It has been years… Just saying it and thinking about the number, the length, the time gone by, makes me feel dizzy… Recently I have been told more and more that it is ok, that time doesn’t matter, that I gained experience on the way… Maybe. But most of the time, if I spend more than 30 seconds thinking about this long dragging on, I feel those butterflies in my stomach. And that’s what those notebooks represent: not so much the time spent ‘’in the field’’ (for there are other scattered-around notes on the field and from the field, for there are other fields that I have not much notes for), but the time spent in between. The time spent out of the ‘’official’’ field (for I never actually left), out of the official ‘’village’’, out of the ‘’anthropology’’, out of the ‘’academia’’. The notebooks are reminiscent of a 10 years younger me-self who wouldn’t take no for an answer and who wouldn’t listen. ‘’The fact that university is free doesn’t change anything, if you don’t get funding just don’t do it, you will die in it’’. I didn’t listen to that. I didn’t want to. I had too much passion in me to listen to passion-killers. Well, I finally did listen to unpaid bills, un-moneyed situations, and… just life. So I stopped. The younger me-self had a hard time stopping, so I kept at it for years, notebook after notebook, because I thought I could do it, pull it off, and achieve this anthropology doctorat of mine. A job here, a job there. Until jobing around had to be more than this. I needed a real job, a real life, a real bank account. Finally came the very full time real-life-real-desk jobs. The Mephistopheles kind. The kind that brings a bit of money but definitely kidnaps time and energy in exchange, as a deal. That’s when the notebooks ceased, and got seized by a shelf. Never to be touched again I thought. For going back to them would be going back to the unachieved fieldwork, the unaccomplished research, the aborted dissertation, the failed doctorat. And of course it was all my fault. Not the life stuff, not the money stuff, not the everything-else-stuff. I had failed big-time. I didn’t need a reminder for it.
The years continued to go by, the dust to accumulate over the notebooks. Soon the language was forgotten, the script became total shibboleth: I was still in the field (I had a life there, so…) but without being in it. Slowly (actually very fast) losing the language and the script was telling me that I wasn’t going to pass the door because I lost the codes, that I would never get back on the road because I had no more map for it: anthropology, research, academia… they were all lost. The notebooks were staying on the shelf next to my desk, the upper shelf that is, looking down on me, a constant prompt. Ok, if that’s how you are taking it, I won’t even look at you no more, I won’t even dust you no more, and I will certainly not open you ever again.
Then it all came back and it was all beautiful: I got accepted to this program which actually seemed to kind of want me. Or like me. Whatever. Funded want and like that is. (Not) Soon enough, I was to be back to anthropology, research, academia as a grad student. Back to the whole circle. The happy version of it. The butterfly version of it! There was not much in those suitcases I brought (try flip-flops and fluffy tropical shirts when the polar vortex knocks on your door!). But the notebooks were definitely the heavy weight in the baggage. I thought I needed to make peace with them and scotch-tape my failed previous research life with the upcoming successful one (of course! It just has to be successful!). More than 6 months went on, and the notebooks lay just on another shelf. Some time I would open them without opening them: I would go through the pages with my fingers, not with my eyes. I realized that, no, in fact I still didn’t want to open this Pandora box.
After a long intro, now the thing.
There is a seminar I am taking here at Cornell that has done marvels I believe: ‘’Writing Ethnography’’ with Lucinda Ramberg. We explore readings on different authors questioning the texture of the ethnography as a writing. And then we write. Our own stuff. Every other week. By the end of the semester, a full paper has to come out of it. This is my entry to excavate the notebooks. For obviously I need a reason, a push up, to do so. I am going to read all those notebooks, every single one of them, and then write about them.
