Literature and Migration

Exclusive blog from Lawrence Taylor

Writing and Reading the Border: Ethnographic Fiction

Lawrence Taylor, author of Tales from the Desert Borderland, reflects on the value of ethnography and the challenges of writing ethnographic fiction.

The character of the migration and the migrants moving through the US/Mexico borderlands has never been more fiercely contested. Competing narratives cast migrants in the starkest of terms. Heroes or villains. Pilgrims or Invaders. Valuable citizens or criminals and rapists. The polarization is clearly more than political; it is moral. Each side judges not only migrants, but also themselves and each other. Not just as mistaken or wrong, but rather as either Good or Evil. The mythology is not, of course, free floating. The competing narratives are respectively linked to real policies that have very major impacts on the lives of migrants, and everyone else. Every story is potentially useful to one or the other legislative goals, directly or indirectly shaping voters’ sense of who these millions of migrants are. Though social scientists offer vitally important data and analysis based on exacting research, most Americans will frame their understanding of place and people here (as everywhere!) through the morality tales on offer.

But there are other, richer stories, to be told. Uncaptured in the stark mythologies purveyed by moral entrepreneurs, are the stories of the complex, flawed, and endlessly rich variety of souls living in and moving through those borderlands. It is a world in which Mexican migrants and Mexican American communities predominate but are not alone, for amid and around them dwell a wide range of folks, including Anglo ranchers, Native Americans, diverse mining town populations, retirement communities, Border Patrol, humanitarian volunteers and their nationalist counterparts. Each of these groups has stories that illuminate their own experience as well as that of immigrants; stories that can and should be told by those who live them.

However, a wider as well as deeper view, steeped in local realities but untethered to one or another of them, can also make a unique and important contribution to humanizing and understanding this complex social and cultural world. Such a view can be offered by ethnography and ethnographic fiction.

Why ethnography? As a research method, its greatest strength is that the ethnographer might learn something. That is, something that you didn’t believe you already knew. Beyond any structured methods applied, it is the duration of never-off-duty, traditional ethnographic fieldwork that offers opportunities to hear and see, and reflect on words, objects, and behavior that you were neither looking for nor even thinking about. These opportunities are multiplied when the ethnographer works among the range of sometimes mutually hostile constituencies one encounters in the borderland.

But ethnography in such a world is not easy. And differences of ‘culture’ are not the greatest obstacles. Anthropologists often speak of the necessary suspension of ‘judgement’ when attempting to interpret and represent other cultures. In my experience, it is far easier for an anthropologist to ‘accept’ the most outré cultural practices of ‘exotic’ subjects, than to suspend judgement of fellow citizens whose basic moral and political convictions s/he doesn’t share. But here again, it is the exposure and human interaction of ethnographic field work with such groups that might allow an insight that is not open to belligerent (actual or perceived) researchers.

Inherent in that field experience is also the possibility of observing and preserving not only nuance, but ambiguity, ambivalence, even unresolvable contradictions. This may be the stuff of literature as much as or more than social science, so if the ethnographer is inclined and skilled in this direction, then ethnographic fiction may allow another level of emotional as well as intellectual engagement. 

In many ways, the writing of good ethnographic fiction is no different from that of historical fiction, with the potential of failing at either the ethnography, or the fiction, or both. If aspiring to be literature, the story or stories told must be held to the same standards of artistry and intellectual value. But to qualify as good ‘ethnography’ (again, as with historical fiction), those same stories need to be rooted in and capture the distinctiveness of people and place. In other words, it is no more satisfying for anthropologists (or other social scientists) to make a series of academic points more digestible by using a fictional format to convey them, than it is for a writer of fiction to set a story in a cultural setting either superficially understood or simply added for color. Rather, powerful ethnographic fiction requires an imagination both anthropological and artistic, caught up in an intellectual and emotional engagement with both the universal and the particular. Here, on the border, we may then hope for an engagement on the part of those readers ready for richer stories of migrants and the lands they pass through.

Lawrence J. Taylor is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Maynooth University, Ireland. The author of classic ethnographies Dutchmen on the Bay and Occasions of Faith, Taylor has been working and writing on the US/Mexico border since the mid-1990s, publishing first The Road to Mexico (1997), followed by the prize-winning account of liminal border lives, Tunnel Kids (2001) and Ambos Nogales: Intimate Portraits of the US/Mexico Border (2002). As in Tales from the Desert Borderland, each of these books was produced in collaboration with artist Maeve Hickey.

Lawrence Taylor