On Writing an Ethnographic Memoir: 'While the Gods were Sleeping' by Elizabeth Enslin

ethnography, n., a branch of anthropology that deals with the scientific description of a culture.

memoir, n., an account of personal experience; a biographical or autobiographical sketch.


Fresh into this very readable new book on Nepal, I realized that it combines both the art of a well-crafted memoir and the professional rigor of ethnography, and is also an important statement about women’s rights. Elizabeth Enslin’s While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal is a remarkably well informed account of an American anthropologist’s life in a Brahman household, and of women of many castes and ethnic groups seeking empowerment and change to the traditional social and political order. 

While a graduate student at Stanford University, the author met and married Pramod Parajuli of Nepal, and together they set off to South Asia to conduct their individual PhD dissertation research. Not until she was settled among Pramod’s extended family in Chitwan District, however, did Enslin finally identify her research topic about gender inequality. In the process, she learned a great deal about family life, caste, childbirth, women’s affairs, the political history of Nepal, and much more. And while this unique book is both anthropological and deeply personal, it is not judgmental. 

Throughout the book, Enslin’s wit, wisdom, and worries are clear. “Now, here I was in Nepal,” she begins. “Without much planning or thought, I’d tripped into this place where menstruating women slept in the buffalo shed, and family patriarchs dictated marriage partners for their children. And how did I respond? I lost my tongue, begged Pramod not to leave me [to pursue his own research in India], and fell down the stairs...” 

The book begins and ends (full circle) with the author’s memories of giving birth to their son Amalesh, amidst a flurry of traditional birthing customs and beliefs. And, very quickly, she also learned a panoply social roles and responsibilities. Pramod’s father (her sasura) was a conservative Brahmin pandit. Her mother-in-law (sasu), the homemaker, was also a poet, singer, and an important voice in village affairs. There were also Pramod’s siblings, their spouses and children. Bearing Amalesh made her an aama (birth mother), but she was also a srimati (wife), buhari (daughter-in-law), bhauju (sister-in-law), saili (third son’s wife), maiju (maternal aunt), and saniaama (literally ‘little mother’, paternal aunt).

She soon discovered, however, that as immersed as she was into family life, she would never totally, because, after all, she was not a Brahman. Nonetheless, she figured out how to be the good daughter-in-law, while learning Nepali, raising an infant child, teaching literacy, and conducting in-depth research on women’s concerns during the restless days culminating in the 1990 People’s Movement for Democracy. As a researcher studying local issues, she felt that sharing her opinions was contrary to being an objective anthropologist. She became a member of the community, however, in ways far greater than most anthropologists ever achieve. “As a researcher,” she writes, “I knew I should not influence people’s ideas by sharing my own. Yet, I never like feigning anthropological neutrality, in which the researcher is supposed to act like a kind of impossibly objective observer. People often asked for my opinions, and I usually gave them, not because it furthered my research, but because I believed that people who asked me questions deserved answers.”

Before coming to Nepal, she “imagined some exotic kind of belonging, but hadn’t thought through what the daily work would be like.” Besides formal interviews and surveys, she points out, the heart of the profession is participant-observation, meaning to “remove ourselves from the comfort of our own culture and learn to live as closely as possible in another. Mastering the art of hanging out, we spend entire days sitting and watching, learning to read body language and facial expressions, and how they match or contradict what is said. We can’t always be sure what will be meaningful, so we observe and note it all...” Like most anthropologists, she took notes on everything, and made sense of it later. 

At times she felt overwhelmed, and she admits to occasional despair. She remembers the early days of her research as 

if it was “filtered through the haze of poor planning, pregnancy, sleeplessness, and mild postpartum depression.” But she felt an obligation to make a go of it, to work hard and complete the degree. 

She writes perceptively of village life, skillfully avoiding the monotony that she describes, in passing, as “dull, unheroic, unworthy of a narrative arc.” On a typical day, we anthropologists retreat to our rooms, where, “Hunched over a notebook beside a lantern’s glow, we write up our observations.” It’s worth it, she says, when we begin to “understand nuances that no casual tourist would ever pick up on. We’re in on the jokes. And we learn what to look for and what questions to ask to dig deeper.” 

One afternoon, she “woke from a nap to hear movement and voices through wide gaps in rough wooden slats that separated our loft from a storage area.” After hearing crying and soothing voices, and expressing her concern and curiosity, she was told that Pramila (a girl in the extended family) had begun menstruating and had gone into seclusion. At first, Enslin was unaware what that meant in Nepal, and what she learned startled her. Pramila’s seclusion lasted four days, though in other families it could last for 15 days or longer. “Pramila could not come out except to use the toilet,” she says, and “During this first period, she would not be allowed any light. In stricter families, women in seclusion who came out to relieve themselves had to hold an umbrella over their heads so they couldn’t see the stars or the sun.” 

Her experience with the women’s literacy program soon morphed into a demand for a proper meeting space, equal to men. Gender relationships, as they permeate the social and economic fabric of village life, then became the central theme of her research. Her expressive telling of it is enhanced by poems and songs that her mother-in-law created. Here’s an example, almost stream of consciousness, revealing Parvati Parajuli’s feelings about a girl’s fate, a young woman’s plight:

Curse this life, my mind says.
This big house of my father, the way is too long.

Mother had to pass through the lanes.

Now you are in disillusionment.

You have to go to the unknown, leaving everything.

You have done so much prayer, staying at the mound.

You don’t have energy to walk down to your house.

In Father’s fireplace, there was a three-legged grill.

The eldest brothers are estranged;

The youngest knows nothing.

Whatever there was, the elder sisters took with them.

When I was to be given away, you went to the mound. 

I did not wear homely clothes in my childhood.

For me, the youngest, there was no support. 

In her journal, Enslin kept notes of both her personal and a broader ethnographic understanding of village and family life, sometimes in detail, and sometimes not. Take this simple entry, dated March 28- “Pramod left for India yesterday. Babu rolled over the first time this morning.” When she looked back at it later, she realized how her viewpoint evolved over time. During her pregnancy, she says, “I might have spilled a whole pen of ink on my feelings after [an] opening like that. But now, those personal issues barely registered in page after page on meetings, wedding, painting gentian violet on an infected finger or toe, the family response to some plea for help...” That’s when she realized that she “had finally become a full-time anthropologist.”

As an ethnographic memoirist, her book provides an intimate view of her own life and of family and public affairs. The writing is often quick and alluring, like this description of the fine art of bathing in public, as Nepalese women do, quickly, efficiently, and with modesty, all in the space of one sentence: “Within minutes,” she writes, “all my female relatives could pull a petticoat up over their breasts, unwrap a sari, quickly dip in the water, pull a dry petticoat over their heads while dropping the wet petticoat to their feet, and then, using both hands as well as their teeth, drape a clean sari over the top of their body, drop their petticoat down to their waist, and wrap the sari.” Done.

‘While the Gods Were Sleeping’ is a fine and engaging read, recommended for its cross-cultural insights.