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Oral History’s Role in Preserving Palestinian History

In this week’s post, Rosemarie Esber discusses how oral history has served a vital role in preserving Palestinian voices during the post-1948 period. Here she recounts some of her experiences interviewing Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

By Rosemarie M. Esber

From cutting funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)—which provides 5 million Palestinian refugees with healthcare and education—closing the Palestinian embassy in Washington, DC, and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the Trump administration’s goal is to impose a solution to the Palestinian–Israeli conflict.

Despite these efforts to silence Palestinian voices, others are amplifying them through oral history projects, including Palestine Remembered, the Palestinian Oral History Archive, and the Nakba Archive. These projects aim to record, preserve, and share the diverse culture, traditions, and history of the Palestinian people, and particularly their first-hand experiences of the Nakba (meaning “catastrophe” in Arabic), a defining period of Palestinian history.

How did the Palestinians become refugees? In 1947, the Jews of Palestine owned 6 percent of the land and were 30% the population. The Palestinian Arabs and other ethnic groups owned the majority of the land and lived in hundreds of towns and villages. In November 1947, the UN General Assembly recommended partitioning British-governed Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states, sparking the 1948 Palestine war, even as Britain rushed to withdraw its military forces and abandoned the country to chaos.

The 1948 Palestine War

I organized my first Palestinian oral history project in 2001 at the University of London during my doctoral studies. I quickly realized that I would not find many Palestinian civilian accounts of the 1948 Palestine war in the British National Archives. In 1944, the Palestinian Arab population was 66% agrarian with a literacy rate of about 15%. Palestinian documentary records were scarce or had been seized or destroyed in successive wars. Oral history became indispensable to record the Palestinian narrative of the war.

I traveled to Jordan with a list of several hundred Palestinian villages and towns. My goal was to interview Palestinian refugees displaced during the last six months of the Palestine mandate, from November 1947 to May 15, 1948, while the British still controlled the country.

Conducting oral history in Jordan posed numerous challenges. I required permission from the Ministry of Palestinian Affairs to conduct research in the camps. Tensions were high in the camps since the Al-Aqsa Intifada was raging in occupied Palestine territories. A Palestinian research assistant from Wihdat camp was invaluable. She reduced the suspicion that I was an intelligence agent bent on harm.

Because of the mass dispersal of the Palestinians during the war, finding individuals from specific locales who could recall the events required me to travel to the official UNRWA refugee camps across Jordan and into many neighborhoods. While most Palestinians readily agreed to my request for an interview, a few were fearful of Israeli reprisals against themselves or their families living in occupied Palestine.

Syrian refugee children in the Wavel camp

I was humbled by the Palestinians who shared their traumatic experiences with me, a graduate student. It was not unusual for families to follow me from one interview to the next to listen quietly to Nakba accounts. My most memorable interview was with an elderly man in Hittin camp. My entourage of interested neighbors appeared unannounced at Abu Mahmoud’s door. He invited all of us into his home, and like many times before, Abu Mahmoud changed into traditional Palestinian clothing—a suit with the kufiyah for the men, and hand-embroidered thobes for the women. The elder Palestinians were testifying to injustice, and I was bearing witness.

The elder Palestinians were testifying to injustice, and I was bearing witness.

Abu Mahmoud started to recount the attack on his village, and then he began to weep. I quickly turned off the camera, and told him we need not continue. He insisted. The interview continued, stopping and starting for several hours, due to tearful breakdowns. It was the first time Abu Mahmoud had shared his story of survival and loss.

From the 225 known villages, towns, and cities that fell to Israeli forces during the first six months of the 1948 war, I interviewed about 135 Palestinians from 75 of the locales. Israeli forces drove over 800,000 Palestinians from their homes and lands during the 13 months of war.

The Palestinian refugees I interviewed reported consistently that the Israelis employed terror, massacres, rapes, and destroyed entire villages to force them from their homeland. Those are the same violent tactics that the Myanmar army has recently used to rapidly expel a similar number of Rohingya civilians from their homeland, which the chief UN human rights official described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon

The majority of Palestinians in Lebanon are indigenous to or are the descendants of those from the Galilee area of northern Palestine, now Israel. They sought refuge in Lebanon in 1948, and have lived in exile ever since.

Nahr El Bared refugee camp Kindergarten class

In September 2017, I traveled to Beirut with two survivors to commemorate the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre. Kassem Aini, the Palestinian director of Beit Atfal Assumoud (BAS), organizes the annual international commemoration, which includes visits to many of the 12 refugee camps in Lebanon to meet and talk with refugees.

During the Sabra and Shatila massacre, Lebanese Christian militias murdered an estimated 3,500 civilians, mostly elderly Palestinian men, women, and children, and Lebanese. The occupying Israeli army aided and abetted the massacre, which was also a direct result of the United States’ failure to honor its pledge to protect the camps’ civilians. Professor Bayan Nuwayhed al-Hout, a Jerusalemite, preserved the oral histories of the survivors.

Sabra and Shatila camp residents live off dark, narrow winding alleys crisscrossed with electric wires. The dense camp population swelled with the influx of Syrian refugees. One in four people in Lebanon is a refugee. The smell of sewage permeates the camps, an odor intensified by the heat and humidity. The camps, and much of Lebanon, has intermittent electricity and lacks potable water. The homes are dark and unsanitary, with scant sunlight and ventilation.

In Bourj Al Barajneh camp, we visited the home of Soleiman, who fled Kabri in north Palestine during the 1948 war. He was 8 years old when Israeli forces attacked his village, killed his father, and massacred other villagers. His testimony aligns with my oral histories recorded in 2001. In Shatila camp, Jamila, a young female survivor, told us how her father was murdered during the massacre. Imagine living on the site where members of your family were murdered.

Resilience and Hope

The Palestinians welcomed us with homemade meals and fresh fruits. At Nahr El Bared camp in the north, we watched youth practice the dabke dance. In Rashidieh camp in the south, young Palestinians performed folksongs and dances. Deprived of basic human rights, those young refugees transcended their surroundings through the beauty of their culture.

The Palestinians repeatedly told us, “We want peace, and we want to go home.” As Amnesty International states, “The right to return to one’s own country is based in international law and is the most obvious way to redress the situation of those who are in exile.”

I asked Aziza at the Wavel Camp in Baalbek how I could support the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. She told me, “Tell our story.” And, she added, “Tell Mr. Trump that we are human too.”

In an effort to amplify the Palestinians’ stories in their own voices, my colleagues and I will be presenting our oral history research and films about the Nakba at 70 during four sessions at the OHA Conference in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.


Rosemarie M. Esber is an international development professional and gender specialist. She is the author of Under the Cover of War: the Zionist Expulsion of the Palestinians. Dr. Esber taught oral history methodology as a Fulbright Scholar in Saudi Arabia. She will present her current research at the OHA conference in Montreal on Panel 149: Decolonizing Official Narratives of the Palestinian Nakba at 70.

