Lectures

Writing Life No. 12: An interview with Sienna Craig

This article is part of the series:
Image 1. Photo of Rauner Special Collections library at Dartmouth College, taken from the perspective of Sienna’s favorite table. Photo by Eli Burakian, 2014.

Sienna Craig is a writer and an academic, whose ideas find expression in a variety of creative genre, such as fiction, poetry, and ethnography. I met Sienna while I was doing a postdoc at Dartmouth College, where she teaches, and we became friends. She has been an inspiring role model and a crucial support in giving me the courage to explore experimental modes of writing and to write in my own voice. We met to talk about her newest book The Ends of Kinship, a creative blend of fiction and ethnography, as well as writing across different languages, our mutual love of writing in public spaces, and Sienna’s future projects.

Yana Stainova: Who are you?

Sienna Craig: I consider myself both an anthropologist and a writer. An anthropologist who writes or a writer who’s also an anthropologist, depending on the day.  

YS: When did you first start to write?

SC: As early as I can remember. I come from a family of artists. Visual art is all around me, but words have always been my medium, my chosen form.

YS: Could you tell us a bit about how different art forms interact with your writing?

SC: I am a very visual person. I often write from a particular image: a snapshot from my phone from a moment in fieldwork; a piece of art from one of many contexts that I might have encountered it in. Or it might be a metaphorical image that comes from a piece of poetry, for example. I recently collaborated on a book, Mustang in Black and White, with photographer Kevin Bubriski. The text in that book is all a form of dialogue with his images, and what is and is not seen in them.

YS: I am reminded of another question that is dear to me as a non-native speaker of English who has nevertheless found a home in English. What does speaking another language, specifically the language(s) of the place where you draw your inspiration from and where you conduct your ethnographic research, do to your writing in English? How do those languages interact and influence one another?

SC: This question is at the heart of how I try to write – especially about Nepal or Tibet. Like you, I am multilingual. Although English is my home language, I speak Nepali and a couple of different variants of Tibetan. Language has everything to do with how I find joy in the writing, be it in fictional form, poetry, or ethnography. It is about paying close attention to turns of phrase, to vernacular, and then working with the challenges of how to translate those sensibilities into this proxy language – English. One of the most challenging but also enjoyable parts of drafting of The Ends of Kinship was bringing a full draft of the manuscript back to Mustang, the region in Northern Nepal where my interlocutors are from. Sitting and speaking through the parts of the book with specific people, in whatever language or languages were most relevant to that person. Sometimes it was Tibetan, sometimes it was Nepali, sometimes it was a mix of both, with English thrown in. Basically, this was a process of re-awakening the moment that was being recorded in the book and sitting back and seeing people’s reaction to it. The conversations that ensued helped me either to reaffirm and validate or, in some cases, amend elements of the book as it was initially drafted, toward its final form. I have been thinking a lot about the word fidelity recently, in opposition to an idea of narrative betrayal. Neither of those things is just about the mechanics of translation. Fidelity is about capturing the tone and the sensory nature of some moment that you are trying to do justice to. The idea of betrayal is that you have veered off from what occurred in a co-produced or co-understood kind of way, of what was going on at that moment. To have these conversations also demands a lot of trust, of everyone.

YS: Beautiful. This resonates with me. When doing research for my book Sonorous Worlds about music in Venezuela, my interlocutors described music as an experience going beyond words. Because of this it became very important for me to hold the precise words in Spanish that people were using to describe their feelings about music. They would say “me encanta,” for example, to describe the effect of music on them, a word that contains “cantar” (to sing) but also means to be enchanted by or to love something. This word then became the central theoretical concept of my book. But also it adds to our strength as writers to allow the melodies and syntax of Spanish to infuse our English. I find the concepts of betrayal and fidelity are such a powerful way of describing a relationship to sensory experiences, such as music or the feeling of speaking another language, that are nestled in our fieldwork, and as they try to find their way into words. This brings us to question of genres of writing. Could you say more about your choice of fiction in relation to the question of fidelity and betrayal?

SC: I arrived at fiction for multiple reasons. Part of this decision is ethical. Mustang is a small place and to write about challenging issues, like the racism people might be experiencing or trying to make sense of, intergenerationally, after moving from Mustang to New York City, is very hard to talk about but it’s on the minds of lots of people, especially youth. Illegitimacy is another such issue. These realities might be open secrets within the community, and yet they’re never the kind of thing that I would want to name in a way that was solely ethnographic – even with pseudonyms – because it would be easy for someone to feel identified in new or painful ways, particularly as people move contexts from village Nepal to the village of New York.

