Writer as Anthropologist

I recently attended a lecture at the University of Calgary. The speaker, Canadian writer, Camilla Gibb, discussed connections between writing and anthropology. She obtained her Ph.D. in social anthropology from Oxford University and did not pursue a professional career as a writer until her mid to late twenties.

The lecture was brilliant. She described being told to travel so she’d have something to write about. It’s a pretty fair assumption that if you’re a writer, you’ve heard comments like “what else is there to write about?” or “there are no new ideas” or “how can you write if you haven’t lived?”

So Camilla Gibb did. She travelled and lived abroad. As part of her research she lived in a small, tightly-knit Muslim community, which eventually inspired the widely praised novel Sweetness in the Belly.  

But what does “writer as anthropologist” mean? Gibb discussed the importance of balance. Writing is an act that requires equilibrium, the ability to divide one’s time between sitting at the computer and engaging with the physical world. There are two processes: that of uncovering stories and that of writing them.

I left the lecture feeling energized and inspired, a surge of new ideas rising within me. I have travelled extensively and would consider myself an incredibly curious person. Camilla Gibb’s lecture urged me to think about the ways in which one can build curiosity through research and conversation, how research can enrich content, bring truth to any given work.

I recently read Beauty of the Humanity Movement, the story of a elderly man named Hung. She described the inspiration behind the story and it attests to the importance of travel, curiosity and research in a writer’s life. Travelling as a tourist in Vietnam, she was informed of a man who sold the best Pho in town. He wheeled his cart to a different location each morning and the only way to find him came through word of mouth. When she could not find the man, she became obsessed with his story, the story she would never know but wanted to write. Thus, old man Hung was born and Beauty of the Humanity Movement grew into a delicate, historically-accurate and sensitive novel.

Writers, in a sense, are like archaeologists, always digging. When a story is found, one handles the content with care, learns to place the uncovered bones of a story into their wider context. In Beauty of the Humanity Movement, Gibb explores Vietnamese history masterfully. She is careful to reveal what matters to each character, to hint or illustrate why every detail is relevant.

Thus, Camilla Gibb uses her background as a social anthropologist to enhance her writing, to liven her characters stories and make them feel true. She includes small details that make the writing believable and culturally relevant.

 

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