Media courtesy of the author

Chinese Women’s Oral Histories

Li HuiBo, a librarian at the China Women & Gender Library at Chinese Women’s University, and contributor to the recent OHR article, “Hearing Her: Comparing Feminist Oral History in the UK and China,” explores the challenges of collecting and processing women’s oral histories at the Research Center for Chinese Women’s Oral History.

By Li Huibo

When I did my doctorate at Capital Normal University, I interviewed more than one hundred people over age 70 about their marriages and family as part of my PhD thesis, “Studies in the transmutation of Marriage Culture in Beijing (1949-1966).” In light of these interview experiences, I came to the China Women & Gender Library (CWGL) at Chinese Women’s University to work in 2012. In addition to everyday affairs of the library, my main work related to the women’s oral history project includes recruiting and training interviewers, interview data collection, editing interview data, publishing interview data, and doing related research.

CWGL constitutes a site for reading and research that encompasses a wide range of academic resources for women’s/gender studies, including paper documents, e-documents, as well as multimedia audio-visual materials. The vision is to advocate and spread advanced gender culture and build a women’s and gender library with strong influence both at home and abroad. The mission is to search, collect, and archive resources for women’s/gender studies, and initiate instructional and academic activities, so as to provide support and service for teaching, research, and social practice.

Women’s oral history materials constitute the highlight of CWGL’s resources. We know that women’s histories have been insufficiently recorded and that oral history is part of a wider commitment to understand both past experience and struggles. By providing the opportunity for women to describe their own life stories, we hope to know about their living conditions in the process of participation in social life, and discover the important contributions of Chinese women to society in different life stages. Perhaps we can even affect the country’s public policy-making by showing women’s stories and related research.

So far we have trained 300 interviewers. Most of them are Masters and PhD students and teachers, who come from universities and research institutions around the country. We have completed over 400 transcripts of interviews (about 10 million Chinese characters), including women’s individual life stories, women activists’ stories, and “Female educated youth” stories focused on stories, focusing on the late 1960s and early 1970s campaign during which urban, educated youth went “up to the mountains and down to the countryside.” Educated urban youth were a major component of the movement, in which the learned from rural citizens and devoted energy and enthusiasm to construction projects in remote areas.

Author LiHuibo at the China Women & Gender Library

Life story interviewees included women older than 70 years, some of whom participated in the revolutionary war, some who were leaders of National Federation of Women’s Institutes and others who were educators, legal practitioners, health care workers, railroad engineers, or geological exploration workers. Interviewees also included female youth in support of the Xinjiang Construction Corps, as well as members of neighborhood cadres, family workers, housewives, and others. The collected interviews include original recordings with transcriptions, with the interviewees also supplying old photos and family trees.

The year 2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing. We have masterminded the project of “Hearing and Narrating: Dialogue and Inherit the ’95 Spirit.” The concept was that younger interviewers would dialogue with women activists who experienced the landmark Conference, and that this dialogue would promote a younger generation’s commitment to gender equality.

In 2012 the CWGL helped establish the Research Center for Chinese Women’s Oral History. Focusing on in-depth analysis of and research into women’s oral history materials, the Center organized a number of activities, including the Seminar on Women’s Oral History and Seminar on Qualitative Research. Continuous practice allowed us to gradually establish a set of canonical management procedures, enabling the collected resources to be processed in a professional and sustainable way. The joint research project, “Hearing Her: Oral Histories of Women’s Liberation in China and the United Kingdom,” conducted by CWGL and the University of Sussex, and funded by The British Academy, will also strengthen our work in this field. Partnering with Professor Margaretta Jolly, we compared the CWGL project with Sisterhood and After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project, a large-scale oral history of UK feminists partnered with The British Library. Our OHR article “Hearing Her” explores in depth what happened as we compared our two projects to further understand each other’s ideas of gender and of oral history’s political purpose, particularly as institutionalized through state-funded universities and libraries.

We at the CWGL have made abundant achievements, but still face some challenges. First, due to academic pressure or work, many of the interviewers can’t complete their interviews within the stipulated time. Second, many interviewers have experienced the phenomenon of drain, leaving them unable to continue collecting data for us. Thirdly, some interviewees don’t want to sign consent forms, making it unethical to use the interview as part of our research.

In order to improve the collection and increase use of women’s oral history data, we need to continue to work hard. Firstly, we should inspire the interviewers’ interest in various ways to make them feel like part of the project. Secondly, we should make efforts to communicate with interviewees and their families, in order to gain their trust. Thirdly, we should be prepared for cataloguing, and meet the needs of our existing and hoped for users and researchers. We are a unique resource – and we welcome all who wish to discover our riches!


Li Huibo is a librarian at the China Women’s University Library, where her research focuses on oral history, library and information. Projects have included Chinese Contemporary Women’s Oral History Research, Beijing + 20: History/Herstory, Special Olympics Oral History, Marriage History Studies in the 20th century. She is the co-editor of the series of “Listening and Discovering: The China Women’s Oral History.” With Margaretta Jolly, Li Huibo contributed to “Hearing Her: Comparing Feminist Oral History in the UK and China,” in the Winter/Spring 2018 issue of the Oral History Review.

Images courtesy of the author

Teachers Need Oral History and Oral History Needs Teachers

This week doctoral student Jennifer Standish turns our attention to building a mutually beneficial relationship between teachers and oral history archives, drawing on the experiences of the Carolina Oral History Teaching Fellowship.

By Jennifer Standish

K-12 teachers need oral history, and oral history needs K-12 teachers. This is the basic premise of the Carolina Oral History Teaching Fellowship (COHTF), which debuted last summer as a collaboration between the Southern Oral History Program (SOHP) and Carolina Public Humanities’ Carolina K-12 program.

Unlike many professional development opportunities for K-12 teachers, COHTF recognizes that the fellows, who had been selected from a large pool of highly qualified applicants from across North Carolina, brought their own knowledge and expertise to the table. In both 2017 and 2018, these teachers came to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill for a deep dive into oral history and the Civil Rights Movement. They learned from Movement scholars, toured the rich SOHP archives of over 6,000 interviews, and developed techniques and tools for incorporating oral history into their classrooms. When the four-day workshops were over, the teachers chose oral history clips from the SOHP archive to incorporate into lesson plans or teaching activities that will be made publicly available.

“I felt like we were contributing and that made the entire experience valuable.”

