Nigel Barley: "Fiction gives better answers than anthropology"
“As an anthropologist you’re always asking questions such as: How different can different peoples be? Are we all reducible to a common humanity? And if so: what is it? Nobody can answer these questions. But I like to use fiction to try to answer anthropological questions. And fiction, I find, gives better answers.”
His book The Duke of Puddledock records Nigel’s travels, literal and figurative. It is part biography, part autobiography, part natural history, part anthropology, and part travelogue.
Nigel Barley, most known for his funny book The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut is not the only anthropologist who explores the possibilities of fiction.
A few weeks ago, I read about Tahmima Anam, the first Bangladeshi writer to win the Overall First Book Award at The Commonwealth Writers Prize 2008. She has a PhD in Social Anthropology from Harvard University, and an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway College.
“I wrote A Golden Age because I wanted the story of the Bangladesh war to reach an international audience", she says. She travelled throughout Bangladesh, interviewing ex-freedom fighters, military officers, students, and survivors of the 1971 war. The novel is a fictionalised account of these war stories, combined with her own family history.
In an interview with the Boston Globe she explains why she wrote a novel, rather than a nonfiction book:
I felt that this was a human story that needed character and plot. I wanted it to touch people’s hearts, as the stories I had heard had touched my heart. I wanted people to have a visceral sense of what it was like to be there at that time, and I didn’t think that nonfiction, for all its beauties and virtues, could do that.
And in an interview with the Guardian she says:
After graduating from university I started a PhD in social anthropology, but really I was dreaming of writing a novel. I would sit in my lectures and scribble in the margins of my notebooks. But for a long time, I didn’t tell anyone I wanted to be a writer; it was my undercover identity. It was when I started doing the research that it became more real. I travelled back to Bangladesh and met survivors of the Bangladesh war. After hearing their stories, I felt that I really ought to take the project more seriously, and that’s when I began writing the novel in earnest.