Don Mitchell’s book A Red Woman Was Crying is a deep look at a world I knew nothing about–the Nagovisi people who live on Bougainville Island, a province of Papua New Guinea. Don worked there as an anthropologist, mostly in the early seventies, and his book is a series of fictional stories, each told by a different Nagovisi person. They illuminate life in this place, culture and thought, and also the complex interactions with an American anthropologist who is living among them.
One of my favorites is “My White Man,” told by a woman named Siuwako. Elliot, the anthropologist, begins to help her in her garden while studying her gardening practices. This demands a delicate conversation between Elliot, Siuwako and her husband Siro, since gardening in Nagovisi culture is linked with marriage and sex in a complicated way. “Talking to a woman about working in her garden is the same as saying that they should get married because we Nagovisi say that a man and a woman are not married until they begin working in the garden together,” says Siuwako.
Here’s a passage that gets at some of the layers of gender, culture, and watching that come into play:
“At first it was very strange to have Elliot following me around my garden, watching everything I did, asking questions and writing things down. Kneeling down beside me and working with his own knife, saying ‘Like this? Or like this?’ Hoeing. Cleaning. Harvesting, planting….
“I understood what he wanted, but because he was paying attention to what I was doing I didn’t feel as free as when I was by myself. That part wasn’t because he was a man, or a white man. It was because I wasn’t used to telling anybody what I was doing while I was doing it.
“After less than two moons we were easy with each other, almost as easy as Siro and I had been. With Elliot coming all the time, Siro came to the garden less often. Elliot began doing some of Siro’s work. At first, heavy clearing was hard for him. He got better, but he never was as good as Siro. …
“Adjusting to the stakes he drove in the ground took me longer than two moons. Always he connected them with string and sometimes he left it. I’ll tell you I didn’t like those stakes. I kicked them sometimes and it hurt…
“Elliot didn’t curse when he kicked his stakes himself. That amused me, but I said nothing about it. Elliot had learned to curse the way we do, and he knew that when he hit his foot it would be all right for him to use bad language, but he never did. Elliot was being careful to make no sexual remarks at all, even curses that most of us will use anywhere.
“After a few moons, most of the teaching was finished and all we did was work together. And I liked it. I know I already said that, but I’m saying it again because it was a strange thing. I realized I liked working in my garden with a white man who understood what I was doing, and helped me do it. It was like having a sister.”