Alive in the Writing: Crafting Ethnography in the Company of Chekhov
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Anton Chekhov is revered as a boldly innovative playwright and short story writer—but he wrote more than just plays and stories. In Alive in the Writing—an intriguing hybrid of writing guide, biography, and literary analysis—anthropologist and novelist Kirin Narayan introduces readers to some other sides of Chekhov: his pithy, witty observations on the writing process, his life as a writer through accounts by his friends, family, and lovers, and his venture into nonfiction through his book Sakhalin Island. By closely attending to the people who lived under the appalling conditions of the Russian penal colony on Sakhalin, Chekhov showed how empirical details combined with a literary flair can bring readers face to face with distant, different lives, enlarging a sense of human responsibility.
Highlighting this balance of the empirical and the literary, Narayan calls on Chekhov to bring new energy to the writing of ethnography and creative nonfiction alike. Weaving together selections from writing by and about him with examples from other talented ethnographers and memoirists, she offers practical exercises and advice on topics such as story, theory, place, person, voice, and self. A new and lively exploration of ethnography, Alive in the Writing shows how the genre’s attentive, sustained connection with the lives of others can become a powerful tool for any writer.
impulsive glad outburst of sound. It falls midway into a plea. It fades and dies in a low grieving moan. Belmonte evokes the timbre of a generalized voice and its gendered association, the flow of speech and the emotions this conjures. ▹ Characterize the sound of a certain language, dialect, or accent, starting with “In the voice is . . .” What associations of class or region do those sounds carry? If you were to compare this to flowing water, how would you describe the movement of sounds? If
already more than twice told when first I heard them, and they would continue to be told long after I left the field.” Here’s an example of how Kendall mixes quotes and summaries when recounting how she and her field assistant approached Yongsu’s Mother for a survey: She fielded our queries with an air of amusement, prompting my assistant to giggling self-parody. “Do you practice birth control?” “Am I a chicken? Can I lay eggs without a mate?” And so we continued. Her stepson, aged nineteen, now
conversations had been painstakingly presented, we’d miss out on the comic timing of this story. Sometimes, being an effective storyteller requires quoting only the parts of conversations that matter to an unfolding story. ▹ Reconstruct the thread of a topic you learned about through conversations with different people and include your own reactions. Pauses, Guarded Words, Words in Veiled Forms Ethnographers can easily become attached to what’s explicitly spoken, what’s formally explained. But
census work as, 25–26; Malinowski’s instructions for, 13; materials from, 4, 62–63; turning points in, 10–11. See also ethnographic writing Forster, E. M., 47 freewriting: concept and technique of, x, xii, 5, 115, 127n; as form of practice, 88. See also prompts Friction (Tsing), 35–36 Geertz, Clifford: on ethnography as fiction (faction), 8–9; multiple genres that influenced, 128n; summary vs. scene as illustrated by, 9– 10, 12; on thick description, 7–8 genres: alternate forms of expression and,
playwriting: as Chekhov’s “mistress,” 18–19; Chekhov’s pauses and pacing in, 83; conversation represented as, 77–79 Pleshcheyev, A. N., 18 plot, 13. See also situation (context); story point of view: engaging with others’, 14–16; of others perceiving writer, 97; of other writers, 90–91. See also representation Popkin, Cathy, 129n “Portrait of an Invisible Man” (Auster), 49, 70, 131n prompts: concept and writing of, x, xii, 5. See also freewriting; writing process prompts related to person: