This short commentary, addressing your book Life Beside Itself, has taken the form of a letter. And I begin it by admitting that I am now more a collector of letters than a writer of them. I used to be a prolific writer of letters, penned when I was far away from the addressee. My letters accounted for an absence, but they also tried to open up or maintain a presence. I stopped writing letters after one of them was returned to me, unopened, the word “deceased” scrawled on the face of the envelop.
Life Beside Itself returns me to the letter.
In your discussion of Inuit voices on tape you write, “A daughter says to her mother, ‘I don’t know what to say, Mom, so I’m just going to say hello and goodbye, Mom.’” I kept returning to that single sentence, which speaks so beautifully to the “moments of doubt, of hesitation” emphasized in your mode of anthropological listening. And I kept thinking about how that voice traveled a great distance, across decades of cold and snow, and how it retains its uncertainty and warmth because of your sensitivity to its texture. Your writing takes on the sentiment of that voice. It takes on the vulnerability of connection within the letter.
Reading your book, I was struck by how, as a form of correspondence, the tapes you describe do not call for a response, as letters often do. This mode of interaction seems to be shaped less by matters of practicality, colonial power or biography (although these matters are never absent) and more about a corresponding ethics of care. The daughter’s unrequited message enacts a form of care. It also speaks to the partial, enigmatic nature of the archive, and the practice and ethics of attending to it.
Your book made me reflect on the way words, images and objects stay with us—like the raven/uncle perched on a tree, beyond a window. It is still there, your friend tells you, constantly playing on the boundaries between death and life, fantasy and reality, stillness and flight. Your book is a lens from which to perceive this ambiguous presence, which is also a form of remembrance, both comforting and haunting.
After I read your book I dug up the letter that was returned to me, the white envelop now yellow with age. My handwriting was different then, smaller and more careful. I placed the letter in a frame, which sits on my desk. It watches over me as I write this letter to you.
Angela Garcia is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University.