Real Ethnography vs. Anthropologically Inspired Fiction: Shabono and Yanoáma Compared

by Corey Donovan

I have reviewed the new edition of Yanoáma -- Ettore Biocca, Yanoáma: The Story of Helena Valero, a Girl Kidnapped by Amazonian Indians, Kodansha International (1996) (originally published in 1965; 1996 edition has a new preface by Ettore Biocca and and a new introduction) -- the book that Venezuela-based anthropologist Rebecca B. De Holmes cited in her 1983 American Anthropologist review as the likely inspiration and source of most of what appears in Florinda Donner’s Shabono. I now have no question that De Holmes is correct.

Yanoáma is a transcription by Biocca (an Italian anthropologist and renowned expert on life in the Amazon) of extensive, exhaustively detailed accounts he recorded with Helena Valero of her 24 years of life with the Yanoámi Indians of northern Brazil. Valero had been kidnapped in 1932 at the age of 11 after the Indians wounded and chased away her parents. She eventually married two Yanoámi men and bore four children, finally escaping in 1956. After a difficult journey, she returned to the "white" world. Biocca recorded Valero on tape between November 1962 and July 1963, and the book was first published in 1965. Valero, whose original family did not accept her on her return, eventually went back to live near the Indians on the banks of the Orinoco, not far from the Salesian mission. According to the new introduction, she was still living there, old, blind and surrounded by Yanoáma women and children, in 1996.

Valero’s account is very exotic, sometimes chilling, and, as I said above, awesomely detailed. Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon commented: "To say this book is the best book of its genre would be ridiculous: there is no comparable book, and not likely ever to be one." Reading through it after having read Shabono again in recent months, I got a clearer sense of Florinda’s method for using real anthropological accounts to generate "magical" stories. I have excerpted a couple of illustrative passages below from both books because I think they also give some insight into Castaneda’s method of building stories that are both intensely dramatic and authentic sounding, with some real ethnographic elements (in his first two books especially), although Castaneda did a much better job of eluding easy detection by pulling and weaving from many more basic sources.

Valero’s authentic account is often cumbersome with the messy detail of real life, including much repetition and passages indicating her occasional confusion in circumstances that would be natural for a narrator navigating a completely foreign setting from the one in which she was originally raised. (Valero’s command of the Yanoáma language, however, is quite natural, as one would expect given the number of years she had lived with it. Florinda’s equal mastery of the tribal language, by contrast, has always seemed more than a little mysterious, since she writes as though she had full comprehension of all communications within only weeks of her arrival in the shabono.)

Florinda uses many identifiable scenes, events and dialogue from the book, but greatly simplifies them, making her account more readable and novel like, with clearer dramatic arcs and plenty of foreshadowing (a device one would expect to be quite limited in a strictly factual description of daily life). Florinda makes the most substantial use of Valero’s material about shamans (see.e.g., Comparison II below), which is to be expected given Florinda’s primary interest. Florinda also spends more time on novelistic descriptions of people and scenes. Having reviewed a few of the authentic accounts of native shamans that would have been available to Castaneda in the early sixties, it is easy for me to see him employing a similar approach to that highly detailed, often repetitive and "messy" material.

By the way, Biocca’s book contains several pictures of shamans and typical events that Valero describes. These pictures alone are highly evocative and suggestive of stories, an effect I imagine they would have had on Florinda as well. Here are a few thumbnails; for the larger version click on the thumbnail.

 Shabono and Yanoáma Compared - Part 2: Sample Excerpts