Return journey into the interior

Times Higher Education
Anthropology review: Return to Nisa

A more appropriate title for Marjorie Shostack’s Return to Nisa might be Return to Marjorie Shostack . The American anthropologist and photographer here returns to Botswana and her earlier, well-known ethnography Nisa: the Life and Words of a !Kung Woman (1981), yet by the end of the book we know little more about Nisa and her changing life in the Kalahari, while we gain a far deeper understanding of Shostack herself.

After being diagnosed with breast cancer and having undergone a mastectomy, Shostack revisits Dobe after 14 years. She acknowledges that she is on a “personal quest” and this sets the tone of the book. We are presented with the story of a woman and a mother, suffering a terrible and life-threatening disease, who seeks healing, hope and understanding among another people far from home. In her first book, Shostack was concerned to maintain Nisa’s anonymity by agreeing a pseudonym and never publishing explicitly identified photographs. Yet the second book features a portrait of Nisa on the cover, and a photograph of her with the author on the sleeve. No explanation is given for the waiving of the informant’s anonymity, which does not sit comfortably with the concern Shostack expressed for the ethical dimensions of fieldwork.

One problem with Shostack’s earlier book was her tendency to romanticise the !Kung, understating the extent of their contact with both their Bantu neighbours and Europeans and emphasising the unique and ancient aspects of their cultural heritage. It is hardly surprisingly that on her second visit, Shostack’s romantic vision of the !Kung again takes hold.

Visiting one of the “modern” villages, Shostack mentions the traditional !Kung huts that are now a symbol of impoverishment to the !Kung themselves, but to Shostack “they represented a past that, despite its problems, had had integrity and dignity”.

On another occasion Shostack arranges “to take a group of people to the bush as we had done in the old days” so that they might hunt and gather and sleep out under the stars, recreating an imaginary prelapsarian past.

Before leaving Nisa for the last time, there is a telling episode in which Shostack asks her to speak a greeting into the Dictaphone for Shostack’s daughter, Nisa’s namesake. When Shostack hears Nisa’s salutation, which contains nothing but demands for gifts and requests for material goods, “the protective mother stomped all over the anthropologist’s measured cool”. She erases the message. Here, as elsewhere in the book, her need to escape from her own world and responsibilities, to find sympathy and companionship among the !Kung, dominates. As a result, the ethnographic gaze suffers, indeed one would be hard pushed to find anything resembling anthropological analysis in this book. In its place, Shostack writes a moving and absorbing travelogue about her attempt to deal with the realisation of her own mortality. There is some wonderful description that draws the reader into the story and a compulsive emotional honesty that enfolds the reader, inspiring empathy.

Shostack’s greatest failing is her inability to recognise the limitations of the ethnographer-informant relationship. She seeks “friendship and shared intimacies” with Nisa and the !Kung. But as affluent and powerful outsiders, anthropologists are never on an equal footing with their subjects. Shostack seeks to deny this dynamic. In Return to Nisa , there is description without insight. We learn much about Shostack – about her motives, her feelings and the effects of life-threatening disease on sufferers and their families – made all the more poignant by her death from cancer in 1996. Her description is beautiful and evocative, and her photographic illustrations as stunning as would be expected from an award-winning photographer -but as anthropology, her second book is flawed and of interest only as an appendix to Nisa.