Reflections on the Clark 3: Ethnographic Accuracy

This is the third of three pieces inspired by my visit to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown MA.

Roger Fenton, Orientalist Study, 1858. From the Clark Art Institute “Travels on Paper” exhibit.

Although Roger Fenton journeyed to the Crimean Peninsula to document the war there in 1855, his so-called “Orientalist Suite,” comprising fifty photographs, did not require any travel beyond his London studio. Fenton called upon his friends, manservant, and a professional artist’s model to portray a range of ethnicities – a jarring discrepancy noted by some nineteenth-century critics. The assortment of costumes, furniture, and accessories collected from across the Middle East may have been borrowed, brought up to the studio from Fenton’s home, or purchased for the occasion. As with his models, Fenton’s deployment of these props to connote a range of cultures results in vague pastiche rather than ethnographic accuracy.

I’m beginning today’s thoughts with the same image and curatorial card as yesterday, because of the curator’s clear distinction in the last sentence between “vague pastiche” and “ethnographic accuracy.” It’s clear that in that writer’s mind, the former was regrettable, and the latter commendable. But, as an ethnographer, I’d like to raise some questions about whether ethnographic accuracy might not carry its own problems.

Ethnography can be its own form of colonization, in which we enter a less powerful region to extract resources and bring them back for our benefit. In this case, the resources aren’t coal or diamonds or oil, but concepts and patterns of behavior that expand our understanding. But regardless of the material extracted, the benefits typically flow in a single direction, away from those for whom the material is common, toward those for whom the material is precious. The wealth of oil does not reside with the people of Nigeria or Yemen; the wealth of corn and soy do not reside with the people of Iowa. In both cases, the wealth flows upward and outward. My great mentor Paul Groth once wrote of his own North Dakota childhood to explain why he studied everyday landscapes:

No one explained how the grain elevators that towered over the landscape explained the economic reality of our region. We were a colony of the rest of the U.S.: all the locally grown products were exported a thousand miles away, along with the profits to be gained from them, and everything else was imported, retail.

So yes, wheat wealth flows outward. But so does ethnographic wealth. The everyday practices that support lives in less privileged places become the basis for publications and tenure and renown in more privileged places.

So imagine a writer who tells a story that isn’t his. For instance, my own experience of living with some of the teenagers of a small California town. When I wrote my first draft of the book and shared it with the kids, I was horrified to learn that they saw themselves in the stories, but didn’t have access to the framework I’d built around it. One kid said to me, “It’s like you wrote it for a bunch of psychologists.” Which, of course, I had. So I rewrote it front to back, in a way that felt more natural, felt more like storytelling. In a way that the participants themselves could have access to.

That was step one in my responsibility to them, to not remove their resources from them and hold them within the academic display case, out of reach. (Step zero, if we could call it that, was that I paid attention to them, I respected them, I laughed with them, I played hacky sack with them, I told them some of my stories as I listened to theirs, I bought lunch and gas once in a while and tried to do them honor in our daily lives together.) But step two—”ethnographic accuracy,” my responsibility to get the story and its meanings right—was not always enough.

For some kids, the fact that their story could be seen in the world was a huge benefit. They had no power, they were invisible, and so having a more powerful and visible proxy was like having a bodyguard. “I’m so glad you told our story; no one ever listens to us.” But for others, there was a sensation that I can only describe as the equivalent of identity theft. “How DARE you presume to tell my story?” It was as though I were impersonating them in public.

All three of these steps—of respecting people while you work with them, of making their own resources available to them as well as to others, of negotiating boundaries and consent—are steps founded on relationships. They cannot be answered singularly, cannot be encoded into a series of correct steps and research-board approvals. They are negotiated, revised, and stumbled over. Even though the project may be singular, the relationships are many and unique, and they will not resolve themselves with equal happiness.

Now let’s carry all of this forward into fiction, and what it means to write characters who are different from ourselves. I wrote a short story about a young man—in northern Michigan, in the 1970s—who was trying to understand his own sexuality. One of my friends who read it, a friend who is himself gay, was really troubled by it, because it didn’t reflect his own experience of gay youth. He didn’t read it as a specificity, he read it as a representation of a community, which is a political as much as literary act.

It’s a particularly fraught relationship when I write, as I did in that story, about people who are part of an historically disadvantaged community that isn’t my own. It falls right back into the same dilemmas of ethnography, of representing a “type” rather than a group of specific individuals. Not merely the problem of “vague pastiche,” but larger and more intractable problems. The rights of representation. The encroachment onto identity. The dangers that less-powerful communities have historically faced when the powerful get to define them.

I can’t have the same kind of relationship with my characters that I did with the kids I wrote my ethnographies about. We don’t get to negotiate consent. We don’t get to converse in the same way. Even though I have a powerful sense of listening to my characters, of reporting rather than inventing, I can’t give them a first draft and ask them how they feel about it.

My relationship with my readers is even more tenuous. I have no idea who will read my stories, nor what experiences they will bring to it. I can attempt to do honor to a character, and find that one reader is herself honored, while another is troubled.

The writer’s responses to all of this are many, mostly bad. We can throw up our hands and say that it’s all out of our control, and we can just do whatever the hell we want because it’s all unpredictable. We can avoid the problem altogether and only write thinly veiled representations of our own lives and those of our friends and families, so that we can borrow some sense of authenticity—and by so doing, eliminate most of the world from being seen in our stories. We can do ethnographic work, and expand the array of lives from whom we can steal interesting details, “local color.” Or we can quit altogether, to not try to find a resolution to the irresolvable dilemma.

The reason why fiction matters is because of its ethical positions, because it shows us in careful, rich detail the life of someone faced with an unpredictable and surprising situation that she or he must pick their way through. And ethical positions are never globally held, are always contested, because they are distilled from our unique experiences. As fiction writers, we have chosen to enter that disputed territory rather than to stand as spectators. It can come as no surprise when we find ourselves confused and conflicted, when our work undertaken in good faith is seen by some readers as a hostile act. We can only step back, reconsider, learn more, and try once again.