Tragic Spirits gives us a mesmerizing depiction of the revival of shamanism among the Buryats of Mongolia under tragic circumstances. Facing life-threatening economic misfortunes in an era of neoliberal reform, Buryats turn to shamans to explain the causes of their hardships. The shamans explain their clients’ bad fate in terms of neglected ancestral spirits and it is here that the subtlety and brilliance of Manduhai Buyandelger’s ethnography becomes apparent. Because of multiple forced migrations and historical displacements, at the hands of Tsarist and Soviet Russia, the Ch’ing dynasty Chinese empire and the socialist government of Mongolia, Buryats have often lost the history and the genealogies of their own families. The shamans’ search for neglected ancestral spirits enables the reconstruction of familial histories. Based on years of fieldwork in her home country, Buyandelger interweaves complex narratives of state violence and suppression with the voices of ancestral spirits, shamans, and their clients to produce a moving portrait of a long suffering people. By analysing how the gender dynamics of the present influence the activities of male and female shamans, she demonstrates the importance of gender to the reconstruction of history. While giving us multiple portrayals of Buryat life, Buyandelger theorises new ways of thinking about history, memory, and forgetting that are applicable to a wide range of societies. Buyandelger’s wide reading in anthropology enables her to make many nuanced comparisons to the work of shamans and the making of history in other places. Above all, she shows that history is a continual work in progress. Her work will inspire anthropologists concerned with problems of memory, forgetting, suppression, and the creation of historical knowledge for decades to come. It is for these reasons that Tragic Spirits richly deserves the 2014 Francis L.K. Hsu Book Prize.
2014 Hsu Book Prize Committee:
Andrew Kipnis (The Australian National University), chair
Laura Miller (University of Missouri-St. Louis)
William Silcott (Wichita State University)