Power of Books
As an only child, I spent many hours with my head buried in a book. Growing up, my mother and I moved around often, landing in Chandler, Arizona, when I was 8. I sought the companionship of other adolescent, pre-teen characters written by Judy Blume and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I was a shy girl who proudly claimed a blue, ten-speed bike in front of my elementary school in 3rd grade after earning second place in a state-wide Read-a-thon. I remained the odd new girl throughout my elementary school years, like Margaret in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
We moved to Irvine, California, when I was 16. An immediate favorite high school teacher of mine, Mr. Mamer, taught a course “International Relations Post Cold War.” We learned about events closely linked to the images of a fallen wall I remembered watching from my living room television in Arizona. Throughout his lectures, Mr. Mamer rattled off book titles for those interested in learning more. I hurriedly filled my notebook margins with names like Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel. I devoured The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I was intrigued by imaginations of Prague, “The city of 100 spires” where citizens gathered in Václavské Námesti and shook their keys during the Velvet Revolution, cheering at the appearance of their future president, a former playwright who had written Letters to Olga and Living in Truth. A country that elected a writer as president seemed magical to this book worm.
As a first generation undergraduate at Berkeley, I was the rare breed who completed all reading assignments, and even dabbled in the recommended reading lists. Heeding the advice of a family friend, I stumbled into the world of cultural anthropology and its promised nomadic lifestyle, something I had already mastered. Margaret Mead’s classic ethnographies Coming of Age in Samoa and Sex and Temperament articulated the social constructions of gender roles, something I found liberating as a twenty-something college student. Also, the life of Margaret Mead modeled a potential academic pathway for a woman who did not necessarily conform to her own cultural norms. I felt inspired enough to major in anthropology, to follow the footsteps of Margaret Mead.
I enrolled in Laura Nader’s “Controlling Processes” course, which she has taught for over fifty years. I was excited to learn the first week’s reading assignment was George Orwell’s 1984 and Adolf Huxley’s Brave New World. We were instructed to highlight the passages that reflected controlling processes and my pen nearly ran dry as I confidently assumed I had already mastered the course’s premise. This class focused on mechanisms of power and how to unmask ideology and hegemony. A technophobe, Dr. Nader used to type my letters of recommendation to graduate school; she avoids email today and does not rely on power point presentations at national conferences. She described her pedagogy as “organized chaos” last November at the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting. As I did twenty years ago, I was joyfully inspired by Dr. Nader’s spunk, her fearless attack on modes of power. She continues to rattle off, just like Mr. Mamer had in high school, examples of current ethnographies that speak to power, that manage to capture the “big picture,” and my hand still furiously writes down her suggestions, which included The Thistle and the Drone, Ex-Apes, Facts on the Ground, and Fool’s Gold. She urged us professors of anthropology to make our courses chaotic and to trust that students will pick their interests out of our chaos. As an Assistant Professor, I hope to inspire students to glimpse at the workings of power in their daily lives.
As I spoke with various mentors about the possibility of pursuing a PhD in cultural anthropology, I came back to my earlier fascination with the Czech Republic. While traditional anthropologists worked with Native Americans or in far away exotic lands like Papua New Guinea, I also knew that only a few anthropologists had managed to conduct fieldwork in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. I wanted to do work like Gail Kligman, whose The Politics of Duplicity about Ceausescu’s Romania scarily echoed a real-life version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
In 2002, when I began my dissertation fieldwork at a Western Bohemian spa town, and I was immediately reminded of the beginning scene from Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, which opens to the doctor Tomás as he completes work at a spa town where he meets his future wife Tereza. I have spent well over a decade ethnographically researching various types of medical tourism that have sprouted up throughout the Czech Republic. While I doubt that my forthcoming ethnography Fertility Holidays will have the same staying force as Margaret Mead’s famous tracts, I hope that I have done justice to the educational foundation of important teachers like Mr. Mamer and Dr. Nader who urged me to trace power and understand social change in the readings I still rapidly consume and in my own writing.
Amy Speier is Assistant Professor of Anthropology specialising in reproductive health, globalization and medical tourism, at the University of Texas at Arlington. Her book, Fertility Holidays: IVF Tourism and the Reproduction of Whiteness was recently published by New York University Press (2016.)