Lectures

Writing Life No. 17: An Interview with Stacy Leigh Pigg

This article is part of the series:
Image 1: The desk where Stacy writes when she is actually at a desk.

Have you ever taken a walk inside your article?

Can you conceive of a piece of writing as a three-dimensional space?

Can we think of ethnographic expression beyond the question of ‘what’s the larger argument?’

It was an unusual summer day when New Delhi and Vancouver both recorded an identical temperature of 45 degree Celsius. During our respective evening and morning, Stacy Leigh Pigg and I met over zoom to talk about writing, broadly. The conversation took us to an old and powerful dream, to the thrills as well as disappointments that accompany writing, to editing processes that don’t rely on the computer, and to the potential of comics and graphic ethnography and what they may bring to anthropology. The questions above are some of the ideas I was left thinking over after our conversation. There are many more to think with as one encounters Stacy Leigh Pigg’s reflections on writing that span over thirty years.   

Aarushie Sharma: I had the pleasure of teaching your article “Inventing Social Categories through Place: Social Representations and Development in Nepal” (1992) to my students at the University of Delhi. This article was immensely popular among the students who would also encounter the use of comic strips in an academic text, leading to the story having a different impact altogether. Thinking along this reception of your writing, I am eager to know about your experience of writing and how that experience has changed over the years.

Stacy Leigh Pigg: Thank you. I love getting that feedback because that was the first academic paper I ever wrote. That article took time to find its audience, but it’s had a long life. If you ask about my experience of writing, I have to say that I really struggle with it. Unlike people who talk about what a pleasure it is to write, for me it’s an exercise that is anxiety laden as I often struggle to find the words for what I am trying to say. But I’d like to go back to the article you mentioned. One reason why it affects readers the way it does is because when I began writing that article I wasn’t thinking about theory, or making an academic argument, or building a conversation with specific literature. I was really just thinking about processing experiences from my ethnographic fieldwork. It started with a hunch, like there is this thing I want to say, I don’t even know yet what it is but eventually it will come out. What followed was a long process of thinking through that hunch, and then crafting a way to get other people to see my perception. The backstory was that during my initial fieldwork in Nepal I had realized that people were not especially interested in talking to me about what I had thought I’d be looking at, which was illness narratives and healing. Instead, I became a lightning rod for people’s commentaries on tradition and development. As it turned out, I had a lot of this material recorded in my fieldnotes, but I had this fear of writing the dissertation. That’s when one of my advisors (Davydd Greenwood) told me to start with the thing that I just cannot get out of my head. I followed his advice and started with writing just fragments, and built up from there. That’s how this article came into being. Now, because I am currently working with the medium of graphic novels, I have realized that I think much more in terms of shapes and movements than in actual words. That is one reason why writing is often hard for me. The insight that I have, or even the way I understand theoretical arguments, comes to me first as shapes and movements. I think of a piece of writing as a space – as something that has volume and shape.

AS: I am intrigued by the idea of visualizing a piece of writing as a space. How did you come to imagine and approach writing this way?

SLP: This idea came to me in a dream when I was writing my dissertation and it’s really the most powerful tool that has carried me through my academic career. In the dream, I was in this big Victorian mansion with rooms, staircases, windows and passageways, but the house kept changing size and shape. I’d walk through the doorway from one room into another but on return it would no longer connect to the room that it used to connect to. Staircases and windows would appear and disappear. Rooms changed size. This was frightening at first, but as the dream went on and I wandered around in the space, I became more comfortable with it. I realized that even though I couldn’t count on a staircase to always take me to the same hallway, somehow the house itself was stable. I also realized that there was actually something very beautiful about the fact that these different rooms, hallways, stairs and attics were all integrated and connected. I could trust the connection even though it didn’t have a fixed form. That’s the point where I realized that my job as a writer is to wander around in spaces similar to this house. Yes, it’s going to be confusing and uncomfortable, but that’s the space of the thing that I’m creating. This dream still keeps me going on days I’m struggling with writing.

In the last few years, I’ve been coming back to the heart of the dream and seeing a piece of writing as something that’s spatial and volumetric – a three-dimensional shape that you can look at from different sides, evaluate which side is bigger or smaller, and rearrange. In fact, in my role of an editor, when I look at the submissions that I have received and try to ascertain what kinds of suggestions will be most helpful to authors, I try and think of a written piece as a shape with divisions within it, and imagine what shape it is, whether it needs to be a different shape, or whether some parts just need to be bigger or smaller. I feel as a writer you are taking a reader by the hand and giving them a tour. Someday, the tour might begin somewhere, on other days somewhere else, but one way or another you are leading people through a space and calling their attention to something you find meaningful. There are, of course, genre criteria that demand you substantiate your claims, explain, persuade and convince, but at the heart of it you are trying to help other people see something that you see and perceive. And wherever that comes from, whether from your theoretical reading, whether from your fieldwork, whether from the strange way your own mind works, your writing is a relationship to other people’s understandings.

