Georges Woke Up Laughing is a dynamic account of transnational migration in the Haitian context. Through the combination of historical, autobiographical and ethnographical elements, this book allows readers to engage in the questioning of the meaning of membership within nation-states and both initiates and supports discussions about loyalties, identities, nationality and citizenship. Georges Woke up Laughing takes the phenomenon of transnational migration and adds an element of personal, playing on the readership’s emotions in doing so, creates a compelling tale within an anthropological ethnography.
Summary of the Ethnography
The first several chapters take the reader to a place where they are pushed to question the acceptance of the projected mainstream view that the world us made up of separate, independent nation states, each with their own territory (Schiller, and, Fouron 2004). The book goes on to be an in-depth exploration of the ways in which immigrants in contemporary times are “living their lives across borders” (9). Both authors use this chapter to set up a reflection on how their own lived experiences and subsequent political learnings shape the insight and knowledge they bring into the writing of this ethnography. While Chapter 1 sets up a structure for the rest of the book, Chapter 2 digs into contextualizing and defining the terms that will remain present throughout the rest of the book. Chapter 3 brings in the specific context of the Haitian transnational migrant experience through an extensive recount of the commission delivering process in which Haitians abroad have a sense of responsibility in delivering gifts back to the kinship ties they have in Haiti. Transitioning into Chapter 4, this chapter delves into the links that are forged and valued between families across nations. Chapter 5 takes a more “Georges” focus as it speaks to Georges response to the racial discrimination that affects his family in America daily. Chapter 6 uses the experiences of long distance nationalism to shed a light on the findings that long-distance nationalist is a narrative that can be adapted by both the powerful as a resource to legitimate the intensification of poverty, the arguably unavoidable accompaniment to globalization, or as the way in which the most oppressed resist against said oppression. This discussion also includes gender as a power relation. In Chapter 7, the authors speak to the issue of the second-generation migrant. In doing so, this chapter offers sharp divisions in the daily circumstances including the ideologies of race, nation and political experiences between Haitian descent that grow up in Haiti, versus the US. Chapter 8 and 9 highlight a space of expectations within long-distance nationalism, mainly focusing on the expectation of the state. Chapter 10 and Chapter 11 explore the shared language of nationalism and a sense of love towards Haiti. In doing so it acknowledges the multiple meanings and voices that can come out of this shared language, not limited to both hegemonic and subaltern voices, both working towards different goals.
Scope of Readership
The readership is clearly directed to, but not limited to, a student readership. Arguably, the strongest element of this ethnography that makes the projected demographic a student readership would be the language that is used. This is because discipline-specific and overly academic jargon can create an accessibility barrier in terms of who is able and who is willing to read. In fact, the creation of a book that appealed to a wider readership was a very present goal through the creation process. Within the first chapter, Nina states
“We do so [write this book] remembering that Georges wife, Rolande, and Nina’s mother, Evelyn, have requested a book without jargon so that they can read and enjoy it. So, while we build our definitions on the scholarly literature, we will not review its intricacies” (17).
Throughout the book, the authors infuse depth and sensitivity through personal narratives, the content remains accessible to a wider population of informants. Georges Woke Up Laughing emphasizes a native point of view. Although adverse in the subject of Haitian migration, Nina herself is not from Haitian descendant. She balances writing with her own knowledge of the subject matter with content that emphasizes the lived experiences of those native to Haiti and who have experienced Haitian transnational migration in anyway themselves. Mainly, the beginning of Chapter 9 explores political power between nations and apparent states. Chapter 6 as well examines power relations; in this case, it is more so through a gendered lens.
Georges Woke Up Laughing keeps a critical focus throughout the entirety of the book. In doing so the authors extensively consider the power inequalities and relations that are present in transnational migration and long-distance nationalism all while fleshing out their impact on lived social relations. The ethnography tends to follow the characteristics that are discussed by Willis and Trondman (2000). Along with keeping a critical focus, Georges Woke Up Laughing includes elements of the Actor-Network theory through tracing said power through transnational players. Theory can act as an agent that could support students and aid them to digest the ideas presented to then be used for a better understanding of what is going on in the world.
