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Braided Worlds

In a compelling mix of literary narrative and ethnography, anthropologist Alma Gottlieb and writer Philip Graham continue the long journey of cultural engagement with the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire that they first recounted in their award-winning memoir Parallel Worlds. Their commitment over the span of several decades has lent them a rare insight. Braiding their own stories with those of the villagers of Asagbé and Kosangbé, Gottlieb and Graham take turns recounting a host of unexpected dramas with these West African villages, prompting serious questions about the fraught nature of cultural contact.
Through events such as a religious leader’s declaration that the authors’ six-year-old son, Nathaniel, is the reincarnation of a revered ancestor, or Graham’s late father being accepted into the Beng afterlife, or the increasing, sometimes dangerous madness of a villager, the authors are forced to reconcile their anthropological and literary gaze with the deepest parts of their personal lives. Along with these intimate dramas, they follow the Beng from times of peace through the times of tragedy that led to Côte d’Ivoire’s recent civil conflicts. From these and many other interweaving narratives—and with the combined strengths of an anthropologist and a literary writer—Braided Worlds examines the impact of postcolonialism, race, and global inequity at the same time that it chronicles a living, breathing village community where two very different worlds meet.

184 pages | 3 maps | 6 x 9 | © 2012

African Studies

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature


“At this moment in the history of our divided and violent world, we profoundly need to hear the voices of Philip Graham and Alma Gottlieb as they return to the Beng people of the Cote d’Ivoire and write not just about this remarkable people but about the ways that all of us are inextricably “braided” together by our love, through our humanity, sharing the great mystery of existence. Braided Worlds is not only an enthralling book but an important one. And linked with Graham and Gottlieb’s earlier Parallel Worlds, the two books form a masterpiece of travel memoir.” 

Robert Olen Butler, author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

Braided Worlds is ethnographic storytelling at its best, rich in its evocation of the daily surprises of fieldwork, warm in its compassion for the Beng people, and haunting in its description of a moment of being that was as unforgettable as it was elusive. Gottlieb and Graham are a perfect duo, counterpointing and harmonizing with one another. Their book is filled with love, for each other, for the art of writing, and for the journey that led them to find another home in the world."

Ruth Behar, author of An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba

“The same year they published their successful travel memoir, Parallel Worlds, Gottlieb and Graham headed back to Côte d’Ivoire, young son in tow, to conduct further research and share the proceeds of their book.. In alternating, harmonizing narratives, Braided Worlds recounts this return to Bengland, offering a tale filled with intelligence, humor, and humility. Gottlieb and Grahaminvite readers to travel with grace and insight through the external landscape of Africa and the internal geography of marriage, parenthood, and ethical living. I would accompany them anywhere.”

Michele Morano, author of Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain

“This powerfully evocative text has much to teach us about living in the world. Between the beautifully crafted lines of Gottlieb and Graham’s work, one finds not only profound insights about the craft of anthropological fieldwork, the art of writing and the texture of social life among the Beng people of Cote d’Ivoire, but also deep truths about birth and death, courage and cowardice, sanity and insanity, and love and loss—the very things that transcend what at first glance seems to be unbridgeable cultural difference. A worthy sequel to Gottlieb and Graham’s award winning, Parallel Worlds, Braided Worlds charts new ethnographic and conceptual territory with a refreshingly understated daring, and is a great pleasure to read.”

Paul Stoller, author of Stranger in the Village of the Sick

“In this lively, engaging memoir, Gottlieb and Graham conjure the confluence of multiple experiences and worlds. Their deep connection with the Beng people over the years offers an authoritative and, even more important, a touchingly personal account of life in one West African culture. This book is a wonderful addition to our contemporary creative nonfiction literature, combining the best of immersion journalism, personal memoir and academic study into a delightful and enchanting narrative. This literary journey reminds us, again and again, of the unbreakable bonds of our common humanity.”

Xu Xi, author of Habit of a Foreign Sky: A Novel

“More than a sequel to the much-celebrated Parallel Worlds—which entranced several generations of my students—Braided Worlds takes readers deep into the heart of West Africa today, treating the fraught encounters and ethical dilemmas of anthropological fieldwork with remarkable empathy. A beautiful book that resists romance while remaining soulful, Braided Worlds is filled with seductive storytelling and sparkling prose.”

Charlie Piot, author of Remotely Global: Village Modernity in West Africa

Braided Worlds is a gripping and instructive curl-up-in-a-chair book, appealing to anthropologists, Africanists, and to travelers and wannabe travelers who like to think and read across cultures and about fascinating encounters. The memoir weaves together the alternating voices of an anthropologist and a writer, both keen observers of character and context, and unforgettable local actors such as Alma’s friend Amenan, the mad to be modern Matatu, and the authors’ young son Nathaniel with his Beng buddies. Through moving stories, such as Philip’s father’s African afterlife, we get a sense of worlds once parallel that have become progressively braided over time. Having successfully taught Parallel Worlds, I like Braided Worlds even more, and plan to use it in courses on fieldwork ethics, anthropological writing, and African ethnography.”

Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg, author of Plundered Kitchens, Empty Wombs

Braided World is something of a literary miracle. First the story: In 1979-1980 anthropologist Alma Gottlieb and her husband Philip Graham spent 13 months among the Beng, a small language/cultural group in Ivory Coast in West Africa. A decade later they published Parallel Worlds, a gorgeously conceived and beautifully nuanced co-discovery of the Beng, part ethnology, part narrative, and part family conversation. In the intervening years, Philip and Alma have returned twice for extended stays with their friends, the Beng. They brought their children; they immersed themselves in the village. But wars and revolution have torn up that part of the world, too. Darkness descends. The result of these later visits is a brand new sequel to the first volume, the just-published Braided Worlds.

The literary miracle part comes from the neatly contrived cross-perspective of two gifted writers with different yet co-operative points of view. Both Alma and Philip bring different life interests, education, and obsessions to bear: the one is studying the Beng with an arsenal of anthropological concepts and tools; the other is writing a novel while living amongst the Beng, bringing his literary sensibilities and his native curiosity to bear on his experience at every turn. The result is an amazing book, an amazing conversation, and a sense of life energized by difference, surprise, sympathy, respect and intelligence.”

Douglas Glover | Numéro Cinq

“While they comfortably categorize their book within the genre of fieldwork memoir, Braided Worlds is also a testimony to the long-term, family-affair commitments that Gottlieb and Graham have made to their Beng hosts, and vice versa. This is a wonderful quality of the book—it is deeply personal, respectful, and yet not so precious as to overshadow what we can learn about being Beng, and Beng-like.”

Jennifer Coffman | Anthropology News

“An eloquent testimony to how far a Westerner may go, using ethnography as both pretext and medium, in not only understanding a rural African lifeworld but also in becoming a part of a family, embroiled in its networks of obligation, its life crises, and its interpersonal stresses and demands. . . . Gottlieb and Graham impart a political meaning to their image of braided worlds, and. . . . [if] truth is a matter of whether or not a ‘belief’ enhances the life of a community, then an obsession with identifying it gives ground to a concern for humanizing it. This is the accomplishment of this elegant work of cross-cultural and conjugal collaboration.”

Michael Jackson | American Ethnologist

Parallel Worlds chronicled [Gottlieb and Graham’s] first stay in remote Kosangbé, an experience that left them feeling that the cultural gaps between them and the Beng were unbridgeable. Braided Worlds is a reconsideration. Having left and returned several times, they found their ties to the Beng were deeper than they realized. . . . What make their accounts extraordinary are not only the intimate portrayals of a culture and its members, but the authors’ honesty in assessing their role. . . . Reading Braided Worlds and Parallel Worlds reminds us how much we miss and to keep trying to understand what was masked, even after we come home.”

Julia Lichtblau | The Common

“Not only does Braided Worlds tie two cultures together with their differences and similarities, it also braids the very different perspectives of Alma and Phillip as they each write about their personal experiences. While living with the Beng they candidly discuss views on child rearing, the value of being calm, and the effects of grief, guilt and resentment on the health of the mind and body.  They also recognize that two cultures cannot meet without both of them being changed. The writing is clear and readable; the emotions are honest and accessible. This book is a fascinating study of cultural differences which develop in response to variations in need and circumstance. By introducing us to real people living real lives, it also portrays the universal experience of being human and the absolute equality of individuals and societies that bridges education, science, politics, and wealth. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know what it’s like to live somewhere else, in a world unlike our own, with people who are very much just like us.”

Regge Episale | Hippocampus Magazine

Table of Contents

A Note to Readers

1 A Beng Path to Birth (September 1986–May 1987)
Alma: Of Blessings and Bad Faith
Philip: The Scrabble Champion
Alma: Two Homes and a Hospital

2 Censored Words (March 1990)
Philip: La Crise
Alma: Can You Teach Anthropology to a Toddler?
Philip: Our Own House of Mbari

3 Back in the Village (May–June 1993)
Alma: The House of Africa
Philip: Raising the Stakes
Alma: Old Agendas, New Agendas
Philip: The Adventures of Tintin
Alma: The Spirit of Grandfather Denju
Philip: One Screen Door

4 Casting Spells (June–July 1993)
Alma: Another Story to Confess
Philip: Anything but Invisible
Alma: Too Expensive to Die
Philip: The Waiting Fax

5 Things of the Heart (July–August 1993)
Alma: Mad to Be Modern
Philip: My Father’s African Afterlife
Alma: The First Twelve Months of Life
Philip: Welcoming Ghosts
Alma: Amenan’s Lament
Philip: “Denju, Denju”
Alma: Mystical Musical Chairs
Philip: Gifting Party
Alma: Tying Up Loose Ends
Philip: Shooting Fish

6 A Different Fieldwork Site (January 1994)
Alma: Converging Paths
Philip: “Ka’na Poblé”
Epilogue: Côte d’Ivoire and the Beng in Crisis
A Brief Note about the Beng
Cast of Characters


Map: Côte d’Ivoire
Map: Beng region
Map: Amenan’s compound, 1993
Map: Côte d’Ivoire’s civil war and the Beng region, ca. 2006


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