Like journalists, academics are used to working with hard evidence, things that can be shown and proven. The concern is that we may be wrong in imagining the lives of others very different from us, that we may impose our own biases and positionalities onto what we imagine as their interior lives.
In the first meeting of the Committee’s seminar this semester we discussed Partha Chatterjee’s piece, “After Subaltern Studies.” The group was particularly interested in discussing his concluding call for detailed ethnographies that can transcend the local and connect with broader modes of inquiry. In this context, I brought up the journalist Katherine’s Boo’s book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, about the scavengers in the Annawadi slums of Mumbai. It is precisely the lack of rich, ethnographic accounts about life on the margins in India that prompted Boo to write her book. The twist is that unlike traditional ethnographers, and even traditional journalists, her account relies heavily on interior monologue. This prompted us to consider the question of the ethics, role, and purpose of interior monologue, or imagining the interior lives of subjects, within accounts of the lives of so-called “subalterns.”
This conversation continued in a different form the following week when we discussed Gaiutra Bahadur’s book Coolie Woman. Bahadur, a Guyanese-American writer, traces the passage of her grand-grandmother, an indentured laborer who was a single, pregnant woman when she came on the ships from India to Guyana. Bahadur’s journey to the archives and her ancestral village in India turns up little in the way of details about her great-grandmother’s life. But Bahadur’s relentless questions about that life and the lives of countless other indentured women drive the narrative, and help Bahadur and the reader to build a sense of interiority for these women through the space of imagination. For instance, in the section entitled “Her Middle Passage,” Bahadur (p 65) imagines the delivery of her grandfather onboard the ship through a series of questions: “Might she have felt the full weight of her aloneness at the very moment she arrived? Did her milk come easily, or did the premature birth interfere, as it often does? And her affections for the baby – did they come easily, or was there an unsettling flatness of feeling?” The rich descriptiveness of the questions suggests ways that we might imagine this experience that is not available to us in other ways.
While Bahadur bases her questions on exhaustive research in the archives, Boo arrives at the interior monologues in her text through careful interviewing and ethnography carried out over four years in the slums. She says that all of the thoughts described were actually relayed to her and her translators (she does not speak Marati) in repeated conversations and fact-checking interviews. Boo (p 250) explains her reason for reconstructing their thoughts rather than relying on interview quotes: “Although I was mindful of the risk of over interpretation, it felt more distortive to devote my attention to the handful of Annawadians who possessed a verbal dexterity that might have provided more colorful quotes. Among overworked people, many of whom spent the bulk of their days working silently with waste, everyday language tended to be transactional. It did not immediately convey the deep, idiosyncratic intelligences that emerged forcefully over the course of nearly four years.”
The Boo quote can alert our attention to the inadequacies of what is verbally stated in interviews, much as Bahadur must navigate the silences in the archives. But filling those holes with our own imagined thoughts has been seen as problematic in academia, as some in our seminar remarked. Like journalists, academics are used to working with hard evidence, things that can be shown and proven. The concern is that we may be wrong in imagining the lives of others very different from us, that we may impose our own biases and positionalities onto what we imagine as their interior lives. But embracing, while moving beyond, this concern can provide the chance for new directions in research and writing that do take risks, but can also lead to the kind of deeper truths that fiction often reveals so beautifully.