The idea behind this assignment is that K-12 teachers—not just university professors and oral historians—are experts as well. These teachers don’t only participate in the COHTF to learn from historians, but also to workshop with other experts in K-12 teaching to develop concrete ways to bring oral history into the classroom. While oral historians are primarily trained to use oral histories as a research tool, K-12 teachers are trained to engage students in critical thinking and learning. In our post-fellowship survey, Watauga County middle-school teacher and 2017 Fellow Allison Hodge articulated this principle especially clearly:

“I thought it was a great model of learning from professionals in history and then using resources we have as professional educators. A lot of times professional development for teachers is more of a here-is-what-you-should-do experience, but this was very different! I felt like we were contributing and that made the entire experience valuable.”

Equipped with the skills needed to access and use oral history interviews, teachers can apply their own expertise in teaching to choose interview segments that will enhance their students’ understanding of history. Instead of waiting for the historical and educational value of oral history to trickle down from academia, students—guided by their teachers—can jump right into these sources. At the end of each oral history fellowship, teachers were confident that their students would benefit from listening to oral histories. Jen Painter, Durham Public Schools teacher and 2017 Fellow, explained:

“My students are typically very interested in and inspired by stories of ‘ordinary’ people overcoming oppression. These lessons do that in a way that is engaging, inter-disciplinary, and that works across language domains, including the often-neglected area of listening…This will be huge for my student to understand historical people were just humans and my students who speak English as a second language will experience conversational learning.”

In addition to oral history’s transformative potential for K-12 teaching and learning, bringing teachers directly into the archives may also have implications for the field of oral history as well. If we really want to take seriously K-12 teachers as experts in using oral history interviews, there are some things we may want to consider.

We accept that oral history is not simply a received document, but one collectively created between interviewer and interviewee. So, if we know that K-12 teachers may use interviews to engage their students, should we adjust the way we conduct interviews? Thinking more broadly, do we need to reconsider which interviews we prioritize? In other words, should oral history programs now consider K-12 classrooms when deciding into which projects to invest resources? Instead of trying to answer these questions, I can highlight what our teaching fellows found most salient about oral histories for their K-12 students.

“I hope that the actual voices they will hear from the oral history project will help them understand that these were real people who participated in the movement.”

Almost unanimously, teachers discussed how students would benefit from hearing the “actual voices” of those who participated in the Civil Rights Movement. “I hope,” explained 2018 Teaching Fellow and Brunswick County School teacher Lisa Chinn, “that the actual voices they will hear from the oral history project will help them understand that these were real people who participated in the movement.” Particularly powerful for their students to hear, many teachers believed, would be oral histories about or by people their own age. While the SOHP and other archives offer thousands of fascinating interviews with adults, K-12 teachers are eager for youth voices. Perhaps oral historians should reconsider how strictly we limit ourselves to interviews with older adults or dedicate more time and thought to interviewees’ younger experiences.

Teachers also noted oral history’s power to simply demonstrate to students the wide range of people who exist in the world and shape history. In their lessons, for example, teachers emphasized the voices of a teenager who desegregated a library in Oxford, Mississippi, a queer black woman who contributed to the legal case that won Brown v. Board of Education, African-Americans living in Appalachia, and Lumbee Indians who also struggle against racial discrimination in North Carolina. Many oral history projects are designed to highlight the voices of groups otherwise marginalized by prevailing historical narratives. Yet, are there groups or people whose value as interview subjects become more apparent in the framework of K-12 teaching?

In creating their lessons for students, COHTF fellows used the SOHP archives to explain why equal access to democratic processes is so important, to discuss why certain people and groups are written out of the popular narrative of history, and to affirm the role and existence of overlooked people in creating social change. Their expertise in K-12 teaching allowed them to use oral history to inspire and engage students while guiding us at the SOHP on reaching audiences beyond the academy. Again, K-12 teachers need oral history, and oral history needs K-12 teachers.


Jennifer Standish is a doctoral student at UNC Chapel Hill, with a research focus on civil rights and Southern labor history. She has worked at the Southern Oral History Program on the Carolina Oral History Teaching Fellowship during the last two summers, and will begin as a field scholar at the SOHP in the fall.

Featured image courtesy of the Carolina Oral History Teaching Fellowship 2017

40 Stories for 40 Years of Whitman-Walker Health

This week we’ll hear from Hannah Byrne about her experiences in helping document the role of Whitman-Walker Health in the HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ+ community in Washington, D.C. for their 40th anniversary

By Hannah Byrne

I joined Whitman-Walker Health on a grant-funded project to collect oral histories on the intersection of HIV/AIDS and Washington, D.C. in the fall of 2017. A grant from the DC Oral History Collaborative provided a foundation for a project which aims to collect stories from the community to tell the Whitman-Walker narrative as they celebrate their 40th anniversary.

Today Whitman-Walker Health is a full-service health center serving the people of greater Washington, D.C. With multiple locations across D.C. that provide medical, dental, and behavioral health, along with legal services, Whitman-Walker’s care is far-reaching and rooted in the desire to provide a safe and inclusive environment for its clients. The emphasis on stigma-free care comes from its origin as a gay men’s STD clinic opened in the basement of a Georgetown church in 1973. It officially opened its doors as Whitman-Walker Clinic in 1978, and in the 1980s became one of the only centers providing care for people living and dying with HIV/AIDS in Washington, D.C. Historically, Whitman-Walker has served anyone who enters its doors, but has expertise in HIV/AIDS care and the LGBTQ+ community. For Whitman-Walker, its history informs the care it provides today. To celebrate its 40th anniversary, officially January 13, 2018, it wanted to explore that history through the voices of its community in a project titled 40 Stories for 40 years.

Comprised of long and short form interviews, the project’s long interviews are traditionally life oral histories. As members of the community, interviewees’ accounts inevitably overlap with memories of volunteer work, employment, or care with Whitman-Walker. However, as this is a 40th-anniversary project, I am both obligated and compelled to ask what members of the community see for Whitman-Walker in the next forty years and what would they like to change or continue.

Responses to the question of Whitman-Walker’s future over the next forty years vary. Narrators themselves represent the range of the community. The majority of narrators lived through the HIV/AIDS epidemic in some capacity. Whether as an activist, health-care provider, friend or loved one of someone with AIDS, or a long-term survivor with HIV, the narrators represent a spectrum of this shared community. While they share a sense of community with Whitman-Walker, their experiences and their perspectives on the future of the health center are just as diverse as the community itself. Even as narrators offer well-deserved praise to the health center, they similarly critique the organization.  Narrators often share their concerns of representation. Randy Pumphrey the Senior Director of Behavioral Health and a former chaplain at a D.C. hospital at the height of the AIDS epidemic, wants to see long-term survivors supported. Meanwhile, Tony Burns, a black man diagnosed with HIV in the early 1990s, would like to see a more diverse medical staff. These critiques are followed by more prominent declarations of appreciation and thanks to the organization.

These responses presented an interesting but common methodological dilemma. How was I, an employee and extension of Whitman-Walker, supposed to foster a space open to criticism of that institution?

