Storytelling in Northern Zambia
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Mark Turin

It is surprisingly difficult to tell a good story about storytelling. It is harder still to make the storytellers themselves come alive, helping their in situ oral performances flourish in text on a printed page. Robert Cancel achieves both of these goals, and more still. Storytelling in Northern Zambia is a masterful book in which Cancel grapples with collection, representation and fieldwork ethics, and a work that showcases the agency of his interlocutors.

At the centre of the monograph are the performers of specific oral narratives. Through a powerful repositioning that highlights the agency of these narrators, the author acknowledges common pitfalls when writing about fieldwork: “the more I wrote and translated, the more obscure the conditions of research and the contexts of the performances became.”

Through such reclamation, Cancel brings the documentary moment of gathering to the fore—‘capture’, as he calls it. Performance and collection become rooted in actual historical moments, replete with agendas, attitudes, histories and doubts. But just as Cancel ‘captures’ Zambian worlds on his recording device and through his writing, he too has been captured by the performers for their own ends. This re-capture is not cause for concern, but rather a first step in the rebalancing of traditionally lopsided power relationships. “Capture, if we are doing what we should be doing, is inevitable,” Cancel concludes.

Throughout the book, the author reflects with candour on his own position in the text and context. “My role,” Cancel suggests, “was primarily as an instigator, secondarily as a recorder.” At points he even portrays himself as “a simple functionary […] there to record whatever people chose to do.” Ever cautious and tentative in his own analysis, and mindful of “assertive interpretations based on incomplete or superficial data [that] only risk instances of essentialism,” Cancel is insightful and compassionate throughout.

The author describes the subtitle of his book as ironic—Theory, Method, Practice and Other Necessary Fictions—but it underlies a more serious point. Our scholarly frames of reference and our work practices need to be communicated transparently, both so that the voices of our research partners can be heard and to allow our colleagues and students to know more about the techniques of our work. Invoking anthropologist Michael Jackson, Cancel describes his study as one that emphasises storytelling over stories, with a focus on the “social process rather than the narrative activity” itself. In keeping with the shifting analytical frames he consistently employs, Cancel adds that he has also “kept the tales themselves in close focus, since these are indeed the products created by the storytellers.”

Cancel has crafted a sophisticated narrative about narration without lapsing into simply descriptivism or journalistic asides. His lasting lesson to the reader is “that people are not necessarily their performed stories—though in many ways they are “performing” themselves—and their lives do not begin and end when I arrive then leave.” Storytelling in Northern Zambia is a singular achievement, laying bare the complex realities of fieldwork. It is an excellent addition to the World Oral Literature Series with our committed partners at Open Book.


New Haven, Connecticut

May 2013