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Faculty Nightstand: Louise Fortmann recommends some 'elementary' reading

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– When deciding what to read in her spare time, rural sociologist Louise Fortmann might be influenced by a book's topic, a friend's recommendation, or a review. "Sometimes, honest, it's the cover," she admits.

The two books that Fortmann describes here, however, made it onto her nightstand thanks to her admiration for their authors. Fortmann had read a previous book by Orhan Pamuk, who won the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature, and had been very impressed by Richa Nagar's innovative and emancipatory work when she met her at Stanford.

Orhan Pamuk
Vintage, 2004

Playing with Fire: Feminist Thought and Activism through Seven Lives in India
Sangtin Writers and Richa Nagar
Minnesota University Press, 2006

Louise Fortmann (Photo by Lynnly Labovitz)

Louise Fortmann, professor of natural resource sociology and Rudy Grah Chair in Forestry and Sustainable Development:

Snow and fire, Turkey and India, authors' names that trigger my xenophobic spell checker — a novel and a nonfiction account that connect around the complexity of boundaries and the kinds of violence they can produce. Read them both — you'll be riveted!

 In "Snow," Orhan Pamuk thoughtfully tells readers like me, who never get the symbols, that snow (which is omnipresent, almost a character, in the story) is a boundary state between other forms of water. The story — in which Ka, an expatriate Turkish poet, returns from Germany and is asked to look into the suicides of "head-scarf" girls in the remote mountain town of Kars — leads the reader around and through boundaries between religious fundamentalism and secularism, metropolis and backwater, Turkey and the West, rich and poor. And that's all a barefoot rural sociologist is brave enough to say about this amazing book.

"Playing with Fire" also explores maintaining and crossing boundaries, using blended diary entries and reflections of nine contemporary Indian women, the Sangtin Writers. "[S]angtin," the book's introduction explains, is a term of "solidarity … used by a woman to refer to her close female companion who sees her through the trials and tribulations of life." One fiercely defended boundary is right on the book cover, which lists the authors as "Sangtin Writers and Richa Nagar" rather than as "Sangtin Writers," as the nine authors had requested. Western academic presses, for which collective creative processes are unimaginable and unacceptable, require an Author.

 Seven of the Sangtin Writers, the autobiographers, worked as village mobilizers for an Indian non-governmental organization for empowering rural women; the eighth, Richa Singh, was a program coordinator in the NGO; and Richa Nagar is a professor at the University of Minnesota. The group worked together for three years writing and discussing. The seven autobiographers write (often with pain) of their struggles (and sometimes failures) to overcome boundaries of caste, class, propriety, religion, education, and sexism. As children, wives, and daughters-in-law, they endure physical and emotional deprivation, heavy workloads, beatings, and mockery. The book is rich with reflections on the realities of being a poor girl or woman in rural Uttar Pradesh, including the special cruelties that come if you are Muslim or dalit, from an underprivileged caste "subject to practices of untouchability."

Toward the end we learn that, having overcome the boundaries in their own homes and communities, the Sangtin faced hierarchical boundaries within the NGO for which they worked. Higher rank in the organization meant better travel accommodations, special seats in meetings, higher allowances, higher salaries and outside credit for the work that is done. Indeed — as described in a postscript by Nagar — the Sangtin Writers were attacked by the organization for publishing the Hindi version of this book. The NGO was by no means unique in this, nor in its pandering to donor wishes, nor in its silencing the thoughts and insights of lower-ranked workers. "Playing with Fire" is at once an epic of women discovering their own strengths and weaknesses and learning to analyze and speak for themselves, and a cautionary tale of the dangers of  donor-funded "NGO-ization" in which an unaccountable elite presumes to speak for the dispossessed.

Previously on Faculty Nightstand: Professors Scott Saul, Julia Hastings, and David Presti

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