One narrator’s response brought that dichotomy to the forefront. Amelie Zurn served as first director of the Lesbian Services Program at Whitman-Walker, a now-defunct department dedicated to women’s health and wellness. Zurn moved to D.C. in the 1980s to work in feminist community organizing and spent her time outside of work participating in direct-action protests with the group Oppression Under Target! Like many other narrators, Zurn’s personal history interconnects with Whitman-Walker. When asked about the health center in the next forty years Zurn responded:

Amelie Zurn:   May I ask a clarifying question, Hannah?

Hannah Byrne: Absolutely.

Amelie Zurn:   So, I have opinions. They’re not necessarily about where the clinic is going. So, I just, I’m, I’m hesitant, a little hesitant.

Hannah Byrne: You share whatever you feel comfortable sharing.

 

When reading the transcript and listening to the audio, her reluctance to share her thoughts on the clinic are clear. Her evident apprehension required a statement to reinforce the understanding that this was a safe space to share. Zurn goes on to provide her constructive criticism of Whitman-Walker’s attempts to balance all of the needs it serves: She critiques HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ care, the role of money from “insurance” and “drug companies,” the erasure of lesbian language from the website, and its position of “not leaving anyone behind.”

I am grateful for Zurn’s honesty and willingness to share after her expressed hesitation. As a Whitman-Walker representative, I felt an inherent power differential in every interview. For the project, I must ask community members how they feel about the future of the organization they built, but I have to recognize the role I play. Understanding that place of privilege as a Whitman-Walker employee hopefully allows me to counteract that power by welcoming any commentary on the organization, good or bad.

While celebrating forty years of Whitman-Walker Health, 40 Stories for 40 Years as a project cannot gloss over the criticisms of its community members. Interviews that center on intimate, sometimes traumatic, experiences about the intersection of HIV/AIDS, Whitman-Walker, and the narrator’s personal life necessitate an open and inviting space to share. As an anniversary project, we must also ask those who contributed to Whitman-Walker’s history what they see now as well as what they want for its future. Utilizing oral history to help tell the Whitman-Walker narrative creates a space to accomplish both goals.


Hannah Byrne is a second-year public history graduate student at American University. Interested in the intersection of queer and oral history, she currently works for Whitman-Walker health as the Organizational Archives Assistant.

Photo courtesy of Whitman-Walker Health.

International Oral History Association in Finland June 2018: Memory and Narration

The Oral History Review‘s very own Editor-in-Chief, David Caruso reflects on his recent trip to Finland to attend the International Oral History Association’s biennial congress and the discussions of complicated oral historian/narrator relationships and subsequent ethical considerations.

By David Caruso

Situated roughly four hours northeast of Helsinki by train, Jyväskylä is a vibrant city in a land of the midnight sun. The city and the University of Jyväskylä welcomed a venerable collection of oral historians into their midst at this year’s International Oral History Association congress, held from 18 to 21 June at an exhibition center on Jyväsjärvi lake. In this idyllic setting, the sun cast its long shadow through the wee hours of the night and early hours of the morning, bathing us in a hue of dusk in between. Despite the ethereal setting, the dynamic talks, insightful keynotes, and communality of scholars all engaged with the oral history methodology drew us, quite happily, from the beautiful surroundings for several hours each day to do what we do best: listen and ask questions, although this time with our colleagues and ourselves.

While it is an impossible task to recount all of the wonderful presentations I heard (and even more so for the ones held in parallel that I was unable to attend) and the conversations I and others had with oral historians from Spain, Italy, South Africa, Iran, Estonia, Britain, Korea, and Japan (just to name a few countries from which participants hailed), there were two clear themes upon which many touched.

National and transnational migration, whether forced or elected, has transformed and continues to transform the lives of so many people. Being ripped or tearing oneself and one’s family away from the known—home, family, friends, familiar sights and sounds, lived experiences and histories—and starting anew in a land completely different from one’s own (transnational) or similar to but still not quite the same as the city or town in which one grew up (national) can be a truly traumatic experience for all those involved. And such migration can also frame legacies passed from one generation to the next. Many speakers grappled with what our roles as oral historians are and how we can and should navigate our relationships with our interviewees. As many highlighted, the stories our interviewees give us help inform historical accounts of what happened where and when, and so are essential to collect, but the recounting of these harrowing experiences may also reintroduce trauma into the interviewees’ lives. How do we as oral historians navigate what we ask our interviewees provide and the consequences doing so may have for them?

These discussions, as one might expect, also contributed significantly to other panelists’ presentations and reflections on the ethics of oral history practice within different national contexts. What is it like to try to conduct oral history interviews with a mind towards human subjects research in a country whose policies towards its citizens are ethically problematic themselves? And how does one navigate not institutional review boards, but governmental structures that dictate how a human subject’s research must happen? What do you do if your government requires that an interview be anonymized? Can you really achieve anonymity? What happens when you turn a copy of the oral history interview over to your interviewee and she or he then decides to make the interview public? While many of these questions remain unanswerable, it was clear that our methodology and its ramifications for practitioners and participants alike is a focus of historians worldwide.

The International Oral History Association congress, which takes place biennually, brings together so many oral historians from different countries and, therefore, different perspectives, that it is certainly a conference that one should try to attend. There is a fount of knowledge among the attendees that can not only inform one’s work directly, but can help craft new ideas and adopt new frameworks for future projects.

As the midsummer celebration drew near, I was both excited about all that I had learned at my first IOHA and saddened that it would be two years before I had the chance to engage with so many international scholars all at once again. But when taking the train back to Helsinki, riding with colleagues and friends from the United States, I took to heart what the scenery around us showed, that just like the sun in Jyväskylä never truly set, neither will the experiences we all had at the congress.


In addition to serving as OHR’s editor-in-chief, David Caruso is the director of the Science History Institute’s (previously Chemical Heritage Foundation) Center for Oral History. In this position he supervises three postdoctoral fellows, one curator of oral histories, and three support staff; he oversees all of SHI’s oral history projects, especially those that focus on scientists with disabilities, minorities in science, women in science, and the history of modern biomedicine. He also serves as president of Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region. He facilitates biannual, week-long oral history training institutes held at SHI and other training seminars. 

Featured Image “IOHA 2018 FINLAND” by Matleena Jänis. Courtesy of the Finnish Oral History Network

The Laramie Project, Documentary Theater & Oral History Performance

In this post, writer, historian, and activist Holly Werner-Thomas explores “verbatim theater” as a medium for disseminating oral histories, reflecting on her son’s recent high school’s performance of The Laramie Project .

By Holly Werner-Thomas

Oral historians don’t always think of the theater as an outlet for their work.