Another reason for turning to fiction is creative: it is about aesthetics, imagination, and the kind of work that fiction can do to illuminate social truths. Fiction has nuance and allows for a certain kind of empathy that, to me, can be more difficult to get at in ethnography. Yet, a short story can’t deal in the same way as ethnography with questions of positionality and dynamics of representation – how my relationship to people over a long period of time changes what I know. I think the dynamic between the two is productive. Fiction allows for narrative arc and trajectory, certain forms of closure, a sense of story. In contrast, ethnography is a mosaic, a series of fragments that can illuminate a lot, even as it shows the ultimate and always incomplete nature of knowing. Each genre has different blind spots and presents different possibilities.

YS: I was struck by this as I was reading The Ends of Kinship because I have been thinking about the history of anthropology as a discipline that has shifted from a quest for more objectivity, to the Writing Culture movement, when revealing the positionality of the author surfaced as a way of illuminating the author’s points of access, as well as their blind spots. In your ethnographic nonfiction chapters, I can feel that you are very clearly in the text. I see how you relate to others and I can feel your position in relation to others. Meanwhile, in the fiction chapters it seems like you are a multiplicity, more than just one person. At times it feels disorienting, like being in water. I wonder: Who are you? Where are you? How did you know? Is this shift and the centering and decentering intentional on your part as you paired the fiction and non-fiction chapters?

SC: Thank you for that beautiful description, of the fiction like being in water. Yes, the decentering is very intentional. I want the voices in both the short fiction and the narrative ethnography to be consonant not dissonant, to use another musical metaphor, but also distinct. I want readers to feel my presence in different ways. I think that the opposite of presence in the fiction is not absence, but a sort of reformulation of self. When I dwell on what fiction does here, I think about that line from Whitman[1], about the self containing multitudes. The stories aim to honor and to work with that idea, present in a distinct way in the ethnography, that each person, each character, contains multitudes. Nobody belongs to only one category.  

YS: Could you tell us more about your process of laying out the architecture of the beautifully paired fiction and non-fiction chapters in The Ends of Kinship? Which came first?

SC: I think it’s important to demystify how a book gets written. In my case, as I was starting to formulate 27 years of relationships as a book in my mind, it began with the commitment to the life cycle of human beings, and in that sense, to the idea of samsara (Sanskrit) or khorwa (Tibetan) – cyclic existence. This is the structure through which I wrote. To start with birth was sort of a “no brainer,” and ending with old age, death, and transformation in a Buddhist social context of reincarnation – but also within the idea that we live lifetimes within one human life, especially in contexts of migration – made intuitive sense. Those two sections were anchors from the beginning. It made further sense to me have education and the relationships between parents and children come on the heels of the section on birth and early life. But then with the creation of other sections, it got a little more complicated. Each part of the book emerged from many years of friendship as well as discrete fieldwork projects focused on particular questions, from education-driven outmigration to women’s health, from everyday religion and aging to a sustained interest in the concept of sacred geography in the face of environmental change.

I began by drafting the stories. I wrote from memory. I felt that was important, in part, because of this issue of fidelity. I began with “What can’t I get out of my head? What haven’t I ever forgotten?” Answers to these questions became seeds for stories. A fragment of a person’s narrative that had become so lodged in me, something that distilled and yet opened up complexity, but that I could also imagine my way into. One such moment is that which opens the story “Gods and Demons”. I carry this image-memory of an old man weeding a field. He is a powerful tantrist, and someone who missed his sons terribly. That image – a stooped body in a sea of pink buckwheat flowers – was a door that opened into that story.

I then made an inventory for myself of each of these stories and what issues they raised, in relation to a larger list of things that I felt must be in the book. So, I went from things I could not forget to things that I wanted to remember, if that makes sense. I thought about what work each of these stories was doing, in relation to that list. I then began to think about what other pieces were not present in the stories, and that comparative exercise became a sort of scaffold for next stages of writing. This sat on my screen and was tacked to my office wall, as I then went back and did the work of re-reading, re-coding, re-translating or re-listening to this whole corpus of material that in some cases went back to 1993, when I was 19 and made my first trip to Mustang. Had I not written the stories first, I would have been totally overwhelmed by the volume of material in the notes. But the stories provided an existential mooring for what I could work with from the corpus of field notes and other materials.

YS: This reminds me of something my mother tells me sometimes that if something is so important, you won’t forget it. Of course, that’s not what we’re taught in anthropology, where the idea of taking meticulous notes during fieldwork is really important, because you do forget. Yet, even in the midst of this there are memories that are indelible and those became the columns of your book.

Could you share a little bit about your writing habits. When do you write? How long do you write for? Where do you write?

