Reflections on Novel Writing in Anthropology

Author: Dr. Holly Walters, a cultural anthropologist at Wellesley College, United States. Her work focuses on religious experience and ritual practice in South Asia. Her current research addresses issues of political practice and ritual mobility in the high Himalayas of Mustang, Nepal among Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims who venerate sacred ammonite fossils, called Shaligrams. Holly is a regular contributor to TFS. Find more about Dr. Walters’ work on Shaligrams and especially her latest book release Shaligram Pilgrimage in the Nepal Himalayas on her blog, Peregrination.

My first experience with writing ethnographic fiction was in the 5th grade. Angry that my small elementary school library did not have a sufficient number of books about unicorns, I dramatically vowed to write my own. My recess-time methods for doing so though essentially revolved around asking my classmates to describe their own personal experiences with unicorns. Thankfully, that worked! From make-believe games on the playground to one particular account that resulted in taping papier-mâché horns to a pony’s halter (though no actual pony was involved), I gleefully collected a wide variety of stories, told by my fellow 10-year-olds, and wrote them down in my “book.” The end result was a fairly impressive stack of stapled construction paper that so tickled the school librarian that she actually carded it, wrote up a catalogue entry for it, and put it up on the lending desk for other students to borrow. By the end of the year, when it was returned to me, it had been checked out eight times.

That book on unicorn stories however, which my mother still proudly possesses in a box of my other childhood keepsakes, recently became the focus of conversation once again. This was because, on July 13th of last year, I signed a publishing contract for my second book. Not a new ethnographic monograph this time, but a novel. And you might be pleased to know that the novel is, in fact, also about a unicorn.

Ever since taking a graduate course on “Novels as Ethnographies,” I have been enamored with the concept of Morelli’s Detective. Briefly, Morelli’s Detective is a kind of metaphorical shorthand for how people create knowledge by presenting a problem, building a case around that problem, and then following clues in order to reach a logical conclusion that solves the problem. Named after a controversial art historian who wrote under the name Giovanni Morelli (or Ivan Lermolieff, depending), the “Morelli Method” was described as a technique for closely analyzing brush strokes and other minute details (like ear shapes) on old paintings so as to authoritatively determine who the original painter was. In Carlo Ginzburg’s extensive 1980 essay on the subject, this “cases and clues” methodology then also became characteristic of psychiatry and medicine (via Freud) as well as of police work (via, of all things, Sherlock Holmes). In fact, he argues rather convincingly that Morelli’s Detective became utterly foundational to the entire epistemological trajectory of the Euro-American academic world; so much so that any claims to formal scientific knowledge today must, on some level, demonstrate compliance with the positivistic structure of Morelli’s inquiries.

But Ginzburg also notes that this structure of knowledge-making is deeply beholden to certain forms of power and that it explicitly excludes “low” forms of knowledge that do not carry the requisite weight of “real” evidence. These forms of knowledge are, unsurprisingly, experience, oral tradition, informal conversation, personal observation, and the generational wisdom of elders. Equally unsurprisingly, he then goes on to say that knowledge that is typically categorized as inferior in this way tends to be the “property of those who within a given society are not in a position of power.” Which is to say, that what counts as knowledge is always determined by culturally and politically dominant groups.

To the anthropologist, this is nothing new. Ethnographers have long struggled with the nebulous in-between spaces of science on the one hand, and story-telling on the other. It was what my frustrated seminar professor described as the tension between “a world” and “the world” in the writing of ethnography. Are we, the researchers, tasked to be faithfully re-creating the world as it actually was during our fieldwork? Or are we simply weaving a fiction; complete with dramatis personae, compelling character arcs, and promises of redemption that exist purely in a world of our own perspectives? Are we following the clues to solve our case, or are we leading our audience down a path that was already drawn from the beginning? A little of both and neither?

Ethnographic fiction, of course, muddies these waters even further. Born out of the understanding that all cultural representations are crafted (and thus, in a sense, fictional), every ethnography is therefore only a partial truth (Clifford 1986). It is situated in a particular time and place, involves the interactions of particular people, is derived from structures of history and power, and, ultimately, is made with a purpose and readership in mind. Ethnographic fiction, however, takes this one step further by dispensing with the idea that the work presented still somehow adheres to an objective reality lurking somewhere underneath it all. Rather, ethnographic fiction intentionally uses creative literary devices and methods of story-telling to evoke (rather than directly represent) a cultural experience. Conventional ethnographic materials in this instance, such as field notes or interviews, might be real, partially real, or entirely fabricated all depending on the needs of the story.

And then there are actual novels. Whole fictions and entire inventions with no other purpose than to spin a yarn. Nothing whatsoever to do with the “really real world.” Or, do they? What does fantasy have to say about the mundanity that creates it? This is the central conundrum that my graduate class was asked to wrestle with for an entire semester. What makes a story “real?” What makes the knowledge it conveys concrete and relatable? Does it depend on what it might be needed for? What are the expectations of the reader and how does this shape what the author chooses to include in the story or not? Is a physics textbook any more or less a fictional narrative than the latest bestselling romance novel and in what ways? And ultimately, what then is an ethnography? Is it science, story, or somewhere in-between?

