Beyond the Mainstage: Joshua Foer Ideas Talk
By Amanda May
One of the “Ideas” program presenters at this year’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas is Joshua Foer, the internationally best-selling author of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (Penguin Books, 2011). Foer will be discussing his latest project in a talk titled “Revisiting the Hunter-Gatherer Life.”
First, a little background. Foer comes from a strong literary family (to say the least). His brother Jonathan Safran Foer wrote Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, while his brother Franklin Foer is the editor of The New Republic. Joshua is the youngest Foer brother (now only 30), but has made a real name for himself, having published articles as a freelance journalist in The New Yorker, National Geographic, Slate, Esquire, and The New York Times, to name a few, and is said to have inspired a bidding war between publishers for his first book (Moonwalking with Einstein).
For Moonwalking, he began by simply researching memory: how it works and what its potential may be. He spent time with people who compete in memory competitions, and, in the spirit of participatory journalism, went on to compete and win a national championship.
That championship title and subsequent skills have already coming in handy for his current “hunter-gatherer” project. He began by memorizing the entire 1,100-word dictionary of Lingala, a language spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in order to embed himself with one of the last groups of hunter-gatherers left, the Mbenjele pygmies of the remote northern part of the country.
“Four-and-a-half years ago National Geographic sent me to one of the most remote parts of the rainforest left in Africa to do a piece about chimpanzees, and while I was there I met Mbenjele pygmies who are among the last hunter-gatherers in the planet,” Foer explained.
The Arts & Ideas program points out that “for 95% of the time that modern humans have lived on this planet, people have lived as hunter-gatherers. Human beings still have hunter-gatherer psychologies and hunter-gatherer bodies” even though modern society is a far cry from the way of life Foer has seen in the DRC.
“I found (the Mbenjele) really interesting people and I vowed to them to visit their village … I couldn’t get my mind off this story, I had to get back,” he said.
It took a few years, but Foer did get to that village. He has already been four times in the past year and plans to go back and forth every few months for the next couple of years. All sorts of logistics are required for his trips, including his new language skills, which have helped him talk his way out of countless bribes. Another logistic element is that he goes for at least a month because getting there takes a week, door-to-door, from his residence in New Haven.
“This time, it’s not participatory journalism. It’s not about me, it’s about these people,” he explained of the project. “But that being said. I do what they do. When they eat caterpillars, I eat caterpillars.”
He does draw the line occasionally. For example, while they sleep in leaf huts he has a tent. And then there was the episode with a gorilla…
“There was an incident where they were going to kill a gorilla and eat it,” Foer said. “That was the other side of the line for me. We hadn’t had any meat in those four days and a gorilla crossed our path … I wasn’t sure what hat I was supposed to be wearing there. It was the most difficult ethical decision so far (it’s illegal to kill a gorilla in the DRC), but there have been a million. It’s part of what I find interesting about it.
“I came at this with pretty romantic notions,” Foer continued. “There were things I thought would be harder, a lot of my expectations have been flipped.
“I don’t feel I’ve gotten to the bottom of things,” Foer said. “There is still a lot of work to be done … but I feel like with enough time I’ll be able to sort things out, their life and stories.”
At this point in his research he wants to bring you into the equation.
“What I realized, a regret of my last project, was not talking about it while working on it,” Foer admits. “Since it (Moonwalking) was published I’ve had lots of opportunities to talk about it, and I think I could have written a better book.”
The “Ideas Talk” gives Foer an opportunity to “sort out” his thinking, see what people find interesting (and uninteresting), and allows the audience to ask questions. Just think, with his first book already a bestseller (and soon to be a movie), you could have a hand in the evolution of one of the most promising young writers today if you attend this event!
Foer’s talk will take place at the Yale Center for British Art at 1080 Chapel St., on Tuesday, June 18, 5:30 p.m., and is free and open to the public (no reservations required, but seating is first come-first served).