Op-Ed & Interview
On Unreliable Narrators
The idea of a decision is a decision.
We build arguments around impermanence
But are not the sort of people to admit
—Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, from In the Absent Everyday
I have been thinking a lot about the idea of the “unreliable narrator” these days, and what it might mean for us ethnographers, careful raconteurs of others’ stories, intertwined as they are with our own. The idea of the unreliable narrator emerges in literature, theatre, and film as a tool of craft that plays with senses of credibility or believability, sometimes to trick the reader or the audience, other times to push the boundaries of a genre or challenge the cognitive strategies a reader might employ to make sense of the story she is being told. Although unreliable narrators may materialize through a third person frame, they are most commonly first person renderings. In the most facile sense, an unreliable narrator is biased, makes mistakes, lacks self-awareness, tells lies not of substance but of form. The device can also be used in a revelatory vein: to twist an expected ending, to demand that readers reconsider a point of view, to leave an audience wondering. Like our anthropological propensity to classify, literary theorists have done the same for the interlocutors of our imaginations. Types of unreliable narrators include the Madman, the Clown, and the Naif, to name a few. Others posit that the unreliable narrator as a device is best understood to fall along a spectrum of fallibility, beginning with the contours of trust and ending with specters of capriciousness (Olson 2003). This is the shape of a character as she defies the expectations of a reader, who then may well pass judgment on this scripted self.
In medicine, the figure of the unreliable narrator emerges – perhaps too often – as the patient: that suffering middle-aged woman whose pain seems to be located at once nowhere and everywhere; the veteran who describes his sense of displacement upon return from battle in ways that fail to align with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual’s latest definition of PTSD, but simply must be that. Equally possible though sometimes more difficult to capture is the physician as unreliable narrator: the resident, credentialed as culturally competent, who presumes an immigrant family is “clueless” as they take in the diagnosis of a rare genetic disorder as it presents in their toddler; the oncologist whose strives for optimism in the face of the latest clinical evidence, suggesting aggressive, experimental chemotherapy against the evidence that his patient is preparing for death. Each presents a distinct form of unreliability that has to do with the vulnerable spaces that arise in narrating suffering.
I have known Karchung (a pseudonym) for twenty years. Still, her quick wit arrests me. Over spiced tea and biscuits, we chat about the past and future of her high Himalayan home. In speaking of migrations and the transformation of local lives as many decamp to the global village that is New York, she remarks, “I remember visiting a cousin in Brooklyn about ten years ago. She was fresh from the village and couldn’t read in any language. In giving me directions to her apartment in Brooklyn, she told me to go in the direction of the tap je, the frying pan! She meant the ‘Q’ train.” We laugh, seeing a cast iron skillet emerge from the contours of a foreign alphabet, handle and all. I marvel at the brilliant absurdity of this human skill to not just read signs but to read into signs and, in the process, to make sense of an unfamiliar landscape. In other words, far from being an unreliable narrator, she is providing a reliable interpretation of an unreliable world.
My phone rings. The number signals Nepal. It is another friend who happens to be from the same village as Karchung and who I have also known for many years. He and his wife live comfortably between Kathmandu and his rural village. All five of their children now reside in the United States. He knows that Karchung and I are about to gather with other people originally from their Himalayan homeland, a place that is culturally and geographically contiguous with Tibet but home to Nepali citizens. Although he would not frame it as such, he has called me now, knowing that Karchung and I are together, to assert his own reliability as a narrator of social change in the face of Karchung’s assessments of cultural disorientation, emptying villages, plays of power and influence between Nepal and New York. “There is no place like our place in the whole world,” he says, passionate. This is the tail of a speech whose body is the need to support a local nunnery not just by renovating its structure, but also by supporting the nuns. Once we are off the phone, Karchung quips that he is disingenuous: “His own daughter was a nun, and he helped her escape those obligations to come to America.” True enough, I note. But does this space between lived reality and ideals undercut his reliability, his narrative and affective claims?
The following morning I gather with a group of Himalayan friends now living in New York, in part to share data from a recent stint of fieldwork in Nepal – an effort at my own reliable narration, this looping back. The conversation moves from feelings of identity confusion to claims to citizenship. Some people from this region essentially pretend to be Tibetan exiles, either those born in Nepal or born in Tibet, as a strategy for seeking political asylum in the US. Even though there is truth to their figurations of Tibetanness – they speak a Tibetan dialect, practice Tibetan Buddhism – and to forms of oppression this can produce in present-day Nepal, they sometimes risk becoming unreliable narrators as they spin stories of exile. This move can make them more believable in the eyes of state authorities familiar with this particular plot line of political suffering. But when a person finally claims a paragon of US citizenship – that blue passport – things come full circle. Where once there was a Nepali citizen with land to his name and a country to call home, the reliable unreliability of an exile story becomes indelibly marked on official papers. Place of birth: People’s Republic of China. In his efforts to claim a new land, America, he who once lived between this river and that mountain, who belonged to a village and to a nation-state, has become a new kind of refugee, narrating a history that has been split open and pieced together again. Yet we might also ask different questions about narrative unreliability here. Do a small number of falsified political asylum claims come to generate a larger collective truth through being told and retold? Do assertions that asylum applicants “lie” come to circulate freely as truth even when they might just as easily be gossip? Here, too, we find unreliable narrators of a different sort.
As the child of a contentious divorce, I came to see my parents as unreliable narrators. Perspectives that felt too fraught, too invested, troubled me. And yet, I was also asked to believe such perspectives as evidence of allegiance, if not expressions of love. Speaking of vulnerability, I think this childhood work has shaped how I have come to cultivate an anthropologist’s sense of truth as deeply felt, emotionally charged terrain that is as real as it is unreliable. Those visceral question of who to believe and what to rely on has framed many of the deeper senses of self that, when cloaked in my academic costume, fashions me as an ethnographer. Beyond the mantle of my profession, though, I acknowledge that residual ache of personal history – the desire to be a generous listener, to resist taking sides – which has coaxed me toward the use of dialogue, irony, and shifts between first, second, and third person as strategies for trustworthy storytelling. But does this make me an unreliable narrator more than the cultivation of critical distance might?
To be clear: being an unreliable narrator is not about being unbelievable. Nor is it about faith, or a loss of faith, in the most catholic (small c) sense of this term. Rather this notion of unreliability raises questions about what we can count on. Whether a reader or a patient, a key informant or a collaborator, a new immigrant or those at the other ends of place and kin – or even each of us as we perform the work of writing culture from one day to the next – we want to know we are supported. By “count on” I don’t just mean a predictable show of support but rather a more exposed investment in the possibility of someone’s truth, however shape-shifting that truth may be. Perhaps this is what Veena Das (2007) means when she talks about the work of acknowledgement against the pretense of understanding. What can we come back to? Where do we hold on?
Das, Veena, 2007. Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Olson, Greta. 2003. Reconsidering Unreliability: Fallible and Untrustworthy Narrators. In: Narrative. 11: 93–109.