I just submitted to a writing contest that required me to answer the question:
What is ethnographic fiction, and what makes this submission ethnographic fiction?
Turns out that wrestling with definitions can be kind of fun:
“That which is fashioned or framed; a device, a fabric.” – the Oxford English Dictionary, a definition for “fiction.”
I see ethnography as a process of tying knots, little threads, where there weren’t previously any.
The act of communicating beyond language is, for me, the goal of ethnographic inquiry.
Language is not an endpoint, but a bridge.
As an ethnographer, it is my job to ask: how can I effectively communicate the complex web of interactions I see before me to someone who isn’t here?
Ethnography is not sewing, outright, but it’s something close.
Ethnography is the act of stitching, on a page or screen (or otherwise), a version of a reality that the ethnographer experienced.
Fiction is the fabric.
There is fiction in the everyday. I wrote this piece while half-awake in Tuvalu, stunned into that haze that can only be mended by writing-it-out-of-my-system. I was enmeshed in my own illness and the feeling of a profound in ability to connect––to communicate.
I was, in a very real way, lost.
Writing out the experience, stitching words and images and voices, helped me to re-center.
Fiction is about language, but it resides in experience.
This submission is fictive in that it traverses a set of boundaries that do not, in fact, exist (except for in my mind).
Some dialogue is invented, and some dialogue is real.
Did the events happen because I wrote them down? As an ethnographer, I have the great privilege and burden of defining the world in real time.
I’ll let you choose what to believe.
This photo is of two yellow-eyed penguins I saw released into the wild (rewilded?) at Papatowai last week. They waddled for a bit before they dove back into the sea.