Expats Writing: Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork

After complaining that all of the expat novels I read this month were not anthropological studies (or rather, not exactly complaining, but feeling they were lacking a sense of curiosity about the people they were living amongst), I finally read a novel that is about an anthropologist in the field who ‘goes native’ (i.e. gets too close, too involved and is no longer able to maintain any objectivity). Well, I certainly got more than enough detail and curiosity about people in this novel!

I suspect that I am the perfect audience for it, and that most people will consider it too long, too detailed, and containing too much secondary material about the history of evangelical missionaries in Asia, anthropological methodology for fieldwork and American academic departments. The author is a journalist who spent some time in Thailand, so he is not an anthropologist himself, but he has clearly developed a passion for the subject and immersed himself in the topic – to the point where he can not resist showing off the amount of research he has done, even if it is not entirely necessary to the plot or characterisation. In fact, in the afterword he admits that he originally intended this to be a non-fiction work – a history of the conversion of the Lisu people of northern Thailand to Christianity. However, I am fascinated by all of these subjects, and I enjoyed the set-up of the story as a mystery to be explored.

The narrator, also called Mischa Berlinski, although not to be confused with the actual author, is approached by one of his old college friends while they are both living in Thailand. His friend is puzzled about the suicide of a mixed-race anthropologist Martiya van der Leun in a Thai prison, where she was incarcerated after being charged with murdering a young Christian missionary. The narrator becomes obsessed with delving deeper into the background of these two apparently really nice people, to discover what could have led to this immense fall-out. After reading Martiya’s letters, other documents and interviewing people who knew her, as well as spending time with the missionary’s family, he solves the mystery but along the way he has exposed the power dynamics of First World vs. Third World, the dangers of the ‘anthropological gaze’ and the unknowability of the human heart and mind.

So quite an ambitious endeavour! In essence, this book tries to capture four separate stories, in a system of interlocking boxes: the story of Martiya, who started off as a promising star academic but then loses her way; the story of multiple generations of the Walker family – convinced but pragmatic missionaries; the global nomad existence of the narrator himself, who claims he wants to know the real Thailand and live there forever, but in fact exists largely within an expat bubble; and finally the ‘people being studied’, the fictional Dyalo community, who are ‘having things done to them’ by those outsiders coming and visiting, staying, studying, converting.

By bringing in many different voices and opinions, often contradictory ones, about Martiya, the author can take a swipe at the academic approach to anthropological research:

The department had the attitude that nothing much could prepare you for anthropological fieldwork, and if you couldn’t do fieldwork, then you had no business being an anthropologist. It was a real rite of a passage. If you couldn’t figure out how to get out to the jungle, the desert, or the savannah; if you couldn’t figure out what to ask the natives; if you couldn’t figure out how to build rapport with recalcitrant and suspicious locals – perhaps, the department implied, it was time to think about a nice career in sociology, where the data were unlikely to carry a spear.

To be fair, the author is setting these practices in the 1970s – by the time I encountered anthropology in the 1990s, it was a far more reflective, self-critical discipline, and there were plenty of confessional accounts of fieldwork and its challenges from which we could all draw strength. Also, I suspect this is all tongue-in-cheek. I take a bit of umbrage at the implication that anthropologists study ‘primitive tribes’: first of all, who has the right to label things primitive and how do they define it? Besides, there have been anthropological studies of subgroups within our own societies for many decades (the difference between sociology and anthropology is less to do with the ‘degree of civilisation’ that researcher attribute to their subjects, and more with methodology – and the borders have become more porous nowadays.) And there is the occasional sentence that shows the author really does get it.

The field did to Martiya what the field always does: it scoured her and revealed the person underneath the encrusted layers of culture and ingrained habit and prejudice

Impressionistic travel writing too: lots of local colour, appealing to all the senses, conveying the beauty of the area (and sometimes its more sinister aspects, the inaccessibility, the isolation). It is very evocative, though a tad overwritten at times (and at other times simply an enumeration of things), but it certainly brings a flavour of those places for those of us who have not yet visited them.

Itinerant peddlers pushed handcarts along our suburban streets or balanced long bamboo poles across their narrow shoulders, selling brooms and fans made from wild mountain grass, medicinal herbs, think panccakes, splotchy speckled egges roasted over a charcoal fire, lacquerware pots from Burma, tin locks and metal pans from China and fruit – rose apples, lychees, pineapple, and mango. I woke up one late afternoon to the musical tinkle of the fruit man’s bell.

Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand.

