Out of Africa
Author Roy Richard Grinker follows in the footsteps of anthropologist Colin M. Turnbull
By Gerald Bartell
Author Roy Richard Grinker was eager to know how his editor liked In the Arms of Africa: The Life of Colin M. Turnbull. Then Grinkerís manuscript came back bearing a Post-it note. It read: "Heís straight."
The point was well taken. Grinker is straight. The problem was that his subject, anthropologist Colin M. Turnbull, was gay. And St. Martinís Pressí editor Michael Denneny felt Grinkerís passages about Turnbullís gay life, a vital part of the narrative, fell flat.
The block was the only one Grinker had faced in writing the book. In so many other ways, Grinker almost was Turnbull.
At George Washington University, Grinker is an associate professor of anthropology, the position Turnbull once held. And as a student at Grinnell College in Iowa in the early Ď80s, Grinker, like Turnbull, threw off what he calls "an overbearing childhood."
Grinkerís great-grandfather was one of the first practitioners of psychoanalysis in the United States, introducing phenobarbitol into this country from Europe. Grinkerís grandfather, also a psychiatrist, studied with Sigmund Freud. Grinkerís father, too, was a psychiatrist. So Grinkerís family expected him to be number four. He refused, remaining instead an indifferent student uncertain of his future.
Then Grinker read Turnbullís groundbreaking study of African Pygmies, The Forest People. Grinker found the book "electrifying." It inspired his career. Grinker became an anthropologist like Turnbull, eventually traveling to Africa to study Pygmies, as Turnbull had done.
Later, he began to study Turnbull himself.
Turnbull had rebelled by coming out. The son of upper-class parents, a graduate of Oxford, he lived an openly gay life in England in the Ď40s and Ď50s, and later in the United States. In 1960, Turnbull, who had become curator of African Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History, became the partner of Joseph Towles, an actor and later an anthropologist. Their relationship lasted until 1988 when Towles died of AIDS. (Turnbull died of AIDS in 1994.)
"Being gay made Turnbull think of the world as defined by false categories," Grinker says. "He didnít like the words Ďgayí or Ďhomosexual,í not as words that defined someone totally. Being gay made him question the kind of limits we put on ourselves."
Grinker also observed that Turnbullís gayness caused him to see science was not microscopic data, but a discipline to be deeply felt.
"He was dedicated to the idea that people doing scientific work bring their own past to it," Grinker says.
So as he faced his editorís criticism, Grinker searched his own life to make Turnbullís story more than data. Karen Wolny, another editor at St. Martinís, suggested Grinker concentrate on a relationship Turnbull shared with an African man in the Ituri forest.
"How did it feel everyday to see that tight butt, that muscular body with almost no fat?" Wolny asked Grinker. "Close your eyes and imagine looking at Kengeís body. How did it make him feel? How does it make you feel when you imagine it?"
Sitting at his keyboard, Grinker fantasized.
"I thought about how good it felt when men touch my hand, my back, my leg," Grinker says. "I realized I hadnít wanted to recognize how having that physical affection felt good. Now Iíve become more open to showing physical affection."
Grinker found this new sensitivity warmed his entire book.
"At one point I wrote, ĎColin had a jeweled soul,í" Grinker says. "Iíd never written that way."
Grinker says he also developed keener insight into what it means to be gay.
"I learned I was distant from gays and gay relationships," he says. "I think itís important to have people who are not gay write about gay issues. Why shouldnít that be possible? There need to be bridges."
Richard Grinker reads at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 27, at A Different Light, 151 W. 19th St. For information, call (212) 989-4850.
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September 22, 2000