Anthro Fiction

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Anthropologists are often writers, writers use their imaginations. Anthropological fiction makes sense, it's enjoyable. Share your stories and opinions and bring anthropology to life.

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Is anthropology too esoteric?

Why does anthropology have such a marginalized identity? Why is it waning in popularity at a time when it is needed most? Should it be brought into the mainstream?

Started by matt m Nov 30, 2009.

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Comment by Eugene L. Mendonsa on August 7, 2011 at 5:25pm

Here is an anthro poem:



Preface to the Poem


In 1977 as an anthropological researcher, I was studying the life of the mariners of the Portuguese fishing village called Nazaré.  I had done a bit of research on shore, spoke the language, but I felt that I had to go to sea to experience what the men and boys who brave the fierce Atlantic waves did, though none of them knew how to swim as I did.

Going through the shoals and reefs in a small boat in the predawn dark was a harrowing experience for me, but the old captain and even his two young boys seemed to know exactly what they were doing.

Once out at sea, in the sunshine and the baited lines being dropped overboard, the water was relatively calm and the day was enjoyable, the fear and danger behind us.

But we had to return through the reef rocks, but this is not where the danger lies in the daytime.  It is fifty feet offshore, where many boatmen of Nazaré have died before their screaming wives, children and mothers.  None of the fishermen, young or old, knew how to swim and most wore knee-high boots that quickly fill with water, taking them to the Davy Deep, as Dylan Thomas might say.

The Atlantic waves are mighty and dangerous, but some are smaller than other.  The skipper keeps the boat just offshore waiting for the big wave, which he senses from its characteristic sound and rows to catch that wave, riding it up onto the sand, much like a surfer.  It was not uncommon for a boat to capsize riding the wave to shore and more than one crew drowned just yards from safety due to their inability to swim and cope with the heavy surf.

In the old days, teams of oxen would pull safely landed boats away from the pounding surf to be stored high up on the sand.  Sometime after World War II, when Portugal became a little more developed, tractors replaced the oxen.  Shortly after my studies in the 1970s, the Portuguese government carved out an artificial port just to the south of the village and the mariners no longer have to risk their lives waiting for just the right wave to ride up onto the beach.


The Poem


They rowed me into the night fright, the Portuguese seamen, black caps askew;

Raised for the sea were these rough men, shoals and boats they knew.

They rowed me into the night fright, in a small dingy clinging to life, a struggling ant into the mouth of a monster sea;

They rowed me into the night fright, huddled darkly in my cave of coats, all to their chuckling glee;

They rowed me into the night fright, a gownsmen so pea green and seasick;

They rowed me into the night fright, their canny moves savvy and quick;

They rowed me into the night fright, my clack-clack teeth cry lost in the devil night;

They rowed me into the night fright, that pitch-black, swell-bound, inky-bobbing tomb of no light.

They rowed me into the night fright, out beyond the knife-like, saw-tooth reef of fear;

They rowed me into the night fright, my quivering heart a giant weeping tear.

They rowed me into the night fright, into the soundless sea-bobbing, soul-sucking sound of death;

They rowed me into the night fright, through the devil’s hidden vertebrae to my bated breath.


And finally they rowed me to a thankful halt upon the calm Portuguese-murmuring sea;

And then they bent to ready their hooked bits and bites of sardined glee;

There I sat shivering as the ebbing fear slunk away from our little bobbing boat and did no longer ruffle me much;

This calm arrived as the fishers smoked and fiddled and fussed over baited lines and such.

And as I trembled to a quaking halt I looked at the distant blue, blue-black, skyline yonder;

I saw the first hint of dawn, my time to think and ponder.

Hope rose afar, spreading its joyful light over the black glassed, gently whispering sea;

The horrifying universe thunder-thought into my brain, vastness singing to me.

Then the sun’s warming, joyful cuddle, skipped from horizon to bobbing boat;

So embraced I felt the awakening throb of my weeping tear-heart, still lodged in my throat.

Day had dawned anew to see me still alive on the other side of the boat-slashing devil-back reef;

Our mother sun reborn, shinning and smiling out her age-old relief.

The swarthy boy-men took no heed, focused on what lie waiting, hungry beneath the gentle up-and-down boat;

And I could sit back and ponder the peril of the crossing, a loosening in my heart-clutching throat.

The old captain, cigarette hanging from his salty lips, motioned in the air;

And his boys lowered their lines into the aquatic black, mouth-waiting lair.

Our little craft cut through golden shimmer on liquid salt;

The boys feeding lines out, until the old man raised his gnarled hand to halt.

Morning’s work so skillfully done, the early tension crept away ashamed;

As the old captain chuckled to me: “If we don’t catch, you'll be blamed.”

The boys laughed, the captain roared and they blew their smoke into the morning mists;

And I began to relax with a sheepish smile, my hands no longer fists.

Then the hoary captain reached in his bag to pull out the grog;

The bottle sailing from mouth to mouth – a little hair of the dog.

