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Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman

Marjorie Shostak

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Marjorie Shostak was born in Brooklyn, New York, and majored in English literature as an undergraduate. She met her future husband, Melvin Konner, at Brooklyn College and followed him in 1969 to the Dobe region of Africa, where he was conducting doctoral research. Shostak did not train to become an anthropologist, but her move to Dobe was the first step in her creation of a text that is widely regarded as a classic in that field. Harnessing her considerable talents as a photographer and musician, Shostak began documenting the artistic output of the women of the !Kung tribe. (The ! in !Kung signifies a tongue click in the !Kung language.) She painstakingly learned and practiced the !Kung language until she could speak it proficiently, and then set about conducting interviews with women of varying ages and experiences.

Nisa, a real woman to whom Shostak has given a pseudonym, was one of those women. She stood out in Shostak’s eyes for her highly articulate stories, her emphatic methods of storytelling, and her profound and often tragic life experiences. Shostak conducted fifteen interviews with Nisa during that first trip to Dobe, then followed up during a second trip in 1975–1976, which enabled her to observe the increasingly sedentary and settled lifestyle of the once entirely independent !Kung people. These transcribed interviews, along with Shostak’s own analyses and observations, constitute the bulk of Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman (1981). Several years after publishing this book, Shostak was diagnosed with breast cancer. She returned to Africa in 1989 for follow-up interviews and had nearly completed Return to Nisa when she died in 1996. Her husband and two friends finished the manuscript, which was published in 2002.

Nisa is unusual among canonical anthropological texts in that its primary focus is a single person. Shostak sets Nisa against a vivid background of village life, domestic responsibilities, and family obligations, and she takes pains to show that Nisa, though in possession of superlative storytelling abilities and very much her own person, is representative of !Kung women in general. She has such a vivid personality, such profoundly tragic life experiences, and such a strong command of her own stories that the text takes on all the qualities of a classic work of fiction with a riveting and charismatic heroine or of a frank autobiography. Indeed, as Nisa’s portions of the text are transcribed interviews, they are unaltered by Shostak save for her translation. Nisa is a natural storyteller, and her narrative unravels seamlessly, with little to no prompting or direction from Shostak (at least not that the readers can see).

Shostak knows, however, that a memoir alone cannot paint the big picture, and she grounds her readers by providing a section of scientific context and statistics before each of Nisa’s fifteen interviews. The book is thus an alternating pattern of objective third-person analysis and Nisa’s first-person narration. The entire structure of the text mimics the structure of Shostak’s own interactions with Nisa, both in terms of the interview process, in which there is a continual give-and-take, and in terms of the space between each of the fifteen individual interviews. It also suggests Shostak’s own experience of comparing Nisa’s personal stories to her own objective observations about !Kung life.

Given her training in English literature, Shostak is perhaps an unlikely or even an amateur anthropologist, but she is nevertheless an effective one. She is finely attuned to the nuances of her new tongue and examines its cadences just as closely as she analyzes its content. She admits to being very much taken in by the expressiveness and beauty of the !Kung language, which is often repetitive in its phrasings and metaphorical in content. Nisa often speaks of extreme irritation or rage as “drinking anger,” and distress is signaled by the words “her heart flew out.” Shostak cites another favorite expression of hers, one that Nisa used to indicate when a story had come to an end: “The wind has taken that away.” Shostak clearly enjoys these turns of phases, just as she enjoys the brazen sexual imagery that is used in women’s banter as well as in jocular insults. This fascination with the patterns of language and the significance of particular emphasis or motifs gives Shostak’s text a rich, rounded, aesthetic quality that might have been absent were it written by a more scientifically minded anthropologist.

Shostak’s book is remarkable for many reasons, but it is not the sole text on !Kung life, nor were Shostak and her husband the first anthropologists to make contact with the !Kung people—Irven DeVore and Richard Lee, two anthropologists from Harvard University, had that honor in 1963. Previous visitors to the region had already laid some groundwork for Shostak in terms of the !Kung’s dietary habits, mortality rates, child-rearing practices, life cycles, and so on. Shostak writes in Nisa that she read through a great many findings of prior expeditions before arriving in Dobe and that none of them satisfied her curiosity about the inner lives, emotions, hopes, and fears of the !Kung. She also confesses to being motivated in her desire to study !Kung women by her own feminist inclinations, specifically by the burgeoning women’s movement in the West. Nisa, therefore, belongs not only to the canon of anthropological texts but also to the realm of feminist literature. It has been embraced by many feminists for its representation of a society in which women’s labor is more important to the economy than men’s, in which women freely discuss sex, and in which extramarital affairs are regularly conducted by both sexes. Though the !Kung men do dominate in many ways, Shostak positions Nisa and her fellow !Kung women as exceptions to Margaret Mead’s famous pronouncement of the universality of male dominance.

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