Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman | Study Guide

Marjorie Shostak

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Marjorie Shostak | Biography

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Education and Early Career

Born May 11, 1945, to parents Jerome and Edna, Marjorie Shostak was an ethnographer and an award-winning photographer who is best remembered for her work among the !Kung San people in the Kalahari Desert of southwest Africa. Raised in Brooklyn, New York, Shostak received a bachelor of arts (BA) in English Literature from Brooklyn College in 1966, where she was involved in the growing women's rights movement. The subject would remain a long-term interest of hers and heavily influence her later work in Africa. It was at Brooklyn College Shostak met her future husband, Melvin Konner. They married in 1968 and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Shostak briefly worked at Harvard's Peabody Museum. The couple had three children, Susanna, Adam, and Sarah.

To Africa and Back

In 1969 Shostak traveled to the Dobe region of Botswana with her husband, where he researched infant growth and mother-infant relationships of the !Kung as part of his doctoral work in Biological Anthropology. Shostak occupied herself at first with taking photographs and studying women's artwork in the area, but over time she found herself wanting to do something more. It was then that she started interviewing women and recording their life stories as a part of her fieldwork. One woman in particular, Nisa (a pseudonym), became the focus of her work, and together they recorded 15 interviews delving into Nisa's life. Shostak and Konner left Botswana in 1971, but Shostak returned to the Dobe region from 1975–76 to do further work with Nisa and other women.

In 1981 Harvard University Press published Shostak's work, Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman, which quickly became a standard text in courses on anthropology and women's studies. Although Shostak did not have a formal degree in anthropology, her command of the written word and Nisa's compelling storytelling style made the book an instant classic in the field.

Shostak and Konner moved to Atlanta, Georgia, in 1983, where she taught anthropology at Emory University and also served as a research associate at the Institute of Liberal Arts. She and her husband, along with author S. Boyd Eaton, published two books on diet and exercise, titled The Paleolithic Prescription (1988) and Stone-Age Health Programme (1989). These texts propose people today are ill-equipped to deal with the typical Western diet, which differs vastly from the hunting and gathering societies of early cultures.

After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1988, Shostak returned in 1989 to the Kalahari for a final visit with Nisa, then 68 years old. Shostak recorded 10 further interviews about how the lives of Nisa and the !Kung had changed since her last visit. The book would eventually be published after Shostak's death as Nisa Revisited (2000). In 1994 Shostak and Nisa were immortalized as the main characters of the play "My Heart Is Still Shaking," by Brenda Bynum, which examined their deep, complex relationship as well as Shostak's illness.

Legacy

Shostak died on October 6, 1996, after her long struggle with cancer. In addition to her books on Nisa and Paleolithic nutrition, Shostak contributed over 20 academic papers on the people and art of the Kalahari, as well as on anthropological methodology. Her text Nisa is still regularly included on reading lists in anthropology and gender studies today, and is widely viewed as an influential ethnographic work.

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