Grog brightened spirits and we rested quiet that warm-bobbing morn;

And we all laughed and joked, the blanket of fear thus torn.

When the grog was downed and all had happily slept;

The skipper sleepily announced: “All be kept.”

Fishers stirred to action, boys grown up with this phrase;

And the captain rowed while the boys moved into the keeping phase.

Now I have traveled the world, from African village to big cities bright;

But I have never seen wonders as came aboard in that blue-bounced light.

Starfish with carrot arms flailing and flopping fish, their fins with rapiers taut;

Watching the upcoming wonders of the reluctant sea, I was spurred to wondrous thought.

I have walked privileged amongst the great bookish stacks of academe;

But no wonders were cloistered there as came up out of the sea, octopus to bream.

The boat bottom filled and flopped with scaly, slimy, smelly, soon-to-die life;

And our little boat sunk deeper, being filled with flesh for the waiting knife.


They rowed me into the slap of offshore winds, the glorious moment to be never more;

They rowed me toward hungry-for-flesh, boat-smashing waves, battering the village shore.

They rowed me back through devil’s reef, land coming mistily to distant sight;

They rowed me toward thunderous, angry waves, the mariner’s truly baneful fright.

For the waves have eaten more than one puny boat with tumultuous slaps on sandy shore;

And black-booted boys and men would ne’er see mum nor wife no more.

They rowed me through the devil’s teeth toward that sight of crash;

Just offshore, through frothing waves, waited death in a land-seeking dash.

He rowed me toward sandy safe, our captain bent but brave;

Then he stopped where men wed to the sea halt and listen for The Mighty Wave;

And there we sat, the captain listening, waiting, yearning to see another day;

Such hopeful mariners have died before the screaming eyes of women who could only pray.

I could see the village wives along the sand-bright, full-of-hope shore;

I could see their sanguine faces, hoping to hug and cuddle once more.

When the head-cocked skipper heard, he began his awesome dash;

Rowing strong, he to my eyes seemed younger in his needed brash.

The death wave now behind us and I dared not turn for looks;

And in that spine-chilling shoreward rush, I mightily longed for my books.

The tiny, fish-filled skiff shuddered and sank and came up again to the captain’s oar;

And we were heaved up high, halting atop that beastly wave, not yet to shore.

My heart was again in my throat beating out a frantic query;

“Why?  Why? Why would you leave the world of bookish theory?

At the apex of that hungry wave, the skipper made a mighty pull to oar;

And fated fish and prayerful men on saltwater sea no more.

For we crashed down on God’s terra firma to the squeals and screams of hairy fish wives;

Then all aboard that stinky rowboat were once more happy to be alive.

I had followed my profession to sea, the research to get and in book to one-day store;

But I'll tell you with no hint of shame, they’ll row me into the night fright never more.


Comment by Eugene L. Mendonsa on August 7, 2011 at 5:18pm

Here is the first anthro fiction I wrote:

Blood on the Tractor


Kajia-Bein and the elders trekked to the White Man’s relic, the old rusted tractor, almost lost in the tall parched elephant grass at the edge of the village.  It was an annual trek.  In the harmattan winds, Africa’s hot, arid scourge of the dry season, blew viscously against their faces, making their minds confused and tired.  Every year, during the season the missionaries call Christmas, the wind started in the torrid Sahara, rushing southward across desolate shifting dunes, where it picked up fine sand, funneled it skyward, forming slate-colored  clouds, at times blocking out the sun.  Moving across the Sahel, the wind maliciously deposited its cargo of dust on the lives of all below.  A thousand miles to the south, after losing much of its gritty burden, the wind still had the power to sandblast the mud huts of the Sisala of Northern Ghana. 


Kajia-Bein wondered if the ancestors were listening.  Each year they made the pilgrimage to the shrine.  Each year, the White Man did not come.  Kajia-Bein wondered why.  The White Man had saved  them once, from Babatu and the slave-raiders.  Then he had promised progress, a new life — tractors, fertilizer, new  seeds.


 Kajia-Bein had thought life would change, become easier.  But then the first tractor broke.  No one knew why. One day it just stopped.  The fitter from town said it needed petrol.  They tried that. The tractor was broke.  The fitter came to the village and looked at the tractor, its plow still sitting in the uncompleted furrow.  He tinkered.  He fidgeted with the wires and levers.  Finally, he shrugged his shoulders.  The tractor was broke, he said.  He didn’t know why. 


Perhaps the White Man knew why, but the White Man had gone away.  Far away.  No one knew where. 


Kajia-Bein and the elders squatted near the old rusty tractor.  Some of the younger men began to clear the grass, in preparation for the sacrifice.  Someone else produced a kola nut.  When it came to Kajia-Bein, he took a portion, placed it in his mouth, and began to chew.  He chewed and thought of the White Man and his promises.  He thought of his forefathers and wondered if they were still alive in death, as the Sisala believed. 


