Kirin Narayan’s Alive in the Writing: Crafting Ethnography in the Company of Chekhov is not a book likely to make it onto bestseller lists. The audience, people with an interest in the art of writing ethnography, is too small. It is, however, a marvelous book about writing non-fiction prose, taking as its primary example Anton Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island, and examining how the great Russian storyteller and dramatist, who was also a medical doctor, produced a work in which,
By closely attending to the people who lived under the appalling conditions of the Russian penal colony on Sakhalin, Chekhov showed how empirical details combined with a literary flair can bring readers face to face with distant, different lives, enlarging a sense of human responsibility.
Narayan is herself a superb writer. I remember reading with pleasure her Storytellers, Saints and Scoundrels and who could not love an autobiographical ethnography titled My Family and Other Saints. Of particular interest to the teachers among us is the way in which she uses examples from Chekhov and other accomplished writers to motivate the writing exercises with which Alive in the Writing is liberally sprinkled. Were I in a position to teach non-fiction writing, I would instantly choose this book as the textbook for the class and recommend it along with other classics like William Zinsser’s Writing to Learn and Writing Well and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down to the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within.