Q & A with John Wood, author of The Names of Things
By Melody Condon
Q: The Names of Things is a portrait of a marriage as well as a story about grief. In creating a cross-cultural look at marriage and death, what was involved in researching this book?
A: I suppose the research came first, before the idea of a novel. I’m an anthropologist, and what cultural anthropologists do is fieldwork. For a long time mine was with Gabra, a group of camel herders in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia. I wrote a bunch of scholarly things about my experiences with them.
But straightforward ethnographic writing didn’t quite get to some of the experiences that I thought were most important, particularly having to do with the compromises we make as humans on the way to other things. Nomads want to be together. They care about each other. They need lasting, intimate relations with each other. But because of what they do they have to disperse, to separate from one another.
The same was true with me and my wife. We want to be together, but my work meant that either I had to leave her behind for a while or she had to come with me, and those compromises were difficult for us. So part of the fieldwork experience involved working through the consequences of that sort of work on a marriage, on family life. And so I was going through that periodic separation issue (or the guilt involved in asking her to go with me, to share that experience) and then I was seeing Gabra experience similar tensions between the desire to be together and the need to separate, to disperse, and the one experience shined a light on the other.
It was in seeing that connection between my dilemmas and their dilemmas that got me thinking about new ways of writing ethnography, of experimenting with fiction as a way of shining new light back on straight-up ethnographic descriptions. So the research was happening anyway, and the novel grew out of that body of experience.
Q: What aspects of your teaching experience were most helpful to you in writing this book?
A: I’m interested both as an ethnographer and as a teacher in the power of juxtaposition, of one thing being set up next to another thing, and the meaning that bleeds across the space between them. The working title for the novel was “The Space Between.” Sometimes you can tell people an idea. But as a teacher and as a student, I often think it’s better to let people, including myself, figure it out, to see for myself. Especially when two very unlike things are juxtaposed, it almost compels the human brain to resolve the gap, to make sense of what doesn’t make sense.
In my classes I sometimes ask students to read fiction, stories, about a place, set among people we are studying, with the idea of jarring some new insight loose. We get bogged down with the usual categories. Unusual juxtapositions give us new thoughts, some of them not very interesting or useful, but sometimes they can be important. That’s what ethnographic fieldwork is all about. You go live with people who are unfamiliar, get to know them, but on the way you get to know your own culture all the better for having experienced something strange, something different. So it is the encounter with difference: another culture. But you can approximate that with texts—at least I think you can—by juxtaposing different kinds of texts that force us to think about each one in a new way.
Q: Why do you write fiction?
A: What anthropologists do is go and experience other people, observe them, hang out with them, participate in their lives, and attempt to understand them. That process of describing and interpreting other people requires raw description but also theory—ideas about people, what they do, how they make sense of their world, the sorts of problems they’re trying to solve. Ideas help us make sense of raw description. But ideas are always a kind of fiction, they’re made up, they don’t exist out there in the world (except maybe if you’re Plato). So our theories are made up, they’re fictions. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that stories, true or made-up, have a way of making sense of things. If we don’t understand what someone has done, we want to know the story of that act, and often when we know the story we have a sense of aha, I get it.
Honestly, one of the reasons I write fiction is I like writing fiction. I feel an impulse to tell stories, to make things up, to imagine things.
But another reason I write fiction as an anthropologist is to explore the ways stories, even made-up stories, have of giving a reader a sense of things: not just that they happened, but what it felt like, what the experience was like. I think that’s one of the main reasons people read ethnographies in the first place, not simply to find out that there are people over there who do such and such, but what it is like to be there with them.
If out of that comes some emergent understanding of what they do, so much the better.
Q: The book is about a marriage between an anthropologist and his wife, a painter. What significance do the disciplines of anthropology and art have in the story?
A: Perhaps I run the risk of telling the obvious here. But both anthropology and art are in the business of representation, of making representations about the world, or human experience, or feelings, attitudes, ideas. They both seek to make “true” representations, but there are quotations marks around the word in both cases. The representations take on their own reality; they’re not independently real, they’re made. But both disciplines have a different relationship to the idea of truth, to the idea of accuracy, to the ideas of nonfiction or fiction, so making one character an anthropologist and the other an artist gave the story an opportunity to explore those similarities and differences. That also seems like an anthropological impulse, as well as an aesthetic one.
Q: What is the relationship between the story of the novel and the interwoven accounts of Dasse death rituals?
A: Well, this is what I’ve been talking about. The hope and prayer I have as a writer is that reading the fictional story will give the reader a sense, a feeling, for the purposes behind Dasse funerary practices, but also that the straight-up description of the funeral practices will shine a light back on the events of the story. That way, the reader will understand the fictional anthropologist better for knowing something about the death rituals of the people he studies, and the story of the death rituals will take on new meaning because the reader is familiar with the story of a particular individual and what he went through to do the ethnography. The hope is they—the fiction and the nonfiction—help each other tell an even bigger story.
