- Unhoming the Home as Field: Notes Towards Difficult Friendships
In an essay titled “The Virtual Anthropologist,” written in 1997, Kath Weston highlights the hybrid position of the native ethnographer in academia. Although the hard labor of researching on the field is illuminated in the writing of the ethnographer, the writing itself does not account for the labor of composing those sentences. On the other hand, if the researcher is native, that is, her field is where her home is, then research itself does not count as labor.1 If the queer studying queers is in a geographical location that she calls home, then she is automatically interpellated as the insider. She already has all the data. Hence, how is her fieldwork serious research? So, where does one locate the labors of the native ethnographer? In the writing or in the research? Weston writes provocatively, “. . . her work will remain suspect, subject to inspection on the grounds of authenticity rather than intellectual argument or acumen.” Drawing on Weston’s theorization of the positionality of the native ethnographer, I would like to reflect on the categories of home, field, and the native ethnographer in the way they have shaped my experiences as a researcher, part of whose field work is based at home, that is, West Bengal, India.
As a former journalist and a queer activist in West Bengal, I am often asked to speak about the portrayal of queer issues in the media at workshops organized by queer support groups in the state. Last year, a transgender organization in the state asked me to speak at one such workshop. The group works on HIV awareness programs among mostly working-class transgender sex workers, as well as it organizes vocational training courses to increase employment opportunities for transgender people in the area. During the span of the workshop, I stayed [End Page 76]
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with one of the volunteers of the group, Kali, who is also a sex worker and a peer advocator of safe sex practices. I have known Kali for a couple of years now through queer activist networks in the state.
On the first day of the workshop when we returned to her place in the evening from the workshop venue, Kali started cooking dinner immediately. Despite my pleas, she would not allow me to help her in the kitchen, because I was her guest and she the host. So, I sat by her and we kept chatting as she went about her work. After a delicious meal, she took the utensils and stepped out of the house to wash them close to the well from which one had to fetch water for bathing, cooking, and cleaning. This time I insisted that I would help her with the dishes. She laughed indulgingly and asked me to fetch her water from the well in the iron bucket that was kept next to it. The place was almost dark with a faint trace of light coming from a bulb at Kali’s door. I gingerly walked towards the well—the path was quite slippery. I managed to fetch water from the well and was walking towards Kali. She was still smiling. But, as luck would have it, I slipped and fell on my back. So absorbed and happy was I at being able to help Kali that I forgot that the way was still slippery. Kali immediately stood up and came running towards me as I lay on the muddy pathway grimacing in pain. She extended her hand and I stood up slowly. Holding her hands, I limped back to her place. She immediately took out some pain-relieving ointment and asked me to lie face down and started massaging my back. In my mind, while I was battling with my guilt at increasing Kali’s labor, suddenly Kali said, “This hard life is not for you, why even try?” I did not have a word at that moment in response. I was quiet.
Two hours passed. It was 11...