To read or not to read (fiction)?

by Hannah Gibson

When I began my PhD in April, one of first things I did as soon as I obtained university library access was look up all the books they had relating to my topic. I am exploring surrogacy within the New Zealand context and with little anthropological research done on the subject here, I delved into the research conducted by other anthropologists around the world. My desk started to pile up with books and articles, and I spent a few happy hours ordering books online. With a research proposal due after the first 6 months, exploring the right literature is crucial. It has been described here as a ‘reading marathon’, an exhausting process where you need to develop the right skills. A tip they I’ve found helpful is ‘finding the key authors and/or research groups that produce stuff that is most closely aligned to your work and then reading ‘outwards,’ using the bibliographies on these papers as your guide.’  However, due to a fieldwork opportunity occurring in my second month to spend time with a surrogate mother, I found myself applying for human ethics approval much quicker than anticipated. Luckily, I had spent several months before my start date reading as much academic literature as I could and had a small foundational knowledge base. Yet with the start of fieldwork, the ‘normal’ trajectory that I anticipated to follow veered off course onto a more rugged road.

Juggling fieldwork and reading takes a bit of practice. And some weeks doing the latter is something I don’t have time or energy to commit to. So, after a recent mini meltdown moment of questioning whether I am indeed reading enough at this stage, I was taken for a coffee by two faculty members and given reassurance, but perhaps more importantly, encouragement about looking at learning in a different way. Reading ethnographies and articles is really important, but equally, there is great reward (and enjoyment) in looking to other forms of learning. Particularly when brain energy is lower but I still want to be thinking about my topic. I was given some excellent tips, including reading fiction, watching movies and listening to podcasts that explore my central focus of surrogacy and assisted reproductive technology.

md6774829598Fiction is also valuable to see different styles of creative writing, which is relevant to anthropology students and anyone writing ethnographically. This blog post on Savage Minds contends that fiction provides social analysis, and that ‘novels can be useful in teaching because, like good ethnography, they humanize the struggles of people one might not hear from otherwise.’ Tensions, characters and stories are usually drawn from real life, and I’ve found that science fiction novels in particular offer a glimpse of how society could function differently. On my busy days and weeks I spend my downtime reading a vast array of genres and watching movies or TV shows (for example, a whole season of Friends where Pheobe becomes a surrogate for her brother and his wife) that engage with the topic of kinship, medical tourism and beyond.

Today I want to write about The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood, a dystopian parable written in 1985 that is set in post-revolution America. In this novel, women are reduced to resources, with the fertile becoming ‘handmaids’ to wealthy couples, meaning the woman will copulate with the husband and carry a baby for them. Written over 30 years ago at the height of second-wave feminism clashing with the Christian right in American politics, this book could be interpreted as a warning of what might happen when religious ideologies are taken too far. Despite its age, it is still relevant today, particularly for ethical discussions around surrogacy and gender inequality. For example, the wives are always publicly seen as infertile, even when the man is the infertile party. “The blame is given to the women. There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law” (p. 61).  Anthropologist Marcia Inhorn has written extensively about this issue occurring in the Middle East today. Related to the topic of gender inequality, debates whether surrogate mothers are being exploited or asserting their agency and human rights is regularly in the media (note: the majority of cases that create concern tend to be in developing countries; a topic for a blog post all by itself!). Even Yale University is in on the discussion.

Thus, my recent bout of self-doubt was fruitful because I became aware of the value of fiction, science fiction, movies, tele-novelas and reality television. Whilst I continue to read academic literature and articles, I’m thankful I’m taking somewhat of a scenic route.

image1Hannah Gibson is a PhD student in anthropology at VUW.  For her PhD research, she is exploring surrogacy within a New Zealand context. This includes the everyday domain of reproductive practices and examining the reproductive hopes, motivations, and experiences of intended parents and surrogates, with a particular focus on how they navigate the biomedical, legal, and regulatory processes and challenges.

Books photo by Josh Koonce (

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s