I’ve also been doing some online interviews and going through archival sources to learn more about what was happening on the mountains in the Deng era as part of a special issue I am co-editing exploring the specific energies and legacies of 1980s in China. So to answer your question, I think today I would spend more time in mountainside communities trying to make sense of workers’ experiences of the current moment.