- Regulating Romance: Youth Love Letters, Moral Anxiety, and Intervention in Uganda's Time of AIDS by Shanti Parikh
Shanti Parikh's Regulating Romance offers a compassionate, clear-eyed, and scrupulously researched examination of youth romance in Uganda. With great ethnographic richness, Parikh analyzes the fraught dynamics of morality, desire, and aspiration in "a time of AIDS," a moment when HIV/AIDS has become a profoundly intimate and social fact for most Ugandans. With considerable care, Parikh historically contextualizes her ethnographic investigations; her book situates contemporary anxieties about youth romance within longer-term transformations that have reshaped the ways that Ugandans experience kinship, love, bodies, and well-being.
Regulating Romance is notable for being grounded in research that is both extensive, relying on nearly a decade of fieldwork (1996–2015), and intensive, drawing on a formidable range of data on life in rural and urban east-central Uganda in the kingdom of Busoga. Aided by a team of four research assistants, Parikh is able to robustly substantiate her claims on the basis of household surveys; gossip and oral traditions; hundreds of interviews with youth and adults; 25 case studies following young people over several years; numerous coming-of-age and sexual histories; focus-group discussions; and many interviews with community leaders, activists, and "sexperts" positioned to speak about youth romance.
But the most distinctive kind of data in Parikh's book consists of over 300 love letters written by Ugandan youth. Parikh's use of this material arose serendipitously in the course of her research, when she happened upon a young man's letter. This chance revelation led Parikh to discover that a lively practice of letter-writing was central to young Ugandans' Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 90, No. 2, p. 565–570, ISSN 0003-5491. © 2017 by the Institute for Ethnographic Research (IFER) a part of The George Washington University. All rights reserved. [End Page 565] romantic exploits. Moreover, she found youth quite willing to share and discuss these letters, which she collected in exchange for a small fee. This collection of love letters allows Parikh to circumvent a major obstacle that confronted her research—garrulous elders and reserved, evasive youth. Yet if Ugandan youth proved reluctant to answer direct inquiries about their romantic lives, they were by no means restrained in their often charmingly florid letters (e.g., "Your shining face attracts and affects my feelings and make [sic] me mix up my chemical wrongly") or in discussing them. Parikh offers a thorough reading of the form and content of these letters, as well as the ways they are crafted, circulated, and received. In so doing, she conceptualizes the letters with the notion of the counterpublic, arguing that they serve as central textual media in the making of "an alternative romantic world that is constantly surveilled by concerned adults and thwarted by the economic and social precarities that surround them" (171).
Parikh unfurls this analysis over the book's three parts. Part I, "'Things Keep Changing': Histories of Dispersal and Anxiety in Iganga," offers rich data on people's historical consciousness with chapters taking up the historical and political-economic transformations that, over a century, have shaped the lives of people where Parikh worked. Part II, entitled "Publics," tracks how broadly circulating discourses and interventions target and attempt to regulate youth sexuality. Finally, Part III, "Counterpublic," turns directly to youth discourses on romance.
At a theoretical level, Parikh offers Regulating Romance as a "critical anthropology of interventions" (30). The book undertakes an analysis of "how a variety of interventions around youth sexuality—including HIV and public health messages, popular and local cultural productions, and other regulatory regimes—are absorbed into local imaginations about romance and structures of affect" (220). Along these lines, Parikh argues that Uganda's internationally vaunted HIV/AIDS campaigns have fostered a general "going public of sexuality" (30), while also facilitating the particular emergence of a youth romantic counterpublic. This youth counterpublic reflects and responds to a range of highly charged and often competing moral discourses about sexuality, kinship...