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Consoling Ghosts

Consoling Ghosts: Stories of Medicine and Mourning from Southeast Asians in Exile

Jean M. Langford
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Consoling Ghosts
    Book Description:

    In conversation with emigrants from Laos and Cambodia, Jean M. Langford repeatedly met with spirits: the wandering souls of the seriously ill, dangerous ghosts of those who died by violence, restless ancestors displaced from their homes. For these emigrants, the dead not only appear in memories, safely ensconced in the past, but also erupt with a physical force into the daily life and dreams of the present.

    Inspired by these conversations,Consoling Ghostsis a sustained contemplation of relationships with the dying and the dead. At their heart, as Langford's work reveals, emigrants' stories are parables not of cultural difference but rather of life and death. Langford inquires how and why spirits become implicated in remembering and responding to violence, whether the bloody violence of war or the more structural violence of social marginalization and poverty. What is at stake, she asks, when spirits break out of their usual confinement as symbolic figures for history, heritage, or trauma to haunt the corridors of hospitals and funeral homes? Emigrants' theories and stories of ghosts, Langford suggests, inherently question the metaphorical status of spirits, in the process challenging both contemporary bioethics of dying and dominant styles of mourning.Consoling Ghostsexplores the possibilities opened up by a more literal existence of ghosts, from the confrontation of shades of past violence through bodily ritual to rites of mourning that unfold in acts of material care for the dead instead of memorialization.

    Ultimately the book invites us to consider alternate ways of facing death, conducting relationships with the dead and dying, and addressing the effects of violence that continue to reverberate in bodies and social worlds.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-3985-8
    Subjects: Anthropology, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Note on Transliteration
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction Afterlives
    (pp. 1-23)

    Imagine this work as circling restlessly around two ethnographic conversations—one that was regretted, another that was refused. In 1999 one of my research associates and I spoke several times with a middle-aged Lao couple, Major Samsuthi and his wife Bouakhay.¹ While writing my doctoral thesis on an entirely different topic, I’d been hired by the research unit of a hospital to talk to Lao, Khmer, Kmhmu, and Hmong emigrants about death.² Unable to ask them directly for stories of the deaths they had known, I asked them instead for the stories of their lives. Like many others, Major Samsuthi...

  5. Chapter 1 Violent Traces
    (pp. 25-51)

    Lieutenant somsy and i sat on a bench in the lobby of the community center, waiting for our interpreter. Over a series of meetings he had been telling us the story of his life, especially his years as a soldier with the Royal Lao Army. During our previous conversation, he had described his nightmares.

    I dream I am in a meadow fighting. . . . I was with two other soldiers, and the shells fell on us in the foxhole. A friend of mine got cut in the hand. One person got hit in the leg. I helped my friend...

  6. Chapter 2 Displacements
    (pp. 53-77)

    The cobra in oeur’s poem strikes a familiar motif. Like other nonhuman agents who appear in Southeast Asian literature, folktales, and memoirs about life under conditions of war and state-sponsored terror, Oeur’s cobra is a figure of beauty, power, and imagined rescue as well as danger. The encounter is not simply an ethnographic reference to a rural lifestyle, where the land along with its creatures is animated by intelligence, sentience, and will. For the cosmopolitan prisoner of the poem, who has been forced at gunpoint into a rural work camp by the Khmer Rouge (as was Oeur himself), the cobra...

  7. Chapter 3 Disciplines of Dying
    (pp. 79-109)

    Five years after major samsuthi arrived in the United States his first wife was diagnosed with liver cancer and died. He told the story in Lao to our interpreter, who in turn retold it to me. Then, as if this mediated account were insufficient, Major Samsuthi addressed me directly in English, saying “My wife. Liver cancer. No doctor in the world can treat liver cancer.” He attributed her illness in part to the years they spent with their three children in a reeducation camp in Laos. It was there that her health problems began. “During those thirteen years . ....

  8. Chapter 4 Dangerous Language
    (pp. 111-133)

    The poem “what’s written on the body” by the physician Peter Pereira transports us to a scene of medical practice, which over the past couple of centuries has increasingly become a primary site for communication with the dying. The verse alerts us to the way a prognosis can be a verdict of life or death. It also offers an opening for thinking through the different genres of language used to address the dying on the part of medicine and on the part of Southeast Asian laypersons and healing practitioners. Both linguistic registers are powerful in their effects, but a medical...

  9. Chapter 5 Syllables of Power
    (pp. 135-161)

    When language is wielded as sympathetic magic, certain words have the power to call death, and others, like Lt. Somsy’schom mon, to avert it. If trust in medicine was eroded in wartime Laos and Cambodia, reliance on magical healing may have intensified. As deaths and disappearances oscillated with miraculous survivals and rescues, war accentuated dependence on mysterious agents, including ceremonial syllables that might powerfully influence well-being. Such syllables work through a healing substance that inheres in the sounds or script, or through a direct address that lures a soul back into the world of the living or, after death,...

  10. Chapter 6 Postmortem Economies
    (pp. 163-183)

    One day i was sitting with lt. somsy and our interpreter in a small, spare room at a community center. A tape recorder sat on the beige formica-topped table between us. Our conversation had eventually gravitated, like many others with emigrants, to a conjunction between violence and material relations with the dead. The lieutenant was describing how he and his unit in the Royal Lao Army handled the bodies of those killed in combat during the wars of the 1960s and 1970s.

    As quick as possible try to get rid of the body. Try to hide the body from the...

  11. Chapter 7 Spirit Debt
    (pp. 185-208)

    These poems by the cambodian poet U Sam Oeur and the Hmong poet Mai Neng Moua track the relationship between mourning and physical traces of the dead, lamenting and protesting the loss of remains within a landscape and the missing names on a monument. In different ways, the poems register longing and anger related to an absence of physical connection with the dead. This connection has been broken, the poets infer, by state terror that separated families and destroyed villages and temples; by state-sponsored bombs and landmines that tore up landscapes; and by state memorials that honor soldiers in the...

  12. Afterword On the Status of Ghosts
    (pp. 209-218)

    The guest as ghost in one guise might be the emigrant turned immigrant, becoming invisible and disavowed by virtue of being absorbed into a sociological slot. The ghost as guest, in its turn, calls to mind those dead who make demands on the hospitality of the living. One surprise in this formulation might be that the appearance of the ghost calls for hospitality rather than exorcism. Why, one might ask, does this book emphasize consoling, rather than dispelling, the ghost?

    Spectrality has been a well-traveled metaphor in recent years, appearing at times in discussions of economy as a metaphor for...

  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 219-222)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 223-236)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 237-256)
  16. Index
    (pp. 257-263)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 264-264)