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AUTHOR INTERVIEW(part 1): Anna Odland Portisch on A MAGPIE’S TALE

ANNA ODLAND PORTISCH has taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies and Brunel University. In her new book A Magpie’s Tale: Ethnographic and Historical Perspectives on the Kazakh of Western Mongolia she recounts her time living with a Kazakh family in a small village.

It’s fascinating (“Can you imagine a stranger showing up on your doorstep and asking to stay for a year?”) and highly evocative (“It was so cold that night, the next morning the driver had to bring the engine back to life by lighting a small fire underneath the car”) and it gave us so much to discuss that we’ve split our discussion into two parts.

Anna’s story begins here and Part Two will follow very soon.

Congratulations on the publication of A Magpie’s Tale! Before we begin, would you please tell us something of your studies and research to date?

When I was at school I never wanted to go to university! I wanted to travel and see the world. After completing my ‘A-levels’ in Denmark, I went travelling, but was eventually swayed by the idea that I could study abroad, and even receive a modest maintenance grant from the Danish state. I would go to England. It would be like travelling, and perhaps a little interesting too. Of course it was free to study for a BA in England in those days, which made the decision much easier. I wound up liking it so much, I continued studying for more than ten years! It was a real privilege to be able to embark on my own research project for the PhD. I enjoyed it thoroughly and still feel extremely lucky to have been able to do it.

My doctoral research was about the Kazakh population in Mongolia. I looked at how Kazakh girls and women learn to make textiles for their homes. The Kazakh who live in western Mongolia have rich traditions for making beautiful textiles that furnish the summertime yurt. There are thick felt carpets in bright contrasting colours, densely embroidered wall hangings and panels with swirling flowers, stars and animal-inspired patterns. These are all made by women in the home, in the course of everyday life. I set out to learn to make some of these textiles myself. I was interested in the learning processes, the skilled craft knowledge involved, and the creativity and innovation in these women’s crafts.

When I got to western Mongolia for my fieldwork, I met a family, where the mother was happy to teach me how to make these textiles, and I lived with them most of the year. In retrospect, I am glad I chose to focus on learning a practical skill. This gave my presence a tangible rationale, a practical purpose, and a space to work on something that fitted in to the daily routine of the family. It also gave me a good subject to discuss and share with people.

After the PhD, I proposed to curate an exhibition about these craftswomen’s textiles at the Brunei Gallery SOAS. While planning the exhibition, I went back to Mongolia for the wedding of one of the daughters in the family, and with the help of the family and friends, we managed to find a beautiful yurt and textiles to exhibit in London. How these were shipped back to the UK was a whole adventure in itself. While I loved writing about the subject, it was very positive, and satisfying and fitting in a different way, to exhibit these women’s textiles and the yurt which they furnish. One of the nicest pieces of feedback I heard from the exhibition was that some students at SOAS went down into the basement gallery at the Brunei Gallery, where the yurt was set up, and spent their breaks sitting in the yurt, reading or talking.

Then, in the following years, another daughter in the Kazakh family took a gamble and married a man who turned out to be an abusive and violent alcoholic. One son drank himself to death. Another son died. They were both young men. We had all been young, and lived a year of our lives together, with the future ahead of us. And the cards they were dealt were very difficult. I began to write about these things, because I care very much for them. That was how I started writing the book.

At the same time, I began to delve deeper into the grandparents’ generation and the region’s history. This process felt very much like piecing together a historical puzzle, or several puzzles if you like, because the Kazakh in this region live at the geographical meeting point of Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Russia and China.

I think people tend to think of Mongolia as remote and somewhat isolated, and of western Mongolia as, perhaps, particularly far removed from the vagaries of history. But most Kazakh families in western Mongolia have been touched by major historical and geo-political shifts of worldwide significance over the past century and more. Their ancestors have dealt with the Russian colonisation of Central Asia, the effects of the First World War, the fall of the Qing Dynasty in China, and the establishment of the Soviet Union. These were shifts that took place over just two and three generations.

The history of the region is another major focus of the book. It’s not a history thesis, far from it! But it nevertheless tries to give some historical background and put the lives of several generations of one family in historical context, because I feel that without this, you can’t really begin to understand what the conditions of their lives were, and you also can’t begin to understand the scale of the changes that took place, just from one generation to the next.

I guess a good way to describe it is by way of contrast. I read Annie Ernaux’s Les années after finishing the book, and it struck me that she has achieved this impressive feat of making the personal general, of taking people and feelings out of history and somehow elevating the individual to a people’s history. I was trying to do exactly the opposite in my book. I was faced with a body of literature which had no individuals and no feelings, and my purpose was to thread the narratives of individual people into the story of this region’s history, and to try to imagine what it might have been like to live through these historical developments. 

As Peter Finke says in his praise quote, your book reveals much about a “very little-known part of the world.” How did you find your way there?