AS: You’ve so beautifully expressed writing as a relationship. I am curious to know about your relationship with the spaces you like to write in/on. Do you think the experience of writing shifts when one moves between longhand writing on paper and typing on word processors?

SLP: I definitely prefer to take notes by hand. I find it very difficult to write out my thoughts in straight lines; typing an outline has never really worked for me. I always feel that I am most at ease when I can write things in all kinds of directions that are loosely connected by arrow markings. My notes in my field notebooks often have layers marked with different colored pens and sticky notes on top of sticky notes. I also play around with editing by using spaces and touchable things instead of the computer. In fact, when I get to a certain point in writing something, or I am really stuck, or I need to produce a completely new draft that involves some rethinking, I print out the stuff that I have typed up, take a pair of scissors and cut it apart sentence by sentence or even clause by clause. I then go to this big shared room in my apartment building and paste these fragments on different walls of the room to re-think the order and see the clusters of ideas. Then, I re-sort the ideas using the four walls of the room as the space of the piece of writing. I move the pieces around using tape and sticky notes to mark the connecting points. This way, I am forced to actually walk between the different parts of my arguments or the parts that I am thinking of. Instead of doing this on the computer, where you cut and paste a paragraph and move it up or down in virtual space, I totally dismantle the previous version as a physical object. Finally, I take down the pieces from the wall and tape them onto clean sheets of paper, set it on my little stand by the desk, and start writing the next version using the reconstructed fragments as the new outline. I also sometimes try to teach my students how we used to do things in writing and revising before the computers and word processors.

Image 2: Stacy’s cohousing community gives her access to a large shared room where she can deconstruct and reconstruct her drafts.

AS: I see the dream in action now! Just as you were walking through a moving house marveling at different connections, I see how you are walking through your article, that has been spatialized in a unique way, to find new routes and connections around it. Rewriting can be a daunting task and so often one is staring into a computer screen, not feeling sure of where to start revising from, or how much to change, and what to leave strictly unaltered. I feel you are showing us a way around this process that is taking the ‘re’ in revising and rewriting very seriously.

SLP: I feel that looking at screens constrains us from really being able to rethink the shape or the structure of the article or to find alternative pathways through the same material. We’re well trained enough to trust ourselves to have a sense of logic, flow, continuity and transitions, but I feel we get weighed down by the previous versions of the structure. This leads to endless tinkering of going back, changing a word here, moving a sentence there, which doesn’t really lead to effective re-writing. For me, I find there’s something sort of stultifying about doing this on a word document, I just always run out of steam. In summers, I have tried to pack my portable lightweight chair, a clipboard, notebooks, pens, and a thermos of coffee and go out on my bicycle to ride for a while and think about a piece I had to write. I’d make stops to write a bunch of words and then get back on my bike. A lot of people do that with walking. I have come to realize that I found the idea of not leaving your chair till you are done overwhelming, especially as, many a times, my experience of writing was basically feeling stuck. I feel I am now embracing who I really am and finding new ways to go about my writing. Often, I take a notebook with me and just go lay down with my cat and drift into half-sleep. If something comes together through the thoughts running in my head, I scribble it down. Sometimes, it’s almost by doing nothing that the best ideas come to you.

AS: I have to say that when one reads your brilliant articles, nothing at all betrays a sense of these trials and tribulations with writing. I am, thus, very grateful to you for sharing these reflections that are honest in their acknowledgement of writing as not always being a pleasant process, but also inspiring in their zeal to find new ways to make this process less stressful and more meaningful. You have also been experimenting with ethnographic writing by working on a graphic novel. How did an interest in graphic ethnography come about?

SLP: Well, the whole graphic ethnography sort of started for me with the writer’s block as well. I was trying to write about knowledge and evidence around contraceptives while doing a project on Depo Provera, an injectable contraceptive, in Nepal and India. And I just could not make it work because there was a sense that everything there is to say about the contraceptive and family planning has probably already been said. A lot of important things had already been written from different perspectives and by legendary scholars. Every time I tried to put together the stuff I wanted to say, I’d get bogged down in these histories or backgrounds or arguments that had come before. So, one day, when I was really frustrated with not being able to fight my way out of these traps, it suddenly hit me that if I could do this in comics, I’ll be able to move between different points of view, diverse political and geographical locations, different historical periods, and that too in simultaneity. While I was struggling to conceptualize this in linear prose, I could imagine the juxtaposition of scenes in a graphic novel format. Turning this vision into reality was, however, much harder. I had a concussion that left me disabled for months. It was during my recovery time, when I still couldn’t do much but lay on my bed and think, that I decided to go ahead with graphic ethnography. While the script on the contraceptive didn’t materialize, another topic came about through collaborations with a Nepali anthropologist and visual artists that was looking at the politics of road building in the mountains of Nepal.[1] Currently, the scripting for this project is in process, and we are all learning as we go along. I have also wanted to turn anthropological classics into graphic novels, and did some experimentation to that end. It’s a project that I am definitely hoping to do in the future.

