Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman

Marjorie Shostak

Random House 1983
A book review by Danny Yee © 1994
a woman's life on the edge of the Kalahari

The !Kung San (or "Bushmen") are hunter-gatherers who live on the edges of the Kalahari desert. Nisa is the autobiography of a !Kung woman, edited and commented on by Marjorie Shostak. It is divided into chapters dealing with different periods and themes of Nisa's life, beginning with her earliest memories and roughly following the course of her life through to her old age. Each chapter consists of a description by Shostak of the appropriate aspect of !Kung life (drawing on broader anthropological studies) followed by edited (and translated!) extracts from Nisa's own words. The introduction and epilogue set the work in the context of ongoing anthropological study of the !Kung San, and describe the interaction of the latter with the modern world; here Shostak also discusses her own biases and motivations.

Nisa has a notable emphasis on the relationships between men and women and on sexual mores (apparently reflecting Nisa's preoccupations as much as Shostak's), and anyone interested in comparative "sexology" will find more of relevance here than in most ethnographic works; those trying to understand the position of women in their own society will appreciate the female point of view. Basically, however, Nisa is a engaging biography that does a good job of highlighting both the similarities and the differences between cultures. I think it would make a great introduction to anthropology, and wish I had multiple copies to give to anthropologically unenlightened friends.

January 1994

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%T Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman
%A Shostak, Marjorie
%I Random House
%D 1983
%O paperback, references, index, b&w illustrations
%G ISBN 0394711262
%P 402pp