How the anthropologist learned to tell stories

The natives are getting restless at the poor quality of the anthropologist’s stories. In all his years of schooling, he never stopped to consider how difficult the informant’s job might be: anthropologist and informant were two very different things, he’d thought. But in Imbonggu society, one listens in order to learn how to embroider. And if he wants to hear their stories, he has to tell some of his own. That’s how it works.

So the anthropologist, an American, tells them about Paul Bunyan, about George Washington. Well, they can see how a big blue ox would make giant footprints, but so what? What’s the upshot? And they can certainly understand how a young man might want to test parental authority by chopping down a valuable tree — so far, so good. But the punch line completely eludes them. He told the truth? Why? Perhaps these white people simply lack the imagination to tell a good story!

Then the anthropologist happens upon a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. What the hell, he says to himself, I’ve tried everything else — why not the author of “The White Man’s Burden”? So the next time his neighbors drop in to share the warmth of his hearth, he regales them with Just So Stories. They’re delighted. “The white man can tell stories after all!” they whisper.

When he first headed off to the New Guinea highlands, his parents were distraught. They and everyone else back home were afraid he would get eaten by cannibals, just like Michael Rockefeller. Well, who doesn’t want to eat the rich? But the anthropologist was just a poor graduate student then. Not much to him. He had that lean and hungry look.

After he settled in among his hosts, he was shocked to find that they quite agreed with his parents: the countryside swarmed with cannibals and sorcerers! They infested all the surrounding clans, not to mention people farther away who spoke incomprehensible gibberish — topsy-turvy places where people laughed when someone died and wept inconsolably at the purchase of a new truck. Once, when he returned from a prolonged trip to the coast, his neighbors shrieked and hid, thinking that they must be seeing his ghost.

No, the Imbonggu were unanimous: the anthropologist was only really safe among the Imbonggu. He had nothing to fear but his own untutored cravings. Because white men are themselves notorious eaters of flesh — or so he heard one mother tell her child when the child would not behave. She was making noise when she should have been listening to the grown-ups’ stories, and now it was time to frighten her into submission. Be quiet, child, said the mother, or the white man will eat you!

Her daughter looked skeptical, so the mother elaborated. Hadn’t she seen how their airplanes swallowed human beings through gaping holes in their sides? Every year, young men from the villages get on airplanes and fly away to Port Moresby, never to return. Or, if on rare occasions they did return, they wore the white man’s clothes and wristwatch and carried machines that played the white man’s music: clearly ensorcelled. Their souls had been stolen to flavor some rich white man’s stew.

The child backed away from the anthropologist, her eyes big as platters. Did he not arrive on an airplane? her mother hissed.

Based on the stories anthropologist William E. Wormsley tells on himself in his marvellous book,THE WHITE MAN WILL EAT YOU! An anthropologist among the Imbonggu of New Guinea, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993.

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