This thesis comprises the manuscript of an ethnographic novel, The Blue Poppy Sea, and an accompanying exegetical essay. It is both an exercise in and an argument in defence of ethnographic fiction. It demonstrates, first, the considerable, albeit largely unacknowledged, presence of ethnographic fiction in the literary marketplace and argues that as a genre of fiction, the ethnographic novel deserves greater recognition. Second, it asserts that the ethnographic novel is distinctive for the way it highlights and exacerbates pervasive insecurities about cultural identity, authenticity and literary privilege in contemporary English literature. This thesis contends that it does so by taking the routine literary enterprise of ‘writing about others’ to the extreme of what is feasible.
The Blue Poppy Sea explores the theme of maternal love and the conditions under which that love can override and extinguish the self. The primary exploration of the emotions is encompassed within the broader political theme of illegal transnational migration. The two themes are linked through the technical expedient of using 2001 as the temporal setting for the primary narrative, the year in which an international terrorist attack on the United States of America occurred and the world irrevocably altered. The novel’s ethnographic character comes from the narrative’s main cultural location in Afghanistan and the divergent ethnicities of its protagonists: an Australian mother, her Afghan husband; their half-Australian–half-Afghan son; his Afghan grandmother; a bereaved Frenchman and various lesser Afghan characters.
The exegesis is both a scholarly analysis of the ethnographic novel as a literary genre, and a meditation on the challenges involved in writing the ethnographic novel manuscript embodied in this thesis. It outlines the genesis of the ethnographic novel as originally associated with the discipline of social anthropology to argue that it has now exceeded these early boundaries to establish itself as a distinct genre in the wider literary sphere. While the early orientation of the ethnographic novel as transgressive in form is no longer a necessary characteristic, vestiges of this transgressive quality remain in its radical refusal of literary protocols and bans regarding writing the Other. The analysis considers the problems that can arise when trying to write about fictional others who are so far removed from the author’s own everyday experience and knowledge that the task of making them familiar, authentic and plausible may actually be impossible. On top of this, questions of author identity and cultural 2 validity arise, often expressed through the query: who is entitled to speak for whom? Allegations of cultural appropriation and misrepresentation are frequent.
The Blue Poppy Sea both illustrates and embodies the fraught nature of any attempt to write ethnographic fiction. Incorporating a mix of European and non-European, Afghan characters, the novel stumbles into complex territory involving issues of language, speech and renditions of the vernacular; of cultural translation regarding taken-for-granted values, where these are in direct contrast to those held by the European reader; of cultural versus individual difference and the hazards of essentialism; and finally, of pretensions to a pan-human identity between author and subject/s, subject/s and reader/s. Critical to all this is the literary/anthropological distinction between self and other – the self of the writer and the other of her subject – a distinction which in the case of ethnographic fiction can become extremely blurred.
In short, this thesis is both an expression of and a reflection upon the literary genre of ethnographic fiction, one which embodies the progressive discovery that the process of writing an ethnographic novel is not qualitatively different from writing any other kind. It concludes, however, that in taking these challenges to inordinate extremes, ethnographic novels may be considerably harder not only to write but defend.