Q: The anthropologist in the book has an intellectual argument with his students about whether the very practice of anthropology changes or even harms the society being studied. What would you say to those wondering about the value of anthropology?
A: One theme of the novel is that the anthropologist is struggling with the guilt he feels for what happens to his wife. He didn’t intend anything bad, but something bad happened, and in a way he’s responsible. At least partly. Same thing happens in anthropology. We go out with the best intentions and then we have an effect on one another, and sometimes that effect is not so salutary. Of course, that happens in any relationship. Life sometimes damages us. But I don’t think because sometimes we hurt each other that we should stop associating.
So yes, anthropologists have an effect on the people they study. Sometimes it’s not so good. But the alternative, not getting to know each other, ignoring each other, being ignorant of each other leads to even worse effects, causes more damage in the end. If nothing else, anthropology, doing fieldwork, attempting to know and understand each other, even if we ultimately fail—and we ultimately will fail to fully understand each other—is the most important thing any of us can do, whether it’s with your family or our neighbors or people on the other side of the planet. The alternative, not trying, is worse.
Q: What is the relationship between this book and your previous ethnography, When Men Are Women?
A: When Men Are Women explores the symbolic ways Gabra make sense of ambiguities in their lives. Men are associated with “outside,” the pasturelands beyond the camps, while women are associated with “inside,” the tents and life within the camps. Yet both men and women have to go outside and return inside. Gabra must separate from one another and yet form lasting attachments. So the gender reversal is doing a lot of symbolic work in capturing the need for both. Life is not either/or but both/and, and yet being both creates a sense of contradiction, and that sets up an existential tension. This is not unique to Gabra. All of us, in one sense or another, are dealing with the simultaneous need to connect with other people but also to individuate, to separate. The novel became another way of exploring that tension. In that sense, I think of it as a sequel to the ethnography. They’re a matched set though they occupy very different genres of writing.
Q: What is the most frightening—or, perhaps, enlightening—encounter you have had with African wildlife?
A: Well, the most frightening encounter involved my wife, Carol, and I wasn’t there. She was walking in the forest on Marsabit Mountain. There were some other people from the town nearby collecting firewood. An elephant happened by, or the people happened by the elephant, and the elephant charged them and they had to run away. Elephants are fast but their eyesight is poor. At least that’s what I’m told. I’ve never talked with an elephant about this. In this case, everyone managed to escape. That doesn’t always happen. People are often killed by elephants in the Marsabit forest. But that was pretty frightening to hear about when she told me. I think I was off on the desert with Gabra at the time this happened.
More typically what frightened me was snakes, for most of the snakes in this part of the world are pretty poisonous, and I was often far away from medical help. Fortunately they’re not numerous. It’s a desert. And snakes don’t like hanging around people. So though I saw many snakes, and had to kill a few, I was never bitten. A Gabra friend stepped on a puff adder one night and was bitten and died. So I knew this was a danger.
The novel has scenes of hyenas and lions, and, while I suppose they are dangerous to people, they’re more a danger to livestock, and Gabra have to contend with them for that reason. Most of the time predators stay away from people, so, though I saw hyenas and lions and leopards, I never felt directly threatened by any of them. I knew Gabra who had been attacked by lions, or who had killed lions that were attacking their flocks.
The most enlightening experience I had with wildlife was not frightening at all but just the opposite. Some friends and Carol and I were camping in a place called Hell’s Gate National Park in Kenya. This was when Carol and I were teaching school there, years before doing fieldwork with Gabra. I was a runner. In the morning I got up and went for a run, and as I did I met a small herd of zebra and another of wildebeest. For a time, running along this path, I was running with them or they with me. They didn’t seem to be desperate to get away from me. We were trotting along at more or less the same pace. Of course, this is all in my head, but it was the closest I’ve felt to experiencing some sort of connection between my human self and my animal self. Not sure there’s an insight there. But the experience was thrilling then and remains thrilling when I think about it now.
Perhaps that’s what anthropology is all about—perhaps that’s what being human is all about—finding ways to connect, to make connections with the world, both human and nonhuman, and even to break down those divisions.
Melody Condon is a student at Southern Oregon University who will graduate in 2012 with a B.A. in professional writing and a minor in creative writing. After graduating, she hopes to break into publishing and spread the joys of proper punctuation through the world. She is sharing her joy of literature and proper punctuation at Ashland Creek Press, where she has been an editorial and marketing assistant since October of 2011.