From Water to Wine: Becoming Middle Class in Angola, written by Jess Auerbach, is about emergent middle class life in Angola. The book explores how transformation, hope and consumption work amongst urban people in a country that international media coverage has mostly reduced to tales of civil war and poverty. The book expresses the author’s experiences of living, teaching, conversing and finding people’s stories in a coastal town, Lobito, and abroad. The author’s approach, asking “what’s working in Angola, what makes people happy?”, produces recollections that are ordered in chapters that reflect through the human senses (smell, touch, taste, sound, sight) including the sense of proprioception (movement, balance) and a seventh sense that the author articulates as curiosity.
The book moves unsettlingly fast, dartingly, but also slow-paces often through inter-personal connection-making. The book explores its territory through the human senses and from inter-continental perspectives. The result of this study is one of robust sensory-overload coupled with innovative sense-making.
A rich variety of texts, images and objects (including poetry, recipes and photo essays) are woven together to achieve “unflattening” (page 14), a term used by Auerbach to relay broadly inclusive perspectives, amidst compassionate care, rather than revert to repeating stereotypical tropes about urban Angola. Through this book readers get to know, become involved, connected and concerned with a time and place and its people. If you are holding Jess Auerbach’s From Water to Wine, and opening it, you are entering a scene of becoming moved to know about, and moved to care about, the everyday. Auerbach’s book drew me away from my preconceived notions of pity for a formerly war-ravaged country and parachuted me into the day to day lives of people with aspirations and hopes in urban-contemporary life-making, of middle class becoming, where owning “a house”, “a car”, and “an education” (p. 18) matters.
The book explores the complexities of becoming middle class, where middle class is not a fixed term, but “cumulative and flexible” (p. xxii), to allow for individual experiences of Angolan socialism and capitalism to effect communal and individual change. The book poses a sense-making for our times to explore the personal, public and political of socialism’s transforming to and from capitalism for Angolan people since 2002. The author uses the term “capitalismo selvagem” to name what she calls a “wild” type of capitalism. In order to retain a critical stance on capitalism the author reminds us, “isn’t any capitalism wild?”.
The cover of Auerbach’s book depicts Lobito’s lights and flood-lit harbour beneath a night sky. Light and shadow, proximity and distance and depth and height invite the reader to experience and explore urban living in Lobito. Throughout the book, the reader’s senses move to and fro between experience and cognition: taste-biting into Dona Joaquim’s Aurea confectionaries ceaselessly baked during decades of war.
Sixth and seventh senses
To practice Auerbach’s sixth (or first) sense, proprioception, is to move and balance head-bodily into Lobito and surrounding cities, Rio de Janeiro, Cuba, move back across the Atlantic into Victoria’s flat, move on a motorcycle, return again and again to relationships, and be moved by body-emotion-caring kinesthetics merged. Through this book, the reader is moved! The author’s seventh sense, curiosity, “attending the beautiful” (p. 182), invites finding an everyday life peace.
With an audacity and braveness, the book merges sensoric experiences wildly and messily, structured to search, honour, build, take care, play. The text reflects a researcher and some of her subjects as they traverse into cultural socio-politics on three continents and draws readers into friendships-becoming, inviting complexities sparked through image, word, cartooned history (pp. 23–9), maps—including Kyle Williams’ map of the slave trade’s dark Atlantic.
where human cargo was exported from Angola (p. 12), author poems, grey-shaded text-box reflections and updates—all traces of joy-hardship—and an index and a topical bibliography (pp. 201–7) to boot.
This book is written by a digital native, for digital natives of the world: people who, like a younger Angolan generation, grew up with the internet (pp. xxii, 163). Auerbach’s study is an early model for researching, processing and presenting material through the perception of a generation of digital-wise learners.
As an ethnography written in a series for the teaching of culture, the writing flows accessibly, yet the book engages with ample academically weighted references and explanations. The book addresses the reader and scholar directly to circulate critical ideas and contexts that humanity is grappling with and that anthropology, perhaps, attends best to: aspects of “human difference”(p. xxiii) and human connection whilst living amidst the crises of a “burning world” (p. 193).
Jess Auerbach’s material is presented in book format, not a digital website where you can click a triangle for video-play or see full colour images that overload. The book text remains close to the ethnographer’s method: the reader experiences people’s stories that are interpreted as waves of change by the author’s convincingly honest presentation of method and findings. I sense that the book format can travel and stay with readers who, by looking at black and white images, by reading a poem printed on a page, and by imagining sounds to an audiograph, are better able to enter their individual realms of wondering and sense construction. The book certainly portrays an ethnographic model for research-observation through sensoric “deep-diving” (p. 9) of which sensoric research is not new, but Auerbach’s harvesting and display of data is multifaceted and exponentially interconnecting.
Page references in this reflection are from the Canadian edition. The subsequent South African, and Portuguese-translated editions contain updated introductions.