Dr Gabriel Dattatreyan is a Senior Lecturer in the Anthropology Department at Goldsmiths University. His audio-visual and written work engages with the ways in which digital media consumption, production and circulation shape understandings of migration, gender, race and urban space. Gabriel has published articles exploring digital media worlds in relation to, amongst other themes and concepts, waiting, memory, postcolonial solidarity, and global racial formations.
Ivana is talking to Gabriel in his office next to his bookshelves.
I: Have you changed your bookshelf for this interview?
G: Honestly, I have had no time to do anything in my office as I have been busy. So, what you see- the mess, the messy bookshelves- as they are, as they would normally be.
I: Could you tell me how you organise your bookshelves?
G:[…] It tends to be the case that like the stuff that is closest, the stuff that is actually on the table and off the bookshelf, are the books that I have been reading and engaging with quite recently. I am usually engaging with them because I am either writing something that has reminded me that these books might hold the key to my thinking, or because I just bought them and am excitedly going through them.
I: Where did your books come from and how do they leave?
G: I sometimes lend out my books, and then I always regret lending them out as I never take account of who am I lending them to. And then I go to look for a book, because it comes into my head, because I am either writing something or I’m thinking about a particular issue, and the book is not there on my bookshelf. I remember that I lent them, but I don’t usually remember to whom or when. So, I have stopped being so easy with my books at this point.
I: How would you compare your office bookshelves to your home ones?
G: My home bookshelves are all fiction; they are all literature. There are some exceptions I am sure, but I do not bring my fiction to work and I do not bring my theory, or ethnography or history books to my house. They need to live apart.
I: Would you say that through/with books you kind of keep your work separate from your personal life?
G: That is interesting. […] I think that the initial division came because yeah, I tend not to want to pick up a theory book or an ethnography when I’m at home. I want to sink into fiction. When I’m reading for pleasure, there are very few theory and ethnography books that cross over. I read often theory and ethnography because I need to know where to go with a particular thought or an argument. The books that transcend this kind of instrumental thinking are really important for me, because they remind me of why I decided to get into this world in the first place. These books, I guess, tend to stay here [in the office] but sometimes they come with me. Although, I have a rule of not taking books out of my bag if I bring them from work. Even if I read them at home, I put them back in my backpack, just so I don’t accumulate a large pile at home.
I: In relation to these transcending books that got you in what you call ‘ this world’ and inspired you to think about anthropology- which ones were/are they?
G: There are two or three. I suppose the first one that pops into my mind is Of Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston. I remember reading it as a work of literature. After I read it I started doing a little bit of homework of who Zora Neale Hurston is, and I thought oh interesting! Many years ago, I was introduced to Studs Terkel ( Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do)who is a journalist and writes long form journalism. […]I remember reading this when I was pretty young, 23 or 24. The long form journalism I had encountered up till then, if I’m being really honest, didn’t come close to what literature can do. For me, it’s not just the externalities, but the world of the interior in relation to the world outside that’s important. That is what I thought until I ran into Terkel’s the books and I was like, wow, this is incredible. Terkel used raw transcriptions of conversations with people that give us such a powerful snapshot of an empirical world. But these transcripts also convey the emotional lives of people. And the third book is Philip Bourgois’s book, In Search Of Respect. It is one of the ethnographies I ran into early on that was captivating to me because of the literary way he was writing ethnography. I was also annoyed with his work because of some of the problematic depictions that he produced in his telling, but my irritation just made me want to read the whole thing. Yeah, these books sparked my imagination. I had always known that, at some point, I would write. Even when I was pretty young I was trying to write short stories. And then I realised that there is another way into this ( anthropology) that could be interesting.
I: Your office is big enough to accommodate quite a volume of books. Would you say that the majority of books in here are mostly related to your interests so far and topics you are working on such as South Asia, social media, hip-hop, masculinity etc.? And when acquiring new books to add to this collection, do you usually expand in the aforementioned areas of interest?