This thought occurred to me last winter when my son, who was a freshman in high school, brought home the script for The Laramie Project, a documentary play developed in 1998 after the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming. The brutality of the murder focused international attention on homophobia, and eventually led to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which President Obama signed into law in 2009.

Playwright and theater director Moisés Kaufman has said that the idea for The Laramie Project originated in his desire to understand Matthew Shepard’s murder, why it happened in Laramie, and how Laramie is both different from and similar to anywhere else in America. He asked the members of his theater company, the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project, “What can we as theater artists do as a response to this incident? And, more concretely, is theater a medium that can contribute to the national dialogue on current events?”

In order to answer these questions, he and nine other members of the Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie in November 1998, only four weeks after Matthew Shepard’s murder, “to collect interviews that might become material for a play.” The theater group visited the town several times over two years and collected more than 200 interviews. The Laramie Project debuted in 1999 in Denver at the Denver Center Theatre (the closest regional theater to Laramie), moved to the Union Square Theatre in New York, and by November 2000, staged in Laramie. The play was also published that year and produced off-Broadway, with HBO airing a star-studded film of The Laramie Project in 2002. The play has also been produced internationally – in 2016 in Uganda, for example, where same sex relationships are criminalized – and by more than 400 regional, university, and high school theaters, including, most recently, my son’s high school in Washington, D.C., where he played Harry Woods, a gay 52-year-old Wyoming man, alongside four other roles. (Twenty-one high school cast members played about five roles each.)

The performance impelled me to think about verbatim theater (that is, plays that are constructed verbatim from interviews) from an oral historian’s point of view. It confirmed the suspicion I had that oral historians don’t always think of theater as an outlet for their work, or more specifically, of collaborating with theater producers and writers. And that perhaps they should.

There are exceptions of course. Both scholar E. Patrick Johnson’s Sweet Tea and the Living Histories Ensemble of Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, which produced Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by War, Genocide and other Human Rights Violations are examples.

Johnson conceived his much-lauded book, Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South—An Oral History (2008) as an oral history collection, before deciding that “the verbal tics and mannerisms” of the narrators would be best performed. Johnson’s work recalls that of Anna Deavere Smith, who is perhaps best known for her pioneering one-person verbatim play, Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities (1992). Yet both Johnson and Deavere Smith are performers and scholars who use oral history methods to compile the stories they want to tell, not academic oral historians who turned to the stage.

Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by War, Genocide and other Human Rights Violations, on the other hand, was organized by Concordia as an oral history project from 2007-2012 in order to record and explore the experiences and memories of refugees and other displaced persons who had settled in Montreal. The resulting performances were “by, for, and about [the] communities” involved—in other words, self-referential.

Since the first production of The Laramie Project nearly 20 years ago, verbatim theater has evolved under the umbrella term documentary theater, which is a form of nonfiction theater that incorporates, but is not limited to, re-creation drawing on interviews. For example, in 2000, the Brooklyn theater company The Civilians, introduced the idea of “investigative theater,” which, according to its mission statement, “brings artists into dynamic engagement with the subject of their work. [This] ethos extends into production, [where we invite] audiences to be active participants in the inquiry before, during, and after the performance.” The Life Jacket Theatre Company’s motto is “Creating Theatre from Real Events,” and its mission is clear: “Through field interviews and archival research, we share real stories about diverse human experiences, particularly those living on the margins — the outsiders, outcasts, and outliers.” In sum, the efforts of documentary theater makers are what one writer in American Theatre magazine called, “a multifaceted attempt to unearth bare truth through theatrical storytelling and engage audiences in meaningful conversation.”

What can academic oral historians learn from these theatrical presentations?

Toward this effort, recent topics in American documentary theater have included: how Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism reverberates through American society today (AYN RAND: Trauma Response) from The Builders Association in Brooklyn; a play about sex offenders in Florida (America is Hard to See) from the Life Jacket Theatre Company; and a play titled Tangles & Plaques from the Neo-Futurists of Chicago that explores dementia and memory. Each of these nonfiction plays relies upon documentary source material, especially interviews, but also court transcripts, newspapers, and journal entries.

People who work in theater have propelled oral history performance, rather than oral historians who have turned to the stage; yet oral historians also want to engage audiences in meaningful conversation. As academics, they attempt to unearth the truth, and to interpret and disseminate it via publication or another public means, such as exhibits or podcasts. What, then, can academic oral historians learn from these theatrical presentations?

There are differences, of course, between the disciplines: theater producers and playwrights consider documentary performance, like all performance, from the vantage point of story first, and sometimes fret over the responsibility of telling others’ real-life stories, while oral historians accept this as a given (Not that we don’t fret!). I argue that at least for oral historians focused on current events or the recent past who desire to spark a dialogue, hold a mirror up to society in an effort to reveal truths, or promote social change, performance represents an opportunity to reach new audiences. The immediacy of the spoken word and the opportunity for deep listening are abundant in theater.

The Laramie Project head writer Leigh Fondakowski’s inscription to the author’s son.

There are lessons for oral historians too, in the willingness of theater makers to experiment with form and style, sometimes by making their processes transparent. For example, in one performance, the director had audience members read from the transcripts onstage. Theater producers and writers also allow themselves to eschew professional and temporal distance. The Laramie Project is an example of how to interview people in crisis: The creators met and spent time with people and were open to listening and learning. Leigh Fondakowski, the head writer of The Laramie Project, said that the first question they always asked was, “What do you love about Laramie?” This endeared them to Laramie residents, and they were invited back. She said the townspeople told the New Yorkers, “you seem like good listeners. Maybe you’ll set the record straight.”

Playwrights and theater producers aren’t waiting for oral historians to conduct the interviews for them, however. Like radio producers who have jumped on podcasting to create serial audio stories, theater makers focused on contemporary issues and making social change through art are doing it for themselves.


Holly Werner-Thomas is a student at Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts program. A writer, former journalist, and historian, Holly is from Portland, Oregon, but has lived in New York and Washington, D.C. for several years, as well as in Turkey, Brazil, and France. She has worked as an oral historian for The Building Museum in Washington, D.C., the Hurricane Katrina Oral History Project in conjunction with the University of Southern Mississippi, as Research Director for a historical consulting firm, The History Factory, and as an activist for the pressure group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, where she created an oral history project for gun violence victims and their family members. Her current focus is on gun violence, right-wing extremism, and trailing spouses. 

Featured image “_MG_2177” is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic  (CC BY-NC 2.0) by Flickr user Michael Taggart Photography

OHR Conversations: Chris Nugent on Gender, Transmission of Memory, and the Third Reich

We are pleased to announce the launch of OHR Conversations, our new initiative to turn the microphone toward Oral History Review authors to give them an opportunity to share what inspired their articles, giving a behind the scene glimpse at how oral historians think about their practice, methods, and theories.

