Book Review: Yaya’s Story: The Quest for Well-Being in the World

Yaya’s Story: The Quest for Well-Being in the World. Paul Stoller, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2014, 157 pp.

Despite its title, Yaya’s Story traces the intersections of two stories: a Nigerien trader of African art in New York and the author, anthropologist Paul Stoller. And although it promises to explore the shared desire to find well-being, the book could more accurately be described as an exploration of fieldwork and its subjects: Not just the single project or the single anthropologist, but an anthropologist’s engagement with places and people over time and space. Thus, while the book is ostensibly about Stoller and Yaya Harouna’s shared encounter with cancer, for me at least, Yaya’s Story was about the encounters with people—familiar and strange—that make up a lifetime of anthropological fieldwork.

The story begins in a storage facility in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, where African art traders store and sell their goods. We enter the facility with Stoller himself, who greets the users of this space with respect and familiarity. Just as we see the Warehouse, as it’s called, through Stoller’s eyes, the book as a whole follows Stoller’s travels from New York to Niger and back, and returns frequently to the Warehouse. The Warehouse, one might posit, exemplifies Stoller’s effort here, which is to find the similarities evident in intersubjective moments within transnational spaces.

Toward the end of the book, Stoller writes that he has shifted his attention to writing for an audience that extends beyond anthropology. This book, along with writing for mainstream news blogs, aims to be a part of that project, suggesting that despite cultural, linguistic, socioeconomic, and experiential differences, individuals can come together through shared experience with disease.

The book is divided into three sections. The first, “A Life Story in Commerce,” chronicles the story of the three Harouna brothers, Abdou, Daouda, and the eponymous Yaya, as they grow up, raise families, and begin long-distance trading careers in Niger. Their story is situated within a broader discussion of the economics and aesthetics of the robust transnational trade in West African art that connects New York’s wealthy art collectors and upper-middle-class African Americans with larger markets in Abidjan and throughout West Africa. It is this circuit that brings Yaya, Abdou, and Daouda to New York’s thriving African art market in the 1980s and 1990s. The narrative, however, makes clear that it is more than art objects that holds together this transnational network. Kinship ties bring individuals into the trade and shared adherence to an Islam that celebrates long distance trade solidifies traders’ commitment to it.

The second section, “A Life Story in Anthropology,” tells Stoller’s own tale, a quintessentially American story of immigrant parents and upward mobility over the course of a few generations. Graduating from college in the late 1960s, Stoller avoids the draft by joining the Peace Corps, an assignment that begins his journey to anthropology and eventual intersection with Yaya Harouna. The crux of Stoller’s own story in anthropology is his encounter with Songhay sorcery and witchcraft, which begins during his stint in the Peace Corps. Stoller’s engagement with sorcery goes beyond observation; he is initiated as a sorko healer and trained in the arts of sorcery by renowned healers in Niger. After the death of his sorko teacher, Stoller experiences a radical break with sorko when he suffers from a profound illness that others around him—and perhaps Stoller himself—attribute to sorcery sent by jealous rivals. The mysteries of illness and healing, exemplified by Stoller’s simultaneous involvement in biomedical and sorko forms of treatment, foreshadow his later encounter with cancer.

“Awakenings” is Stoller’s third section and where he seeks to make his key intervention in our understanding of the illness experience. Here, Stoller chronicles his own encounter with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and its invasive, taxing treatment protocols. Stoller suggests that in illness, a person is entirely alone, an existential experience that can only be understood by other sufferers. Three years after his cancer goes into remission, Yaya Harouna is also diagnosed with cancer. Most cancer narratives take one of two forms: the battle and survival narrative—a war metaphor that Stoller and others critique—and the sudden diagnosis and decline. Unlike Stoller, whose story is one of battle and recovery, Yaya’s is one of decline. Over the course of a long set of treatments, Yaya’s health fails, he frequently retreats from social life, and his art business in New York begins to worsen. Yaya yearns to return to Niger to be with his family, and ultimately stops treatment to return home to die.

Stoller asserts that his interactions with Yaya just before Yaya’s death demonstrate that cancer as an illness reduces or erases social differences. He suggests that, in the treatment room, all cancer patients experience a fundamental detachment from non-sufferers, and, in relation to the IV needle, existing differences among patients no longer matter. The equalizing nature of the cancer experience, he argues, allowed him and Yaya to experience one moment of transcendent understanding, what he calls “mutual comprehension and experiential convergence” (p. 135) in the days before Yaya returned to Niger.

Because his story is ultimately about a life in anthropology, Stoller recognizes this moment as evidence that suffering permits boundary crossings that other forms of experience do not. Because it is not possible to know how Yaya Harouna understood this or any other interaction with Stoller, the broader message here is about the contingencies of ethnographic fieldwork. Stoller tells the story through many brief conversations punctuated by customary Songhay greetings. These conversations illustrate the ways in which fieldwork is characterized by attachment, error, and serendipity as much as by carefully scripted methodologies. All fieldwork reaches across boundaries, whether those boundaries be cultural, linguistic, socioeconomic, or generational; Stoller’s momentary sense of profound connection is just one among many instances of understanding and alienation that make up ethnographic fieldwork.

Yaya’s Story serves readers outside anthropology in its accessible, narrative approach to engaging anthropological topics. For the lay reader, Yaya’s Story provides an opportunity to make the “strange familiar” through Stoller’s eyes. Within the field, the book may be ideal for undergraduate methods courses, or a course that examines the benefits and pitfalls of autoethnography. And for all of us, the book reminds us of the twists and turns a life in anthropology can take.

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