Katherine Dimmery is an ethnographer of all things and especially of art, written texts, and southwest China. Presently she is finishing a dual PhD in Asian Languages and Cultures and Anthropology.

Katherine Dimmery was interviewed by Nathan Liebetreu, a marketing and media intern at the Institute for the Humanities.


N.L.: Good morning Katie, thank you for doing this interview. To get us started, what are you reading this week?

K.D.: Nice to meet you, Nathan! I am very excited to get to talk with you about books. Here are the main things on my reading/listening list these days:

  1. Lots of things by Kim Tallbear. Her first book, Native American DNA, is amazing, but I’m especially interested in her current research in critical polyamory—or more specifically, the implications of the European colonization of the Americas for apparently personal/private things like sex, love, and kinship. Also, she writes fiction. She's helped me think about pretty much everything.
  2. Manual of Standard Tibetan, by Nicolas Tournadre and Sangda Dorje. Probably this is a bad idea. I am trying to pick up with Tibetan language studies while finishing a dissertation and applying for jobs. I'm being very gentle about it, though, and job applications require distractions.
  3. The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (by Louis Menand): Among other things, this book tells the story of Charles Sanders Peirce, a philosopher whose semiotic theories are very much in the air among anthropologists these days. Turns out that, in addition to talking about signs, Peirce pursued other activities such as hitting his wife. I find this context very helpful in thinking about my own relationship with Peirce.
  4. Chalice, by Robin McKinley. These very hard times in the world make me crave good stories extremely much. Robin McKinley tells good stories, and lots of the characters are not human. Like, horses and cats and, in this case, honey bees with strange and powerful honey.
  5. Finally, my cat, Bubba Cat, is not reading material, but he has become an important interlocutor with extremely loud opinions about everything. Here is a picture of him overseeing my chapter-writing process.

N.L.: Seeing Bubba Cat's picture might just be the highlight of my day! I wonder if he is also reading any books lately; I might have to send out an email asking him for an interview as well. I loved researching the above books you mentioned and I wonder if there is a common theme in your book selections. Do you gravitate to any book genre and if so what? And why?

K.D.: I’m afraid that Bubba’s interest in books does not go much further than pushing them off the table. He is, however, pursuing an intensive, multi-sited ethnographic investigation of bird and squirrel mobility. Let us know if you have questions about his research.

I think there are two big themes in the books I mentioned: (1) trying to make my chosen disciplines—anthropology and Asian studies—objects of my own social and historical analysis, in the context of my current big project, the dissertation, and (2) being very very interested in the worlds and histories of southwest China. 

Starting with the first theme, I want to do research that helps more than hurts things, and part of doing that is, I think, to be a researcher of my own continuing research process. The author I mentioned, Kim Tallbear, is very much involved in the researching of anthropological research, and I've taken a great deal of inspiration from her over the last couple weeks. The Metaphysical Club is an intellectual history that draws connections between people’s public-facing academic work and their personal lives—connections I enjoy and find extremely revealing. As for novels and stories in general, in addition to keeping me sane, they help me think about narrative, which is the best way I know to communicate research and ideas to others. Bubba Cat reminds me that humans are just one, comparatively graceless piece of this universe.

Finally, I do ethnographic research in southwest China, where people speak a variety of languages, Tibetan among them, so my lifetime goal is to get kind of okay at all the languages spoken around there. Tibetan is next on my list. This, of course, goes back to liking southwest China very much.

N.L.: What author or book has impacted you personally or professionally that you would love to share or recommend? Why?

K.D.: As far as authors or (in my preferred phrase) textual specialists go, it’s totally my teacher, He Yuxin. In addition to being a dad, granddad, herder, hunter, and entrepreneur, he’s also a ritualist in a Naxi community of southwest China. As a ritualist, his main work involves copying out ceremonial books, and using the books to create recitations. He’s especially good at the writing itself—everybody compliments his written “hand”—and also (in my opinion) at the little postscripts that most ritualists add at the end of books, to describe the circumstances of their writing. Sometimes He Yuxin puts in jokes. As for specific books, there’s one that he copies frequently called Chobbazzee, and it’s all about the words to say when speaking to mountains, and the bad things that will happen to you if you don’t get the words right, or don’t say them frequently enough. I like this book especially because, well, I like mountains. But I also don’t mess with them.

N.L.: Can you touch a bit on the project you are working on and why it is a matter of interest to you? Or is there a theme in your professional or personal life that compels you to seek out certain kinds of books, authors, entertainment, or passion?  

K.D.: I think my project started with a very uninformed interest in the art of southwest China—the books, as I’ve mentioned, along with songs and ways of moving through the landscape. Now, though, I am more attached to specific individuals, how their lives are articulated by the art they use, and how, at the same time, they are using their art to respond to development and heritage projects in their area.

N.L.: As my departing and last question to end this interview, I wanted to ask a question we end our fellow interviews by.  If you were stranded on a deserted island, what would be the one book you would want to have with you and why?

K.D.: This is kind of embarrassing, Nathan, but sure. The single most influential book of my childhood is Unexplained!, by Jerome Clark. It's a collection of articles investigating "unexplained" phenomena, ranging from lake monsters to extraterrestrial visitation. As a grownup looking back on my enduring relationship with this book, I'd say it is a blunt (and amazing!) reminder of how all things are strange and cool. Also, for heaven's sake, lake monsters aren't monsters. They are prehistoric whales, also known as zeuglodon, just trying to get along in a world that makes things very difficult for them. If I am ever trapped on a desert island, then I expect I will need to be reminded of why life is exciting and the various creatures are never quite what you expect.