- Writing American Cultures: Studies of Identity, Community, and Place ed. by Sam Schrager
Ever since the publication of Spradley and Mc-Curdy's The Cultural Experience (Science Research Associates, 1972), I have been waiting for a comparable collection of folklore student essays. Writing American Cultures far exceeds my expectations, and it is a collection that [End Page 369] stands on its own in addition to providing examples of what students can do when given the tools to undertake extensive ethnographic research. Sam Schrager begins the book by stating: "Imagine giving students the chance to dig deep into some corner of everyday life that fascinates them" (p. ix). The eight essays in the volume represent work done by students exploring their everyday lives in Schrager's ethnography seminar at The Evergreen State College. The result is a compelling, hard-to-put-down book about lives that are both ordinary and extraordinary and experiences that complicate what it means to be an insider.
One of the ways the book exceeds my expectations is by working at multiple levels, including careful ethnographic description, attention to questions of identity and place, and thoughtful inquiries about larger questions of what Schrager understands as ethnography as a "democratic possession" (p. xiv). This means that the texts are accessible, "stay[ing] close to the ground of ordinary experience" by providing in-depth examples of everyday experiences, dialogues among the participants, and complex character descriptions. At the same time, each study is about a world unfamiliar to most readers but full of both strange and familiar experiences for the writers. Schrager describes his approach to ethnography as informed by the work of Alessandro Portelli, Dell Hymes, and a long list of novelists and thinkers. His description of the project is worth citing at length:
Regardless of individual research interests, the whole class thought about the stakes of doing ethnography: to orient oneself to others' understandings of experience; to see one's own position and its ironies; to find meaningful ways to use what one learns; to counter reductive ideas about human conduct that are as prevalent in academia as on the street. These aren't easy commitments. They are values at the heart of a liberal arts education.(p. xvii)
These are, to many folklorists, familiar ideas. What is extraordinary about this book is the ways those ideas translate into quite different research projects undertaken by the students. In an essay about the "Virtual Reservation," Ataya Cesspooch explores how her American Indian community utilizes the Internet. She describes the relationship of YouTube to the powwow circuit as a "a perfect rendition of modern traditionalism," and she observes how new media is influenced by American Indian culture and vice versa. Her discussion is of what she calls "a new form of visual sovereignty" (p. 19), which can include acts of reclamation; it is a site for change, for renegotiated identities, and for new concepts of community.
Linna Teng's chapter on "colorism," stigmas associated with skin color among Cambodian Americans, is based on interviews she conducted with women who describe practices of skin dyeing, hair dyeing, and other inquiries into bodylore. Teng expresses her surprise at some of the responses, especially from those who embrace their darker color. Like many of the others, Teng's essay is at once an intimate discussion of insider practices, a politically astute exploration of stigmatized practices, and an exercise in self-awareness. It is the combination of all of these qualities that makes the book so compelling.
A chapter by an American of Honduran descent, Auricia Guardado, is from the start framed as a journey of self-discovery. Guardado's interest in discovering her family is complicated by the delicacy of the questions she wants to ask, and the chapter includes her careful deliberations and patience as she waits for the right moment to ask her uncle about being kidnapped in Honduras. As a researcher, she attempts a neutral position, only to find herself thrust into a...