Emma Tarlo

Professor Emma Tarlo – Goldsmiths University



Professor Emma Tarlo teaches Anthropology of Religion, Anthropology and the Visual and Anthropology and Visual Practice at undergraduate level alongside two MA courses at Goldsmiths University in London. 

Her research into Muslim dress in both Britain and Europe – documented in Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith – explores not only the issues of religious declaration but also the politics and emotion very thinly veiled in the clothing choices of young Muslims today. Emma’s work has also focused on the global trade of human hair; research that was funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and her book, Entanglement the Secret Lives of Hair was published in 2016, thus paving the way for two very successful exhibitions – Hair! Human Stories, at The Library Space, Battersea and Material Contemplations in Cloth and Hair both in 2018. 

Emma is currently on sabbatical until January 2020 – therefore this interview was conducted at her home in London, where she kindly let me interrupt her research schedule. This interview takes place in Emma’s office at home.


KF: Hello Emma, may I ask if you have rearranged your bookshelves prior to this interview, and if so -why?


ET: I did not alter the layout of the books, but I did tidy the floor of my study which was laden with papers. The books are arranged by a mixture of theme and size (Emma indicates the shelves with similar sized books). Ideally, I’d like everything to be thematic but the shelves are fixed in the main bookcases – which I inherited from my Mother-in-law. She had them in her study, in Paris. Some of the shelves are too close together to house hardback books; another problem is that there are far too many books on the shelves – I’ve augmented the entire structure with some wooden wine boxes which are great as they can hold any size of book. There are currently 19 wine boxes dispersed around the room and stacked on top of each other, 6 boxes deep (My only fear is that the whole lot might come tumbling down when the cat jumps on top of them, which he frequently does – but so far, so good!). Zebedee, the cat looks far too chilled sitting under Emma’s desk to think about jumping anywhere, I think.        




KF:  So basically, books are mainly organised by size due to the layout of the bookshelves – well, I think the wine-box-shelving is very resourceful! Can you tell me where your books are from?


ET: Oh, they’re from all over the place – new and second-hand book shops, Amazon, gifts from friends and other authors. Many are from India since I lived in Delhi for three and a half years in the 1990s. I also ended up buying the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, which takes up an entire bookshelf halfway up the stairs since it consists of 100 chunky hardback volumes. I bought them at a time when I was doing a lot of research into the role of khadi cloth in the nationalist movement. I was working in a library in Delhi where getting something photocopied was a very long-winded complex bureaucratic process and also very costly at the time. Then I met the director of the Navajivan Press who convinced me that it was cheaper to buy the complete works which were on sale at the discounted price of £50 at the time. I couldn’t resist – no more photocopying! I could study them in my own time; I liked the fact that they were bound in khadi cloth, I was working on khadi (My husband wasn’t so keen as they take up an entire bookshelf from floor to ceiling and there’s a bit of competition over bookshelves in the house). Her husband is also an anthropologist and has his own office in their home, with just as many bookshelves.


Although this particular bookshelf is not in Emma’s office, it is on the first floor landing of her home – it is obviously an important addition to her book collection (I comment on the fact that the colours on the book cover compliment the teal paint on the wall – and that’s totally unintentional I’m told).


KF:  What book inspired you to become an anthropologist?


ET: I’m not sure about that. I do remember the first time I read an anthropology book for pleasure. It was Patricia Jeffery’s Frogs In a Well: Indian Women in Purdah – it’s about Muslim Women living in seclusion in Delhi. I was a first year student and found keeping up with the readings difficult and I certainly didn’t associate anthropology books with pleasure. However, I remember taking this book to bed and reading it there and really feeling that it gave me an insight into the lives of people whose experiences were quite different from my own.


KF: Did you have any books with you in the field, if so which ones and why?

ET: None really. I lived in India for just over 3 years, with my husband – so if anything, I bought books. Then the ones that I wanted to keep I arranged to be shipped back to London. I couldn’t bring them all back with me, though (she sounds quite sad at having left books behind).


KF: Whereabouts on the shelves are your books, the ones that you have written? 


ET: Oh.. dotted here and there; because of the way the shelves are made up.


KF: What books do you read to relax?


ET: Fiction, I love reading novels – but increasingly it is only really in the summer that I get to immerse myself in fiction. Sometimes a particular summer is occupied with an author. Elena Ferrante and Tolstoy were recent summer companions.


KF: Do you write on or mark your books in any way? I know a lot of people won’t even turn down the page to mark where they are in a volume – preferring to use a bookmark.


ET: Yes! If I can find a pencil – I would never use a pen; I do like making pencilled comments and underlining things. This helps me to find relevant things when I return to the book at a later date.


KF: Most overrated or underrated book, and why? 


ET: There are plenty of books that I don’t rate highly – too many to mention! I am quite impatient with unnecessarily pretentious language. The books I admire say complex things in a simple way – rather than simple things in a complex way, which is sometimes a problem in some academic writing.


KF: Do you keep your books, or give them away?


ET: I am a hoarder, unfortunately. I do give academic books away when I feel they are more relevant to someone else’s work, but I like to keep the books that mean something to me or to which I might return to at some point. I like to be able to access books when I need them in relation to what I am writing, thinking or teaching about. Then there are other books that I don’t want to throw away because they are linked to my past in some way, like this little collection of ladybird books that I rescued from my mother’s house when she was moving home. Books tell stories about ourselves which is no doubt why you are asking me these questions!



As we look through the vintage collection of ladybird books, we come across one that was awarded to Emma at the age of three; A Sunday school prize, where they misspelled her name.



KF: You have what I can only refer to as some kind of Mood Board and lots of other bits dotted around and on the bookshelves, little trinket pots, a tea tin, and a puppet?

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ET: Yes – all items I’ve collected mostly connected to my research, some things that were given to me. The set of photographs are of me and my sisters; the trinket box has beads made of hair, and yes from my cats (we both laugh at this, as I too have a tiny collection of hairy-cat-beads)! 

I have some small books that are filled with my fieldwork notes, and yes a board that I pin things onto that I find relevant to my work. The board does have a lot of hair related items on it, a moustache in a packet, a letter H made of hair, eyelashes. Hair that I have been given and an old hairnet, in a packet. I have in the past been given hair….

It does to me seem rather strange that someone would present you with their hair it is an extremely personal thing – but then some of us make beads from cat fur …








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                  Professor Emma Tarlo was interviewed by Kaytrina Falcini.


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