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Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Internet Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education, Research, Page 19, July 12, 2002
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Yanomami Research Becomes the Stuff of a Novel; a New Mystery Satirizes African-American Studies

By Peter Monaghan and Jennifer K. Ruar

ACADEME MEETS FICTION, PART 1: Before the accusations flew that Napoleon A. Chagnonhad both mistreated and misrepresented the Yanomami people, his research made the Amazon tribe one of the most recognized indigenous groups among American college graduates. His 1968 book, Yanomamo: The Fierce People (Harcourt Brace), was a mainstay of introductory anthropology classes.

Now, as the American Anthropological Association releases its final report on the charges against Mr. Chagnon, who is retired from the University of California at Santa Barbara, his research turns up in a much friendlier setting: Fierce People, a novel by Dirk Wittenborndue out this month from Bloomsbury Publishing.A coming-of-age novel set in the late 1970s, it relates the experiences that 15-year-old Finn Earl undergoes when his drug-addicted, not particularly motherly mother accepts work as, well, a masseuse on the estate of an aging billionaire Brahmin in rural Vlyvalle, N.J.

The boy yearns to reconnect with his father, who is an anthropologist gone to the Amazon to complete research that closely resembles Mr. Chagnon's. The world of Vlyvalle, though, turns out to be full of people just as fierce as Mr. Chagnon said the Yanomami are. And, just as Yanomami contentions often revolve, in Mr. Chagnon's account, around issues of men's access to women, Finn's troubles mount when he becomes involved with Maya, the billionaire's beautiful granddaughter. Mr. Wittenborn fondly remembers studying Mr. Chagnon's work as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s. "I loved it at the time," he says. "I was intrigued by the Yanomami." Finn is similarly fascinated by Mr. Chagnon's version of the tribe. But he realizes that his haughty new neighbors are just as forbidding and given to revenge.

What led Mr. Wittenborn to turn to the Yanomami for his novel's themes? "I just found them curiously modern, in a strange way -- I mean, the worst part of modern. I've long felt that the American upper class, or however you want to refer to the aristocracy, is very much like a tribe."

As for the way he uses Mr. Chagnon's research, he says, "I purposely didn't want to get some of the stuff right, because I'm presenting an adolescent boy's take on it."

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ACADEME MEETS FICTION, PART 2: A celebrated African-American scholar inflates his students' grades, lends his name to far too many projects, sleeps with his editor, and has her write the acknowledgments -- and even a few of the chapters -- in his prize-winning book. Then he disappears, and the editor, known in the publishing industry as "the white queen of black literature," fears that he may be guilty of far worse crimes.

That's the premise of Thinner, Blonder, Whiter, (Carroll & Graf) a new mystery novel by Elizabeth Maguire,editorial director at Basic Books.The author is the first to point out that she bears a resemblance to her heroine, Julia Moran. During her 20-year publishing career -- including stints at Oxford University Pressand theFree Press-- Ms. Maguire has worked with leading black scholars including Houston Baker,Michael Eric Dyson,Manning Marable,Arnold Rampersad,and Cornel West.At Basic, she is in charge of Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s imprint, Civitas.

Early readers of the suspenseful, satiric, and often raunchy novel thought it might be inflammatory. "A lot of people were worried about how readers would react to a black character created by a white writer," especially a black character like the self-serving, hypocritical Samuel Reid, says Ms. Maguire. But her editor encouraged her to stand by her creation. So far, the decision has paid off: The book received some strong advance reviews and jacket blurbs, including one from Mr. Dyson, a professor of humanities and African-American studies at the University of Pennsylvania. The "dashing debut," he writes, "brilliantly probes the most heated issues of our day" and "assaults the cliches and taboos of American life with a delicious vengeance."

"I see the pressure on people who work in [African-American studies] to do everything: to write the books, draw big audiences at lectures, be celebrities," says Ms. Maguire. "Samuel Reid is someone who is cracking under that pressure." But he's also a bad seed, she acknowledges, who contrasts with another black character, Isaac Lord, "the moral conscience of the book."

Thinner, Blonder, Whiter parodies not just African-American studies but also queer activism, conservative think tanks, and the publishing industry itself. Take the motto of Julia's employer, Beckham & Coates: "Extra-large ideas for medium-sized minds that want to grow." As her assistant says, "Sounds like we're selling elastic-waisted pants."

Ms. Maguire first pictured Julia working for a foundation, but friends in a writing group felt that a publishing house provided a richer environment for intrigue. Of course, readers will wonder whether Ms. Maguire has written a roman à clef. She demurs. Although "the situations are true," she says, "I'd like to think that the characters were created in my imagination. But they were certainly influenced by my experiences."

"Editors so often feel underappreciated. It's an editor's revenge: You play out the fantasy of what would happen if you pushed things to the extreme."