This essay is one of more than a dozen in this volume to honor the late Mary Margaret Steedly. The paper’s theme is “culture.” Steedly regarded stories as belonging to two distinct but entwined orders of reality: experience and memory. Since primary experience is always at the point of vanishing, it is only and inevitably through personal (and, in different ways, collective) memory that it can become publicly expressed and accessed anew. The two orders of reality coming together in narrative, for the act of recollection before an audience, whether real or fantasized, constitutes its own form of experience. This, in a roundabout way, brought Steedly back to “culture.” Stories became a privileged point of entry into culture as a manifold of potential significations that no individual storyteller ever grasps in its entirety, even though he or she is continuously in the midst of actualizing it. Not surprisingly, then, Steedly’s signature way of writing ethnography (one could say, of writing culture) was to retell someone else’s story for purposes of her own. And while her topics and concerns ranged widely, they inevitably included the textuality of the story itself: how it had been told, what had occasioned its telling, and how it had fared with its audience. Steedly veered subtly off the anthropologist’s traditional path of cultural translation toward what might be more aptly called “cultural transcreation.” Situating each story afresh, putting it in conversation with other sources of information—songs, genealogies, official records, authoritative accounts—she sought to open up an entire horizon of refracted significances before new audiences.
Volume & Issue:
Page range: 51-56
Cornell University Southeast Asia Program
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