Return to Laughter: An Anthropological Novel by Elenore Smith Bowen

I know I bought Return to Laughter by Elenore Smith Bowden at a used book store, but I can’t remember what drew me to it. Perhaps the focus on a West African tribe? Later, when I tried to describe the book in my December post declaring my reading list, I struggled to share with you what the book is supposed to be about. The marketing descriptor says “anthropology/fiction.” Penguin categorizes it as “women’s fiction.” The author is Bowden, but when I Googled the book, I kept getting Laura Bohannan. #Confusing. I decided to do some research.

Laura Bohannan was an American anthropologist who went to grad school in England. She spent much of 1949 – 1953 in Nigeria with the Tiv tribe. Return to Laughter, published in 1954, is based on Bohannan’s time with the tribe, but because she chose to present her work more as a story than scientific observation, she chose the pen name Elenore Smith Bowden in case her book was viewed as unprofessional. Once people realized Bowden and Bohannan were the same, reprints had her real name on the cover.

Return to Laughter appears to be a work of ethnography: “It is designed to explore cultural phenomena where the researcher observes society from the point of view of the subject of the study. An ethnography is a means to represent graphically and in writing the culture of a group.” I’m not sure how much of Bohannan’s novel is fictional, to be honest, which makes it hard to jump in. What should my mindset be? In her author’s note, Bohannan writes:

All the characters in this book, except myself, are fictitious in the fullest meaning of the word. . . . the incidents of the book are of the genre I myself experienced in Africa. . . . I am an anthropologist. The tribe I have described here does exist. This book is the story of the way I did field work among them. (emphasis mine)

What I take away from this note is that Bohannan isn’t submitting to readers a work of anthropology, but how she worked as an anthropologist. Bohannan never names the tribe or country in Return to Laughter, which some believe is an attempt to protect the Tiv tribe.

Told in first-person, Bohannan acknowledges that an anthropologist, simply by being there, changes her own data. It is the job of the anthropologist to “rest on a meticulous accuracy of observation and on a cool, objective approach to data.” But how can Bohannan be cool and objective when her Tiv friend dies in labor, a death that could have been prevented in a Western hospital? The woman’s husband claims she was under a spell cast by a witch.

There are many real witches among the Tiv, all senior men in the tribe. Nothing is ever chance — witches cause death and illness, which means the person deemed the malicious witch must suffer consequences. Bohannan cannot convince them otherwise. The novel raises important questions about how removed an anthropologist really can be in the face of a community that won’t change simply because Bohannan tells them they’re “wrong.”

Bohannan stays with the Tiv for 5 months, learning the language and culture from scratch with no interpreter. The more she’s exposed to the deep belief in witchcraft, the more she sees the Tiv as “savages.” Bitterness fills her heart, but as a readers it’s easy to see her as a white woman forcing herself on a tribe. She was welcomed there, but I couldn’t help but see the Tiv as “specimens” when Bohannan was impatient with them.

And that’s the interesting part about any story of a white Westerner who lives in typically colonized regions. How will the Westerner change in heart and mind when she’s trying to change the people she’s studying in moments of frustration? What will she report back to other Westerners? And the ending of Return to Laughter, which was quite intense and hard to put down (I was up until 1:00AM reading), emphasizes that Bohannan can leave Nigeria at any time. This is her privilege, a concept she recognizes and analyzes in the 1950s (yes, checking your privilege existed before 2010).

Bohannan’s choice to write an “anthropological novel” makes it accessible while retaining the spirit of anthropology. She’s in the same boat at Zora Neale Hurston, who inserted herself into her own anthropological stories. While ethnography is more accessible, there are questions about its ethics. Regardless, Return to Laughter is a book I’ll be thinking about for a long time, especially for the way it reveals different perspectives in understanding human relationships. A gripping, highly recommended story. I’ll be keeping this book.

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19 comments

  1. I can, and respect, that this was a book that made you think, and certainly you acknowledge that a white person can’t be an observer without also changing what/whom is being observed. My opinion is that there are now very good Nigerian writers and I am happy for them to tell me about Nigeria – though of course that was much less the case in the 1950s. An Australian Indigenous book I was reading recently said that white anthropologists steal Indigenous stories and sell them back (to justify land claims, in this case) and I can see how that might be the case.

    • The Tiv tribe is definitely located outside the bounds of “society” as we would name it. Of course, they are their own society, but they don’t have anything like publishing. However, the end of the book revealed a long storytelling session that involved dancing, singing, miming, and props — so they do tell their own stories, they just aren’t telling their own stories to the Western world. What I wondered throughout is why Bohannan wanted to study the Tiv tribe, what she hoped to learn, or was it that she only meant to observe and report back to get a different perspective on how life can be lived. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, so many rules were in place for women, so I can see how learning about another community, especially one in which women are treated quite differently from American women, would be of interest. Bohannan spent all of her career in anthropology writing about West African tribes (I don’t think she’s prolific; in fact, her books are out of print and there wasn’t much work produced by her anyway), but I don’t think she profited in any substantial way.