The final feature of the Ethnography that makes it very tangible for a student readership is its maintained focus on everyday life situations of long-distance nationalists. In doing so, the book can explain a particular way of the life of Haitians that have personal ties with transnational migration. Its conversational tone makes this book not limited to student readership but keeps the access level of understanding ideal for non-academics.
External Academic Reviews
In consulting, external literature reviews on Georges Woke Up Laughing, Mike Evans from the University of Alberta highlights the authors’ sensitivity to the intersections of class, gender, and age as well as the movement of not only people between the US and Haiti but also their ideas. The use of intersectionality in discussing the experiences of transnational migrants aids the work in a way that avoids major generalizations of an entire phenomenon. Evans then outlines how this ethnography satisfies what many post-modernist critics of the social sciences have been calling for, an ethnographic project in which the variation of voice has a place before the representations made (Evans 2001). In Georges Woke up Laughing the authors Nina and Georges make a very conscious attempt at filling the pages with the voices of many different people all with lived experience of long-distance nationalism.
Through Evan’s perspective, he addresses how the authors do a strong job in discussing the Haitian nation as an organic entity that encompasses Haitian people both in the homeland and abroad. Thus, giving the reader a contextual perspective of Haiti being not only a physical location but rather a core symbol through with intersections of class, gender, generations, and location play out (Evans 2001).
Evans found that the focus on nationalism within this ethnography was jarring. I tend to disagree. From a Western perspective, we tend to equate nationalism with radicalism towards a nation and right wing politics (see: “Make America Great Again” in the United States). While this is not the single case for nationalism, I do believe that in the West there is a different need for nationalism within one’s life. Nina and Georges both use the voices of Haiti’s living as transnational migrants and their own autobiographical stories to highlight how nationalism, in this context, creates necessary spaces for survival.
Peggy Levitt, from Wellesley College and Harvard University, offers another review on this ethnography. She highlights how this book calls into question the long-standing assumptions about the immigrant experience in the United States. I agree with Levitt in the case that this book makes major contributions to the task of shifting vocabulary and theory to bring light to the nature of the transnational connections sustained by so many contemporary migrants (Levitt 2002). Due to the nature of what I believe this book’s readership is, the stories shared in Georges Woke up Laughing helps aid readers in understanding the forms of identity and political action they engage in (Levitt 2002). Additionally, this book addresses concerns about the methodological tools required to study contemporary migration. It pushes readers to go beyond what is known in mainstream methodological nationalism. As Levitt mentions, good research leaves readers with questions. In this case, we are left with gaps in the intersection of religion due to the lack of focus it is given within the analysis. This is interesting as both the Catholic and Protestant Churches are also sites of transnational identity formation and expression among Haitian migrants. Without addressing this alternative form of transnational belonging, we are left with this questioning.
Overall, Georges Woke up Laughing is an excellent read for what it is. Despite a certain degree of repetition in its contents, this ethnography offers a very strong basis in understanding long distance nationalism as the result of transnational migration.
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Evans, Mike. “Nina Glick Schiller & Georges Eugene Fouron Georges Woke Up Laughing: Long-Distance Nationalism and the Search for Home Durham, NC; Duke University Press, 2001.” Journal of International Migration and Integration: 468-69.
Levitt, Peggy. “Georges Woke Up Laughing: Long‐Distance Nationalism and the Search for Home. By Nina Glick Schiller and Georges Eugene Fouron. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001.” American Journal of Sociology 108, no. 2 (2002): 485-87. doi:10.1086/376316.
Willis, P., and M. Trondman. “Manifesto for Ethnography.” Ethnography 1, no. 1 (2000): 5-16.