Illustration by Andreea Chirică
When We Write We Listen to Ourselves: Letters from the Imaginary Border Between Research and Friendship
Ana Chirițoiu and Izabela Tiberiade
Ami and Izabela are friends. One is an ethnic Romanian and a PhD candidate in anthropology, the other, thirteen years her junior, is an ethnic Roma and an undergraduate student. Their friendship took off when Ami was doing her field research about kinship among Roma. Izabela was fresh out of high school at the time; she taught Ami the Romani language and answered all her questions about Roma (even the silly ones). While she was explaining the world she had been raised in, with its practices and values, to the researcher that had moved in with her family, Izabela started to ask her own questions about the world Ami came from. A few years later, in the letters below, they talked about a recently published book written by a Spanish anthropologist, Paloma Gay y Blasco, together with her gitana friend, Liria Hernández, with whom Paloma had conducted her fieldwork many years before. The book gave Ami and Izabela the opportunity to discuss about their own researcher – informant relationship and to sound out the blurry border between scientific interest and friendship, as well as to understand what it meant for a Romani woman to make her own choices and to become an individual while she belonged to such a tight-knit and rule-bound group as the one Liria belonged to.
 Paloma Gay y Blasco and Liria Hernández, Writing Friendship. A Reciprocal Ethnography, “Palgrave Studies in Literary Anthropology” Series, (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).
Ana Chirițoiu is a postdoctoral researcher at Uppsala University. She did her PhD at the Central European University (Austria) on practices of social order and virtue among a group of Roma. She believes strongly that anthropology can help readers have a better grasp not just of the world around them but also of themselves. Ana conducted her field research in a town in southern Romania, with the help of Izabela and her family.
Izabela Tiberiade studies Human Rights at the University of Malmö, Sweden, and has participated in several research projects on the Roma theme.
Andreea Chirică is an artist and graphic novelist. She published “The year of the pioneer” in 2011 and “Home Alone” in 2016. She published comic strips and illustrations in The Guardian, LA Times, Die Tageszeitung, Re:public Sweden, Wetransfer, Elle Romania, Scena9, DOR and her instagram account: persoana_fizica. She is currently working on a new graphic novel.
Katia Pascariu is an actress and a cultural activist. She studied Drama & Performing Arts at UNATC, obtaining her BA in 2006, and got her master’s degree in Anthropology in 2016 at the University of Bucharest, where she currently works and resides. She is part of several independent theatre collectives that do political and educational projects – Macaz Cooperative, 4th Age Community Arts Center and Replika Center, with special focus on multi- and inter – disciplinarity. She develops, together with her colleagues, artistic and social programs, in support of vulnerable and marginal communities, while promoting socially engaged art, accesibility to culture, with a main focus on: education, social justice, recent local history. She has been part of the casts of Beyond the Hills (C. Mungiu, 2012) and Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (R. Jude, 2021), among others. She is working also within the artistic ensemble of the Jewish State Theatre in Bucharest. She performs in Romanian, English, French and Yiddish.
After leaving the field, I’ve often contemplated that the people I worked with may not have quite gotten why I was “studying” them exactly. Every time someone asked me what I was doing there in the mahala, my answer was that I was studying family relations among Roma. The logical follow-up, “And what is so interesting about our family relations? Why do they need to be studied?” was on everyone’s lips, but very few people uttered it. I can’t remember what I answered to those who did, but if I were to answer them now, I would say the following: I would like to understand why the family is so important for Roma, and what values family life imbues people with; to see how the political, economic, and moral come together inside the family; and what all of this might tell us about the society in the midst of which the Roma live and define themselves as Roma, with moral values that they hold to be different from those of others.
I’ve been mulling over these things because in anthropology there have been a lot of debates lately about the relationship between researchers and informants, and a lot of questions have been raised about how the people in the field can reply to how anthropologists depict them. I just finished reading a recent book that deals precisely with this and that I liked a lot. I think you’ll like it too, because it describes very accurately the relationship between a woman researcher (Spanish, non-Roma) and the gitano community in which she did her research, and in particular her friendship with Liria, a woman from that community. I think you’ll recognize a lot of elements from our own relationship in it. Just like us, the two authors, Paloma and Liria, met when Paloma was doing her doctoral field research, and Liria received her in her home and they’ve been friends ever since. They are of the same age, while we aren’t, but despite the twelve-thirteen-year difference, you taught me Romani and explained to me with patience and insight things that are very intimate to your culture. I don’t think I’ve ever told you how much I appreciate your effort of looking at your culture and your community somewhat from a distance so that you can “translate” them to an anthropologist.
