Writing through Political Despair: A Case for Ethnographic Fiction, A Guest Post by Kristen Ghodsee

Five years ago, I began writing a series of essays and short stories to reflect on the upcoming centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution. I wanted to better understand the contemporary legacies of 20th century state socialism in Eastern Europe. At the time, I was living in the city of Jena where the long, dark days of the Eastern German winter kept me huddled indoors listening to David Bowie’s Blackstar on autorepeat.

I’d been reading about the post-WWII denazification process and comparing it to the later de-communization programs that allowed government officials of newly reunified Germany to purge thousands of former members of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) from their jobs after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. These state-organized lustration efforts targeted professors in East German universities, and even mathematicians and natural scientists found themselves summarily dismissed and replaced by West German academics considered untainted by the Marxist politics of the previous regime.

At stake was the moral standing of professors who had either actively or passively collaborated with totalitarianism and whether they could be trusted to educate the next generation of East Germans into the habits of mind necessary for liberal democracy and free market capitalism. Many East German scholars had only joined the SED because they had no choice; professors and academic researchers were expected to be party members in good standing. But during the lustration process, West German leaders insisted that no educators tainted by the previous ideology should have an opportunity to corrupt the minds of the young.

At the same time, I watched the American presidential primaries from afar. An ever-sinking premonition had me convinced that Donald Trump would win the Republication nomination. My German colleagues chastised me for being paranoid and opined that Americans would never be so reckless as to elected someone like Trump to the White House. But by March 2016, when only Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich remained in the race, I had recurrent nightmares about my country under a Trump presidency even as my German and American peers continued to roll their eyes at my alarmist predictions.

I began writing “Interview with a Former Member of the United States Democratic Party” as a way of working through my political despondency. I imagined myself as someone being judged for their lack of resistance to (and thereby tacit collaboration with) a political regime which had been subsequently deemed “evil.” I set the story in 2029, make-believing that someone named Daniel Drumph, Jr. had passed a constitutional amendment allowing him to remain president indefinitely. National Guardsman massacred peaceful demonstrators in Washington and a wave of American intellectuals and anti-Drumph dissidents were seeking political asylum in Germany.

I sat in judgment on myself the way I imagined so many East European intellectuals might have been judged after 1989. The story takes the form of a letter written by a representative of the “Federal Ministry of Immigration and Resettlement” who is reviewing my case. Based on two interviews with me, he works up a recommendation about whether I should be allowed to hold an academic post in a German university even though I was a “former member of the United States Democratic Party.”

I included the story in the manuscript submitted to Duke University Press in May after Trump had clinched the nomination but most observers still believed that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency. The reactions to the story by the anonymous reviewers were mixed. One reviewer felt that the story painted a dystopian and apocalyptic scenario. Although this reader shared my “dark, neurotic forebodings” and “the same creepy Weimaresque feeling” about current political events, they also felt that the story would be “very controversial.”

The second reviewer felt the piece did not fit well into the overall collection. Although they agreed that the story provided “a useful tool for revealing how easy it is for a citizenry to be complicit with state actions,” they felt it also ran “the risk of apologism” for state socialism.

After a thoughtful conversation with my editor, Courtney Berger, I decided to cut the story.  We agreed that it was perhaps too controversial and that no one would remember that Donald Trump was the Republican nominee by the time the book came out in October 2017. Scholarly prudence demanded that I keep my “dark, neurotic forebodings” to myself.

Then on November 10, 2016, I emailed Courtney this note: “So as I crawl out from under the mountain of despair, I am thinking about my “Interview” story.  I know the book is already in production, but is there any possible way to reinsert the story, even as an afterword?  Just feeling like this nightmare is going to get a whole hell of a lot worse before it gets better.”

“I know, Kristen, I know,” Courtney replied. Luckily, the manuscript had not yet been sent out for copyediting; she gave me twenty-four hours to deliver the final version of the story which appeared as chapter thirteen of Red Hangover: Legacies of Twentieth-Century Communism.

978-0-8223-6949-3_prLast week, almost exactly five years after I began writing Red Hangover, I watched live footage of a pro-Trump mob storming the Capitol building in what felt eerily reminiscent of the colored revolutions that once brought regime change to Eastern Europe. When I look back at the “Interview” story today, I think we are even closer to regime change in the United States than we were then. My forebodings remain decidedly dark and neurotic. For those of us who study the histories and societies of state socialism in Eastern Europe, we know that superpowers can collapse without warning and that the human costs of these collapses are severe.  

Lately, I’ve been listening to Pete Seeger’s “My name is Lisa Kalvelage” on autorepeat, still struggling with that “creepy Weimaresque feeling.” If our democracy collapses and these United States of America cease to exist as a unified and functioning country, I will be forever grateful to Courtney for letting me slip the “Interview” story into the book at the last minute.

I think it highlights the importance of ethnographic fiction, a genre that allows us to enrich our critical imaginations by conjuring potential futures through the creative interplay of history, politics, and cultural interpretation as a supplement to theoretically driven empirical analyses. Duke University Press has kindly agreed to make this story freely available on its website. I hope it inspires other ethnographers to write more experimentally (and that we’ll all be granted political asylum somewhere when the time comes).

Kristen Ghodsee is Professor of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of a number of books including Second World, Second Sex: Socialist Women’s Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War (2019), Red Hangover: Legacies of Twentieth-Century Communism (2017), The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe (2015), Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism (2011), and The Red Riviera: Gender, Tourism, and Postsocialism on the Black Sea (2005). She is also a contributor to the volume Writing Anthropology: Essays on Craft and Commitment (2020), which features fifty-two essays on anthropological writing.

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