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Trickster: Memoir or fiction?

Exactly what is Trickster: an anthropological memoir? Louise Lamphere, in kindly agreeing to review it, asked how she should read it: "Is this a 'novel,' a 'memoir,' or what?'


Hers is a timely and reasonable question,  because "memoir" is a contentious genre. Faked accounts and forged diaries have a long history, but recently, we seem to have had more than our share of memoirs claiming to be "true," containing major events that never occurred no matter how one chooses to define "truth," accuracy" or "fact." Many have been exposed almost instantly, and with furious fanfare. (For a few prominent "fake" memoirs, some quite recent, see )  But if you're a Slovenian claiming in your memoir to be an abused orphan who ran away to become a trapeze artist when in fact you're a full-blooded Navaho who went to Eton and now works as a psychiatrist, it's no wonder people get annoyed when they discover your history.


So what is Trickster?


It's a work of creative-non-fiction, but the "creative" implies "lightly fictionalized."  Why fictionalized? First, put yourself in my position. Real life, for most of us, is just one damn thing after another, fascinating, sometimes, to oneself, but not many publishers will accept such a prosaic account, mainly because not many readers will buy it. Our real lives have little plot (at least, not to us, although often to others-"She always falls for losers" or "He thinks money will fix everything.") So your work must have a form that is culturally recognizable to the reader-a narrative-and narrative structures and plot devices have constraints.  The murder in Trickster, for example, occurred later in my fieldwork than in the story, but to have the storyline of that sub-plot crammed into the last couple of chapters would strike western readers as odd, and I believe that moving it to an earlier place in the book didn't affect the account. I also lost my notes, and while the search for them, to keep them from falling into the wrong hands, isn't as exciting as Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, it's similar in structure, and the reader will expect that I struggle to find them or pay the consequences.


I decided not to use real names for most people.  Corbett Mack is one exception: he  knew Michael Hittman was going to write about him. (Corbett Mack: The life of a Northern Paiute, 1996). He understood the power of tape recording. He may not have understood all the consequences of having his life story in wide circulation, but who does? Unlike him, the people in Trickster were glad to share selected information about their way of life as a group, but they didn't think of themselves, personally, as central to my story-in fact, neither they nor I even knew there would be a story.


But it's clear, from this website and the book, that five-year-old "Earl," grew up to be Karl Fredericks, currently a chief of police. He's only one of two people in the book who are still living, and the only one who remembers me. I only managed to find Karl after the book was written; he supplied a childhood photo for the book's back cover and a current picture for this website. It seemed odd to keep referring to him as "Earl," yet he, too, is somewhat fictionalized, since he's presented as Delaney's nephew, and Delaney is a composite figure.


In my own family, my brother "Patrick" is also a composite-a toned-down, more modest and believable version of the medley of characters in my immediate family.  So is the Bosnian Club-it was another ethnicity that Patrick became entangled with.


Once I had decided not to use real names for most people, simply changing them, among such a small group wasn't enough. I decided, in the case of several of my characters, to develop them by drawing on two or more people in minor ways that would not materially affect the situations I was recalling in the book. As a result, I hope, people's descendants can still have their own memories, and my characters can sit in their shadows.


So the question: memoir, or fiction? Neither. Everything that happens in the book, happened. Not necessarily in that order, or to people who existed in the historical record, but near enough to bring back a time, a place, a people.


But why not just write a conventional ethnography, and avoid the question? (ignoring the fact that's it's not that easy to avoid the question-"the priest" in a small Irish village is an identifiable person, whether named or not).  Early in my student career, I was very impressed by Raymond Firth's 1936 work, We, the Tikopia: the characters seemed so real that I felt that I'd come to know them and wanted to know more about them after the book ended-what had happened to Pa Fenuatara, for example?  (for Peter Wood's  wonderful tribute to the book and to Firth, who died in 2002 at 100, see Conventional  ethnography is the critical center of anthropology, but to add to our understanding, we also need to draw on additional, alternative ways of representing a people-history, literature, art, film,  people's own accounts, autobiography, biography and other media and disciplines. Trickster is an attempt to add to that representational  pot, just as Corbett Mack adds to our understanding of  how Paiute culture was lived out in an individual life.  


Having said that, I did write an ethnography: my final 1964 ethnographic report, the one I worried about all through Trickster, is available here on the website.




Other questions: in my field notes, did I write down all the dialogue that I've later used in Trickster, word for word? I rarely used a tape recorder but I have some recordings, so I do recall speech patterns. My notes contain sentences such as "Corbett said that a woman couldn't go hunting because she couldn't fire a gun with both hands over her ears"; "Paulette  says she was sent on a train by herself to Stewart [Indian] school...." I re-converted sentences such as that to direct speech. I also had to create some dialogue to move the conversations along, but I hope I haven't  included anything that's out of character. My mother's letters are real-I still have over 200 of her letters; I also drew on over 200 pages of interviews with my grandmother when she was between 85 and 92. (She died at 100.)


Do I think that my field notes reflect the whole picture of Paiute life in 1964? Of course not-I was only there for a summer, and this was a student project. I had a particular focus-Jack Wilson, or Wovoka. I was a young female. Altering any of those would have produced a different result, all the more reason for arguing for multiple accounts and modes of presentation. Given my focus, it never occurred to me to ask Corbett Mack about morphine, or about his opium addiction, and he might not have told me, even if I had. Corbett and "Walker Wilson" did tell me that while peyote was commonly used in other Paiute communities, it wasn't as popular in Yerington where it had been introduced only in the 1930s, and banned by the tribal council in 1940. What I failed to ask was whether  they used anything else.  Michael Hittman, a young man and perhaps more sophisticated,  got some of that information the year after I was there, and later spent many years discussing this with Corbett.


So why write about my experience? Anthropology changes, but field work doesn't. Trickster lets you in on the psychological and intellectual processes and practices of a novice anthropologist, the inner workings, stumblings and joys that precede the final shining, carefully phrased study.  It shows something we sometimes forget-that there were real, individual people there, swimming in the cultural soup-people in Youngstown, in Yerington, and me.