After completing my Masters degree, I worked for some years and set my heart on conducting research in Mongolia. It seemed sensible to go to Mongolia before embarking on a PhD, and by chance I heard of an international music festival that toured the country each summer. I joined it as part of the audience. It was an extraordinary festival, which brought together musicians and composers from all over the world. There were Mongolian long song performances and throat singing master classes, contemporary music from Holland and chamber music by Austrian musicians. I remember one concert, where a wonderful violinist performed outside in the sand dunes, and another where a cow in the distance responded tentatively to the trombone player. There was also a lecture by a Kazakh professor from Almaty, who had joined the touring festival. He spoke about the Kazakh population in Mongolia. This was how I first learned about the Kazakh in Mongolia.

I went home to Brighton, full of enthusiasm, and wrote my proposal, having never actually set foot in Mongolia’s ‘Kazakh province’ of Bayan-Ölgii! Then, in the first months of my PhD at SOAS, my second supervisor said there was someone I absolutely must meet. A young woman had started an MA at SOAS the very same year. She was Kazakh, and her family was, in fact, from Bayan-Ölgii province. It was an extraordinary coincidence. When it came to my fieldwork, this young woman’s lovely family in Ulaanbaatar put me up for the summer, invited me to her wedding, helped me find my feet and apply for the relevant research permissions, etc. Then I flew to Bayan-Ölgii and began to look for a family in the countryside, who I could stay with and who would be able to teach me how to make the textiles that furnish the summertime yurt.

Can you tell us something about the Kazakh people and introduce us to the family you lived with?

People often say that Bayan-Ölgii province is quite different from the rest of Mongolia. Even Mongolians say this. It’s considered the ‘Kazakh province’. Tuvans, Mongols and others also live there, but Kazakhs make up about 90 per cent of the population in the province. Kazakh is the first language in Bayan-Ölgii, not just on a domestic level, in shops or on the street, but also in school (in most schools the Mongolian language is taught as a second language) and in many official contexts. The Kazakh are Sunni Muslim, whereas Mongolians are mainly Buddhist, and there are mosques in the main town of Ölgii and many smaller towns and villages in western Mongolia.

You can also clearly see the link to Central Asia in the decorations and textiles that furnish the Kazakh home and the yurt. In Bayan-Ölgii, many Kazakhs move to quite distant summer pasture locations with their domestic animals (many people have sheep, goats, horses, cows or yaks and sometimes camels). Here they live in their yurt. People who have just a few domestic animals, and therefore don’t need to move very far, also often put up their summertime yurt, perhaps a few kilometres from their winter house, or sometimes just next to it, in the yard. The yurt is a beautiful reception room, a comfortable place to sleep, and it keeps cool in summer. Perhaps because many families still like to put up their yurt, the traditions around the crafts made for the yurt have continued and are still subject to changing techniques and fashions.

In summer, the family that took me in used to move a few kilometres away from their winter house, to a summer pasture location next to a stream, together with relatives. A few households formed a small settlement. It is in the summer settlement that the sheep are sheered, wool is beaten and cleaned and large felt pieces are rolled (these can be used to replace or repair covers for the yurt, for carpets and other smaller pieces). Dairy products are prepared, which will last far into the winter, for instance dried curd, and domestic animals, and people, are fattened up for the long winter!

It was in late summer that I met the eldest daughter in the family. She took me to see her parents and siblings. She thought they would be absolutely fine with an additional household member, and of course her mother could teach me how to make felt carpets! Can you imagine a stranger showing up on your doorstep and asking to stay for a year? But the family responded as if it were the most natural thing and welcomed me as part of the family.

In fact, all the people I met during my fieldwork in Bayan-Ölgii were incredibly hospitable and generous. Just before Nauryz New Year in March, I went on a short trip with a friend, and her cousin agreed to drive us. We hoped to visit craftswomen in a few remote settlements in the mountains. It was still around minus 20 degrees Celsius at night and on the first evening, we found ourselves unable to make it to the village we had planned to reach, where some of my friend’s relatives lived. The driver wasn’t familiar with the area, and we were caught out by the descending darkness. At one point we very nearly drove into a ravine. We couldn’t carry on driving but we couldn’t simply stop for the night either, because of the cold.

We inched our way forward and luckily came past a very small settlement of two houses. We stopped and knocked on the door of these complete strangers, who it turned out had already gone to bed. Graciously they welcomed us inside, got the fire going, prepared tea and a hot meal for us while their children slept, and gave us their own beds to sleep in. It was so cold that night, the next morning the driver had to bring the engine back to life by lighting a small fire underneath the car. I came outside and stepped back in surprise, expecting the car to explode and go up in flames at any moment, wondering how long we would be staying with these kind strangers, who had saved our lives the night before. But the driver swiftly swung the hand crank, jumped into the driver’s seat, the engine came to life, we all piled in and drove off, amid happy New Year wishes.

PART TWO follows soon! We learn about Anna’s daily life and work in Bayan-Ölgii, the long-lasting effects of the Soviet Union’s collapse, bride kidnapping, and what’s changed since her fieldwork.

A Magpie’s Tale is the first title in our new series, Lifeworlds: Knowledge, Politics, Histories.

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