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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. 

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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.

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