A Day in the (Fictional) Life

The following is the ethnographic translation of the below field notes that you asked for, taken during one of my days of observation here in Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland.  It is presented here as requested, incomplete, but I do hope that you find the details as riveting and nuanced as I do.  I also sincerely hope that my conclusions will be enough to justify further monetary support.

rule 1rule 2 rule 3

08:02 AM

I was applauded this morning whilst crossing the street by a group of women dressed in ornate pink and red costumes.  One was wearing a tiara, and I presumed she was the leader and/or of some lesser-ranked royal class.  I was embarrassed to have been a part of their group, and slightly disappointed that I might have too closely become a participant.  When I reached the opposite side of the street, I moved past the women and hid myself behind a tree so as to better view their actions without too destructively intervening.  As I did this, the lower ranked of the two smiled at me with what I can only presume was either a gesture of greeting, or dominance.

The two women were then greeted themeselves by an individual dressed in a dark green coat, long in the sleeves, and that reached down below her knees.  I thought this choice of garment was odd as it was neither raining, nor cloudy.  I have periodically found myself considering the oddity that is the dress habits of these natives, as they tend to adorn themselves in often drab woollen accoutrements based on an assumption (either via lived experience or prophetic divination) about what type of weather might actually occur, rather than for what is actually occurring.

The green woman handed the leader of the pink and red women a paper cup filled with a yellow-tinted libation.

This exchange, as well as the ceremony that followed, is worth noting in detail:

The crowned woman drank first.  She sipped lightly at the libation, then handed the cup to her subordinate, who equally sipped lightly.  They both seemed to have found the contents pleasing as they happily thanked the green woman.  Then, they each drank again in turn.  The crowned woman made an intriguing gesture, tipping the cup toward the green woman, who nodded her head forward in response.  The red and pink women then continued walking, sharing the cup back and forth until it was empty.  I followed, cautiously.  At this point, the subordinate woman crushed the cup in her left (dominant, it seemed) hand and dropped it against the wall of a merchant shop that specialised in a local delicacy the natives affectionately refer to as ‘chippy.’  (It is an acquired taste).  The two women then began to move quicker, laughing to one another.  When I examined the cup I noted the contents to be sweet and slightly chemical, like alcohol.  I tried in earnest not to disturb the cup, as I did not wish to interrupt, and thus become a part of, the ritual.  

Given the age of the two women, the colour of their garments, and their body shapes, I believe an educated hypothesis about this ritual might conclude that this was a type of fertility act.  In fact, from previous observations, I am confident in the assumption that these women were performing a liminal transformation, akin to a removal of oneself into the wilderness, only to return an acknowledged member of the tribe.  As I myself returned to my original position this hypothesis became even more valid as a large group of similarly dressed red and pink women appeared on the opposite end of the street.  I noted in my journal that the green woman excitedly began preparing more libations from a glass bottle with the label scratched off and a box of what looked to be some kind of juice.  As there is indeed much more that I could describe of the interactions and dialogues that occurred once this group of women crossed the street, I will leave here further confident in my impression that I inadvertently discovered a festival devoted entirely to a fertility act.

More on this to follow.


A few notes on the customs that I have witnessed in my time here.  I have broken these into ‘rules,’ because, as you know, it feels easier for me to delineate the imponderabilia of these people in particular categories.

Rule 1: There is always a hill.

Edinburgh is a city of hills.  There is always a hill.  Even when one climbs to the apex of one of the ritually sacred hills (I have counted at least four thus far), there still seems to be a hill to further climb.  I have noted that a number of the visitors who come here to explore the mysterious culture of the Scotspeople take to wearing clothing suitable to such a geographical landscape.  I have counted an immeasurable amount of hiking boots and trousers and jackets to match.  They seem to have all invested in large brim, thin, flopping hats.  I even once saw a man using two walking canes.  Such is the terrain of this environment.

The locals, of course, seem not dissuaded by the hills here.  Even to the point of stubbornness.  I have taken to using many of the transport options available to the native and visitor alike to make my way through the city, but the natives insist on walking.

Interesting point to support this: in the last few years, the tribal elders gathered and financed the construction and instalment of a tram system.  The natives have not taken to using it, to the point of insistence, and even protest at times.  Perhaps this is due, as I have decided, to the fact that it only leads in a single direction, and thus seems rather pointless.  Either way, their familiarity with the hills of this city seems ingrained within their genes.  It is indeed an intriguing aspect to their cultural identity.

