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Evelyn Blackwood wins 2011 Ruth Benedict Book Prize

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AQA Awards the 2011 Ruth Benedict Book Prize to Evelyn Blackwood’s Falling into the Lesbi World: Desire and Difference in Indonesia

The American Anthropological Association’s Association for Queer Anthropology (AQA, formerly the Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists, SOLGA) is very pleased to announce that Evelyn Blackwood has been awarded the 2011 Ruth Benedict Book Prize in the category “Outstanding Monograph” for Falling into the Lesbi World: Desire and Difference in Indonesia (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2010)

The Ruth Benedict Prize is presented each year at the American Anthropological Association’s meeting to acknowledge excellence in a scholarly book written from an anthropological perspective about a topic that engages issues and theoretical perspectives relevant to LGBTQ studies.

More about the book:

In Falling into the Lesbi World, Evelyn Blackwood takes us on a vivid ethnographic voyage to West Sumatra.  Her evocative narrative allows us to experience the complex relationship between gender and sexuality in play among female-born persons whom we might be tempted to call “lesbians.”  Given the global drift of language and culture, it’s perhaps not surprising that her protagonists often call their way of life “lesbi,” designating themselves variously as “tombois” and “femmes,” and with local words for “guys” and “girls.”  She shows us, however, that it would be a grave error to assume that the lesbi world is equivalent to what we know as lesbianism, even as there are significant points where meanings and practices do intersect.

Tombois tend to discover their “maleness” when they are young, living very much as boys when they are children, and feeling masculine freedoms as embodied and authentic. But even as they can enact masculinity in their relationships with ideally compliant and domestic femmes, the path to full manhood is blocked at every turn.  Establishing independent households as couples is rarely possible for tombois, and the pull of familial obligations often can draw them back into the role of daughter.  Physical transformation is rarely imagined or desired; tombois live with their physical ambiguities, which they understand as part of who they are.

The title of the book is apt:  the reader is plunged into a world where the meanings of words constantly shift and both compliance and resistance appear as lesbi sensibilities are enacted.  Blackwood’s analysis comes from years of work in West Sumatra and reflections on her position as a femme in a previous relationship with a tomboi, an experience that first alerted her to the ways that Western lesbian and Indonesian lesbi existences merge and stray from one another.  Not unlike the stereotyped roles of sharply distinguished expectations for butches and femmes in the West, tomboi-femme couples struggle with appropriate sexual behaviors.  Only the tombois are definitively lesbi; femmes are “normal” women who are thought to really desire men.  Even so, some femmes understand their attraction to tombois as more than merely situational or transitory, and thus struggle to understand whether they are authentically lesbi.  Lesbi lives, then, while seemingly shaped by prevailing understandings of gender, with appearance, personal style, sexual preferences, and other attributes lining up, can defy the imperatives of gender, reconfiguring desire and identity.

Falling into the Lesbi World poses provocative questions about issues queer anthropology has on its front burner:  how transgender subjectivities are imagined and enacted and how global flows of information and language shape queer experience.  But Blackwood does more.  She tells us that it’s not enough to say that women’s same-sex desires and relationships are less visible than those between men, and hence less worthy of analysis.  We need to ask the right questions and fall into lesbi worlds if we are to better grasp the complexities of sex and gender across cultural divides.  Blackwood guides us into these worlds and makes them come alive.

Evelyn Blackwood is Full Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Purdue University. Her books, edited volumes, and articles include award-winning scholarship on Native American female two-spirits and tombois in Indonesia. Much of her work critiques matrilineal theory, matrifocality, and marriage through rich ethnographies of gender, kinship, and political economy, focusing on rural and urban West Sumatra.

The Ruth Benedict Book Prize will be presented to the winning authors during the AQA Business meeting on Friday 18 November at the 110th American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting in Montréal.  AQA would like to thank the Ruth Benedict Book Prize Committee for their thoughtful work, including former Benedict Prize winners Tanya Erzen and Ellen Lewin, and Graduate Student Representative, Richard Martin.  For questions or additional information, please contact the Committee Chair, Mary L. Gray, at mLg@indiana.edu.

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