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.