In our first installment of OHR Conversations, we interviewed Chris Nugent, Library Director at Warren Wilson College, and author of “Remembering, Reflecting, Reckoning: German Women and the Long Shadow of National Socialism” in the Winter/Spring 2018 issue of OHR. She discusses the origins of her project interviewing two generations of German women—the first who grew up under National Socialism, and the second the generation of their daughters, focusing on ideas including the transmission of memory and gendered forms of communication.

Listen to audio only.


Christine Nugent serves as library director at Warren Wilson College. Her research interests include German national identity, memory studies, Holocaust literature, and oral history methodology.

 

Author interview: Noah Riseman on what’s left unsaid in oral histories

We asked Noah Riseman, author of “‘Describing Misbehaviour in Vung Tau as “Mischief” Is Ridiculously Coy’: Ethnographic Refusal, Reticence, and the Oral Historian’s Dilemma” in the latest OHR, to discuss his use of oral history as a research method, reflecting on situations that lead oral historians and narrators to avoid certain topics, just one of many ethical issues oral historians grapple with in their work.

What sparked your interest in oral history?

I actually fell into oral history. I did my PhD on the role Yolngu people from Arnhem Land, Australia played in the Second World War. For that project I had it in my head that I would go to this remote part of Australia and interview the survivors and descendants of a group of Aboriginal men who served in a small unit. In the end, several factors, Ied me to do two oral history interviews for that project. However, in the process I learned quite a bit about the ethics of working with Indigenous people, preparing me well for future projects.

For my postdoctoral research, I developed a project to document the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander military service in the post-Second World War era. By its very nature the project had to be oral history-based as individual accounts were the natural source base, and that because this helped ensure that Indigenous people were being treated respectfully as participants, rather than objects, of the research. I absolutely loved it. The Indigenous service members I met over the years were so generous with their time and stories, and I met some incredibly inspiring people.

Since then, I have consistently developed projects with oral history as the principal methodology. I love it because I get to meet such interesting people, and I never know what is going to come out in an interview. It makes my research exciting, and there is something to be said about working with living subjects to craft histories that have not adequately been told.

I do believe there are times when ethnographic refusal is a valid and important approach to research. Now that I recognize it, though, I have become more consciously reflective in my practice.

Please explain the concept of ethnographic refusal, as well as how you have dealt with/ overcome it?

My colleague Kat Ellinghaus from the University of Melbourne first introduced me to the concept of ethnographic refusal, which she learned about from Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson. At the time I had already committed to present a paper about ethics and oral history practice, so I immediately chased up the reference when I returned to my office.

Ethnographic refusal comes from the discipline of anthropology, coined by Sherry Ortner in 1995. While not widely used, I found the term a perfect description of the dilemma I wanted to write about. Ethnographic refusal occurs when a researcher chooses to avoid going down an analytical path or examining particular research questions because of the adverse consequences such findings may have on their research participants. When Ortner introduced the concept, she did so in a critical way, arguing that it was not appropriate. Since then, scholars including Audra Simpson have reconceptualized it positive, sometimes necessary methodology, because of the cultural or political damage some research findings may have on Indigenous (or other) communities.

While the scholarship on ethnographic refusal describes it as a conscious decision, in my own experience it occurred more as an unconscious bias. I have focused my work on writing histories of marginalized people, especially Indigenous and LGBTI people in the military. Given my objective of restoring people to the historical record who most narratives have overlooked or denigrated, my instinct to focus on the positive aspects of their service was, on reflection, a form of ethnographic refusal. As my OHR article explains, I do believe there are times when ethnographic refusal is a valid and important approach to research. Now that I recognize it, though, I have become more consciously reflective in my practice.

Can you describe the concept of “reticence” as it relates to your oral history methodology, and any strategies you have used to counter it?

I can still remember the word ‘reticence’ being one of the SAT vocabulary words we had to learn in Grade 11. Seared in the back of my mind is the definition ‘passive acceptance.’ In oral history practice, the work of Leonore Layman describes reticence as the interview participant avoiding particular topics, sometimes through silence, other times through deflection or changing the topic.

It is challenging during an interview to counter reticence. I sometimes return to a question again later, perhaps probing for a bit more information. When a participant clearly does not want to talk about something, though, it is most appropriate to respect their wishes and to move on.

During the wider research and analytical phase a researcher can best counter reticence. For instance, using multiple narrators means that some participants may be willing to talk about topics others are reticent to discuss. Written records may expose that which is left unsaid. This was certainly the case for the topics which sparked my OHR article: written records told more about Vietnam veterans’ bad behavior in Vung Tau than what the oral histories revealed.

In my early days as a scholar, ethnographic refusal and reticence almost combined, unconsciously, when I often became more prone to avoid the topics in my writing that the participants did want to discuss. It was a referee report that sparked me to be more reflective about this. Now in my writing, if there is a topic that interview participants are reticent to discuss, I note that in the text and analyze the reticence.

Of course, sharing authority is not exactly possible when someone has been dead for eighty years!

Do you believe oral historians are held to a higher ethical standard than other historians?

Any historian who works with living subjects is held to a higher standard. To an extent this is rightfully so, as what we write can affect these people’s lives personally and professionally. There is also always the threat of defamation suits.

That said, those who work with deceased subjects can learn a lot from oral historians’ respect for their participants. I recall a few months ago attending a talk from a historian doing work on human trafficking in the early twentieth century. She discussed how she wanted to make sure to treat the subjects of her research in a respectful way and this was a challenge for her. In our chat afterwards, I talked about her objective as a noble and important goal, and pointed her to some literature on working with living subjects in oral histories which may inform what she wants to do with archival sources. Of course, sharing authority is not exactly possible when someone has been dead for eighty years!

Can you think of any examples from your own interviewing experience where you see ethnographic refusal as necessary?

I have been thinking about this a lot lately. The conclusion I came to is that ethnographic refusal is best guided by reticence. When participants are reticent to talk about a subject, even if other material exposes information, it may be best not to discuss it (at least not without their explicit permission down the track).

Sexual assault and childhood sexual abuse are two specific examples where I have been most prone to exercise ethnographic refusal. For instance, one of the Aboriginal ex-servicemen I interviewed unexpectedly mentioned in an interview that he was raped at boarding school as a teenager. I have never written about that because it is not pertinent to my research. In my project on LGBTI military service, though, there have been at least a dozen participants who experienced physical or sexual abuse as children. When there are more participants, in some ways it becomes ‘easier’ to write about the topic because I can write generally/broadly without needing to implicate specific people.

What has the role of “shared authority” been in your research?

Shared authority is another concept I have been grappling with lately. I always give interview participants an audio copy and written transcript of our interview, along with the opportunity to make revisions. Most narrators have been happy with the interviews as they were, but occasionally some have requested I cut sections, when they regret what they said.