  2. Fascinating. I was reminded of Corinne Hofman’s stories of marrying a Masai man and living with his tribe, although she seemed more accepting in some ways, she was able to come and go as well. I always find the undercurrents in these books so interesting and the assumptions made which can be so damaging, on both sides.

    • The way things are “normal” to each group was highly interesting to me. Bohannan has an essay about explaining a Shakespeare play to a tribe, and apparently it was very confusing and the tribe wondered why Westerners don’t understand their own literature very well. I want to get my hands on a copy. I’ll look around, but I do know Bohannan’s other novel is impossible to find unless I’m willing to lay down almost $100.

  3. This sounds quite interesting and almost like Bohannan ended up telling a story she didn’t mean to. The book ironically ends up revealing more about Bohannan’s beliefs and attitudes, perhaps.

    • Overall, she seemed quite conflicted in what she was trying to do with her book, but she knew she wanted to share what she experienced. I can’t remember if Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropology texts were published while she was alive, but I don’t think she cared if people thought inserting herself into her research was unethical by professional standards. Bohannan did.

      • Inserting yourself into your research is still considered a bit suspect, no? I can imagine that Bohannan wouldn’t want to jeopardize everything in her career she must have worked so hard to achieve!

        • It’s tough because by virtue of being there, a social scientist changes what they see. It’s impossible not to. The goal, as far as I understand, is to be as objective as possible. There loads of schools of thought in anthropology, and Zora Neale Hurston and Laura Bohannan both followed a school of epistemology, which wasn’t accepted by other schools of thought.

    • Once I decided what kind of book it is (a memoir about her WORK as an anthropologist), even if I’m inaccurate, it was easy to go along for the ride–and I really enjoyed it! I decided to keep this book.

  4. I love reading your reviews Melanie. I always find books I would normally not know about. I’m adding Return to Laughter to my list as I enjoy reading books that will make me think. I’m also getting a small memoir vibe from it (even though the author claims it to be fiction) and I honestly can’t wait to pick it up.
    Thank you! ❤️

  5. The sound of this really intrigues me. I don’t think I’ve read anything like it before, which is why it interests me so much! I love the variety of the books you review, I truly never know what I’m going to get when I read them, which is half the fun 🙂

    • Thanks, Anne! I tend to buy used books, which means I never go into the store knowing what I’m going to get. I’ll read every title in the fiction section to see what strikes me and then read the back of the book. That’s how I found this one.

  6. How fascinating! I love that you shared your journey with this book as well as your reflections. Sometimes, the journey we take with the text is just as important as our reading. Did you accomplish all this research before starting Return to Laughter or while you were reading?

    This is a unique book, for sure. A memoir, but not. A cultural study, but not. Fiction… but definitely not. There is a mystery here which can never be solved about what is fictionalized and what isn’t. Do you think that Bohannan’s “character” is fictionalized much? While you point out how revealing her voice is, I wonder if Bohannan is trying to set up a discussion about the anthropologist’s role in observing. If her bitterness and perspective of the Tiv as “specimens” is so obvious, perhaps it was intentional? Perhaps the true bitterness is about how anthropologists conduct their work.

    • In her author’s note at the beginning of the book, she claims the unnamed narrator in the book is definitely her. I think she felt multiple ways about the Tiv based on how long she’d been there. I felt like she was suspicious at first because they didn’t appear to be helping her like they said they would. Then they became friends. Eventually, she felt they were old-fashioned and like animals due to their superstitions that might lead to someone’s death. Again, at the end, she saw them as people. She was there 5 months, so I can see how she might change her perspective. Zora Neale Hurston and Laura Bohannan were the same kind of anthropologist, who insert themselves into the experience instead of observing at a distance so as to not change the subject of study. When she published her book, I think she didn’t want other anthropologists to view her as unethical or unscientific. However, I read some articles and discovered that anthropology, because it’s the study of humans and cultures by another person, tends to be less scientific. Of course you change your subject just by being present, whereas a tree or a herd doesn’t change because you’be observed it.

      • That’s quite a range of opinions and experiences to have in a 5 month period! It sounds like Bohannan went through a lot when she was living with the Tiv. I’m not surprised, however, as this is a huge cultural shock, despite the scientific and academic intention of the interaction. Well, this explains a bit more to me why the alternative name. Not just because she didn’t want to be unethical or unscientific — but I’d be embarrassed to share such potentially unprofessional opinions. XD

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