Post #109 – Women’s Memoirs, Book & Video Raves – Matilda Butler
Reviewed by Lanie Tankard
“One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.”
—Jane Austen (Emma)
Anthropologist Elizabeth Enslin studied the women of Nepal. Then she reversed her approach and took field notes on her own life. When she entwined it all, an ethnographic memoir emerged: While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal.
As she recounts her experiences living in the remote village of Gunjanagar during the 1980s, Enslin pauses from time to time to retrieve memories from her childhood in Seattle as well as her years at Stanford University.
It was in Palo Alto at “The Farm,” as Stanford is nicknamed, that Enslin fell in love with another graduate student who was in international development education. He was a Brahman born on the plains of Nepal in the Chitwan Valley. And that was where they went to live when they married, as both worked on their dissertations.
Enslin gave birth to a son there and, as is the custom, the whole village helped raise him. In a recent article, “Six Material Things I Didn’t Need To Raise a Child,” she discusses the ramifications of that practice. In Nepal, Enslin turned her feminist sensibilities to the developing world as she wrote down her encounters with women in her own household, in the literacy class she worked with, in group meetings, in labor, in cooking, in castes, in solidarity, and in opposition.
Her wry humor and keen observation skills come through in well-expressed prose. Describing police scrutiny near a border, Enslin writes: “I smiled at them in a way I imagined a tourist with no political thoughts might smile at police in an authoritarian state.”
Details of her pregnancy, labor, and birth there are poignant. Reading Jane Austen got her through the pregnancy living in a loft above two water buffaloes. Before her difficult labor began, she and her husband scrubbed every inch of the area with antiseptic. She writes: “Yet when nature meets culture, I now understand, soap, family meetings, and dreams get you only so far.”
Even though Enslin was working on a PhD rather than a MD, villagers heard the word doctor and assumed because she was from “Amrika” she would certainly know how to heal their sores and fevers. Enslin knew “compassion, soap, and water” could never eliminate the poverty and social inequality that had caused these conditions, though.
Her mother-in-law tells her, “Sometimes women just need to share their problems. Listen to them.” Enslin begins to notice the songs this wise women, her “Aama,”was singing. They were this Nepali mother’s own unique memoir, even though she couldn’t read or write. Enslin and several of her Brahman relatives start coaxing the poems out and transcribe the songs.
Enslin’s memoir contains much about writing, storytelling, and remembering. She notes how the semantics of the word development (which originally meant growth, evolution, and maturity) has morphed into the connotation of growth evaluated through an economic lens—in other words, “more American, more European, more Western.” And thus, tradition is considered a hindrance.
Elizabeth Enslin now lives on a farm in Oregon where she’s building a strawbale house. She serves on the governing board of Fishtrap: Writing & the West.
In a 1994 issue of the journal Cultural Anthropology, she published an essay titled “Beyond Writing: Feminist Practice and the Limitations of Ethnography.” Ravina Aggarwal of the Ford Foundation has noted the article’s usefulness because “it’s really critical of this ‘savior’ conception in Western feminism.” In a 2012 interview when Cultural Anthropology republished the paper, Enslin stated that anthropology had given her “great tools for being attentive.”
Likely that’s why, even though the back cover of her memoir categorizes it as “Travel Literature,” one finds inside such topics as income generation by women, the power of land ownership and titles, the difficulty of being an introvert in an extroverted culture, inheritance, domestic violence and equality of power within a family, how caste comes into the picture, literacy, dowry deaths, denial of food and medical care to a woman who gives birth to a girl instead of a boy (not being allowed to bathe or wear clean clothes for eleven days)….
I view While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal as a provocative medley of images captured from various time periods in one woman’s life as she interacted with her sisters in another culture, reviewed her own upbringing, and attempted deeper insights from them all.
One brief Nepali phrase from Enslin’s memoir might just sum up the whole book:
And that means:
“We are all one.”
Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville and taught English as a Second Language in Micronesia.