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.
This week I'm posting an excerpt from the draft of ONE MONTH, a book about life, self-awareness and power. This excerpt is from Part IV: Awakenings. Thanks for any comments or feedback.
At the end of the week, Puck felt his life draining from him, as by now he knew he would. He knew that as he lay dying, Mr. Bernard Dworksy would break into his apartment and watch his final moments. The thought terrified and disgusted him, but he had no control over it. He had done all he could. He had left a hidden message that he was sure his successor would understand, better than he had understood the warning his predecessor had left for him.
With these thoughts the only thing left to comfort him, Puck lay down for the last time in his own bed. He couldn’t sleep but he trusted the plan they had developed. The only hope for the survival of his race was not to let Dworsky know that they knew who they were. He had to act normally, as if he weren’t going to die. But sleep was impossible.
He lay silently in the dark and heard the door to his apartment open. Footsteps crept slowly across his living room toward his open bedroom door. Pretending to sleep, he saw a figure through his eyelashes. A frumpy man stood in the doorway, leaning against the door jamb with his arms folded across his chest.
Puck wanted to jump up and attack him, take the satisfaction of watching Dworsky die instead of the other way around. It was only through a supreme effort of self-control, and the knowledge that his true survival depended on the survival of Dworsky, that he lay still in his bed. He lay there, prepared to die, in the view of this odious man, so that his successor and others of his species could live…
I celebrated a birthday recently. I won’t say which one. Suffice to say, I’m getting older every year. Strange.
It does make me think about aging, and how different people approach it with such different attitudes. I am at an age now where I wish I lived in one of those cultures in which the elderly are treated with great respect. With age comes wisdom, that sort of thing.
I’m in the process of developing a character in Deadly Memories: an Adam Kaminsky mystery (working title) who is of a certain age. His age is a hindrance when he is attacked and loses all memory of the attackers and why they wanted him – the police assume he is simply forgetful in his old age and imagining things.
Perhaps it’s easy for me to write that because I fully expect to become (more) forgetful in my old age. I’ve written before about memory and how it works or doesn’t work, and why it fascinates me. Many of my books touch on the issue of memory. We assume we can trust our memories, but that way lies folly!
For now, I’ll just enjoy being one year older and one year closer to that wisdom that I just know is around the corner.
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.
I went to see my allergy doctor last week. He’s a nice guy, always helpful and friendly (plus I credit him with my being able to make it through a year without my eyes drying out and turning a bright, thoroughly saturated red which, although a kind of cool look if you’re into science fiction, is not the look I go for in my daily life. But I digress).
I mentioned to him that I have a holiday coming up, and I’m going to visit some relatives in England. That led into a conversation about ethnicity. He’s Italian, and he has stories about growing up in a multiethnic neighborhood, kids deciding whose house they’d rather eat at for lunch based on the food someone’s grandmother was likely to be cooking.
We talked about my ethnic background, my husband’s, and our various experiences.
And we also touched on the question of why we even talk about things like this.
As I prepare for a vacation that will take me back to a place that some might consider my roots, I’m reminded of a wonderful story told by James Clifford.
In The Predicament of Culture, Clifford tells a story about the Mashpee Indians. In this particular chapter, they are on trial – for economic reasons, they find themselves in the position of having to prove their ethnicity in a court of law. Anyone familiar with the singular reality created in a courtroom can imagine what that must be like (why isn’t the court room considered science fiction?).
If you’re interested in the topic, I highly recommend Identity in Mashpee, a chapter in The Predicament of Culture. There are a number of reviews that give a sense of the chapter, too, (here’s one) but the chapter itself is not so long and worth a read.
The very concept of trying to legally prove one’s ethnic identity seems absurd, but I suspect it happens a lot more than we realize, from issues surrounding marriage and the parental approvals that may be required, to the challenges faced by teens in cities around the world who are trying to fit in to any given crowd.
I’m lucky that I don’t have to prove my ethnicity. I just get to go hiking in the Tatras Mountains or flyfishing in the Yorkshire Dales followed by a few good ales. Then I get to write books that take place in Poland and (eventually) in England. I’m lucky that way.
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!
I heard the other day that someone is making another new movie based on one of the stories of Shakespeare. My first thought when I heard that was, wow, imagine being able to write a story that still resonates with readers hundreds of years later!
Jane Austen stands out in my mind as another perfect example of this. Both of these creators (or all of them, depending on which stories about Shakespeare you choose to believe) have a gift of insight into character and personality that few share.
While I can’t bring the skill and talent of an Austin or Shakespeare to my writing, I can bring my background of studying culture.
As an anthropologist, I conducted fieldwork in Warsaw in the late 1990s. I wasn’t there as a sociologist or political scientist, though my research overlapped substantially with those fields. I was there to study culture.
(As an aside, my favorite definition of culture is provided by Clifford Geertz: “Man is an animal suspended in webs of signification he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs.”
See this wonderful, short biography of Geertz by Richard Schweder on the website of the American Philosophical Society.)
I loved doing fieldwork. I met fascinating people who inspired me, and I enjoyed my time in Poland. Now, years later, I have the opportunity to take that experience and share it with others through my fiction.
The Adam Kaminsky series starts off in Poland. Specifically, in Warsaw in 1997. That’s a time and place that I know intimately. What a joy it is to be able to pore back through my fieldnotes and try to capture the people, time, mood of the city and country. I hope my love for the place will come through and be shared by my readers.
The story is a mystery – a whodunit of sorts. But the setting is integral to the plot. Once completed, the book will, I hope, take readers back through time and space to experience a different land and a different people.
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.
Do you remember your first bike, the one you loved to race with your friends, streamers flying from the handlebars as the wind whipped through your hair?
Memory can be a tricky thing. Personally, I have a fairly unreliable one. On some days, I can remember in great detail exactly what I felt or saw on a specific day 27 years ago. But other times, I can’t even remember the name of a person I met only a few days previously.
It’s not just me. People around the world are fascinated by human memory – how it works, how it can be improved, how it can fail.
Academic institutions are studying memory closely to try to gain a better understanding of what it is and how it works.
And their studies are proving fruitful. Researchers keep learning new things. Like that the technology that we use is changing the way we remember (read articles here and here).
Or that maybe we just need to shock our memory into action.
And then there are the social scientists who have come to recognize that memory isn’t always a private, personal kind of thing.
Anthropologists will tell you about cultural memory; psychologists might explain collective memories.
This isn’t just an academic debate. Studies in Eastern European societies in the late 1990s, as nations were moving away from communist regimes and forming democratic governments, found that cultural memories had a direct impact on how people were choosing to govern themselves. My first book in the Adam Kaminsky series takes place in just that setting, where some people are trying very hard to forget what they did under the previous regime, while others are trying very hard to ferret it out. (My book ONE MONTH also touches on failures in memory – though in that case, the forgetfulness is an intentional human creation.)
Every time I read up about memory, I find another interesting fact I hadn’t known before. For example, that having a college degree is helpful in preserving your memory later in life.
I never knew that. Or maybe I did and just forgot …