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Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman

Main Ideas

Key Facts

Main Ideas Key Facts

full title Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman

author Marjorie Shostak

type of work Anthropological case study; historical document (interview transcripts); memoir

genre Biography; autobiography

language Shostak’s portion is originally written in English; Nisa’s portion is originally spoken in !Kung, transcribed by Shostak into English

time and place written: Nisa’s interviews are collected during Shostak’s two field visits, the last of which ends in 1976. Shostak then spent some time turning the transcripts and notes into a book.

date of first publication 1981

publisher Harvard University Press

narrator Nisa is the first-person interviewee; Shostak narrates the intervening portions of the text.

point of view The interview transcripts are Nisa’s first-person account of her life story; Shostak’s introductions and explications also use the first person freely, as well as the objective third person in descriptions of the !Kung.

tone Scientific, objective

tense Past tense: Shostak writes in the past tense about her meetings with Nisa, and Nisa speaks in the past tense about her life experiences.

setting (time) Shostak’s fieldwork begins in 1969, lasts for nearly two years, then resumes during her second visit to Nisa’s village in 1975.

setting (place) Nisa’s stories take place in the villages of the !Kung bushmen, or “Zhun/twasi,” as they call themselves, who live at the northern edge of the Kalahari Desert, in Botswana.

protagonist Nisa

major conflict The major conflict underlying Nisa’s story is one that takes place largely off the page: the intrusion of a more modern, agricultural way of life into the traditions and hunter-gatherer methods of the !Kung.

rising action, climax, and falling action Shostak’s transcription of Nisa’s interviews cannot be said to trace a deliberately aesthetic arc of rising action, climax, and falling action. However, if it is possible to map out Nisa’s life history as a narrative plotline, then one might conceive of the rising action as her childhood and young adult life, the climax as her experience of motherhood, and the falling action as the death of her parents and children and her own continuation into old age. Such a structure accurately places motherhood as the central event of a !Kung woman’s life. Since all !Kung women marry, without exception, and since they marry with a view to reproducing, pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing are perhaps the height of a woman’s life cycle.

themes The intrusion of the modern world; the universality of women’s experience; the importance of sexuality

motifs Food and hunger; violence; travel; ritualistic dancing

symbols The mongongo nut; names

foreshadowing SinceNisa is a nonfiction case study, the use of foreshadowing here is not quite what it would be in a fictional narrative. Nonetheless, there is at least one significant example of foreshadowing. Nisa begins the interview process by describing her experience of watching her mother give birth to her younger brother, Kumsa. Her presence, as the only other witness at her brother’s birth, invokes the circularity of the life cycle and presages Nisa’s own role as a mother. It points down the road to the time when Nisa herself will be the one experiencing childbirth and following her mother’s example.