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Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman

Marjorie Shostak

Important Quotations Explained

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Key Facts

1. Was my childhood a happy one? By the time I had grown and was a young girl, I knew that my heart was usually happy. But when I was a small child, I wasn’t aware enough of things to be able to think about whether I was happy or sad.

These are the last lines of Chapter 3, “Life in the Bush,” and they emphasizes the division of Nisa’s life into two parts: one made up of lived experience and the other of retrospective consideration of that experience. This passage reveals Nisa’s intricate understanding of what it means to tell a story. She demonstrates her own innate awareness that a storyteller does not merely relate events but also layers them with significance and meaning. This understanding is one of the things that makes Nisa such a compelling narrator and sets her apart from the other women Shostak interviews.

This phrase also demonstrates Nisa’s ability to structure her narration neatly and eloquently, in such a way that her transcribed interviews are compelling and effective as they stand. She knows what patterns can make a sentence or a passage moving and memorable. Here, beginning with a question signals a break from the previous section of narration and alerts the reader to a new idea or set of ideas. She follows this break with her answer, broken into two sections so as to provide the most specific and accurate answer possible. Moreover, she remembers her childhood well enough to be able to distinguish between different stages of it and to attach various emotional states to those stages. Specificity, precise language, attention to detail, and the ability to analyze events and feelings are all essential qualities of a good storyteller, and in this passage Nisa demonstrates her possession of each of these characteristics.

2. I am an old woman and know about things, because whenever I hear people talking, I listen.

This quotation comes at the beginning of Nisa’s section of Chapter 4, “Discovering Sex.” The beguilingly incantatory tone is indicative both of Nisa’s particular brand of storytelling and of the patterns of the !Kung oral tradition, in which fables and morality tales are handed down from the older members of the tribe to the younger. Many of the elder speakers in Nisa’s stories preface their words by emphasizing their age and sagacity. Nisa, too, frequently begins her interviews with a direct address. One of the intriguing messages of this particular quote is its idea that wisdom comes from listening to others, not only from firsthand experience. !Kung society is very verbal, and the !Kung do not have a written system of communication. Given the significance of speech, it makes sense that lessons are expressed in the form of conversation or lecture, as anecdotes or fables. Nisa herself actively participates in this tradition, teaching her own wisdom to Shostak using the traditional oral medium. This passage also emphasizes the value of the tribe’s elder members. Though they may not be able to hunt or gather very much, they contribute in other ways, including the communication of traditional wisdoms.

3. Here, in a society of ancient traditions, men and women live together in a nonexploitative manner, displaying a striking degree of equality between the sexes—perhaps a lesson for our own society.

These lines come from Shostak’s introduction to Nisa’s narrative in Chapter 11, “Women and Men.” Shostak’s proposal that !Kung life is an example for our own society to follow is the thesis of her book. Though her overt mission is to provide the context for Nisa’s stories, her more subtle goal is to use this example of a society in which men and women are largely equal as fuel for the women’s movement, which brought to light many inadequacies in the treatment of women in Western society. American society had essentially promoted a culture in which women were exploited for their domestic labor while men reaped the economic advantages. Moreover, the activities and responsibilities usually carried out by women—caring for children, sewing, cooking—were regularly deemed less valuable than the labor done by men. By examining a culture in which men and women both contribute to the life of the village, Shostak aims to prove a point—namely, that there is no intrinsic reason why women’s work should be less valuable than men’s and that women’s labor is just as critical to a society’s functioning.

4. Zhun/twa men say that women are the chiefs, the rich ones, the wise ones. Because women possess something very important, something that enables men to live: their genitals.

At the end of her narrative in Chapter 12, “Taking Lovers,” Nisa makes this profound statement about the role of women in !Kung society, as well as of the importance of sex. Women, as she says, are elevated to a high position of power by virtue of their sexuality, which both metaphorically and literally rejuvenates the men of the group. In a figurative sense, sex brings life back into a person’s body, so that women can restore a man’s vitality. Sex is also the method of procreation, and women rejuvenate the village by giving birth to new members. This masculine conception of female genitalia also helps to shed some light on the types of insults the !Kung women hurl at each other in Nisa’s narrative (“Death to your genitals!”). The position of prominence that female genitalia occupy in the group’s mind-set explains why cursing a woman’s genitals would be considered particularly insulting.

5. That’s something that you, a woman, know about as well.

Nisa says this to Shostak in Chapter 15, “Growing Older,” following a description of how pregnancy follows on the heels of sexual activity. Nisa has been talking in general about sexual relationships between women and men, as well as her own sexual relationships with men. She voices her displeasure with her lack of lovemaking with Bo, her current husband, and says that if she had married someone more desirous of her, she might have gotten pregnant again. She explains that having frequent sex increases the chances of becoming pregnant, then addresses Shostak with the above words. This is one of several interjections in this section that Nisa aims directly at Shostak, and it reinforces the idea that Nisa is not simply recounting her life story for a field anthropologist but having an intimate conversation with another woman. She uses these addresses to enhance their bond.

This statement reveals Nisa’s understanding of Shostak’s mission to uncover the universal conditions of womanhood among diverse cultures. Nisa recognizes that she is not merely being asked to narrate her own history but also to explain the conditions of being a !Kung woman and of being a woman in general. She recognizes that biological similarities can establish a bond that transcends cultural barriers and that certain experiences are the same for women no matter where they live or what language they speak. In gesturing outward from her story to encompass Shostak’s own experience, Nisa seeks to bridge the cultural divide between them. It does not matter that Shostak’s experience as a woman is rooted in a culture that is completely unfamiliar to Nisa. Nisa still sees their womanhood as a basis for oneness of mind on issues that have to do with being female.

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