Some of the characters the narrator interviews also capture the exhilaration and addictive nature of anthropological research (which I thought Lily King’s Euphoria also captured in spades):

…they asked her why she had wanted to go and live with a tribe of nomadic boat dwellers in the island of the south Philippines. ‘You mean other than because it’s incredibly fun?… I guess because it pays off for your psyche when you are able to tear down your own system of belief. You’ve got to undo your preconceptions about the world, about who you are, about yourself, about community, about everything. Because when you study a foreign tribe, you’ve got to leave your world behind, you have to be totally open and empty which is – almost impossible.’

In the very next paragraph, however, this exuberance and euphoria are tempered by a harsh return to the reality of academic recognition and progression:

Three years in the Philippines, two years grinding out the dissertation, a few years in a tenure-track job which doesn’t pan out, a bad marriage… what they don’t tell you in grad school is that the free and open empty feeling when everything about humanity seems like grist for the anthropological mill is just temporary, that it’s on loan and goes away… Then throw a divorce into the mix and step just slightly off that pedestal from hot-shot student under hot-shot adviser at a hot-shot university to lecturer with limited publications at a second rate school – and watch how fast a career in anthropology no longer seems like a liberation but like a trap.

What I really liked about the book is the author easily moves from the personal to the political, from satire to controversy, from dark and dangerous to completely relatable and funny. For example, this passage about Martiya starting to get fed up with the 24/7 nature of research, which is certainly one of the greatest challenges of fieldwork.

It wasn’t that the Dyalo weren’t nice. They were very nice… Martiya was quite sure that had a Dyalo anthropologist showed up at her little apartment in Berkeley, camped out on her couch, and aksed her a lot of dopey questions on the order of ‘Why do you close the bathroom door when you defecate?’ she wouldn’t have been half as nice about it… But what she hadn’t thought about back in Berkeley was that there would be Dyalo around all the time, doing tribal things all the time, talking in their weird language all the time. And she could hardly blame them, really: they were here first. This was, after all, their home.

[I remember desperately heading to a McDonald’s after a few months of eating misoshiro and rice morning, noon and night in Japan – and I don’t even like McDo!]

Stephen King loved this novel when it came out and thought the publishers had missed an opportunity to market it properly, claiming they had let it ‘go to waste’. I did not think it was quite as riveting as King says or that I couldn’t stop reading – there were certainly passages that could have done with some pruning in this very small print 372 page edition that I had – but I liked it a lot. If you are interested in the whole issue of ‘othering’ and exploitation, social justice and white privilege, but also want a good story rather than a treatise, this is the book for you.

Bangkok Eight by John Burdett

I can finally add to my Global Reading Challenge list, hosted by the ever-suave and encyclopedic Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.  

Bangkok8Welcome to Bangkok – you are in for a rollercoaster ride of thrills, spills and emotional manipulation in the hands of a supremely confident writer, John Burdett.

Sonchai Jitpleecheep is a half-caste cop from Bangkok’s District 8 (hence the title).  He and his childhood friend and partner, Pichai, are probably the only two cops not on the take in the city. In the opening scenes, they are following a US marine in his Mercedes E series, without quite knowing the reason for the close surveillance.  When they finally catch up with the American, they discover he has been trapped in his car and bitten to death by a swarm of cobras and a drugged python. A few minutes later, Pichai too falls victim to one of the snakes.  Sonchai is a devout Buddhist who may be intent on becoming an arhat (living saint), but only after he avenges the death of his soul-brother.

The American Embassy and the FBI get involved, of course, as does Sonchai’s corrupt but somehow likeable boss.  It’s a complicated plot, exposing all of the unsavoury underbelly of the City of the Angels: prostitution, violence against women, drug smuggling, dubious jade trade and desperate poverty.  And yet there is a lot of love and understanding for Thai culture here, albeit seen through the somewhat cynical eyes of an outsider, half-American and half-Thai, who never fits in completely with either culture.

buddhasWhat I most enjoyed about this was the singular, strong voice of the narrator.  He makes you enter a largely unfamiliar world with such aplomb, that you are completely on his side.  I cannot judge how accurate Burdett’s portrayal of Thailand is (I hope it is exaggerated), but while we have Sonchai’s compelling voice haranguing us farangs (foreigners), it is completely believable.  And I can’t get enough of his wily mother Nong, a retired prostitute ready to open a go-go club for the Third Age.

Exotic and quite distressing in places, it is a book best read before and after some calmer, cosier pieces, but I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it for the world.