“The 846 men who comprise this far-flung army live a life of almost constant adventure.”
–from Halt: A Story of the Border Patrol by Col. Daniel MacCormack
With the summer coming to an end, I realize that I could easily spend another three months on my research project and not have many firm conclusions to offer. So with this concluding post, I have decided to focus instead on two small points I have found most interesting in my reading and fieldwork.
1. The “thrill” of the U.S. Mexico border:
Both fiction and non-fiction stories of the border inevitably center on encounters between law enforcement and those (suspected of) breaking the law. The climaxes of these stories are almost always the greatest acts of violence or scandal. (The films “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” and “The Border” are exemplary.) Consequently, such stories paint a picture of the border as a space of oblivion where anything is possible and nothing is safe. The reader ultimately comes away with a profound sense of disorder and absurdity.
However, the daily experiences of those who actually patrol the border are most often rather mundane and unglamorous. Boring, even.
During the month of August I conducted fieldwork with a well-established humanitarian aid group on the border. The group’s core mission is to prevent migrant deaths by leaving water at strategic points along migrant trails. They make daily trips out to the desert and meet once a week to evaluate their progress.
Before volunteers can go on trips, they must attend an orientation class during which they learn the intricacies of participating within the purview of the law. At the orientation I went to, there were around twenty people. There was a general air of excitement, sadness, and anger. People wanted to take action. In the end though, only a handful of those who attended ended up going on a trip or attending a meeting.
During one of the meetings, there was a lengthy discussion about the low retention rate for new volunteers. Many group members believed that the main reason why new recruits leave is because they are in it for the action and adventure. When recruits go on a trip and do not see anybody, they are often disappointed. They feel as if they are wasting their time.
On the other hand, those who stay with the group have to be satisfied with driving four to five hours per trip, hauling gallons of water down trails, not finding anyone, and never really knowing whether what they are doing is effective. While you can tell if a jug has been drained, it is difficult to tell if it was drained by someone who needed it. A water jug could have been drained just as easily by a cow, bird, or vandal.
During the five trips that I went on, we did not encounter a single migrant. This did not come as a surprise. I talked with volunteers who had been active for several years but could count on one hand their encounters with migrants. As one of the long-time members has told me repeatedly, not seeing anyone is a “good thing.” Volunteers only see migrants when they are desperate for help.
So, is the border absurd and violent? Yes. But the daily experience of patrolling is less than action-packed. Those who patrol the border cannot be in it only for the adventure. This is true for Border Patrol agents and civilian border patrol groups as well, as evidenced by the ethnographic works of Josiah Heyman, Robert Lee Maril, and Harel Shapira.
2. Fiction ≠ storytelling, but many anthropologists seem to think so:
A good chunk of my research involved reading essays, novels, and short stories about the practice of ethnography, fiction writing, and the ill-defined genre of the “ethnographic novel.” While reading each author, I would ask these main questions:
- Why are you writing the way you are writing? (In other words, what has made this author decide to write an ethnography or a work of fiction?)
- How are you going about writing what you are writing? (In other words, what is the relationship between research and imagination here?)
- Is this method of writing culture effective?
What I repeatedly found was that anthropologists were choosing to write fiction because they wanted to tell stories, and that these stories were not effectively told as fiction because they could just as easily have been told as non-fiction essays. In too many anthologies on “literature and anthropology,” there are multiple entries by anthropologists who have written “fictional” stories directly based on fieldwork. In an essay following the story, the anthropologist will explain how their research provided the groundwork, but that the story could not be told dramatically in an ethnography. For instance, in an essay on his novel Jaguar, anthropologist Paul Stoller says that ethnography “muffles the drama of social life” and that fiction puts this drama in the foreground. Such a statement feels false to me–or at least an overstatement. This summer I read narrative ethnographies that represented the “drama” of social life as prominently as any novel I’ve read. One particular stand-out was Robert Lee Maril’s Patrolling Chaos, an ethnography of the Border Patrol in Deep South Texas.
There are many other reasons why anthropologists decide to tell their stories through fiction, not the least of which is historical convention. Fiction, which can deal heavily in emotion, subjectivity, and reflexivity, has not always been respected as a rigorous representation of culture within the field of anthropology. In the past, anthropologists like Laura Bohannan have even been compelled to publish fiction under pseudonyms.
But: the unique thing about fiction is not its potential for storytelling, emotion, or reflexivity–these are all possibilities in non-fiction. Rather, fiction is an opportunity to use imagination. And I think this opportunity for imagination is squandered when authors write fiction that is merely meant to “dramatize” observed reality. If an author decides to write about culture through fiction, I think the author should exploit the form as much as possible. Tell a truth that can only be told through imagination.
On a final note, to maintain some continuity with the first post: I am happy to report a finished first draft of the novella. It has a beginning, middle, and end! You can read it straight through and not be utterly confused! Still, I anticipate many more drafts to come before I present it to other people or talk about it in a public way. This is for everyone’s good, trust me.