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The Rejang of Sumatra: Exploring culture through literary journalism

Birt, Jill (2008) The Rejang of Sumatra: Exploring culture through literary journalism. Masters by Research thesis, Murdoch University.

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This thesis is about border crossing. Literary Journalism is a border-crossing writing genre claiming ground in fields as diverse as science, mathematics, memoir, travel and culture. The established academic discipline of anthropology is also crossing borders as styles of writing ethnography are changing and being challenged. This work is situated at the meeting point of these two genres. It examines how literary journalism can be used to write about culture for a wider audience beyond the academic community.

The defining characteristics of literary journalism – documentable subject, exhaustive research, novelistic writing techniques, voice and attention to underlying meaning – signal strengths and possible limitations to its use in writing about culture when measured against the demands of academic ethnographic writing. The requirements for research and writing about culture are examined from the perspectives of literary journalism and ethnography in Part 1 of this thesis.

To explore literary journalism’s suitability to write about culture, research was conducted among the Rejang people of Sumatra. Part Two of the thesis, titled Family Strength, is presented as an example of a literary journalist approach to recording culture. It is the result of five fieldtrips to Sumatra to gather data about members of four generations of Pak Taher’s family group in the village of Kelobak in the early 21st century. Each section of Family Strength tells the story of Pak Taher’s relatives, highlighting changes within the lifetime of family members, including gender roles, religious values, the influence of education, generational change and farming practices. The work is not an exhaustive treatment of Rejang culture but records culture as several “slices of life”.

Item Type: Thesis (Masters by Research)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Social Sciences and Humanities
Supervisor(s): Warren, Carol
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