My summer project really started in my Short Fiction I class last fall, when I read a Paris Review interview with Kurt Vonnegut. As someone who had recently—and tentatively—declared a major in anthropology and a minor in creative writing, I was intrigued to find that an author I admired had similar interests. Vonnegut went to the University of Chicago for his master’s degree in anthropology, but he eventually dropped out because he was broke and his ideas for a dissertation had been rejected. Twenty years later, the anthropology department accepted Vonnegut’s science fiction novel, Cat’s Cradle, as his dissertation. I found this story both ludicrous and inspiring. I thought: that’s the kind of thesis I want to write, something that explores culture through imaginative fiction. But even though I knew the way I wanted to write, I still didn’t have a subject to write about.
More inspiration came in December, when I read a gonzo-style article by Damon Tabor in Rolling Stone: “Border of Madness: Crossing the Line with Arizona’s Anti-Immigration Vigilantes.” Having thought that the Minutemen had all but died out, I was surprised to read that there were still groups of citizens patrolling the U.S.-Mexico Border. I became completely fascinated by these groups, and during winter break I spent some time researching organizations like them.
During the spring semester, I wrote a research paper on citizen border patrol groups for my Topographies of Violence class. In my Longer Fictional Forms class, I wrote the first half of a novella that features an anthropologist and a fictional citizen border patrol group. This summer, thanks to the Humanities Center, I am home in Arizona doing research I was unable to do last semester and working towards a finished draft of the novella.
In my research, I have mainly been doing two different things. Firstly, I have been reading theoretical texts that broadly compare methods of “writing culture” in fiction and ethnography, such as Margery Wolf’s Thrice Told Tale. Ethnography is the standard genre for writing anthropology, and it involves qualitative analysis based on “participant-observation” fieldwork. (Depending on the kind of fieldwork, an anthropologist will “participate” in a culture and “observe” its participants in different ways.) By researching ethnographic and fictional representations of culture, I aim to gain a better understanding of the specific details of lived experience written as culture and how those details may be written to represent different truths to different audiences. In order to ground these theoretical musings, I am focusing particularly on fictional and ethnographic works about groups which patrol the U.S.-Mexico border: the Border Patrol, citizen border patrol groups, and humanitarian aid organizations. My questions concerning border patrols are related to those concerning the disciplinary border between ethnography and fiction. For instance, in what ways are both borders productive, destructive, violated, and constructed? Ultimately, while reading each author, I ask 1) “why are you writing about your subject this way?” and 2) “how do you do it?”
I have spent the better part of the summer doing this kind of text-based research, and I have only begun to dig-in again with writing the novella these past few weeks. During this next month, I will be conducting my own fieldwork by volunteering with a humanitarian aid organization and, hopefully, visiting the Border Patrol station in Yuma. With some luck, I might also have a full draft of the novella.
Thank you for reading! I’ll be posting at least one more time before the summer is over.