Literature, nonfiction, self-help, psychology, psychiatry … these are just a few of the fields that help people answer the question, who am I? And, sometimes, who is that person next to me?
I read a wonderful study once on the concept of self. Dorinne Kondo looked at how people in one culture, in this case Japan, think about themselves as individuals. While it may seem like a pretty basic thing, the way we humans define ourselves varies across cultures.
I’ve seen people place a hand over their heart when talking about themselves and feelings that they hold dear. Would you consider putting your hand on your forehead when saying the same things? People in some cultures would. That’s the anthropologist in me talking.
But anthropology isn’t the only way to think about how people define themselves. Fiction is another great way to explore this idea. Sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. In ONE MONTH, a man must figure out who he really is. And figure out what that means to him. In the end, the fact that he was made by another man – and can be re-made by that other man – leads him to a dangerous conclusion.
But I won’t say any more about that, hopefully you’ll be able to read the book soon.
I love exploring questions like this in my writing. My stories are fun – ONE MONTH is a thriller about a man who discovers he’s really a robot, and about to die in one month. Not high literature, perhaps. But an entertaining story that builds on some of the concepts about humanity and culture that have fascinated me for so long.
That’s exactly how I enjoy my fiction – a good dose of entertainment that includes something that makes me stop and think. And remember it after the story ends.
England has a number of national parks, each with its own character and experience on offer. I had the great pleasure of traipsing through the Yorkshire Dales National Park last week. Beautiful!
We walked through sheep fields, crossed over stone walls, climbed hills and walked alongside waterfalls. The diversity of the landscape within this area is amazing. Each day’s walk was different than the one before it, each view breathtaking in its own way (sometimes literally – there are a lot of hills!).
I know that each nation chooses to create national parks in those places that people decide are the most beautiful, most important, or most in need of preservation. Sometimes these are places of great natural beauty. Sometimes they’re places of significant historical moments.
I haven’t hit every national park in the US, though I know some people who have. But I’m already creating a list of the other national parks in the UK I want to visit. I like to get to know a country by visiting its cities, getting to know its people. My current draft novel, Deadly Memories, takes place in Warsaw because when I lived in Poland I chose to live in the city.
But I also believe that you can learn something about a country by visiting its countryside, standing on a dale and breathing in the air (including some of the interesting smells that float upon it). So I visited, I rambled, I breathed. And I truly enjoyed it.
Man, that makes me so angry!
Yep, that’s something I say a lot. It could be in reference to anything from a political statement I don’t support to a disrespectful comment by a coworker to a TV commercial that I think is not even remotely funny. Most of the time I’m not really angry when I say it. It’s an expression I use.
I suspect that a lot of us talk about emotions we don’t really feel. Or struggle with expressing emotions we really do feel (who else is thinking about those quick “love you’s” tacked on to the end of phone conversations?).
One of my favorite ethnographies while I was in graduate school was Never in Anger by Jean Briggs. There’s a great re-cap and you can listen to parts of it here:
Anthropologist Jean Briggs lived with an Inuit family during the early 1960s, when she was doing research and writing about them for her doctoral thesis. When she got "angry", they treated her as a child, because they thought that "anger" was an infantile emotion, something never expressed by Inuit adults. This experience led to many more years of research on the emotions and ideas by which Inuit lived, and how they learned and taught them.
Emotions are culturally constructed, just like food and clothing. What’s right, wrong, hip, hot, uncool (kind of like my 70s lingo).
Emotions are also a fascinating subject when it comes to robotics, and particularly SciFi.
Roboticists are working on robots that can demonstrate human emotions (through their physical stance or even through their facial expressions).
In SciFi, robots really do feel emotions. Writers have used this construct as a tool to expose how human emotions affect our choices and actions – sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse (think 2001: A Space Odyssey or I, Robot (the original and the movie both touch on this)).
Here’s a great review (from 2011) about robots and emotions, SciFi to reality.
In ONE MONTH, a robot’s emotions help make him more human. Which in turn helps him realize just how not-human he really is.
I love reading books that make me really wonder “what if” … what if I lived among those Eskimos, who would I be? What if we really could live without emotions, a la Spock? And what if people loved reading about a robot whose emotional rollercoaster ride forced him to determine what being human meant to him?
The United States is in the midst of the sesquicentennial of the civil war. As someone interested in history, I’ve been following the various events, activities, and controversies surrounding this. One article I read recently explained that we cannot use our values to judge the actions of those in the past. That’s a perspective you hear a lot when looking into difficult subjects from the past.
