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Narrating narratives: a meta-analytical voyage between the potentialities and limitations of ethnographic language.

scan-2 Narrative and story telling are central to making our selves, the events in our lives, and our relations to others into coherent stories. As argued by several of the authors we have read this week, some anthropologists have made it their mission to elicit and study individual stories and the way these unveil and are tangled with social, historical, and political powers. In this piece, I do not question the importance of narrative or its relevance to our discipline. Indeed, in my previous and present work, I have embraced many of the theoretical insights of the authors we have read for today, taking people’s narrations as the object of my study and the locus to seek insight into linguistic, experiential, social, and political analytical observations. Rather, my goal is to think about narrative as a genre, not only for the ethnographic informant or research collaborator, but also for the ethnographer herself.

Although the analysis I propose may seem merely informed by anthropology’s reflexive turn, which invited ethnographers to critically study their own writing as text, what I suggest is that we go somewhat beyond this to explore the advantages and limitations of written word and other media to convey narrative. How do we narrate narrative? What do our stylistic choices imply? What are their effects on readers? Our readings themselves showcased different ways to narrate and re-count stories. For instance, Kleinman alternates objective, quasi-clinical description with quote excerpts that he proceeds to carefully interpret in a psychoanalytical key. Biehl privileges first-person accounts, quotes short interactions, and “free-rides” the lyrical effects of Catarina’s fragmented poetry as well as the power of photographic portraits, seasoning all of this with a work of interpretation and analysis that – at times – stood out to me as quasi-“voyeuristic” – in Kleinman’s terms (see e.g. the “black lion” episode, p.97-98). Janelle Taylor’s article constitutes a dramatic narration itself, and Mattingly’s authorial skills do not only emerge in her thorough descriptions of medical interactions, but also in the rich stratagems that she uses to turn her theory almost into poetry (e.g. “the small dramas of ordinary life” p.39, “the plotting of hope” p.141, or “healing dramas” p.142).

scan-3How, then, do anthropologists tell other people’s stories? In what formats; and what do these formats convey? What can words, versus images – for instance – communicate? I have long interrogated myself on these matters, especially questioning what, despite its infinite possibilities, language – and written language in particular – leave behind. As someone who is personally drawn to visuals, I have thought about the power of image through photography and ethnographic film – two media I have had the change to experiment with, although not in my own projects. Lately, however, I have become increasingly intrigued by the genre of graphic art that is gaining growing attention in academic realms (see here the first “graphic dissertation” in anthropology). In the field of narrative medicine, graphic novels have already affirmed as a genre that opens a plethora of narrative possibilities through communicative devices that go well beyond word and image (see “Graphic Medicine Manifesto” for reference). As I familiarized with this genre while assisting to the making of an “ethno-graphic” novel project, I was drugged into reading novel after novel, in amazement at the narrative potential of illustration to open windows on imagined worlds, experiential universes, and human’s deepest feelings.

As medical anthropologists we often narrate about suffering – but how do we convey such profound experiences through text? How do we represent distraught, distress, helplessness, or pain in anthropological writing? I make it my aim to continue exploring means to narrate and recount that go beyond written script. Not only I think that is helpful for the  ethnographer to find appropriate media to make justice to informants’ stories; it can also offer platforms to voice, interact, and work through narratives of illness or suffering in more satisfying ways for informants themselves.

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