Deciphering Culture

Archive for the ‘Ethnographic Fiction’ Category

! ZAPPED ! – a graphic novel in need of artwork

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Got some nice cover art from Erik Evans of Bottle Rocket Productions. Now, need artist(s) interested in illustrating thee body of the story. Check out the info. below then get in touch.

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! ZAPPED !

 

! Zapped ! is the story of a man called to a quest by the sudden (or as he discovers not-so-sudden) onset of a serious and disturbing disease. Unbeknownst to him, he is called not to recover what he has lost but to transform his life and himself. His journey takes him into unknown territories of alternative healing, spiritual practice, interspecies relationships, spirit possession, and the hidden depths of his own internal life.

The story is told through three intertwining narrative threads:

  • Cleo’s story –- told from the point of view of the protagonist’s wife’s dog.
  • The protagonist’s story.
  • The running commentary of two members of the Watcher Bureau, keepers of the collective unconscious, charged with recording stories of the human condition

 

Author Bio: Jeffrey Callen is a writer based in San Francisco whose work is rooted in the belief that an authentic story opens up a space of connection that creates the basis for understanding, communication and effective action. He is also a creative writer, published poet and cultural analyst. His writing on popular culture appears in scholarly and popular publications. He received an MA in Music from UC Santa Barbara and a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology from UCLA.

 

CALL FOR ARTISTS: I am looking for one or more artists to work with on this project. Each narrative thread is intended to have a distinct visual image. I have imagined Cleo’s story as having a manga look; the protagonist’s story with the look of a Hernandez brothers (Love & Rockets) story; and, a film noir presentation of the Watcher Bureau. However, I am more interested in ideas that occur to potential collaborators. If you are interested in learning more about this project, please contact me at jeffreycallenphd@gmail.com or here at Deciphering Culture.

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Ethnographic Storytelling – another lesson from Haruki Murakami

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This is the second in a series of lessons from notable fiction writers that provide guidance (or at least inspiration) for core techniques used in ethnographic storytelling. The first entry was a lesson from Haruki Murakami in how to set a scene (Ethnographic Storytelling – a lesson from Haruki Murakami). The second lesson, also from Murakami, addresses how to create convincing characters that blend the “factual” and the “true.”

A lesson from Haruki Murakami in creating characters

One need in any storytelling is to create compelling characters. As in fiction, ethnographies frequently require the creation of characters that represent more than a single individual: a typical member of a social group, whether it be a music fan, an elder in a community, a customer for a product, a technology user. Whether the story is addressing a problem or issue within the realm of ethnomusicology, anthropology, design or UX, convincing, compelling characters are a baseline requirement — if you can not believe in the characters, you will not believe in the points being made in the story. The following passage from The Wind-up Bird Chronicle illustrates the need to rely upon both the factual and the true in creating characters (and in storytelling in general):

He was engaged in a serious search for the meaning of his own existence…. To do that, Cinnamon had to fill in those blank spots in the past that he could not reach with his own hands. By using those hands to make a story, he was trying to supply the missing links. From the stories, he had heard repeatedly from his mother, he derived further stories in an attempt to re-create the enigmatic character of his grandfather in a new setting. He inherited from his mother’s stories the fundamental style he used, unaltered, in his own stories: namely, the assumption that fact may not be truth, and truth may not be factual. The question of which parts of a story were factual and which parts were  not was probably not a very important one for Cinnamon. The important question for Cinnamon was not what his grandfather did but what his grandfather might have done. He learned the answer to this question as soon as he suceeded in telling the story. 

Written by Jeffrey Callen

July 30, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Ethnographic Storytelling – a lesson from Haruki Murakami

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A while ago, I wrote a post about my fascination with the ongoing development of ethnographic fiction as a means of capturing qualitative research that is more evocative and significantly meaningful than typical ethnographic prose (Short Takes: Ethnographic Fiction). This fascination arose from my longstanding dissatisfaction with the lifeless quality of so much ethnographic prose and conviction that good research could be related in good writing. While I applaud the efforts of writer-scholars such as Tobias Hecht (After Life: An Ethnographic Novel to open up new territory for ethnographic representation, I have to admit that I have  yet to read a work that successfully utilizes fictional techniques to create a convincing and engaging ethnography. The question arises if it’s simply a problem of blending two very different skill sets: those of a researcher and those of a writer? But so many fiction writers have done such thorough research and then related it in masterful prose — if you want proof, read the opening section of Don Delillo‘s Underworld , which recreates the deciding game of the 1951 National League pennant race. Maybe, it is best to turn to fiction writers for tips on how to tell a story. Below is a lesson from Haruki Murakami in how to set a scene in what may be the first entry in an occasional series here on Deciphering Culture.