Strangely enough, it brought me back to my 5th grade book of unicorns. This isn’t to suggest that I started believing that unicorns were factually real (though, one can raise some interesting debates on that point) but I started to see how my collection of stories was saying something real about the world that I, and my fellow classmates, had lived in. I started to see how the unicorn of each story meant something specific to the kid describing it and how its image formed a necessary part of their understanding of and knowledge about the world. And here I had all manner of actual anthropological data on the subject: transcriptions of conversations (nearly illegible in my elementary school scrawl), sketches of ideas, paragraphs written and re-written as my friends corrected my mistakes or cleared up some ambiguous detail (or just changed their minds), and notebooks filled with background information on their homes, families, pets, and hobbies. I started to see the paradox as clearly then as I ever had. My unicorn ethnography was, dare I say, real.

When I initially set out to write my first novel, it was purely meant as an exercise in a bit of daydreaming. I was living in Nepal at the time, conducting my long-term dissertation fieldwork in the high Himalayas of Mustang (near the southern Tibetan border). Living in what is a reasonably remote region meant that, depending on the season and the weather, I occasionally had long bouts of time where I could do very little research work nor even really spend much time outside (particularly during the dark winter months). I had, of course, brought books with me to read in my downtime but they lasted only about a month or two. And since we were often without electricity for equally long periods, I had to limit the use of my laptop, which contained other media, such as a few movies and games. So, sometime around the middle of 2016, I picked up one of the blank notebooks in my pack and began to write a story.

It was a story about a unicorn.

Fast-forward a little more than a year and by the time I had returned to the US, the novel was nearly half finished. But I set it aside then so that I could write my dissertation (which would go on to become my first published book in 2020) and I sadly didn’t pick it up again until two weeks after I graduated with my PhD. Because I picked it up again on the day I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Through surgery and chemo, it was an odd but constant companion. In and out of the hospital, I brought it with me everywhere and would add bits and pieces as I could. A section of dialogue I’d come up with while sitting in the infusion room, a scene I could describe while recovering in my hospital bed after a procedure, or some editing and revising I could do while weathering the worst of the chemotherapy side-effects. When I completed treatment in the fall of 2019, I set it aside again so that I could go on the academic job market and fully engage in course preparation for the contract teaching I still currently do. Then, the pandemic hit and the cancer returned. Life was back to chaos. Even now, while it might feel that neither COVID nor cancer will ever be finished, The Way By is. In April of 2021 I penned the grand finale and closed the last chapter. In July of 2021, I had a publication contract offer sitting in front me less than 48 hours from the time I submitted the manuscript to the editors for consideration.

I’m actually more nervous about the novel coming out now than I am about my second academic book, which coincidentally is due to hit the printing press around the same time. The novel tells so many deeply personal, and honestly uncomfortable, stories. But what I mean by that isn’t the literal story it tells about five women who must band together to defeat an evil unicorn hell-bent on destroying the world (things have, well, changed since I was 10). I mean that when I look back through its pages and chapters, I see where I was and where I was going in some of the most difficult years of my life. I see the loneliness and isolation of fieldwork, the uncertainty of the academic job market back home, and the transition of writing my dissertation and finally achieving my life-long dream of earning a PhD. Then, in the middle of the book, the cancer diagnosis comes and the battle against chronic illness and pain begins. Interspersed within is also the stress, exhaustion, and existential dread as I’m continuing to teach classes, mentor students, and write and publish research articles.

Finally, the last chapter arrives and it’s time to end the story as I had always planned it. But it doesn’t quite go as I thought it would since, instead of defeating the big bad guy like we’re all supposed to, the cancer returns. And I have to come to terms with the fact that there is no great and victorious end to my epic. The darkness will always be lurking just a moment in time away. It changed the end of the novel in a way I was never expecting but as I re-read it for the last time before sending it off to the editing room, I realized, it’s the best possible ending this particular story could have had. It means so much more than what it plainly says.

So, the clues are there. The literary detective, the ethnographer, or the close reader is sure to find them. They’ll be reading, in fact, three stories inside the one book: the tale of a group of characters I hope they come to love; me, the author, on the journey it takes me to create the story, and, in the end, themselves as they join in and bring their own thoughts and interpretations to all the wild happenings therein. I’ve penned two traditional ethnographies but this is a novel of magical realism, so you know it’s not real. But yet, given all that has gone into it, The Way By may be the most truthful thing I have ever written.

(The Way By, by Holly Walters, comes out from Three Little Sisters Press early next year.)


Clifford, James. 1986. “Introduction: Partial Truths.” From Writing Culture. James Clifford and George Marcus, eds. University of California Press.

Ginzburg, Carlo and Anna Davin. “Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method.” History Workshop, No. 9 (Spring, 1980). Pp. 5 – 36. Oxford University Press.

Langness, l.l. and Gelya Frank. 1978. “Fact, Fiction and the Ethnographic Novel.” Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly, 3, 1-2:18-22.

McGranahan, Carole. 2015. “Genre-bending, or the Love of Ethnographic Fiction.” Savage Minds. 13 April 2015. Accessed 27 July 2022.

Schmidt, Nancy. 1981. “The Nature of Ethnographic Fiction: a Further inquiry.” Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly. 6 (1)

[Image of the black and white unicorn is attributable to Pearson Scott Foresman, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.]

[Image of the abstract painting of a unicorn is by Susan Wilkinson sourced from Unsplash.]

[Image of the open book is by Yannick Pulver sourced from Unsplash.]

Leave a Reply