“In the ethnographic memoire, an author takes us back to the corner of his or her life in the field that was unusually vivid, full of affect, or framed by unique events. By narrowing the lens, these authors provide a window into their personal lives in the field, a focus which would not be possible in a full-length autobiography.” - Barbara Tedlock, 77.
“No doubt I shall worry myself that I am taking too long getting started, and shall seriously distress myself over my inability to create an organic, mutually sustaining and dependent, and as it were musical, form: but I must remind myself that I started with the first word I wrote, and that the centers of my subject are shifty; and, again, that I am no better an “artist” than I am capable of being, under these circumstances, perhaps under any other, and that this again will find its measurement in the facts as they are, and will contribute its own measure, whatever it may be, to the pattern of the effort and truth as a whole” - James Agee, 8.
Finding the place required a fair amount of asking and turning around and quick embarrassments of starting down the wrong alleyway and realizing (upon smelling hot oil and wilting chop-suey) that this was not where I could get my residency status approved. About 50 meters from the intersection of Rue Bons Enfants and Rue Augustin Archambaud was a wrought-iron gate, about 30 centimeters ajar. The rods, thick with layers of dark enamel were about the diameter of the swollen fingers that grasped them (hoping desperately that this was at last it). The vertical lines reached up somewhat higher than the residential lots to either side. The oval crest of a governmental entity anchored the dignity of this gate whose grandeur dwarfed the small cluster of wood paneled concrete buildings beyond it. The gate seemed not to open or close habitually, so I squeezed through, disregarding the potential reading of my actions as trespassing.
Set within an overgrown courtyard, the cement driveway seemed to be crumbling back into the volcanic matter from which it was cast as it sloped down to the right. Although I glanced at the other buildings, all equally empty of life, my steps along the path coerced my body in the direction of the low- laying, unceremonial rectangle. The building was awkwardly attempting to bridge the officialness of its office with the folkiness of its public through its architecture: this generic structure was trimmed with a pattern of stamped sheet metal, a tropical version of the frosting lining a gingerbread roof. This lace-like tin was a cheap imitation of the carved wood fringe found on “Cases Créoles” the kind of wooden houses of early settlers of Réunion Island. Directly below this were the windows of the French doors which allowed a generous view into the plain interior: blank beige walls, a crowding of seats along the perimeter squeezed out of the center by several massive desks flush against each other creating a huge surface area but no practical access to their function much less the ability to traverse the room. I wondered how a pregnant woman would even approach what seemed to be the head desk. As my eyes adjusted from far to near sight, they discovered a piece of dimpled office paper with faded marker serving as the only indication that I had at last found my destination.
The Sous-Préfecture of Saint Pierre.
Hours of operation 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays ONLY
It was 6:40 -- it was Monday -- I had found it. As I held in the breath of satisfaction, scratchy footsteps of high heels braving that driveway stopped suddenly and then their owner brushed past my shoulder heading straight for the spot directly to the right of the door. Apparently this spot was ‘first in line’ and her sideways glance and clenched handbag confirmed her purpose. Other steps follow within seconds, it seems, as cattle let out of a coral. Perplexed at the rush (for there was an hour and a half before the doors would be unlocked) and never wanting to appear mindless in a herd, I scan the courtyard for a place to sit and go through my folder again. Bank account statement- check- notarized letter from landlords- check- proof of employment- check- passport- check… I shuffle the pages, reordering them in an ever-evolving logic of organization, shifting papers almost as often as my heavy body on the chunk of concrete I had found to rest.
The heat is stifling and imposing like the grandmère who heaps on thick blankets despite the searing skin of a feverish body; a heat intensified by the approaching mid morning sun from which those who have spent time, indeed lived within this volcanic crater from their birth, would repel, dash away, finding any barrier (the sports pages of the Journal de l’ile, the side of a building, a broad banana leaf) with which to block the very object of desire for many a pale vacationer.
10:36 - The gates are rolled aside (they do move after all!) a wide, dark grey BMW ambles into the courtyard, tilts as it rolls towards the waiting group of people on the careening path. A middle age woman in a dark suit emerges tensely from the driver’s side, tugs down at her jacket’s hem, and gathers an armful of folders as she heads into the crowd. I adjust the strap supporting the bulge on my abdomen, contemplating following her now or waiting until the crowd thins. The air is tense as it is hot, bodies do not move out of her way, heads look up in relief and disgust as she fumbles with the keys and makes the assertion “No one may enter until I have set up my desk… in about 5 minutes.” Eyes roll. Sighs are pushed out of tense lips. Crossed arms tighten a little more. Finally we are permitted to enter and as if reversing the events of hours earlier, the crowd pushes inward, fighting for a good place in line. Eventually everyone has received a number, the dust settles, and nerves are internalized again.
In this room masses of humid air hover around the shoulders of immobile bodies. I am seated third from the door along the western wall which is lined in its entirety with narrow-seated plastic chairs. The heat causes a geiser of sweat out of the pores upon even the slightest contact between the external sides of two arms at once fermenting my armpits as my limbs bolster my weak frame. There is no space between bodies, which have all generally assumed a slumped posture, reflecting their state of being: somewhere between sullen and anxious. Most of the people present seem to endure the slippery and itchy contact with each other- there are greater concerns at hand. The conversation in the room is kept to a low mumble between a couple across from where I am sitting, an occasional shriek from the infant in my lap or the insistent pleading of a toddler for coka or his sisters plush nounou. By contrast the woman at the desk seems to bellow her instructions: “Non, Monsieur, you are going to have to come back with more sufficient evidence of your conjugal relations…”
“Excusez-moi, Mademoiselle, is there a WC here?” A low creaking of her seat and feint crease along side the corner of her mouth, the young Malagasy woman next to me presses her papers deep into her lower abdomen as she gestures with the other hand “Là-bàs.” She seems to be enduring the same general discomfort of knowing that her status is also quite literally in limbo.
Agee, J. & Evans, W. (1939, 2001). Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Mariner Books: New York, NY.
Tedlock, Barbara. “From Participant Observation to the Observation of Participation: The Emergence of Narrative Ethnography,” Journal of Anthropological Research. 47 (1), 1991: 77.