G:[…] I am actually fairly undisciplined in the way I acquire books. I read a lot of books about South Asia and India in particular […], but I don’t necessarily buy those books unless they are outstanding[…]. I tend to gravitate towards books in the fields of anthropology and history, and maybe sociology.[…] that make me think differently about the world I inhabit rather than reinforcing my expert position. I want to actually try to destabilise notions of expertise as best as I can. I think the biggest trap for an academic is to try to imagine that they already know.[…]. Reading books that destabilize that perception, I think, is important. This book Mohawk Interruptus by Audra Simpson, a Kahnawake Mohawk woman, […] engages with what citizenship means when you are indigenous and straddled across two nation-state’s contexts. This book has nothing to do with masculinity, nothing to do with the cities. It doesn’t have to do with South Asia and questions around the relationships between caste and race that I have been raising in my work. Nor does it have to do with digitality, which has been at the centre of my own research. Simpson’s book is a work of political anthropology, and the categories she touches upon allow me to think about the world more broadly. So, when I attend to issues that I’m interested in and write about, I remember this text. […]Simpson pushes me to remember the kind of visibilities and invisibilities that get produced in modern state making projects and helps me attend to the lives of participants in my work with a different sensibility.
I: You mentioned outstanding books. Audra Simpson’s book is amongst those books you find outstanding. Could you name another couple of books from your ‘outstanding chart’?
G: Yes definitely, Mohawk Interruptus is an outstanding book as it helps me to be a better ethnographer and a better scholar. Another one is Shapeshifters by Aimee Meredith Cox. I think I might have a copy of it somewhere here. (Looks for it). Where are you, Aimee!? You are now witnessing me not knowing where it is.
I: I’m witnessing your interaction with your bookshelf.
G: Right!? there is something to say about this as well. I actually do not purposefully organise my books in the categories because there is something about the discovery. It is like now, as I’m looking for Aimee’s book, I come across another book that makes me think: Ah, I haven’t looked at this one in a long time and it would be really… it is actually a rediscovery that is really nice. I might have lent it to somebody who has not returned it. The Shapeshifters is probably one of the more beautiful ethnographies I have read recently. It is set in a homeless shelter in Detroit and it focuses on the black young women who inhabit it. It is looking at the way in which these young women understand their position in the world. It is a careful, nuanced look at the system and the structure that these young women navigate and the way they make sense of it and themselves. […]I am kind of sad that I don’t know where it went. And number three would be Rey Chow’s Entanglements, or Transmedial Thinking about Capture. She’s a media theorist and she is quite incredible in her ability to write captivating theory. It is a series of essays about theorising entanglements. She is trying to talk through the ways in which things, people and images come into mutual becoming and being. Each essay is from a different moment of her career where she is trying to work out these questions and issues. The fateful attachments chapter is about a collector in China who collects things. Using his story of the collection is the way to think about attachment and how we come to be in a relationship with objects.
I: This, in a way reminds me of your film Dr Trash (2018) and the way the protagonist, collector of abandoned objects, thinks and wonders about the possible attachments and meanings that once possibly existed in people’s lives.
G: Yeah, now that makes me think about when did I read Chow’s essay last? I’m sure I have read it multiple times, but I was probably reading this essay while I was thinking through the film. Chow’s essay and an essay on collecting by Walter Benjamin.
I: Gabriel, it was lovely talking to you. Let’s wrap things up by introducing your book that is coming out in 2020 called The Globally Familiar: Digital hip hop and difference in Delhi. It must be exciting?
G: Yes! The book thinks through what becomes possible for young people when all of a sudden they are able to access other worlds and other places through their smartphones. Consider that millennials everywhere, especially in capital intensive places such as cities, have been exposed to media in the way that no generation prior to them has been. Then, the smartphone arrives, and it allows them more accessibility to all sorts of media forms. But, it also allows them the opportunity to produce media of their own. So, I look at these phenomena of consumption and production, specifically with regards to hip-hop in Delhi, and talk about how masculinity, race and class get shaped through this kind of iterative relationship between media communication, consumption, and production.
Interview by Ivana Kulas-Reid