AS: How do you conceive of the difference between graphic ethnography and an ethnography that is more textual and narrative? What all does the graphics medium call attention to that one doesn’t necessarily think about in writing prose?

SLP: For me, the most liberating thing about working on graphic ethnography is that it’s a project that allows for non-argument driven ethnographic expression. It’s a medium where the theory stuff is not explicated. It can be embedded in the structure or the shape itself. In fact, what makes comics work as a medium is being very bare as the golden rule is ‘less is more.’ I, thus, find it a very different and hard kind of writing as my proclivity as an ethnographer, writer, and thinker is to be very baroque, detailed and excessive! I feel that I am so overtrained as an academic that I can write pretty compellingly about the concept behind the graphic novel but when it comes to actually scripting a character, or finding its rhythm or arc, I am having to learn an entirely new way to think and write. For instance, in narrative writing you don’t really think about how long the sentence is or what the sound of the words is like, but these are factors critical to the visual effectiveness of comics. Similarly, the placement of the idea or statement on the page is an important factor. When writing a descriptive account on word document, one rarely bothers with how the draft will look when it’s typeset, or how a certain page may appear, or whether a particular sentence will fall at the bottom of the right-hand page, etc. But in comics, where the statement is placed on the page really matters. One has to think on the lines of how the readers will move across the page, what they’ll see on the left-hand side, the right-hand side and in the corners when they turn a page. In fact, a quintessential question in writing comics is – where’s the beat before this page is turned! Even though I am a complete novice at this, working on the comics has increased my sense of space and temporality in writing. So now even when I read more conventional academic papers, I am often thinking in terms of spaces on the page and asking where’s the beat at the end of this section.

AS: What does the graphics medium bring to anthropology? What possibilities open up for creating and representing ethnographic knowledge through this medium? Do you think it will have an impact on the accessibility of ethnographic knowledge – not just within but also beyond academia? I am asking this question as I am personally interested in exploring how multimodal methods, such as ethnographic film, may allow for varied possibilities of participation in the making as well as reception of these projects. 

SLP: The appeal of accessibility is there for sure but the thing that is driving me the most is less accessibility per se and more a sort of interpretive ambiguity and interpretive depth. This is also always there with prose but there’s something about the visuals that exceed the capacity of words. The engagement is more multisensory, even if it is visuals that we are talking about, as they draw attention to body language, expression, tonality, and these are elements that are so powerful when you’re doing your fieldwork. There is also an open-endedness with comics that calls upon the reader to provide the logic of the narrative, the element that makes two panels seem to be connected. Comic theorists call this “closure” and say it is an effect that creates a different kind of engagement with the text. Further, I am also drawn to the way comics turn space into time. There can be five days or half a second passing between two panels. To be able to play with this experience is exciting. At the heart of it, I feel this medium allows for ethnographic expression that is not necessarily argument driven. I am noticing that this is a moment in anthropology where a lot of people are thinking in new ways about expression, and what makes certain kinds of expression anthropological or ethnographic. We’ll see where this trend heads, but I think I’m not the only person who’s hearing a certain kind of exhaustion or failure of argumentation. Not that I don’t appreciate argument, but I’ve always seen anthropology as more of a creative expressive modality that happens through a forefront of theory and argumentation, than as an explanatory kind of project that ends with definitive assertions.

Image 3: Aarushie’s desk at her family home in Delhi, facing a mango tree that often competed with the laptop for attention. Now having relocated to Toronto, as she sets up the study at her new place, it’s the distraction of the mango tree that she misses the most

Aarushie Sharma is a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at York University. She earlier worked as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Hindu College, University of Delhi. She is interested in the study of toilet politics and the infrastructure of sewage. Her previous work on the topic has appeared in Economic & Political Weekly and Conversations in Development Studies. Her other areas of interest include ethnographic film and multimodal ethnography. Twitter: @aarushiesharma

Stacy Leigh Pigg is Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Simon Fraser University. Her research explores the global interconnections and uneven translations set in motion by science, medicine, and development expertise. She is also experimenting with the ethnographic form by exploring the potentialities of the comics medium as both a means to convey the stories ethnographers encounter in their research and as a theoretically-informed provocation to see contemporary social problems otherwise. She is currently editor (with Michael Hathaway) of American Ethnologist. Twitter: @StacyLeighPigg


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, 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.

The first installment of the series appeared weekly in Somatosphere from early December 2020 and the second from June 2021. 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 in contributing to series 3.

Notes

[1] For preliminary work on this project, see:

Pigg, Stacy Leigh, and Shyam Kunwar. 2021. “On the Roadside: Pangs of Memory, Tastes of Futures.” Multimodality & Society 1, no. 3: 350–65. https://doi.org/10.1177/26349795211028731.

Pigg, Stacy Leigh. 2019. “The Penstocks.” Roadsides 2: 5-13. DOI: https://doi. org/10.26034/roadsides-20190022.


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