Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Intrusion of the Modern World

In Nisa in general, and the chapter called “Change” in particular, Nisa describes how the !Kung people and their traditional ways are increasingly faced with the modern world. The cattle-herding Tswana and Herero peoples intrude on the !Kung way of life when they establish settlements in the once-isolated Dobe region. Their cattle and goats pollute once pristine streams, cars and trucks occupy the region, and Tswana justice becomes the law of the land. Their growing influence on the !Kung is one of the central themes of Nisa, and the changes wrought effectively divide Nisa’s life in two. In the first half of her life, Nisa does not know any way of life but her own. In the second half, she not only observes the new, agrarian lifestyle but also enters into it as the wife of a “village man” and the employee of a woman living on a European settlement. Nisa therefore embodies a tension between the old, traditional mode of subsistence, which involves hunting and gathering one’s food, and the modern, agrarian method of food production, in which animals are herded and crops are planted.

The Western anthropologists themselves also introduce modern ideas into !Kung society, though this intrusion is much less overt that that of the Herero and Tswana groups. The anthropologists pay their subjects in tobacco or other goods, use tape recorders, cameras, and other gadgets, and drive their trucks near the villages. A striking example of the influence of Shostak’s modern world on the traditional !Kung people is when Shostak catches a !Kung girl looking at herself in the side-view mirror of Shostak’s truck—new self-perceptions and the possibility of a new focus on appearance are suddenly introduced. Such is the unavoidable confluence of modern and traditional in any anthropological study of bush societies like that of the !Kung.

The Universality of Women’s Experience

Shostak aimed to observe women in an unfamiliar culture and determine what constants bind women in societies around the world. She also wanted to examine the !Kung women in light of the women’s movement of the 1960s. Shostak pays particular attention to how !Kung women experience menstruation, sexuality, pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause, and she observes their stoic approach to pain associated with women’s conditions. The work done by !Kung women, who gather the bulk of a village’s food supply, puts them in a position of power and strength, and, as a result, a high degree of sexual equality exists. The condition of !Kung women is therefore not directly similar to the condition of American women, though Shostak posits that the !Kung women represent an archetypal experience of womanhood. She argues that the !Kung division of labor and relative sexual equality present a truer picture of the intrinsic role of women than what we see in western society, in which there is a more pronounced male bias. Shostak also uses her connection to Nisa to suggest the power of sisterhood. She feels she is better able to reach across cultural boundaries to the !Kung women than to the men, with whom she has little in common.

The Importance of Sexuality

Nisa’s narrative is full of sex in the form of sexual slang used as insults, descriptions of genitalia, accounts of sexual activities, and philosophical discussions about the nature of sex. The women of the !Kung tribe are eager to discuss their sexual relationships, and in !Kung marriages, infidelity is almost a given. Many of the people Nisa mentions are her former and/or current lovers. Nisa tells Shostak many of the liberated ideas the !Kung have about female sexuality, such as the belief that a woman who is having intercourse must finish her work (a euphemism for having an orgasm) or else risk falling ill. She also reveals the !Kung belief that a woman who does not satisfy her sexual desires will die. Despite the frankness of Nisa’s narration and the bawdiness of her fellow !Kung women, jealousy over extramarital affairs and lovers is common, and, ideally, affairs are kept hidden. Still, the frequency with which men and women take lovers outside of their marriages points to the primacy in !Kung society of satisfying sexual desires and maintaining a fulfilling sexual life.