I take different approaches depending on what I am writing, the audience, and the content. When I am writing straight biographical pieces, whether a chapter or a book, I always send the work to the narrators to make sure they are happy with what I have written (and sometimes this necessitates a bit of to- and fro-ing). When I write pieces with multiple short excerpts from interviews, I have been less prone to do this because it can become unmanageable. In those situations, I have to make a judgement call: is this such sensitive or potentially harmful information that they should read it in advance? The best example of this was an article I had published in the International Journal of Transgenderism, when I allowed all of the transgender women quoted in the article to read and comment in advance. This was because most were still serving in the Australian Defence Force and there could be ramifications for their careers.

How do you contemplate the role of the future researcher when interviewing about sensitive subjects? Do you consider yourself more accountable to that imaginary scholar, or to your narrators?

Normally I don’t think about future researchers when interviewing because I do not know what is going to come up. On consent forms I request permission to archive, so there is the abstract knowledge from both participant and myself that one day someone else may use the interview as well. I consider myself accountable to my narrators, and there is a genuine uncertainty about what future scholars may say, but only occasionally do I even think about it.

That said, I have recently come across literature about secondary analysis of oral history interviews, and I think that the field of oral history needs more reflection in this space. One of the reasons we do oral history is to record voices of people whose histories have been marginalized, and archiving those interviews for future use is a vital part of the preservation practice. Yet, there almost seems to be a stigma in the field against those scholars who use existing archived interviews – like they have somehow failed as researchers for not doing their own (unless of course the potential participants are all dead). If that is the attitude, then what really is the point of archiving interviews? We need to destigmatize the practice of secondary analysis of oral history interviews, while simultaneously thinking through all of the questions of ethics and ways of sharing authority. As I say: another article for another day!


Noah Riseman is an associate professor of history at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. His research interests include Indigenous and LGBTI history, and he is the author of Defending Country: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Military Service since 1945 (with Richard Trembath), In Defence of Country: Life Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Servicemen and Women and Defending Whose Country? Indigenous Soldiers in the Pacific War. His forthcoming book (with Shirleene Robinson and Graham Willett), Serving in Silence? Australian LGBT Servicemen and Women, will be published by NewSouth Publishing in 2018. 

Featured image “VUNG TAU 1967” licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) by Flickr user manhhai.

Diagnosing Public Health Crises: What We Can Learn About Ebola from Oral History

In this post, public health journalist Katherina Thomas contemplates the power of oral history to not only document a public health crisis, but also create greater understanding about health inequities by empowering communities and allowing those too frequently silenced to share their stories.

By Katherina Thomas

Last week, as the Democratic Republic of Congo declared a new Ebola outbreak, I thought back to the 2014-2016 epidemic that claimed more than 11,000 lives in West Africa and I hoped: perhaps this time, responders will listen to communities from the onset. The new outbreak in the Congo is much smaller than West Africa’s crisis, which was one of the most serious eruptions of viral hemorrhagic fever in history as health systems in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea buckled. That was a public health emergency stoked by inequity, fragile health systems, lack of trust and gaps in global compassion, but also a crisis of connection  both spurred and slowed by the power of stories.

As the epidemic raged, policymakers did not heed lessons from previous public health crises such as SARS and H1N1. Early global conversations about the response excluded civil society and community leaders in West Africa—the pillars of knowledge and decision-making in local society—and by the time the world realized, many of them were dead. The post-mortem was damning: at the community level, the people with the answers had been shut out. In the wake of the epidemic, countless ‘lessons learned’ reports and conferences emerged, but few placed West African perspectives front and center. Living and working in Liberia as a writer and health journalist during the aftermath of the crisis, I kept coming across pieces of knowledge—shards of story from ordinary people—that the world had chosen to ignore. As vaccine trials advanced and geneticists sequenced the Ebola genome, I, along with five Liberian colleagues, turned to oral history.

Although it is not a tangible tool like a stethoscope or thermometer, narrative is another kind of diagnostic instrument.

Oral history seems a particularly apt medium for understanding the nature of infectious disease outbreaks and how pathogens spread. Although it is not a tangible tool like a stethoscope or thermometer, narrative is another kind of diagnostic instrument. The Ebola virus hijacked human relationships, slashing the fabric of society and making vectors of life’s furniture: bed sheets, door handles, handshakes, love. It infected patients and doctors, police officers and criminals, taxi drivers and passengers. Most importantly, in countries with inequitable access to health information and education, narrative played a pivotal role. In some cases, rumors and stories spread faster than the pathogen itself.

My Liberian colleagues were Paradise Oghenereuse Young and Abraham Fahnbulleh, university students who had led the Liberian health ministry’s Ebola contact tracing operation for western Monrovia. Angie Dennis, a former aid worker, aspiring journalist and an Ebola survivor joined us too. Together we traveled around the country, pressing together the missing pieces of the epidemic through hundreds of oral history interviews.

So far we have collected about 200 oral histories, from city slums to remote villages accessible only by canoe. Our interviews have typically lasted between 40 minutes and three hours each, and include testimonies from Liberian policymakers, thought leaders, activists, traditional and religious leaders, burial teams, hygienists, community health teams, military personnel, active case finders, but mostly from ordinary people: survivors and their families. More than 90 percent of the narrators are Liberians, thus leveling the playing field by propelling community leaders to expert status and illustrating the pivotal roles of ordinary people whose actions helped to curb the outbreak.

The collection is provisionally titled Heart Fall Down: An Oral History of Ebola in Liberia (a Liberian term for when hope is lost). In addition to discussing the disease, we asked about topics including fashion, old photographs, nature and dancing, childhood and family, lovers and marriage, birth and death, farming and food. We talked about nightmares, war crimes, religion, and justice. We asked about hope. In rural places with little access to formal education, this often meant chancing upon deep repositories of oral knowledge, or impromptu storytelling sessions by elders.

Old Ma Bendu Fofee is a 90-year-old traditional midwife who had spent three weeks in Ebola quarantine. “I’m happy you came,” she told us. “Since I’ve been knowing myself, none of you people ever asked to sit with me on the same bench before.” Richard Cooper was a teacher who ran algebra classes in the back alleys of a slum when schools closed during the outbreak. “I want to share. You can be old as anything and still teach people something,” he said. Josiah Karmie was a pharmacist in the West Point community. “Nobody cares to listen to poor people,” he said. “That’s why this Ebola thing happened.”

