Braided Worlds

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Braided Worlds (University of Chicago Press, 2012). Selections from Braided Worlds originally appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Anthropology and Humanism, Mid-American Review, Numero Cinq, and Being There: Learning to Live Cross-Culturally (Harvard University Press, 2011).

In 2020, Parallel Worlds and Braided Worlds will be published in Chinese translation by East China Normal University Press.

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The royalties from Braided Worlds are dedicated to the Beng people.

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Water pump for the village of Kosangbé, recently repaired with the help of royalties from Braided Worlds.

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Housing for elementary school teachers in the village of Kosangbé (seen here being built in 2018), with the help of royalties from Braided Worlds.

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Anthropologist Alma Gottlieb and writer Philip Graham continue the long journey of cultural engagement with the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire that they first recounted in their award-winning memoir Parallel Worlds. Braiding their own stories with those of the villagers of Asagbé and Kosangbé, Gottlieb and Graham take turns recounting a host of unexpected dramas, prompting serious questions about the fraught nature of cultural contact.

Through events such as a religious leader’s declaration that the authors’ six-year-old son, Nathaniel, is the reincarnation of a revered ancestor, or Graham’s late father being accepted into the Beng afterlife, or the increasing, sometimes dangerous madness of a villager, the authors are faced with the deepest parts of their personal lives. From these and many other interweaving narratives, Braided Worlds chronicles a living, breathing village community where two very different worlds meet.

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You can listen to a podcast of Philip and Alma reading short excerpts from Braided Worlds here.

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Braided Worlds is something of a literary miracle. First the story: In 1979-1980 anthropologist Alma Gottlieb and her husband Philip Graham spent 13 months among the Beng, a small language/cultural group in Ivory Coast in West Africa. A decade later they published Parallel Worlds, a gorgeously conceived and beautifully nuanced co-discovery of the Beng, part ethnology, part narrative and part family conversation. In the intervening years, Philip and Alma have returned twice for extended stays with their friends, the Beng. They brought their children; they immersed themselves in the village. But wars and revolution have torn up that part of the world, too. Darkness descends. The result of these later visits is a brand new sequel to the first volume, the just-published Braided Worlds.

“The literary miracle part comes from the neatly contrived cross-perspective of two gifted writers with different yet co-operative points of view. Both Alma and Philip bring different life interests, education and obsessions to bear: the one is studying the Beng with an arsenal of anthropological concepts and tools; the other is writing a novel while living amongst the Beng, bringing his literary sensibilities and his native curiosity to bear on his experience at every turn. The result is an amazing book, an amazing conversation, and a sense of life energized by difference, surprise, sympathy, respect and intelligence.”

–Douglas Glover, Numéro Cinq

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“While they comfortably categorize their book within the genre of fieldwork memoir, Braided Worlds is also a testimony to the long-term, family-affair commitments that Gottlieb and Graham have made to their Beng hosts, and vice versa. This is a wonderful quality of the book—it is deeply personal, respectful, and yet not so precious as to overshadow what we can learn about being Beng, and Beng-like.”

–Jennifer Coffman, Anthropology News

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“Not only does Braided Worlds tie two cultures together with their differences and similarities, it also braids the very different perspectives of Alma and Phillip as they each write about their personal experiences. While living with the Beng they candidly discuss views on child rearing, the value of being calm, and the effects of grief, guilt and resentment on the health of the mind and body. They also recognize that two cultures cannot meet without both of them being changed.

“The writing is clear and readable; the emotions are honest and accessible. This book is a fascinating study of cultural differences which develop in response to variations in need and circumstance. By introducing us to real people living real lives, it also portrays the universal experience of being human and the absolute equality of individuals and societies that bridges education, science, politics, and wealth. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know what it’s like to live somewhere else, in a world unlike our own, with people who are very much just like us. Rating: 5 stars out of 5”

–Regge Episale, Hippocampus Magazine

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Parallel Worlds chronicled [Gottlieb and Graham’s] first stay in remote Kosangbé, an experience that left them feeling that the cultural gaps between them and the Beng were unbridgeable. Braided Worlds is a reconsideration. Having left and returned several times, they found their ties to the Beng were deeper than they realized . . . What make their accounts extraordinary are not only the intimate portrayals of a culture and its members, but the authors’ honesty in assessing their role . . . Reading Braided Worlds and Parallel Worlds reminds us how much we miss and to keep trying to understand what was masked, even after we come home.”