Rule 2: Someone is always behind you.

I walk quite often here, making useful observations of the natives and their interactions with each other and the visitors alike.  However, I have found myself, repeatedly, and without fail, being followed.  This does not, of course, mean that I am actually being followed, but that there is always someone walking behind me.

I’ve found this to be such a frequent occurrence that I have named it the ‘Edinburgh phenomenon.’  I will look more into this through the remainder of my research here.

Rule 3: The heaters are always on.

It is no secret that the weather here can be a bit rain-soaked and blustery.  The natives have a number of terms for these weather patterns, ‘dreach’ and ‘haar’ being the most often ones that I have heard thus far.  The latter is a name given to a low and choking fog that rolls in and blankets everything in sight.  The former is difficult to translate.  One of my informants tried to roughly define it as: “the weather is terrible and cold and it is raining, I think I’ll have a lie in today.”

Given this type of weather, the natives tend to always have their heaters on.  They likewise will usually be adorned in woollen garments.  This makes it difficult for an outsider such as myself to acclimate to the sweating.  Even on days when the sun is out and it is warm, without fail, the heaters will be on.  While I have tried to guard myself from too subjectively being influenced by this, it has proven to be the hardest part of my observations.

I am always sweating.


This evening I took a bus to one of the city’s secular sanctuaries.  It is called ‘Usher Hall,’ but I believe the natives pronounce it ‘Oosher Heel.’  I’m not entirely certain, and will look into this more.

On the bus I noticed two oddities.

  1. An elderly woman was obsessively engaged in picking out the blue embroidery from a white towel.  She was using a pair of scissors and cutting it loose, then depositing the blue thread on the floor of the bus.  On closer inspection, I believe it was a hotel towel.
  2. An elderly man came onto the bus, muttering to himself in a native dialect that is difficult to make out, even with my extensive language study.  I’ve been told it’s what is called ‘Leither,’ but have yet to source from where this originates.  He remained standing during the entire bus ride, busying himself by the buses entrance.  I moved seats to better observe him and found that he was removing the discarded bus tickets from out of a red plastic bucket, flattening them in his hands, and then eating them one by one.

At Oosher Heel I sat amongst a few of my informants who had invited me to hear a reading from a fellow American, a humorist named David Sedaris.  They were quite fond of him, and I took this as a compliment based on their views of my own culture.  Overall I felt this experience definitely bonded me with them, and I look forward to the cultural observations I will achieve via this friendship.

During the reading a remarkable realisation came to me that I will transcribe in full:

At one point David Sedaris was telling a story about how he likes to pick up trash in the village in which he lives in England (apparently he is conducting his own research).  His deeds were so welcomed by the natives in his area that he was invited to the Queen’s Palace for lunch.  While the story he told was quite humorous, and while I do not intend to bastardise it here, what stood out to me was the reaction of a number of the natives in the audience.  When Sedaris said ‘the Queen,’ people booed in a critical tone.  I had been warned that these natives were no fans of the Queen of England, but I was not expecting them to be so vocal about it.  It then occurred to me that they were doing more than just booing, they were being supportive of their own queen, whom I had likely observed earlier this morning, the one in the tiara.  This realisation has altered my perception of this morning’s fertility ritual.  I will thusly be re-focusing my research on locating this queen, and will alert you further on my successes. 

Best from the field,

–E.G. Quillen

PS: please ensure the grant proposal goes through, I am indeed sure that I have stumbled upon an essential aspect of this culture and fully intend to further explicate its meaning.


We’re All Novelists.

Last week I was sitting in the bar at the Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh, enjoying a glass of wine, when my drinking companion pointed out that she suddenly felt special.  On every table in the bar was a small glass vase, inside of which was a yellow gerber daisy.  The vase on our table had two.

It was a relatively warm day, and since spring tends to come later than usual in Edinburgh, these little flowers were a nice touch.

The bar itself was fairly crowded for a weekday afternoon.  The King and I, starring Yul Brenner, was playing on the television.  The sound was turned off.

I commented to my companion that on certain occasions, like this one, I like to imagine the world (everything) as part of some great novel.  In moments like these it almost feels like you can see the crossover between fact and fiction, as if the world suddenly seems to have been quite specifically designed, ‘put together’ for metaphorical effect.  On the table behind us, against the wall, two men were engaged in a heated conversation.  It wasn’t an argument taking place between them, but rather one they were sharing about something else.  They were both sitting forward, arms resting on knees, their language peppered with indignant terminology.  “It’s not fair,” said one.  “It’s criminal,” said the other.

