Anthropological Quarterly 75.1 (2002) 213-215
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Novels written by third world authors have long been used in anthropology classrooms as a kind of native anthropology because they provide a rich and immediate sense of worlds that, while fictional, are also compellingly real. Ethnography, while factual, has often proven to be much less compelling, particularly to broad audiences beyond anthropology itself. Paul Stoller's recent book Jaguar is a novel written by an American anthropologist about West Africans in New York and in Niger and one cannot help but feel, when reading it, that much of his intended audience is that large group of people who have found traditional ethnographies too dry (and therefore boring) and so have missed out on the insights anthropology offers. His is an effort to draw readers into worlds they probably know little about, except in passing, and to make those worlds exciting and accessible not by exoticizing them, but by making them real.
Idrissa and his wife Khadija are both successful traders, he in New York's Harlem, and she in Niger. Theirs is a marriage ruled by the pressures of a global and transnational economy, and throughout the novel's several-year course, their only contact is through the money orders Idrissa sends his wife, the occasional letter, and later, weekly phone calls. The worlds of Harlem and Niger are closely observed and described in detail that bespeaks Stoller's intimate [End Page 213] experience with the raucous and demanding life of street vendors, whether on 125th street or in urban Niamy. He takes us into the spartan tenement rooms where West African street vendors live, with clothes hanging on nails stuck into crumbling plaster walls and toilets down the hall; traditional Songhay family compounds, with their separate huts for wives and husbands; the enclosure of Arabic Muslims living in Niger where women in Purdah do not speak to male guests.
The title Jaguar refers to traders from west Africa; Idrissa considers himself a "modern" Jaguar, and arriving in New York he quickly falls into camaraderie with a group of French and Songhay-speaking Jaguars like himself. His wife Khadija, independent and resourceful, is left behind to live in Idrissa's natal compound. She is unwelcome there, because she is of common birth, while Idrissa's family is of noble lineage. Considering most kinds of work beneath them, most of the 50 persons in the compound depend heavily on the infusions of money Idrissa sends from New York. They also depend heavily on Khadija's ability to manage most of the domestic chores, including the daily cooking and shopping for the compound's residents. Over the course of the novel, Khadija becomes increasingly powerful on her own as a trader, and comes to consider herself a female Jaguar.
The writing is relatively unadorned and dominated by short sentences. This style evokes the "external expression rather than internal dialogue" that, as Stoller explains in his author's note, is the way social selves are constructed in the part of Africa he knows best (p.211), and such sentences seem closer to spoken rather than written language; the writing has the rhythm of speech, although not quite the form (and purposefully so). There is no doubt of Stoller's fluency in English, but the writing style has the effect of making the text seem slightly foreign, and helps readers feel more directly the perceptions and experience of Idrissa as he encounters New York, Chicago, McDonald's, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Occasionally, Stoller the novelist comes a little too close to Stoller the ethnographer. In his efforts to provide fully rounded descriptions and to provide pertinent historical details, the text at times slides into lecture mode. We are told for instance that the original Jaguars "were sleek young men who in the 1950s appeared in the market towns of Ghana's colonial Gold Coast... Capitalizing on their adaptability and their market smarts, the Jaguars rapidly integrated themselves into the local...