A lesson from Haruki Murakami in setting the scene

One need in any storytelling is to set the scene. Sometimes, you do that by (in cinematic terms) taking a long shot to set the context before moving in to capture the details. Murakami is a master of this and often uses this device to set a scene. For example, this passage from The Wind-up Bird Chronicle:

Like a make-believe bird in a make-believe sky, I see the rooms from above. I enlarge the view, pull back, and survey the whole, then zoom in to enlarge the details. Each detail carries much significance, of course, I check each one in turn examining it for shape and color and texture. From one detail to the next,there is no connection, no warmth. All I am doing at that point is a mechanical inventory of details. But it’s worth a try. just as the rubbing together of stones or sticks will eventually produce heat and flame, a connected reality takes shape little by little.

Short Takes: Ethnographic Fiction

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One of my fascinations is the ongoing development of ethnographic fiction as a means of capturing qualitative research that is more evocative and significantly meaningful than typical ethnographic prose. I noticed that there is an interesting workshop coming up down under on ethnographic fiction & speculative design. Outside the bounds of my travel budget but well worth checking out:

Ethnographic Fiction and Speculative Design is a full-day workshop at the 5th International Conference on Communities & Technologies–C&T 2011, in Brisbane, Australia, 29 June-2 July, 2011.

Goals of the Workshop

This full-day workshop aims to explore how grounded ethnographic and action research methods can be transformed into fictional and speculative designs that provide people the kinds of experiences and tools that can lead to direct community action in the development and implementation of new pervasive technologies.

And added to my reading  list is After Life: An Ethnographic Novel by anthropologist Tobias Hecht. From the blurb by Duke University Press:

Bruna Veríssimo, a youth from the hardscrabble streets of Recife, in Northeast Brazil, spoke with Tobias Hecht over the course of many years, reliving her early childhood in a raging and destitute home, her initiation into the world of prostitution at a time when her contemporaries had scarcely started school, and her coming of age against all odds.

Hecht had originally intended to write a biography of Veríssimo. But with interviews ultimately spanning a decade, he couldn’t ignore that much of what he had been told wasn’t, strictly speaking, true. In Veríssimo’s recounting of her life, a sister who had never been born died tragically, while the very same rape that shattered the body and mind of an acquaintance occurred a second time, only with a different victim and several years later. At night, with the anthropologist’s tape recorder in hand, she became her own ethnographer, inventing informants, interviewing herself, and answering in distinct voices.

With truth impossible to disentangle from invention, Hecht followed the lead of Veríssimo, his would-be informant, creating characters, rendering a tale that didn’t happen but that might have, probing at what it means to translate a life into words.

A call and response of truth and invention, mental illness and yearning, After Life is a tribute to and reinterpretation of the Latin American testimonio genre. Desire, melancholy, longing, regret, and the hunger to live beyond the confines of past and future meet in this debut novel by Tobias Hecht.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

April 22, 2011 at 4:15 pm

This is how to write about music! James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”

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After a minor medical emergency and a ridiculously busy week, I am back to my major endeavor for the month of March, rewriting the first chapter of my manuscript on Moroccan alternative music. It opens with a musical vignette that introduces the music, sets the scene and sets up the theoretical framework for the book. It’s a tricky section to write: writing about music is always tricky. Attempting to capture a primarily aural experience in print is an exercise in capturing lightning in a bottle, especially if you are writing for an academic audience. Too often “serious” writing on music loses the immediacy of the musical experience in overly careful prose designed to maintain some misguided allegiance to accurate representation — misguided because losing the truth of an experience is a high price to pay for obsequious fealty to maintaining the real. And is it a choice we have to make? This is one area where ethnographic fiction opens up possibilities that call out for exploration and new sources of inspiration.

Some the best writing on music is found in fiction and James Baldwin’s work abounds in striking descriptions of musical experience. The following excerpt is from his story “Sonny’s Blues” (an extended excerpt is featured in the Sun magazine this month).

James Baldwin

all i know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. and even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. but the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. what is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. and his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours. i just watched sonny’s face. his face was troubled, he was working hard, but he wasn’t with it. and i had the feeling that, in a way, everyone on the bandstand was waiting for him, both waiting for him and pushing him along. but as i began to watch creole, i realized that it was creole who held them all back. he had them on a short rein. up  there, keeping the beat with his whole body, wailing on the fiddle, with his eyes half closed, he was listening to everything, but he was listening to sonny. he was having a dialogue with sonny. he wanted sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for the deep water. he was sonny’s witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing-he had been there, and he knew. and he wanted sonny to know. he was waiting for sonny to do the things on the keys which would let creole know that sonny was in the water.

and, while creole listened, sonny moved, deep within, exactly like someone in torment. i had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. he has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own. he has to make it do what he wants it to do. and a piano is just a piano. it’s made out of so much wood and wires and little hammers and big ones, and ivory. while there’s only so much you can do with it, the only way to find this out is to try; to try and make it do everything.

and sonny hadn’t been near a piano for over a year. and he wasn’t on much better terms with his life, not the life that stretched before him now. he and the piano stammered, started one way, got scared, stopped; started another way, panicked, marked time, started again; then seemed to have found a direction, panicked again, got stuck. and the face i saw on sonny i’d never seen before. everything had been burned out of it, and, at the same time, things usually hidden were being burned in, by the fire and fury of the battle which was occurring in him up there.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

March 12, 2011 at 7:57 pm

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