being there

au revoirI have found and exhausted every reason not to write this post, which has been in orbit for at least four months. After a marvelous send-off, I left Papaye and returned to California on the 10th of May. Now, almost 3 months later, I find myself still reeling a little in trying to make sense of that transition. I continue to work through what I suppose is a pretty standard ethnographic crisis, which provokes this more-or-less methodological reflection. Now – in the writing present – I am finding my way through the web of obligations that ties me to “the field.”

In the past months, I have tumbled through feelings of trepidation and anxiety and dis-ease about putting what feels like a final point on ten months of field research. It seems like an act of bad faith to shape “the field” – my field, a place that is not “mine” at all, but that I love, populated with people with whom I share a great deal of care – into other long-awaited objects: the dissertation, the book, the research statement, an ongoing research plan. I have felt a desire to hold those ethnographic moments (for lack of a better term) close, to treasure them and polish them smooth in my mind as paths between me and many other people and places for which I care. But then I remember that the objective of the whole field encounter is writing (or is it?), in any case, it is my way of assuming our collective duty to try to make justice matter. But the responsibility is heavy and at times I find it paralyzing, as it should be. I resisted mightily the frequently wielded maxim that distance brings clarity, wanting to fight against that distance because of the risk that it entails.

Nonetheless, I am no longer “in the field.” As I wade and wonder through all the petty frustrations and easy beauties of “home,” I often find myself turning over this thing called fieldwork in my mind, thinking over what it means to be there, or to be here. What is the field? A feeling of being here-and-not-there, an infinity of presence that surrounds me with a delicious curiosity and un-ease. The field – being there – destabilizes with its insistent unspooling of the threads that make up the self, allowing the cultivation of a readiness to wonder, to be surprised, to transform. I spent a lot of my early time in Haiti thinking of home, picturing it on the horizon of my mind, yearning for cool still mornings and water suspended in bay-scented air in the shade of redwoods and leaning eucalyptus, the Pacific ocean, reaching still wild and cold across the golden gate. I yearned for bitter beer and crisp salads and the smell of eucalyptus and bay and wild fennel. But as I walked winding paths through scrub forest and banana groves, I breathed the scent of rotting mangoes and tilled earth, and found myself, in spite of myself, being there.

I spent so much of my research literally in the field, my legs aching and hands blistered and blan skin pinkened. Now, once again at the edge of the Pacific, the tropical whir of the insect kingdom rises in my mind’s ear and I miss the taste of sweet, muddy Haitian coffee sipped in the shade of a tin roof shading us from the hot midday sun. I think of the old man whose callused fingers gently turned and prodded my neck, aching and stiff from a fall off a galloping horse, as I sat in a plastic chair in his swept-dirt yard, his wife plying me with chicken and rice and a small crowd decrying the villainy of the horse. I think of the crowd of indignant strangers who wiped blood from my leg and berated a drunken moto driver for hitting me, and of the innumerable times my hands and pockets and backpack were filled with mangoes, guava, eggs, sugarcane, coffee, bananas, or whatever else happened to be available in excess. I think ruefully of this abundance of care, in which I grew to feel so tenderly beloved, and how very frequently I am posed the well-intentioned, pitying question: so, … how’s Haiti?

I have left the field. But I follow a winding red-dirt path in my mind, bamboo and the heart-shaped leaves of wandering vines brushing my face as I push through the greenery. I listen for the slow clop of donkey’s hooves and smile at the remembered obligations of rural courtesy when meeting fellow travelers andeyò. I look up from my computer screen to examine the familiar concrete ruins of my post-industrial urban neighborhood and wonder what my Haitian friends would think of this place on “the other side of the water,” as they call it. Since June, I have been back, no longer able to say I have just returned. I do not yet know how much time and energy I will have to honor my obligations in Papaye, when I will be back to visit, and how my research and my “real life” will take shape around this present perfect fieldwork relation.

This uncertainty pains me, unsettles me, as I stand dazed in the supermarket aisles, under the hot shower’s rush, in long, quiet lines at the bank or the coffeeshop. I want to unplug the refrigerator because it is so flagrantly noisy, indecent in its energy guzzling. My ears search for kreyol and never find it, with so few Haitians here in California. I stand in my concrete parking lot, and search for the light of the moon above the halogen-lit train tracks. I remember back to April, when I returned to Papaye from two weeks in the states, and spring had laid a veil of green over rocky hillsides and long-bare branches. Between the New Year and the end of March, the long rainless days drifted with torpor into each other, all smells replaced with the scent of hot alkaline dust and the air thick and slow and faintly yellowish. But I returned – surprised! – to the honeyed, musky smell of ripe mangoes falling from the trees with golden thuds. Their scent intoxicating, a philter against the tales of mothers boiling February’s tiny thumbnail-sized green mangoes in salt water to stave off their children’s hunger.

In August, I dive into my field notes and interview recordings, allowing the brimming feeling of surprise to wash through me and change how I see and hear and feel as I write. I hold the wonders of the field – one tiny knot in a multiverse of entwined lives – inside that feeling of surprise, and relish that I am given the opportunity to return to it and stay with it in writing. As Donna Haraway would say, I am trying to stay with the trouble. The presence or absence of this one blan makes no difference, of course; I – my ethnographic self – am but one axis around which, at the same time, nothing ever happens and everything changes, relations always shifting. Haiti’s transitional president, whose installation figures frequently in my notes, remains, several months already past the expiry of his mandate. In Papaye, as everywhere, there are illnesses, and floods, and always deaths, of course. Two people I knew have died since my departure, and I hear of others who have tried to leave the country or at least have made it to the city. There will be elections again, and the maize will grow tall, or perhaps it will not, and – si bondye vle – the rain will fall.

Below are some of my favorite bits of reading on ethnographic reflexivity, un-ease, and surprise. Have more to add? Please leave a comment!

Biehl, J. (2013). Ethnography in the Way of Theory. Cultural Anthropology, 28(4), 573–597.

Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the Trouble. Durham: Duke University Press.

Kohn, E. (2014). Toward an ethical practice in the Anthropocene. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 4(1), 459–464.

Nast, H. J. (1994). Women in the Field: Critical Feminist Methodologies and Theoretical Perspectives. The Professional Geographer, 46(1), 54–66.

Pollard, A. (2009). Field of screams: difficulty and ethnographic fieldwork. Anthropology Matters, 11(2).

Stack, C. B. (1993). Writing ethnography: Feminist critical practice. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 13(3), 77–89.

Strathern, M. (2005). Kinship, law and the unexpected: relatives are always a surprise. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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