Anthropologist Marjorie Shostak met Nisa in 1971 at the tail-end of a 20-month field stay in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert. Shostak knew a little about the !Kung prior to her journey, but felt that a large portion of their culture remained unknown.
How did they feel about themselves, their childhoods, their parents? Did spouses love one another; did they feel jealousy; did love survive marriage?…Were they afraid of growing old? Of death? Most of all, I was interested in !Kung women’s lives. What was it like being a woman in a culture so outwardly different from my own? What were the universals, if any, and how much would I be able to identify with?
She spoke to dozens of girls and women, but it wasn’t until meeting Nisa that Shostak found a storyteller with whom she could truly connect, and who she believed represented the life of a typical !Kung woman.
The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman is Nisa’s life story, told in her own words. Through Nisa, Shostak and the reader are able to experience !Kung life, both daily and over an entire lifetime.
Shostak’s book shows us that even though our lives may differ widely, all women are still connected via our mutual emotions and experiences.
I’ve always enjoyed anthropology and learning about other cultures, particularly when those cultures feel so far removed from my own. It’s also particularly fun for me to read about women’s lives; like Shostak, I wonder if there will be any commonalities despite our differences.
Nisa’s story shows there is. We’ve all experienced loss — of children, of parents — felt love and jealousy, dreamed, grown up, laughed, and told stories.
The book was a little difficult to get into. Nisa told her story more or less chronologically, but stream-of-consciousness has never been my favorite. Plus Nisa uses many expressions that require explanation (thank goodness for the index!) — I was probably five or six chapters in before I really felt hooked.
I found the book well structured. Each chapter covered a single main theme (“Earliest Memories,” “Marriage,” “Growing Older,” etc.), and began with a short introduction from Shostak that set up the context for that portion of Nisa’s story. Nisa discusses her own life; Shostak’s introductions detailed what life is like for the !Kung as a whole.
Nisa has an interesting personality, funny and sharp. She expresses herself well; even when she makes a point that’s already known, she manages to find a more powerful way to do it:
If there were only men, they would all die. Women make it possible for them to live. Women have something so good that if a man takes it and moves about inside it, he climaxes and is sustained.
I really enjoyed The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman, and hope to someday find a copy of the sequel, Return to Nisa.
(I read this book as part of Non-fiction November. Click the link to see posts from this and previous years!)