An all-too-familiar memoir of cultural clash, misperceptions, and Western gall, told by a husband-and-wife team. Looking for a tribe to study for her dissertation, Gottlieb (Anthropology/University of Illinois) lighted on the Beng of the Ivory Coast rain forest. Despite their small numbers, the Beng offered everything that Gottlieb required: anonymity, animist religion, and isolation from the westernizing influence of the large West African cities where French is spoken and locals snack on baguettes instead of yams. Financed by the usual grants, equipped with the usual plethora of academic and tropical gear, and enduring the usual delays in acquiring permits, Gottlieb and Graham (Creative Writing/University of Illinois) finally arrived in the small village of KosangbÇ. They were to spend a year there, Gottlieb gathering material for her dissertation and Graham writing—he'd already published stories, including one in The New Yorker. In alternating sections here, the two record their experiences of settling into a village understandably hostile to their constant questions and very presence; of learning a new language and way of life; of dealing with emergencies as big as the near-fatal snakebite of a small child and as minor as the breaking of a taboo by sniffing the contents of cooking pots; and of coming to appreciate the intense belief in a hidden spirit world that inexorably shaped the villagers' daily lives. This is the ``invisible world'' that, Graham says, makes artists, as well as the villagers, experience ``parallel'' lives. But the couple finally understand that, despite their best intentions, inevitably infused with Western naivetÇ, there would always be ``some invisible border that prevented full citizenship in the Beng circle.'' Graham's words add a refreshing sensitivity to Gottlieb's more precise narrative, but neither author offers surprises, just the usual trials and tribulations of fieldwork. Still, for fans of the genre, a satisfying read.
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