And one more confession: the anthropologist’s relationship with the people she studies is inherently awkward. It’s true that when you spend a lot of time in the field, people tend to forget that you’re there to study them (sometimes you yourself forget), but at times they remember that you have this double identity and that, while you laugh and cry with them, you also take mental notes. I think a lot about whether the people I talked to were themselves wondering, while sharing sometimes sad or disturbing personal details with me, whether I was listening to them out of human empathy or out of scientific curiosity. The truth is I for one can’t really distinguish between these two modes of listening to and engaging with the people I work with (or indeed with most of my friends).
The book I’m sending you made me think about my relationship with you and with your family and to ask myself where does scientific interest end—or interest, pure and simple, as your mother once told me when I neglected to drop by her and thus came across as rude, that I had befriended her out of interest (I know she said this because she was upset, but I remembered it because in a certain way, it was true)—and where friendship begins. In fact, the border between familiarity and research cannot be too clear, the two need to coexist somehow. I couldn’t have done this research without becoming part of your lives, without this mutual friendship (let’s call it that, as a synonym for familiarity, because that’s what the authors call it in the book, Writing Friendship) but it doesn’t end when fieldwork does. Or maybe it’s only then that it truly begins.
I can’t wait for you to tell me what you make of the book.
From: izabela tiberiade <************@yahoo.com>
to: ana chiritoiu <************@gmail.com>
date: 10 August 2020, 21:23
subject: RE: A book
Thank you for sending me this book. I couldn’t stop reading. Yet another book celebrating friendship, like the novels of Elena Ferrante that you recommended to me when you were living with us. So I’m writing to you both as a friend and as an “informant.”
I really liked when Liria wrote the following about Paloma:
sincerely I don’t know when Paloma listens to me as a friend and when she listens to me as an anthropologist. Because along the years, especially since we started to write the book, really I have realised that as an anthropologist she never stopped studying or investigating constantly. Before, I thought that she only worked when she had a pen in her hand or a tape recorder, but later I realised that her work went much further, it’s twenty-four hours a day. (p. 11)
This relationship between Paloma and Liria, so similar to ours, confirmed to me how difficult it must be for you, as a researcher, to do your work in a closed community, such as ours, of Rom tsiganiake, or the Gitano community in which Paloma worked, and to conduct an objective and balanced field research while also maintaining a personal relationship to community members.
What stands out for me in the book is the idea of trust. The trust between Liria and Paloma dismantled the barrier between the two worlds each of them came from. It’s interesting and delightful for me to read about a situation that’s so similar to ours. When you came to do your fieldwork among us, for us it was something new and obscure, and we were afraid although we didn’t know of what exactly. But between you and me there was an immediate click, as if we started holding hands, something warm and familiar. I thought of you as an observer, and it was comforting to turn to you about various disagreements between my family members, so that you could solve the mystery with your irony, questioning things that we ourselves had never questioned. This way you managed to help me understand my own world better. This filter that you anthropologists have is so interesting, the fact that you know what to select from our confessions, reorder it, and give it another meaning.
Anyway, there are lots of scenes in the book that I identified with, and I will write which ones exactly, like a chat between girls reminiscing about the good old times. Like Paloma and Liria who went through good and not so good times together. But for now I’ll stop here and write to you later.
from: ana chiritoiu <***********@gmail.com>
to: izabela tiberiade <***********@yahoo.com>
date: 12 August 2020, 22:03
subject: RE: RE: A book
I really like this idea of trust, because it conveys two important things: one is that an anthropologist needs to earn the trust of the people she works with, and she cannot do this unless she trusts and respects them in turn, both in her own terms, and in theirs—because no matter how much cultural variation there might be in these notions of “trust” and “respect,” they always meet somewhere in the middle. The other important thing about trust is that it comes with responsibility: I often felt that the people I was talking to trusted me to distinguish between what is scientifically relevant and could be disclosed to the readers from all the personal, intimate details they shared with me and what could not be disclosed. This trust flatters me but it also gives me a responsibility. In any case, an anthropologist’s first duty is to not expose the identity of the people she works with and to not cause them any harm. But another duty, a bit more complicated, is to not expose them, make them vulnerable, or not to turn them into pray, as you say, while telling the truth at the same time. Very likely, the people I talked to would not feel flattered at all times by my description of their community. My role, however, is not to beautify things or to make moral judgment about them, but to explain them, so that the readers can understand how these people really are, with their good and bad parts.
