Friday, August 15, 2014

Alisse Waterston: Making Theory Accessible with Intimate Ethnography



This is my sixth post in my Year of Women’s Voices blog series, and features my review of Alisse Waterston’s ethnography My Father’s Wars: Migration, Memory and the Violence of a Century  (2014).  In this intimate ethnography of her father, Dr. Waterston has written a frank portrayal of her father as a man, a survivor, a soldier, an entrepreneur, husband, and father.  Her writing honors her father without maudlin sentiment.  She frames her father’s lived experiences with migration and violence, and uses his experiences to illustrate social theory in a way that makes it accessible for non-academics.  

Her writing is crisp, clear, and rich with detail. She chooses a concise series of her father’s life events that create a reading experience that is informative, and moving. The reading experience is enhanced by the companion website that contains photographs, documents, audio files, and videos of her interviews with her father as she worked on this ethnography. The book becomes a much more intimate experience through watching the interactions between Dr. Waterston and her father, observing their body language, and listening to their voices.

 As a writer I appreciate Dr. Waterston’s explanation of her struggles in her dual roles as daughter and ethnographer, and her process of conducting research. I truly appreciated her discussion of the discipline it took to not be distracted by the numerous ideas for other projects that called to her during this project, especially when the experience of the project became difficult.  
If you are interested in ethnographic studies, social theory, history, Judaic studies, anthropology, or if you are looking for an extremely readable book that might help you understand how the experience of violence shapes lives, this is the book I would hand you.
 What I have learned as a writer:
  1.    It is okay to include yourself in the story.
  2.    Stick with the project even when it is hard, or other projects beckon seductively from your research.
  3.   It is possible to portray unflattering behaviors in a way that is not overly sympathetic, nor  vindictive.
  4.  Multimedia can make a non-fiction project a richer experience, and allows the writer to include    research material that would be otherwise not be available.
  5.   Write the story that is hard to write, be fearless.
  6.    Don’t be trapped by conventions of disciplines or genre.


 I am grateful that Dr. Waterston has created a work that is compelling, and readable on a subject that is difficult to read about. When confronted with violence, most of us want to turn away, to shield our eyes and our minds from horrific events. Dr. Waterston reminds us that even if we want to look away, we must not, we need to understand.

For a biography and more information about Alisse Waterston and her other books, this is the link to My Father's Wars website and this is the link to Dr. Waterston's home page