Behind the book: Paul Stoller discusses the human connection

Photo by Mari Otto ‘17 | The Lafayette

Author and anthropologist Paul Stoller next to his new book.
Author and anthropologist Paul Stoller next to his new book.

Anthropologist and writer Paul Stoller brought his quirky personality and charm to Lafayette this week, where he explained the genesis of his new book Yaya’s Story: The Quest for Wellbeing in the World.

A noted and prolific anthropologist with more than 30 years in the field, Stoller maintains that the purpose of anthropology is to acquire a knowledge of mankind that leads us all no matter how diverse to an equal understanding of each other.

Stoller’s own take on the subject, he said, was his desire to deeply connect with others of different cultures. One such connection was El Hajj Yaya Hamidou, “Yaya,” the title character of the book.

Stoller spent the first decade of his career studying religion and magic among the Songhay of the Republic of Niger. But his moment of interconnectedness and mutual understanding did no occur in the summer sunny savannas of West Africa, but instead amongst the grey skyscrapers of New York City, where he first met Yaya.

The two friends could not have more opposite upbringings – Stoller born and raised in a Russian-Jewish family, and Yaya a native of Niger. Yet, it took one single experience to unify the two of them by the most genuine of understanding. When Paul Stoller was diagnosed with cancer in 2001, it was Yaya and the rest of his Songhay friends who gathered around him in ancient prayer.

Stoller explained that it was this very occasion that offered him a kind of distinct protection and social comfort he has never felt before. When Yaya was also diagnosed with cancer in later years, the two men sat holding hands in what Stoller says to be a most “perfect storm of mutual comprehension.”

Stoller suggests that we should similarly live our lives by paying attention, so we do not miss such tiny and valuable fractions of interconnectedness.

The author of more than 11 books and winner of several prizes, Stoller was most recently recognized by the King of Sweden, who awarded him the nation’s 2013 Retzuis Medal. A prolific blogger for the Huffington Post, he is also a professor at West Chester University.