I’m working on a book now that’s set in a place and time where people are actively looking into the past and judging others based on what they find. And while the book is fiction, the setting is based on fact – the book takes place in Warsaw in the late 1990s, when lustration was in full force.
Anthropologists take great care to always respect the people they are studying. The Ethics Code of the American Anthropological Association states:
“Anthropological researchers have primary ethical obligations to the people, species, and materials they study and to the people with whom they work. … In conducting and publishing their research, or otherwise disseminating their research results, anthropological researchers must ensure that they do not harm the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people with whom they work, conduct research, or perform other professional activities, or who might reasonably be thought to be affected by their research.”
The American Anthropological Association comes to this point after years of considering and working with some tricky situations. How does an anthropologist conduct fieldwork with drug users in Los Angeles? Or in a culture in which consumption of one’s enemies is believed to benefit society as a whole? Tricky situations indeed.
I recently read and enjoyed Ruth Rendell’s book, The Monster in the Box. In this story, Hannah Goldsmith, a young detective, struggles between her opinions as a feminist and her strong belief in the value of multiculturalism when she is faced with a Muslim family she thinks might be mistreating their daughter. Hannah is not the main character, but her struggle provides an interesting subplot that also keeps the story moving forward.
Fiction is a great venue for exploring questions like this – authors can create characters and put them in difficult situations, just to see how they work their way out of it. Something anthropologists can not do!
In college, I volunteered at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I haven’t had the opportunity to go back in many years, but I recently read about the new Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins. I haven’t seen the hall yet, but what a great website! I’m looking forward to seeing the exhibit.
The subject of evolution seems to come up a lot in the news. From Texas to Tennessee, courts and political leaders have been confronting the topic for years.
We still have much to learn about evolution. When I was in graduate school, scholars had finally put to rest the long-lasting debate of whether or not all humans could be traced back to ancestors from Africa. In the years since, I’ve read about new and fascinating discoveries such as Ardipithecus kadabba or Homo floresiensis.
Yet even as we continue to learn more about our own ancestry, we seem to take it for granted that to be evolved is somehow better. Marketers have used this approach to sell products from office email software to robotics platforms. To call someone a Neanderthal is a slur, not a compliment.
I thought about this as I was writing ONE MONTH. My main character, Peter Woodward, changes over the course of the book. In many ways, he evolves. But is it for the better? Sometimes change is not good.
Scientists sometimes think that if we know where something came from, maybe we’ll figure out where it’s going. Maybe. I kind of like the Science Fiction perspective – combining what we know with what we can imagine to describe possible futures.
I like the way the Smithsonian Institute puts it: what does it mean to be human? I don’t have an answer for that – yet. I’m still working on it, relying on both science and science fiction.
On Saturday, February 25, 2012, the Jane Goodall Institute turned 35.
When I was in college studying anthropology, a number of my favorite professors were primatologists. While that was not the field I ultimately chose, I found the study fascinating and delved a little bit into the subject matter in some of my research. Even in graduate school, when I was required to hone in on my subject matter – cultural anthropology – I still enjoyed physical anthropology. But a lot has changed since I was in school – and a lot more has changed since Jane Goodall launched her world-changing research. Much of it thanks to her!
How does studying Great Apes change the world, you might ask. There are many ways to answer that, from impacts on medicine and pharmacology to our knowledge about the world’s climate. But for me, given my bias, it’s because it helps us understand ourselves better – that’s us, humans.
Thanks to Dr. Goodall’s research, we know that Great Apes use tools, eat meat, and form strong family bonds.
Each time a new discovery is made about our closest relatives (at least in terms of DNA), the question is once again asked – then what makes us, humans, different?
I love asking that question. Because there are still so many answers. And I am excited for the opportunity to explore those answers, not just in an academic sense but through fiction.
Some of the greatest characters (human) I have met in literature stand out in my memory like real people: Uriah Heep, Mr. Darcy, Henry Perowne, Offred, Edmund Dantes. (And I don’t know why most of those are men, that doesn’t seem good).
Of course, I’ve met some great characters (non-human) as well. Who can forget Wilbur or Black Beauty?
I enjoy the challenge of getting into a character’s mind, figuring out what makes her tick – what make him the human being that he is (or, in the case of ONE MONTH, isn’t).
Who are some of your favorite characters?