I loved meeting Lily King and having the opportunity to speak with her in class, at dinner, and hearing her responses to questions during the panel presentation. To me, this book allows for several different vectors of analysis: representation of the tribes in Papua New Guinea, ethical considerations of writing a fiction piece about historical figures, and the feminist questions presented throughout the book, including King’s treatment of sexuality, male fragility, and sexual relationships. I’d like to focus on the way which King approaches representation in this book, and the ways in which her genre permits certain representative strategies.
One of the main concerns I had before reading this book was the way a fiction writer would approach anthropology, native people, and an ‘exotic’ locale. I think my skepticism comes from the popular approach to lesser known areas of the world, especially areas like Papua New Guinea which still seem vaguely remote and ‘primitive’ to the average intellectual consumer. A short trip to Amazon.com shows this trend, judged by book titles alone. Best sellers on “Papua New Guinea History” include , “Savage Harvest, a tale of cannibals…” and “Three Worlds Gone Mad: Dangerous Journey” and my personal nominee for most problematic title at first glance, “Bastard of a Place.” At best (of the worst) these titles position the author, and to an extent, the reader, as ‘others’ and exotify Papua New Guinea. At worst, they paint Papua New Guinea as a challenge, a dangerous, cannibalistic locale. The overarching way in which these titles approach the complex, individual groups of people living in the area as one singular, ‘cannibal’ mass poses significant problems for any reader.
Fortunately, King largely avoids this in Euphoria. One reason I think this occurs is that King focuses much more on the ‘Western’ characters, and is allowed to make some problematic comments because she writes through the voice of a man who learned an outdated (now problematic) way of studying anthropology. This is clear when Bankson describes the differences between himself and Nell in their approaches to engaging the people they study. He says, “She was a chameleon, with a way of not imitating them but reflecting them. There seemed to be nothing conscious or calculated about it. I feared I’d never shake my Englishman Among Savages pose, despite the real respect I had come to feel for the Kiona” (King 119-120). This statement reflects the likely perception of Western anthropologists towards the indigenous of Papua New Guinea as savages. However, this descriptor is tempered by the honest admission of respect he feels for these individuals. For an audience unfamiliar with anthropology and interested in the story from the context of a historical fiction narrative, this scene wouldn’t merit further attention.
Further, the presentation of Nell as someone unwilling to engage in a zoological approach to studying other human beings shows a progressive outlook, perhaps shared by Margaret Mead (especially in public perception). Nell says, “I have no more right to the Kiona or the Tam or the Sepik River than any other anthropologist or man on the moon. I do no subscribe to this chopping up of the primitive world and parceling it out to people who may then possess it to the exclusion of all others” (King 124). Again, the terminology is antiquated and now would fall in the realm of questionable, especially by an anthropologist. However, the content and approach is poignant and powerful in that it shows a distinct humanist perspective. Nell’s approach to sexuality also paints her as a feminist, which likely engages female audiences of all ages.
To me, this book succeeds because it grapples with the topics of anthropological history, representation, and personhood from the genre of fiction. If this were touted as a scholarly piece, not only would it lack significance (for obvious reasons), it would require a fuller fleshing out of the history, significance, individual personalities, and the overall period approaches to self and ‘others’.
King stated during the panelist discussion that there is a ‘consolidation and concision of fiction’ in which the truth and reality are not necessarily the same thing. I feel that consolidation is an interesting way of nuancing a story and presenting it for an audience. King made it very clear that she tried to maintain the integrity of the real individual’s feelings, while also adopting them for her own purposes. The liberties of fiction allow her to do so while lessening the scrutiny of the subject and representation of the situations described.
Oddly, I think my inter text for this book is Nine Parts of Desire, a 1995 book by Geraldine Brooks, which attempts to describe and express the means by which Islamic women approach their sexuality and feminism. For me, Brooks’ book, a non-fiction piece, offers a counterpoint to the liberties of representation allowed in fiction.
King is a fiction writer who did not spend time in Papua New Guinea before writing her book, and takes significant time to describe the sexual interplay between Nell and Fen and later Nell and Bankson, as well as the ‘stone scene’, despite offering the reader no foundation for belief in these events other than their ‘based on real life’ status. Further, she describes the landscape and people of Papua New Guinea, again, giving the reader no clear idea of how she has come to those descriptions (not that a reader necessarily wants to know in a fiction piece). Brooks, on the other hand, wrote under the auspices of the Wall Street Journal in Cairo, and becomes interested in Islamic women’ sexuality after her assistant adopts a headscarf and other religious practices. In her desire to understand and research that question, Brooks travels and lives in Egypt, Eritrea, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, Iran, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia over the course of six years. Brooks clearly spent more time researching her topic, conducting interviews and living among her research subjects, writing a compelling piece of non-fiction aimed for a Western audience largely unaware of the text of the Quran and its implications for female practitioners of Islam.
However, Brooks received mixed feedback, while it appears that King has received largely positive feedback (not to mention awards). I feel that this is due largely in part to the description of ‘fiction’ applied to King’s book. The emphasis in Euphoria is the relationship between the characters, rather than the subject of their study. Its place on the fiction bookshelf allows King the liberty to write from the comfort of her home, using imagination rather than fact to script her ideas. The emphasis in Nine Parts of Desire is on women, and their lived experiences in the Middle East. While I don’t necessarily agree and endorse Brooks’ position as a white, non-Muslim woman writing about Middle Eastern, Muslim women for a largely non-Middle Eastern, non-Muslim readership, I do believe that her methods offer her a greater level of credence, as does her commitment to living with and learning from her subject. This is not to discount King’s novel or approve Brooks’ piece, but rather to highlight the difference a label can have on scrutiny, perception, and willingness to excuse potentially problematic language in a narrative.