Exploring ethnographic memoir and new hybrid nonfiction forms

(Guest Post by Chris Urquhart)

How do you place yourself in your writing? Do you see yourself an authority? A participant? An outsider? Do you intentionally leave yourself out of your work, and if so, how does this affect the validity and accuracy of your storytelling? In my recent masterclass at Historic Joy Kogawa House, we examined issues surrounding the representation of others, especially vulnerable populations, within the nonfiction form, and discussed the new hybrid forms currently emerging, which mix ethnographic and anthropological approaches with memoir and first-person reportage. I feel blessed to have been offered such a tranquil and historically rich space to excavate these fascinating concepts within (and during the cherry-blooming season, nonetheless).

Example of a tramp map completed by a young traveller, Dirt, who outlined his eight years of travel.

In my own book, Dirty Kids: Chasing Freedom with America’s Nomads, I interviewed, lived, and travelled with different nomadic populations over a three-year period, alongside photographer Kitra Cahana (whose lecture at the Annenberg Gallery outlines how we independently raised funds for this project, another important consideration in documentary representation).

Our approach to Dirty Kids had a strong focus on collaboration and participant observation and we prioritized transparency throughout the publishing process. Some material from the book, including transcribed interviews and “tramp maps,” were used as fodder for inspiration during our masterclass and resulted in some wonderful and uniquely written prose by participants.

We also had the opportunity to consider work from Ted Conover, Pulitzer-prize nominated journalist, who practises immersion reporting, which he views as as ”a literary cousin to ethnography, travel writing, and memoir” where the writer “fully steps into a new world or culture, participating in its trials, rites, and rituals as a member of the group.”

For this writing residency at Historic Joy Kogawa House, and opportunity to work with other writers interested in these ideas, I am eternally grateful. 

Kids share smokes and rats at the Dirty Kids Camp at the annual Rainbow Family gathering.

Featured image: Maray Fuego spits fire at the “Crownival” in Detroit (photo by Kitra Cahana). Copies of Dirty Kids are available for sale at Kogawa House.