Their conversation carried on like this for a while, until their raised voices began to melt into the background.  However, something interesting about them stood out to me, something that prompted my seeing our surroundings through the novelist’s eye.  Everything about the scene within which they were acting appeared to compliment their shared mood.  Their body language was rigid and combative, the language in their discourse was atonally violent.  They seemed to be heating the room, and I got the sense when looking at them as if they were somehow marginalised to the back corner, isolated in their misery by their own choosing.  They looked like characters, constructed for a purpose, like representatives of discomfort or despair or hardship.  They were almost cliche, like action figures of a novelist’s tableau.

On their table, the yellow gerber daisy was wilted and dead.

This week I submitted my doctoral Thesis.

Roughly 90,000 words of four year’s research.  After I submitted the copies necessary to the School of Divinity, I passed around my own copy at the bar.  At dinner that night, it sat on the table at a spare place setting, like an empty plate waiting to be bussed away.  This felt like another one of those occasions where my life felt like a novel, and it reminded me about how I found myself writing about fiction.

At some point in the early stages of my PhD I suddenly decided I wanted to do something with fiction.  As I had come to Edinburgh to study Atheism, combining these two interests seemed like a fun idea, that made no real sense.  It took a few years to figure it out.

Originally, I had come to do an ethnographic study of the Humanist Society of Scotland, but soon my interest in this subject waned as I began to plot out how I might turn that into a Thesis.  As well, because Atheism is such a new topic of interest in the world of academia, I found that there wasn’t much of a foundational base in the ‘anthropology of Atheism’ on which to build my own.  Defining the term was bad enough, but defining how we might study individuals who use ‘Atheist terminology’ in a broad and abstract manner is even worse.  So, instead of following what some might consider the ‘academic route,’ I turned toward fiction.

On so many occasions over the years I’ve found myself either taking or tutoring courses that use a novel as a source for the subject being taught.  I once took an American history class where every text was a novel.  We read Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to discuss the political and civic alterations taking place at the turn of the century; Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath to discuss the Great Depression; Yate’s Revolutionary Road to discuss the lost sense of identity discovered by many during the mid to late 1950s; and O’Brien’s The Things they Carried to discuss the harsh realities of the war in Vietnam.  Here in Edinburgh, we’ve had some great success with our course on Religious and Ethical Debates in Contemporary Fiction, which I have written about a bit already.

Not only did I want to use fiction in this same way, I wanted to elucidate a deeper meaning about why we might use the novel in this capacity, as well as how that might be accomplished.

I took as my focus the use of a novel (two, actually) as an ethnographic text.  This required a number of establishing details, which I separated into three ‘pillars:’ a discussion on how ethnographic texts are constructed, and the literary focus adopted into that methodology in the 1980s via the sorts of theoretical arguments started by Clifford and writing cultureMarcus’ Writing Culture; a discussion about how novels are critiqued within the context of specialised fields in Literary Theory; and the manner with which we approach concepts, especially when they are attached to religious identity construction, within the context of an anthropological analysis.  By marrying the first two into a methodological approach, that is then theoretically supported by the third pillar’s focus on the concept ‘Atheism,’ I created a means with which we might read a novel ‘ethnographically.’  I called this ‘Ethnographic Criticism.’  I’ll likely write much more about this, and how it is done, in future posts.

While my use of Ethnographic Criticism seemed rather successful in regard to using fiction as an ‘ethnographic source’ of British Atheist identity (though any certainty about that must wait until after the Viva), there arose in the process a rather precarious defect.  This has to deal with the role of the author in the construction of an ethnographic text, and how our acknowledging that role shapes the way in which we read his or her ethnography.

For example, if an ethnography is written in an omniscient voice, adopting the strict objectivity we find in classic texts like Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific, the culture argonautswe read there is presented in a manner quite different from an ethnography written from a reflexive first-person perspective, such as we find in the ‘ethnographic novels’ of Michael Jackson, Timothy Knab, and Richard and Sally Price.  In the latter this is greatly determined by what Geertz (Works and Lives, 1988, 8-9) refers to as the ‘signature of the author,’ or ‘author-function,’ which he borrows from Foucault.  Recognising the enigma variationsauthor’s role in writing the text, and thus in also recognising that the text has been ‘authored,’ means that our perception of the culture within the text is dictated by our acknowledgement that it is an artifice, designed and structured by an intermediary.  Thus, when it comes to reading a novel ‘as ethnography,’ our perception of the culture being represented is equally dictated by our acknowledging the author’s role in writing the text in the first place.  Where we might simply look at how the author (let’s say Ian McEwan) designed his novel (let’s say Enduring Love) with an intention based enduring loveon his own discourse, context, and opinions, this is much less simplistic when we consider the ‘author’s signature’ in a novel written from a first-person perspective (such as in Enduring Love).