SC: Until I had my daughter, who is now 16, I was an avid journaler. I wrote in that space every day. Once I had a child, that pretty much fell off the map. For this last decade and a half, I’ve written whenever and however I can. With poetry, I write because the poem presents itself. I have to write it. In a handful of cases, I write a poem because someone asked me to: a task and a gift I try to honor. As long as I’m interested in what I’m writing, it doesn’t take me that long to slip in, to be totally happy and absorbed. That being said, I have found discipline and structure, really, really important. I wrote my last two books mostly on the second floor of our Special Collections Library at Dartmouth. It is a “third space” with these big picture windows looking out at four seasons of the world in northern New England. When I wasn’t teaching, I just blocked off the first three hours of my day. Sometimes that “writing” was reading through fieldnotes, but it was still progress.  

YS: This seems to dispel the stereotype of writing as a process of isolation and seclusion. Can you say more about how the intimate labor of writing transpires in public space for you?

SC: I love writing in public spaces. That’s one of the things that I have missed most of all in this last year: the excising from our existence of the coffee shop and the library. There’s something very useful and beautiful about being surrounded by other humans who are doing whatever it is they’re doing as I’m trying to write. First of all, it reminds me that I’m small, that each of us is small, that whatever struggle I might be having with a sentence or an idea, the person next to me is probably struggling with something else, maybe much bigger than a sentence. Writing in public spaces is a way to remind myself of that human smallness. It helps me to not take myself or what I’m working on too seriously. The white noise helps, and the snippets of conversation help because they keep me observing and they keep me interested. It’s a good reminder of how being observing and interested is necessary to do the memory work of producing good ethnography.

YS: I like the idea that sounds flow through us as we write in silence. I fondly remember running into you in the King Arthur Flour coffee shop (a bakery near Dartmouth). I would often find you there, absorbed in writing, the halo of your computer light around you. I have also done most of my writing, while that was still possible, in coffee shops, where I feel less alone. A fear I sometimes have when approaching a writing task is that I will lose my shape, that my writing will lose its shape or, to be more precise, that my writing will never find its shape. Being in public, I feel myself and my writing more contained by the shapes and energies of others around me. During the pandemic, I have been working at home, replacing writing in public with virtual writing groups with friends.

Where will your writing projects take you next?  

SC: I’m working on a couple of different things. At this point, I think my next book project is something that I see emerging from what Carole McGranahan and Nomi Stone called “flash ethnography.” My 800-word contribution to their collection (which emerged from a workshop) is called “The Forest of (Be)longing.” The piece contemplates how our capacity for longing – desire, wholeness, ambition, a kind of ache – is nestled within belonging. One word is literally contained within the other, and the other is this larger question of what it means to belong: to yourself, to a place, to a group of people. The forest is both literal and metaphoric.   

I imagine my next book as one that includes the different environments where I’ve lived or had the privilege of spending time. Tibetan and Himalayan worlds, and New York, but also California, where I was raised, the Upper Connecticut River Valley, where I’ve lived for the last fourteen years, and New Zealand, where I have been leading Dartmouth study abroad programs, based in Auckland. In each of these places there are kernels of moments and dynamics that make up my own forest of belonging. I see this project as small chapters, taking inspiration from the imperative of writing with concision and detail. It echoes what I appreciate about working with the confines of poetic form – a sonnet for example. I’ve loved writing less and, at the same time, writing more by leaving space.

Image 2. Yana’s home office

Sienna Craig is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Dartmouth College. A medical and cultural anthropologist, her previous books include Healing Elements: Efficacy and the Social Ecologies of Tibetan Medicine (2012), and Horses Like Lightning: A Story of Passage through the Himalaya (2008).

Yana Stainova is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at McMaster University. Her first book Sonorous Worlds: Musical Enchantment in Venezuela studies how young people coming of age in the urban barrios of Caracas use music and stories to push back against the forces of everyday violence, social exclusion, and state repression. 


Notes

[1] From Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” (Leaves of Grass, 1855)


About the series

Writing Life focuses on the craft of writing in the social studies of medicine. Amidst the current challenges to making texts, this series invites scholars in our field to take time to reflect, in conversation with each other, on how to navigate and nurture their craft.

Each post in Writing Life delves into the black boxes of writing life, many exploring the specificities of producing texts about the lives of those entangled in illness, care, pain, diagnosis, experiment, research, suffering, and recovery.  The spirit of the contributions is collaborative – an exploration through dialogue. In crafting the posts, authors also explore a research practice central to our fields – interviewing – and the work and art of transcribing and editing other people’s words.

We continue to openly invite further contributions to the series. Please contact series editors Anna Harris (a.harris@maastrichtuniversity.nl) or Denielle Elliott (dae@yorku.ca) to express interest.



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