Why hadn’t the White Man brought the promised goods?  Why didn’t the ancestors go tell him of the misery in the village?  Why didn’t the sacrifices work, year after year?  Kajia-Bein was running out of hope. 


"Maybe the rains will be strong this year," someone said.  Kajia-Bein pulled his cover cloth around his frail body, tighter against the wind.  "Only god knows," someone else replied.  Kajia-Bein spat a stream of red kola juice on the dusty earth.  Neither god nor the White Man seem to care, he thought. 


"Last year’s rains were very weak," said the first elder, stating what everyone knew as a fact.


Kajia-Bein saw the White Man’s relic was now exposed, ready for the sacrifice.  He removed his cover cloth from his bony shoulders, tying it around his waist.  Then he took the calabash of millet water in his left hand, the chicken in his right, and squatted before the tractor, which loomed above him, as it did every year, a reminder of the fading promises of the past.  Perhaps with less relish than he had invested before, Kajia-Bein said the prayer, asking for the White Man’s tractors to return, supplicating the ancestors’ aid in bringing back the magic of the White Man, his power, his promises, the assurance of a future implied in his words. Kajia-Bein asked for help from the sky god, his messengers, the spirits, the farms, the sacred crocodile pond, the shrines, the cosmic powers of yapring, the deep bush.  As he spoke he dripped a portion of the white milky liquid on the faded green fender, the tropical sun having worked on the lush industrial color which had seemed so bright and promising when Kajia-Bein first saw the tractor coming into the village — so many years ago. 


When the millet water was finished, Kajia-Bein took up his knife.  The chicken, perhaps sensing its end, struggled in his grip, but with an experience movement Kajia-Bein drew the blade across its throat, holding it above the fender of the White Man’s tractor, its life draining on the metal in hopes of renewal.  When there was enough blood on the tractor, Kajia-Bein threw the chicken into the dust.  It flopped and twisted about, till  it, like the tractor which had sucked away its life, was dead.  Kajia-Bein spat out a stream of red juice, not meaning to hit anything, but the spittle hit a passing dung beetle, who, in his surprise, flipped onto his back.  Kajia-Bein squatted down to examine the beetle.  As the others drifted away listlessly, Kajia-Bein wondered if the beetle would ever right itself, or would it die there in the hot, dry dust of the Savanna. A slow, bewildering death.  In the shadow of hopes.


Comment by matt m on February 18, 2010 at 1:45pm
Gene Berlyn was the master of spontaneous conversations, the best out of everyone I knew back then. He was extraverted and knowledgeable, with a face heavily carved with the grooves of a rebel. His pale grey eyes were quick, they honed into your psyche as his words either danced for your entertainment or shot you to pieces. He was above average height which more than made up for his slender build. His shoulder length blond hair framed him. It added weight to his influence that was magnified by the finely-carved wooden amulet that hung around his neck.
The first time we met was he was making himself busy, saying g’day to everyone and being at home in the new surroundings. When his eyes fell on me I felt emboldened. Like he was the leader and I was his aide.
‘You look pretty devoted there, mate.’ He said. ‘What’s your major?’
‘Anthropology.’ I said. ‘What’s yours?’
‘The same, about people, about the ways we think and live.’ He winked as he grinned. It was tongue in cheek and bravado in equal measures. Then he turned to the rest of the group in the tute room. ‘But hey, what does anything mean any more, now that we’re being deconstructed?’
‘How would you know?’ I said, unperturbed by the silence in the room. It was something I wouldn’t normally have said but I felt encouraged to speak up. It was as if playing with reality was actually the point.
‘Well exactly, mate.’ He said slowly, looking at me with a mock serious face. ‘You wouldn’t really, would you?’ A few of the others sniggered.
‘What do you mean deconstructed?’ Asked Henry which made Gene grin.
‘I mean exposed and pulled apart.’ Analysed until your psyche lays scattered over the place in tiny little pieces.’
Henry leant down and picked through his canvas bag that was loosely sprawled across the floor. As he bent his great swath of matted brown and grey hair emerged for all to notice. A couple of younger students sniggered. Wily old Henry forage for ages before finally pulling out a tattered book. He held it up for the others to see, stood up slowly and walked across the room to hand it to Gene.
‘Here. Read this. It’s one of the novels Derrida referred to before he died. But don’t read too much into it. It might be a hoax.’
‘What’s the gist?’ I asked. All eyes flicked from me to Henry.
‘Everything is fiction.’
Comment by Paul Goss on December 7, 2009 at 10:42am
I don't believe that anthropology is too esoteric, but perhaps to subtle for people to notice. We are constantly surrounded by human behaviors and decisions, perhaps to the extent that many people do not take great notice of it. Consequently anthropology may have a marginalized identity because it is hiding in plain sight.

I recently read The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, which is a tale of a young woman in high society in New York City in the early 1900s. Nearly every page is filled with anthropology, and I was struck by how many things I recognized from some of my lectures. I began to wonder whether Wharton was a student of anthropology or such an astute observer of society that anthropology showed through in her work without intention.

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