In other words, where reading a novel as ethnography would require our acceptance and comprehension of McEwan’s role in shaping it from his imagination, when written from a first-person perspective, that novel ceases being written by McEwan at all.  That is, it becomes something more akin to the first-person ethnographic novels cited above.  In this way, it is no longer a novel.  It becomes an ‘auto-ethnography,’ a text written by an individual within the context being depicted, who is writing about his or her own culture.  Thus, McEwan ceases to exist.  The text we are reading is now a text written by an individual who might now be perceived as ‘actually’ existing.  Which also means that the novel equally transmutes out of the realm of ‘fiction.’  This has repercussions on a number of levels.

If the novel ceases being a novel, then Ethnographic Criticism isn’t actually reading a novel ‘ethnographically.’  Likewise, if McEwan ceases being the novelist who created the text, then the lead character narrating his or her story is now suddenly ‘real.’  Brought together, these two issues determine even larger ones concerning how we perceive texts (like ethnographies) as representing fiction, non-fiction, or something somewhere in between.  In this way, we might actually start to believe, because a ‘text’ in each and every instance is something both made-from (designed via research and data) and made-up (invented from one’s imagination), that everything is fiction.

This is, in essence, part of the focus of my Thesis.  Again, I’ll discuss more of this later.

Next week two friends of ours will be defending their Theses.

Some time ago, one of them shared this Tumblr page with me, with this particular post:

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 18.59.55http://wheninacademia.tumblr.com/post/85825733964/when-you-write-a-secret-novel-while-youre

I love the idea of a ‘secret novel,’ as if writing fiction is something we’re just not meant to do.  We’re academics.  We write facts, not fiction.  Our work is empirical and objective.  It isn’t just ‘made-up.’

I find myself disagreeing with this now.  Four years of reading and writing and thinking about the thin pragmatic line we maintain between fiction and non-fiction has brought me to a somewhat vague conclusion.  Everything, I’d argue, is fiction.  This doesn’t mean that everything is the product of imagination, solely made-up and invented with no connection to what is ‘real,’ but it also doesn’t mean that imagination is entirely left out of it.  When we sit down to write a wholly objective text, we are still imagining how it will take shape.  It’s still designed.  It is still an artifice, no matter how empirical we are about its creation.

A thesis is no different.

A thesis is, just as much as McEwan’s Enduring Love, a novel.  We’re all novelists, merely by the fact that we are writers.  Our novels are a particular genre.  So, the idea of a secret novel is not that secretive at all.

Here’s an example.  A good friend of mine (Jonathan Tuckett) just successfully defended his thesis and passed his viva.  His focus was on phenomenology, and the text he produced was very ‘academic.’  Yet, it was designed to tell a particular story.  On one level it told the story of his research, defending his argument, a narrative driven by a plot that came to a particular conclusion.  On another, it told the story of his research, of his efforts in proving his knowledge and expertise on the subject.

Whilst he was writing this novel, farholthe was writing another (and likely others, he’s quite the wordsmith).  That second novel was published recently.  It is the first of a saga, titled: The Mystery of Farholt.  You can read more about this, and his other ‘fictions’ here: https://johnstonewilson.wordpress.com

I use him as an example because his writing works well for my argument.  Both of the texts produced by Jonathan are novels, designed and created by an individual employing the art of writing to tell a particular story.

As well, the fact that each represent a plotted narrative designed for a particular purpose furthers my argument that everything is fiction.  How we determine the meaning of that term in relation to the ‘fiction’ of Jonathan’s thesis and The Mystery of Farholt, is merely a difference of genre distinction.  Therefore, I will conclude here by once again arguing that, because we are writers, and because what we are writing is fictitious in its being written, we are all novelists.  There’s nothing really secretive about that.  In fact, when you look around, there’s usually good evidence for the idea that not only is everything fiction, but that we are all of us living within novels of our own devising.