It’s What Poets & Ethnographers Do: “Utter Mutuality” Through Literary Ethnography

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Its What Poets & Ethnographers Do: Utter Mutuality Through Literary EthnographyMelisa Cahnmann-Taylor with Kuo Zhang


Questions concerning the ethics of representation are not new to either the fields of anthropology or creative writing. Anthropologists (e.g. Denzin, 1997; Lather, 2008) and creative writers (e.g. Quigley 2011; Saje, 2009) alike have focused attention to issues related to privilege and power and the fine representational line between recognition and commodification of the Other in any kind of writing that involves asymmetrical power relations between the representational writer and the subject whom is being written about.

KUOS FIRST ATTEMPTby Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor

So nervous I almost forget keyto my boyfriend car. He know bestway to get there on Chinese

time: early. Wait room still full, at least10 American in line at DDSI so nervous, I almost forget key

on plastic chair. My boyfriend teaseme, say I forget right from leftway, urge me think in Chinese

all steps before say hello to White Lady.She famous on immigrant blog, detestforeigners. I so nervous, forget turn key

for ignition. I look boyfriend way, freezewhen she say blinker or braker, I make guessto move. Boyfriend in backseat whisper Chinese

word. You fail! she say. You learn for speakEnglish first! She not even give me chance for passtest. So nervous, I almost forget keyrule on U.S. road: dont speak Chinese.


When Ms. Feng Jianmei was senven months pregnant in a remote village in Shannxi province, local officials forced her to have an abortion since she failed to pay the fines for violating Chinas one-child policy.---The New York Times, June 26, 2012

They said my boy shouldnt be bornbecause I already have a girl.They took me into custody.I couldnt afford the 40,000 yuan fine.They gave me an injection of anesthetic and poison.Then my seven-month sonstopped kicking and gigglingin my womb.They didnt inform my husbandabout the surgery.Objective: Utter Mutuality This research draws attention to the ethical pitfalls and possibilities inherent in literary anthropology (poetic inquiry in particular), to identify qualities of practice that are responsible, humble, and reflexive which advance the project of exquisite mutuality (Boyle, 2013) in multicultural education. Through poetry and creative scholarly prose, I (Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor)) recount my scholARTistry, guided by both ethnographic and poetic principles to increase understandings of multicultural education in teaching preparation. I examine poetry writing as a method and representation of ethnographic inquiry, looking at my own writing of a dramatic monologue in the voice of Kuo Zhang, a Chinese graduate student and research participant in my teacher education inquiry project. I also examine Kuos use of the dramatic monologue in the context of a poetry course for TESOL educators.

Research Questions

What do anthropologists and poets share and what might we learn from one another regarding the ethical and aesthetic considerations of writing in, about and for the voice of the Other in writing that crosses cultural, linguistic, and racial differences among others?What are the risks and what are the possibilities of such writing? What considerations must be attended to by those whose aim is both ethnographic and poetic within the literary turn in ethnography?

Two Forms of Knowledge---Ethnographic and Poetic

Ethnographic knowledgePreselection phenomenon for studySystemic data collection (e.g. interviews, recordings, photos, etc.)Analysis of data sets with grounded theory

Poetry knowledgeCraft & compression (e.g. diction, line, tone, meter, figuration etc.--most meaning in the fewest and most musical words)Rupture and expansion upon traditionsArticulation of emotion, taboo, and the unexpected.

Shared: observation, note-taking, rigorous reflection, ethnical considerations, micro-macro factors, make the ordinary strange & the strange ordinary, publish.

Poetry Workshop with Tom LuxLUX: is her broken English, plausible, believable? She knows a fair amount of English, like a lot of us in foreign languages, she doesnt have the grammar straight.

POET: I think you have a problem trying to read something like this out loud because if youre going to have to say the Rs like Ls, so you have to really go for it if youre gonna do it

LUX: Thats an interesting question, do you really have to do that but then were bordering on parody that could be stretched to racism. You know flied lice stereotypes; we would have a hard time with their sounds too.It is the artists job to write in other peoples voices. I remember someone asking a senior Czech writer whod written a novel from the point of view of a 15 year old girl in a concentration camp who was raped and someone asked him [how he could do that] and he said, You know, thats my job. thats my job to do that. Its the writers job to embody other people.