I like this idea that the anthropologists’ observations can reveal new information not just to others but even to the people they worked with. It’s a very flattering perspective, but then again you’ve always been so kind to me. Tell me more about what you liked about the book.
from: izabela tiberiade <*********@yahoo.com>
to: ana chiritoiu <**********@gmail.com>
date: 15 August 2020, 19:20
subject: RE: RE: RE: A book
The first sentence that drew my attention is when Liria says that writing was “like an escape from my pain, and I felt that I screamed in silence while I wrote” (p. 14). This remark of hers reminds me of how much you brought to our house and to our lives. It reminds me that for me too it’s easier to seek refuge in writing, and I understand this comfort that writing brings and how it puts you at ease with yourself. But for others writing doesn’t come so easy, and Paloma gave Liria an honest, solid tool with which she could face her own pain, as well as the pain she caused her family. Liria used this opportunity to write alongside a famous researcher who was also her friend, as a journey to know herself both as a unique individual and a person with multiple (social) roles assigned by her community. This journey, through which she invited the members of her group to get to know the woman she used to be and the woman she had become, was meant, I believe, to bring self-forgiveness and the forgiveness of the others.
To be continued,
from: ana chiritoiu <*********@gmail.com>
to: izabela tiberiade <**********@yahoo.com>
date: 19 August 2020, 09:12
subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: A book
I actually wanted to ask you how you read this episode, which is central in the book, where Liria, a woman who is highly regarded in her community and who is trapped in an unhappy marriage in which her family are pressuring her to stay, decides to run away with a much younger man, a foreigner, but who shows her that he loves her. Her family is looking for her, they bring her back, then she runs away again, and her family forbid her from seeing her children ever again. After several years, she decides to sue her family so that she can see her children again. Through all this, Paloma is on her side and doesn’t hesitate to help her even acting against Liria’s family to whom, as an anthropologist, Paloma is so indebted.
I’d like to know your thoughts about Liria’s escape and also what you meant when you wrote that for Liria the purpose of writing was self-forgiveness. I hadn’t thought about that. Why do you think she needs to forgive herself? And why do you think she wanted the forgiveness of the others?
From: izabela tiberiade <firstname.lastname@example.org>
to: ana chiritoiu <email@example.com>
date: 23 August 2020, 23:10
subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: A book
When we write, it’s also like we’re listening to ourselves. My sister used to say that when we explain things to others, we first explain them to ourselves.
Liria didn’t have the courage to put herself first, before her community and her family. I don’t think she could’ve even wanted it, since she was well aware that she could not see it through and it would not result in anything good. Inside a Roma community, women learn to inhabit the roles that the community gives them, first as daughters, sisters, sisters-in-law, then as wives, daughters-in-law, mothers, sisters-in-law, aunts, mothers-in-law. Women like Liria are respected by the community only insofar as they manage to belong to the community and to their home, never as individuals with their own desires and aspirations.
Liria ran away from her old self, from everything she thought she was, from everything that made her feel complete. But she never forgave herself and never fully accepted this choice, because inside the community she never had the chance to enjoy individual experiences—only collective ones. The wellbeing of the family reflects on you, it is your own wellbeing, and it stands for your fulfillment as a woman. This is what it means to be a Romni tsiganiaki, a true Roma woman. Now, all the sadness and shame that she has caused her family, she needs to carry it along on her journey towards liberation and joy, which is also, because of this pain, a lonely, arduous journey that requires her to reinvent herself. And I don’t mean rediscover but reinvent: because this is a self that Liria had not known before.
Under the ley gitana you cannot make your own decisions. Her family never understood that she did just that. That she had this immense courage to make her own choices. This is why they never gave her a chance to be heard and understood, and this is why they took away her right to be a mother. Her right to be Accepted. What the Roma group gives you is a feeling of belonging and security, especially when you don’t stand a chance in the world outside, among the non-Roma. In exchange for this belonging, you spend your life learning how to please others and how to respect their rules.
The fact that Liria was trapped in an unhappy marriage was not enough for her to have this courage to leave everything behind… Most women are in this situation. What distinguished her from other women was that Liria believed in love. Besides, unlike other women, Liria had a friend by her side, throughout the loneliness and despair she found herself in, next to a younger man… She had Paloma, who was already an independent woman, with her own values and choices. Even though she depended on her field informants, I think Paloma showed determination and stability. And this led her to a more balanced relationship with the other members of the community, especially with men, who might have felt that her presence was a threat to the decency and modesty of gitana women.
Liria welcomed Paloma into her home and helped her, entering a long and rich friendship. But a true dialogue between them, from woman to woman, became possible, in my opinion, only after Liria freed herself from her community’s restrictions. That’s how I see it at least. The relationship between informant and anthropologist never ends, because it never really begins. This is what I believe, but I don’t know how to explain it.