'Beyond Being': Emergent Narratives of Suffering in Vietnam./«Par-Dela L'etre»: Emergence D'une Narration De la Souffrance Au Vietnam

By Gammeltoft, Tine | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, September 2006 | Go to article overview

'Beyond Being': Emergent Narratives of Suffering in Vietnam./«Par-Dela L'etre»: Emergence D'une Narration De la Souffrance Au Vietnam


Gammeltoft, Tine, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


  we must underscore the mixture of acting and suffering which
  constitutes the very fabric of a life. It is this mixture which the
  narrative attempts to imitate in a creative way.
  Ricoeur 1991: 28

On a bright day in May 1998 I went for a walk with 25-year-old Trang in Hanoi's Lenin Park. A few days earlier, Trang had aborted twins in her fifth month of pregnancy. As we walked around the lake under the blossoming flame trees, Trang recited lines of poetry to express how the experience of abortion had shattered her entire existence, disrupting her sense of continuity and connection. The poem that she favoured most described the feelings of a young woman who has been abandoned by her lover and now feels unable to continue living. The poem ended: 'Please God, understand that I am not at fault//An immature heart does not know how to lie//In the dark my soul is praying for love ...'.

The need to endow suffering with meaning seems to be shared across human cultures. In this article I explore how young women whom I met in the course of my research in Hanoi struggled to find meaning in painful experiences, using stories as tools to revise moral identities and redefine social realities. At the centre of my account are young women who, like Trang, have undergone late-term induced abortions. Starting with Trang's case, I explore the cultural resources that these young women used to make sense of their predicament, while also discussing the role of the researcher in assembling coherent stories out of fragmentary and tentative strands of narrative. It is now generally acknowledged in anthropology that narratives represent a collaborative performance rather than a transparent rendering of social facts (e.g. Mattingly & Garro 1999; Ochs & Capps 2001; Ricoeur 1991). Yet, as I will show, important aspects of the interactive process through which stories are constructed tend to remain obscured, perhaps due to the prevailing reliance on literary models in understanding narrative.

In anthropology, the concept of narrative gained prominence with the literary turn of the 1980s. Since narratives are often conveyed by language, there is a substantial body of anthropological work (e.g. Good 1994; Mattingly 1998; Ochs & Capps 2001) that has examined tropes and metaphors, genres, plots, narrative structures, and classificatory forms and categories, often drawing inspiration from literary theorists such as Iser (1978) or Bakhtin (1981). Along with the growing interest in narrative, there has been an increased consciousness of the social constructedness of anthropological texts and of the multiple ways in which anthropological writings are conditioned by the academic, social, and political environments in which they are produced. However, while considerable attention has been devoted to the processes of writing anthropology, less attention has been paid to how ethnographic encounters as human encounters contribute to shaping anthropological texts. A core argument in this article is that if we wish to comprehend how human suffering is endowed with meaning, the production of stories of suffering must be seen as more than literary and textual achievements. Rather, it is important to view the interaction between storyteller and audience as a human and embodied encounter, in which the listener stands in a relationship of engagement and responsibility to the sufferer. Drawing on the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, I contend that a closer scrutiny of this mutual human engagement out of which stories of suffering are made may provide important epistemological insights which have not yet received adequate attention in anthropological scholarship on suffering.

Investigating induced abortion in Vietnam

Global estimates cite Vietnam as having one of the highest abortion rates in the world. In 1996, there were 83 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44, corresponding to a total abortion rate of 2. …

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