–Julia Lichtblau, The Common (Amherst College)

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“In Braided Worlds, their ethnography-reflection-travel memoir, Alma Gottlieb and Philip Graham work extremely well with the metaphor of a braided narrative . . . They switch off as narrators, giving each other the opportunity to pull a different strand of their braid into its proper place in these narrative recollections. Moreover, and perhaps more significantly, it is abundantly clear that the authors want the reader to be able to have a sympathetic viewpoint and easily accessible window into the life and thinking of the Being–they explain, describe, and offer reflection about their time with the Beng without being apologetic . . . Braided Worlds does nothing if not highlight the ‘quest for cultural understanding [that] deepens and complicates in such a way that surprises are always possible.’”

–Lydia Pyne, NewPages

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“Throughout Braided Worlds [Gottlieb and Graham] revise their assumptions about their interlocutors, and describe their misjudgements and potentially unfair portrayals of the people they introduced in Parallel Worlds. This is but one of this intriguing and original work’s contributions to anthropology . . . The book’s real contribution is in the admission that anthropologists cannot take for granted their presence in any cultural encounter, [and the authors] write honestly about questioning the convictions that had emerged clearly in Parallel Worlds. This book would be valuable in introductory anthropology classes, as an accessible and readable introduction to the wonders and perils of doing anthropology.”

–Catherine Bolten, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

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The village of Asagbé, summer of 1993
(click to enlarge)

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“At this moment in the history of our divided and violent world, we profoundly need to hear the voices of Philip Graham and Alma Gottlieb as they return to the Beng people of the Cote d’Ivoire and write not just about this remarkable people but about the ways that all of us are inextricably “braided” together by our love, through our humanity, sharing the great mystery of existence. Braided Worlds is not only an enthralling book but an important one. And linked with Graham and Gottlieb’s earlier Parallel Worlds, the two books form a masterpiece of travel memoir.”

–Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

Braided Worlds is ethnographic storytelling at its best, rich in its evocation of the daily surprises of fieldwork, warm in its compassion for the Beng people, and haunting in its description of a moment of being that was as unforgettable as it was elusive. Gottlieb and Graham are a perfect duo, counterpointing and harmonizing with one another. Their book is filled with love, for each other, for the art of writing, and for the journey that led them to find another home in the world.”

–Ruth Behar, author of An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba

“Eight years after the events of their successful travel memoir, Parallel Worlds, Gottlieb and Graham headed back to Cote d’Ivoire, young son in tow, to conduct research and share the proceeds of their book. In alternating, harmonizing narratives, Braided Worlds recounts this return to Bengland, offering a tale filled with intelligence, humor, and humility. Gottlieb and Graham invite readers to travel with grace and insight through the external landscape of Africa and the internal geography of marriage, parenthood, and ethical living. I would accompany them anywhere.”

–Michele Morano, author of Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain

“This powerfully evocative text has much to teach us about living in the world. Between the beautifully crafted lines of Gottlieb and Graham’s work, one finds not only profound insights about the craft of anthropological fieldwork, the art of writing and the texture of social life among the Beng people of Cote d’Ivoire, but also deep truths about birth and death, courage and cowardice, sanity and insanity, and love and loss—the very things that transcend what at first glance seems to be unbridgeable cultural difference. A worthy sequel to Gottlieb and Graham’s award winning, Parallel Worlds, Braided Worlds charts new ethnographic and conceptual territory with a refreshingly understated daring, and is a great pleasure to read.”

–Paul Stoller, author of Stranger in the Village of the Sick

“In this lively, engaging memoir, Gottlieb and Graham conjure the confluence of multiple experiences and worlds. Their deep connection with the Beng people over the years offers an authoritative and, even more important, a touchingly personal account of life in one West African culture. This book is a wonderful addition to our contemporary creative nonfiction literature, combining the best of immersion journalism, personal memoir and academic study into a delightful and enchanting narrative. This literary journey reminds us, again and again, of the unbreakable bonds of our common humanity.”

–Xu Xi, author of Habit of a Foreign Sky: A Novel

“More than a sequel to the much-celebrated Parallel Worlds—which entranced several generations of my students—Braided Worlds takes readers deep into the heart of West Africa today, treating the fraught encounters and ethical dilemmas of anthropological fieldwork with remarkable empathy. A beautiful book that resists romance while remaining soulful, Braided Worlds is filled with seductive storytelling and sparkling prose.”