Of course I just don’t know yet what is going to come out of it. That’s the scary part. I have some vivid memories of sections: sticking on a page a Cham scribble I did in my on-the-spur-of-the-moment-notepad, going through the whole transcription of nights of rituals, names and phone numbers reminiscent of relationships, of individuals, barely known at the time, so close by now, very alive at the time, very dead by now. Sometime my own 10-years-ago-voice is disturbing. I know that without going back just yet to the notebooks. I can hear it. No one writes or thinks the same way at 20+ and at 30+. Moreover, no one writes or thinks the same way arriving (more or less) ‘’in the field’’ and 10+ years ‘’in and out of the field’’. I know I am going to hate this other me-self. But that’s part of the exercise. To go back and reflect: excavate, and see what I have, what I can build up from there. What should be left aside or have-enough, what should be gone-back-to and deepened or what is left to absolutely new, future, explorations.
One thing I know about the notebooks is that they are all scattered around: there are 6 of them, between 150 and 200 pages each, written between 2005 and 2008, more or less ordered by numbers (I’ll write more later on that). They are full of everything: things I spent way too much time on, and surely have no use for anymore, things I barely surfaced when I should have gone in full study mode. They are full of rituals descriptions, lives stories, kinship charts, life vignettes, oral history pieces, sketches and maps, lists of go-to people and places… They are all over the place… They are of bits of Cham here, Khmer chunks there, French and English writing everywhere…
I have no idea how to approach this ‘’scatteredness’’ and what to make of it. What to make of the notebooks? This is what I hope I can figure out in those ‘’Notebooks’ Diaries’’. That by writing about them I will get a sense of what I can make of them. A while ago I read other ethnographers-bloggers, writing about the processing of their materials fresh out of the field, and thought it was very productive. Both bloggers – Decasia and Field Notes & Footnotes – are graduate students in anthropology, trying to write their dissertation, trying to write about it, and trying to write from and about very different fields. I am taking them as an inspiration: by processing my notebooks in writing and in public, I am making the actual process happening, and hopefully making something out of it. The final result is open to many forms: I could start to think about the larger project of my dissertation and see how those notebooks could participate to the final dissertation, more a long term thing. Yet, right now I am not ready to go that long term. So I could take a piece of ethnography out of it and write about just that, aim for a publication. Only I just finished writing two hopefully-to-be-published-one-day articles these past few months, so I think I am done for the time being. In the end, I feel I am up for a challenge: in this Writing Ethnography Seminar and our readings, I have learned more and more that the ethnographer is never outside the ethnography, and that auto-ethnography is actually part of the ethnography itself. Sometimes we have to put out more of ourselves in the writing instead of pretending a detachment, an invisibility. This is what I have been trying to do here. This is what I am going to do with the notebooks. I feel that writing on this blog about this process is as challenging as it can be helpful. It wasn’t exactly easy to write those lines, but by doing so, I put both myself and the notebooks ‘’out there’’, officially taking up the challenge to make it happen. Now there is no going back, I have to open them, one at a time, one each spring-break-day. Maybe I’ll come back to this blog every day of the notebooks reading, trying to keep a diary of this stimulating yet challenging endeavour. Maybe I won’t, and this is all you’ll ever read about it. But I felt the need to share the project with a virtual audience, a virtual support in this virtually mission impossible…
Ithaca, March 30, 2014, Emiko Stock.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
I need to stop here for a second. For I had to look for the English idiom to translate the French I had in mind: in English ‘’butterflies’’. It feels to me that butterflies bring only positive energies around: life is short and beautiful, full of colors and flowers, and they do fly around. When I read ‘’butterflies in the stomach’’ I would never think of something disturbing, haunting, and annoying, I would think of something light as a butterfly. The French I think about is ‘’boule à l’estomac’’. A ‘’ball’’ in the stomach. Nothing puzzling, buzzing around, just the opposite: something extremely heavy – more like a cannon ball, definitely not the jumpy ball you would bring to a Sunday bbq in the park with the kids and the dog – something that takes you down, that pins you to the ground. Something that paralyses you, that detains you. Something that prevents you to move around and to move on. So I may be using the English butterflies here, but it is definitely the French boule that I am talking about, it is definitely the boule feeling in my guts.