Our next book club book will be Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett! This memoir covers the thirty years during which Everett spent time living with the Pirahã, a group of Amazonian native people, and the many lessons he learned as he struggled to become fluent in their very difficult and unique language. Although he initially began his work as a missionary with the goal of translating the Bible into Pirahã, Everett’s personal views and understanding of the world around him shifted significantly during his thirty years learning both a new language and a new way of thinking from the Pirahã.
Everett, then a Christian missionary, arrived among the Pirahã in 1977—with his wife and three young children—intending to convert them. What he found was a language that defies all existing linguistic theories and reflects a way of life that evades contemporary understanding. The Pirahã have no counting system and no fixed terms for color. They have no concept of war or of personal property. They live entirely in the present. Everett became obsessed with their language and its cultural and linguistic implications, and with the remarkable contentment with which they live—so much so that he eventually lost his faith in the God he’d hoped to introduce to them.
Over three decades, Everett spent a total of seven years among the Pirahã, and his account of this lasting sojourn is an engrossing exploration of language that questions modern linguistic theory. It is also an anthropological investigation, an adventure story, and a riveting memoir of a life profoundly affected by exposure to a different culture. Written with extraordinary acuity, sensitivity, and openness, it is fascinating from first to last, rich with unparalleled insight into the nature of language, thought, and life itself.
Highlight white text for content warnings: alcohol addiction, animal cruelty or animal death, threats of assault, death or dying, racism, giant effing snakes
For those of you looking for hosting ideas, here are some easy snacks and beverages you and your book club compatriots can enjoy while discussing Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. And for those of you who are looking for something more beyond the book itself, here are some articles and books which either tie into Everett’s memoir or expand upon its themes and content.
Snacks & Drinks:
Amazonian Fruits & Nuts
Although most of the fruits in the Amazon lack the durability and availability to make it onto the international supermarket shelf, there are still a number of fruits and nuts you can probably find at your local grocery. (source) Some may only be available as an ingredient in a processed food (such as açaí or passion fruit, which are often featured in smoothies or juices), but you can be on the lookout for bananas, coconuts, mangos, avocados, papayas, jackfruits, pineapples, various citrus, cashews, and brazil nuts.
Manioc, which is also known as cassava, yuca, and (in its dried and powdered incarnation) tapioca, is a staple food in the tropical regions of South America. Manioc is similar to potatoes in its uses – fry them, bake them, boil them, mash them, the possibilities are endless!!! (source) You can find many recipes using manioc online (although you should also try searching for “cassava” or “yuca” instead, since not all recipes will include “manioc” in their ingredients list). An introduction to the many possibilities of manioc can be found at The Spruce Eats, and a pretty straightforward recipe for manioc balls stuffed with cheese provided by Laylita’s Recipes includes some pointers for where to track down manioc in North America and Europe.
Sweet Coffee & Cookies
While living with the Pirahã, Everett made good use of this simple food-and-drink pairing when it came to opening up challenging conversations. For instance, when Everett needed to figure out why the Pirahã had threatened to kill him the night before, he headed to Xahoábisi’s hut and called out his approach, saying, “Would you like some coffee? I put a lot of sugar in it! And I have some cookies” (Ch. 4). Although getting your book club conversation started may not be as high stakes as Everett’s struggles to communicate with the Pirahã, the coffee lovers among your club’s members will enjoy the offering nonetheless.
Wondering what Pirahã sounds like when spoken? I sure did while I was reading this book, so I hit up YouTube and found these videos, which gave me at least a little bit of an aural reference point.
The Small Island Where 500 People Speak Nine Different Languages by Michael Erard
An article discussing the Warruwi Community on South Goulborn Island off the Australian coast, which breaks down the linguistic idea of “receptive multilingualism.” Although receptive multilingualism can be found around the globe, the people at Warruwi Community are unique in stating that they are fluent in languages which they can understand but cannot speak. The article also addresses the challenges of maintaining “linguistic peace” between people who live in the same place, and yet speak different languages.
The First Woman to Translate the ‘Odyssey’ Into English by Wyatt Mason
Mason’s article revolves around his interview with Emily Wilson, whose new translation of Homer’s Odyssey was published in 2017, and unpacks many of the challenges that come with attempting to accurately translate a text from one language to another. The article also provides a fascinating look at the way in which our own cultural context impacts this translation process.
The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax by Geoffrey K. Pullum (from Natural Language & Linguistic Theory – Vol. 7, No. 2, May, 1989)
A very salty article about Benjamin Lee Whorf (“Connecticut fire prevention inspector and weekend language-fancier”) and his hand in creating one of the greatest linguistic falsehoods of all time when it comes to the languages spoken by Inuit and Yupik peoples.
Miss Translated poetry series by Elisa Chavez
A fascinating collection of poems, which Chavez describes as follows: “The main conceit behind this work is that to accurately portray my relationship with Spanish, I have to explore the pain and ambiguity of not speaking the language of my grandparents and ancestors. As a result, these poems are bilingual … sort of. Each one is translated into English incorrectly. The poems I produced have secrets, horrific twists, emotional rants, and confessions hiding in the Spanish. It’s my hope that people can appreciate them regardless of their level of Spanish proficiency.”
The link above is for two of Chavez’s most popular poems from this series, and include accurate English translations provided by Tumblr users. Elisa Chavez’s website has many more poems in this series, as well as other poems and posts responding to current events in the USA.
Easy, Tiger by David Sedaris
One of my favorite essays by David Sedaris, which clearly articulates the challenges that face any beginning learner of another language, especially when you have no human teacher to help you and are instead forced to rely on CDs and phrasebooks.