–Charlie Piot, author of Remotely Global: Village Modernity in West Africa

Braided Worlds is a gripping and instructive curl-up-in-a-chair book, appealing to anthropologists, Africanists, and to travelers and wannabe travelers who like to think and read across cultures and about fascinating encounters. The memoir weaves together the alternating voices of an anthropologist and a writer, both keen observers of character and context, and unforgettable local actors such as Alma’s friend Amenan, the mad to be modern Matatu, and the authors’ young son Nathaniel with his Beng buddies. Through moving stories, such as Philip’s father’s African afterlife, we get a sense of worlds once parallel that have become progressively braided over time. Having successfully taught Parallel Worlds, I like Braided Worlds even more, and plan to use it in courses on fieldwork ethics, anthropological writing, and African ethnography.”

–Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg, author of Plundered Kitchens, Empty Wombs

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Excerpt from the section “My Father’s African Afterlife”:

Kokora Kouassi had arrived early in our compound to make a pronouncement, and he sat across from us, his nearly blind eyes staring into the distance, the morning air chilly from last night’s rain.

“Welcome, Aba,” we greeted him.

Speaking through Amenan, Kouassi began, “Kouadio, I had a dream last night.” I nodded. “Your father appeared to me. From wurugbé.”

From wurugbé, the Beng afterlife. I didn’t know how to respond. It never occurred to me that my father, after his Beng funeral in absentia, would become a member of the culture’s afterlife. In wurugbé the dead are also supposed to understand every language, and I could only shake my head at the idea of my father now speaking Beng easily, considering my years of struggle to learn it.

Noting my silence, Kouassi added, “In the dream, he and your son met.”

“Ehhh?” I said, slipping into the Beng style of encouraging a speaker to continue, wondering what he would say about Nathanial who, considered by the Beng as the reincarnation of a revered ancestor, was now known as “Grandfather Denju.”

Kouassi then recited what Amenan said was a Beng proverb, before translating: “You need two hands working together to wash the back.”

I glanced at Alma, but the slight frown across her otherwise amazed face—and what did my face look like?—told me she didn’t have a clue either. She returned to scribbling furiously away in her notebook while I waited, guessing that what followed would clear up the mystery.

“In my dream,” Kouassi continued, “your son told his grandfather that he had come to visit us with his mother and father, and that he had been named for N’zri Denju.” Kouassi paused, stared in my direction. “Your father agrees that this new name for your son is all right.”

The original Denju then appeared in the dream as well. Kouassi said, “Your father and Denju are both proud of your son.”

I shared that pride, though it left me a bit dizzy: my father and Nathaniel and I were now united within the nurturing dreams of my old friend Kokora Kouassi. As I listened, I felt multiplied into mourning son, doting father, and respectful “grandson” all at once. But Kouassi wasn’t finished.

“Kouadio, in my dream your father asked for a favor. He’s new at death. He misses human food. He’d like you to leave an offering outside your doorstep tonight. He just wants a taste, to remember.”

I assured Kouassi that I would do this, though I wasn’t certain what to offer. I said, “Aba, my father doesn’t know Beng food, it’s different from what he ate in America.”

He smiled. “He’ll like it,” adding that the original N’zri Denju, apparently, would be joining my father for this snack. Kouassi suggested that we collect four empty cans of tomato paste, fill two with palm wine and the other two with bits of cooked yam. This was just the sort of meal, unfortunately, my father would have enjoyed when alive, his diet always low on vegetables and high on starches and alcohol. It might very well have contributed to his cancer. Yet what harm could it do him now?

“When you wake in the morning,” Kouassi cautioned, “don’t be disappointed if the food is still there. Remember, your father is an ancestor now. He can’t really eat. But he can take in the food’s essence. That will be enough.”

I thanked Kouassi with a rush of affection for his message. I’d known this gentle man for nearly fifteen years and only now realized the depth of his friendship. Kouassi wanted to bring my father to me, a mourning son far from home and family, and this desire had given him his dream. What I didn’t say was that Kouassi’s words didn’t ring true. My father had barely noticed my son, hadn’t even called for days after the birth of his first grandchild.

I listened to Nathaniel’s whistle on the other side of Amenan’s compound—he and his friends were back to building a little house made from discarded mud bricks. How quickly he’d entered into the life of the village. Knowing that the Beng believe the dead exist invisibly among the living, I found it comforting to think of my father’s spirit hovering in our compound, finally able to appreciate Nathaniel. Leaning into the fiction of it all, I could believe my father was finally able to openly express affection, from the emotional safety of the afterlife.

Kouassi stood to leave, then stopped and, resting on his cane, concluded with, “Wurugbé is for white and black people—in wurugbé, people are the same. They all live together.”

Nathaniel (N’zri Denju) and friends in the village of Asagbé, 1993

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