“I never knew what Ebola was, I never went to no workshop about Ebola,” said Sean Don, a jeans salesman who broke into and looted an Ebola treatment unit in Monrovia’s West Point slum. “I only knew that movie, Resident Evil…. a scientist creates a virus and he spreads it around so he can get more money because he has a cure. People kept saying, ‘Ebola is real, Ebola is real,’ but I never knew what it was. It didn’t mean anything to me.” Dr. Mosoka Fallah, a Liberian epidemiologist and foremost expert on Ebola, said, “people were in pain. People were hurting. One morning I remember the health minister coming into work and a colleague of ours, Dr. Brisbane, had just died … and I remember going home that day and my friends were having a birthday celebration. They said, ‘can you come by the party?’ I looked at them and I just said, ‘no, I’m going home.’ That was the lowest day of my life… There was a lack of hope, you know.” Folo Siakor, a softly spoken midwife who delivered the babies of pregnant women infected with Ebola, said, “it takes more than medicine to make an Ebola patient well. Even the talk from your mouth can help make them well.”

In some cases we traced the stories of affected communities from start to finish, following the journeys of taxis, ambulances, extended families, and groups of friends as the virus spread through them, and among them. But amid data challenges during the outbreak, our interviews revealed a more nuanced picture. About one in eight of our interviewees at the community level claims to have survived Ebola without treatment, suggesting many more people may have contracted the disease and survived than official figures imply.

Together, the oral histories we collected form a crowdsourced picture of the outbreak in Liberia that could inform our response to future health crises. Still, stories are not science, and there were times the fault line trembled between fiction and memory. Sometimes recollections of events shifted during second interviews, or changed with the faces in the room. We fact-checked many memories— names, data, places—against records from the Liberian health ministry and aid agencies, but sometimes stories splintered, or fell apart in our hands. Every death from Ebola meant not only a cut to family or community but a loss of knowledge, a hole in our understanding of the outbreak.

The project raised challenges. We approached our work from both journalistic and oral history ethics, but in a country with unreliable and inequitable access to health information, sometimes narrators asked us questions. One man wanted to know whether he was responsible for sexually transmitting Ebola to his late girlfriend. Because we worked closely with the Liberian Ministry of Health, we knew that he had. But we didn’t know how to answer him both fairly and ethically, and neither, it seemed, did any oral history textbook.

Many narrators cried, often freely and at length. In most cases, they wanted to continue the interviews, but we worried about the toll it might take on them. This was an unfunded project on a traumatic topic and none of us had access to much in the way of psycho-social support. Thanks to the kindness of colleagues, I eventually completed a short course in trauma interviewing and counseling, and we referred narrators to licensed clinicians wherever possible. But these kinds of questions persist in my mind: how can we, as oral historians researching trauma, do better to safeguard the wellbeing of our narrators as well as ourselves?

Ultimately, we hope to publish these oral histories as a book and establish or contribute to an archive of publicly accessible oral histories of people affected by the outbreak. Substantial resources have tackled the health system gaps that fueled Ebola, but science and medicine are only part of the picture. We think that the lessons of an infectious disease outbreak like Ebola can only be fully digested when communities, no matter their size, come together and share their learnings. Perhaps an oral history research project such as this one, carried out at the community level, could become a replicable model for deepening understanding in the wake of other public health crises.


Katherina Thomas is a Harvard and MIT-affiliated writer-in-residence, and a Logan Nonfiction Fellow at the Carey Institute for Global Good. She began her career in journalism on the foreign desk of The Independent in London, and lived and worked in West Africa for ten years, where she covered global health and human rights and translated French poetry. She was the founding editor of Ebola Deeply, a Rockefeller Foundation-supported platform that covered the outbreak in depth, advancing global health literacy through public service journalism. She is an MPH candidate at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and has held patient advocacy and health information equity positions in Liberia. Her research interests include narrative medicine, literature, medical anthropology, and patient experiences. Her writing has been published by The Guardian, Reuters, BBC, Guernica, The Economist, PEN America and many others, and recommended by The New York Times and The New Yorker. 

Images courtesy of the author.

Embodying the interview

In the latest issue of the Oral History Review, Nien Yuan Cheng’s “‘Flesh and Blood Archives’: Embodying the Oral History Transcript” explores ways in which oral historians can consciously engage with embodied communication for the benefit of future audiences of the interview by including this dimension in transcripts. Here, she recalls embodied moments from two interviews, sharing methods to convey the interpersonal dynamics between interviewee and interviewer.

By Nien Yuan Cheng

The first oral history interview I conducted was set in a gauzy fog. Ribbons of smoke from the clove cigarette between my interviewee’s fingers never stayed vertical as his hands enthusiastically accompanied his gravelly voice. We were in a quiet café in Indonesia, one with lukewarm air-conditioning but excellent cappuccinos. An ojek (motorcycle taxi) driver, Fakhri (not his real name) had greeted me before our interview with a flash of his white teeth and a strong handshake. This benign contact between our palms seemed awkward despite the fact that during many a hairy traffic moment I had clung to the back of his leather jacket like a baby koala, knuckles white and my inner thighs tight against his outer legs. Yelling out a few friendly words to each other over the angry sputter of a motorbike was a far cry from sitting at a quiet booth, face to face, not touching but trying to make a connection.

As a performance studies scholar, I have always been interested in bodies, movement and place. I found out through this experience, rather unexpectedly, just how much of a performance event an interview was. I had trusted the comforting presence of the voice recorder to provide all the information I needed, until I realized how much more I would have missed: Fakhri’s physical demonstration of how he played chess as a child, the group of teenage boys watching us wondering what a young Chinese woman was doing with an older Muslim man, even my own gestures as I struggled a little to communicate to Fakhri in Indonesian, more nervous than usual in this framed, heightened encounter. All these factors influenced the process and the result of the interview in some way.

That was how I decided to find out more about the oral history interview as embodied performance. While there was a burgeoning discussion in the field about this, Jeff Friedman’s 2014 article in this journal being the most recent, beyond being aware of embodiment in the interview I wanted to know how we could include embodiment in our research and interview outputs so that others would be able to benefit from and appreciate this aspect. Knowing more about bodies, movement and place in the interview is more than adding ‘color’ or embellishment. It gives important insight about the interpersonal dynamics between interviewer and interviewee, about how place plays a part both in the interview situation and in the stories interviewees tell, and even about the embodied historical knowledge interviewees have. How could future audiences get an idea about all of these things? Current ways of disseminating oral history, either through books, audio recordings or archival transcripts don’t seem to accommodate these aspects.

The notion and value of ‘embodying’ the transcript became clearer to me in another setting – this time in Bengaluru, India, at the XIXth International Oral History Association conference in 2016. In one of the sessions, Mark Wong from the Oral History Centre in Singapore talked about the Centre’s new handy search function in the online archival database: they were experimenting with automated transcription software to improve the ability to search for text within an audio track so that users can listen to that moment in the transcript in its original vocal expression. It’s a great idea, because it encourages researchers to attend to the orality of the interview. To demonstrate, Wong first asked the audience to read a portion of an interview transcript of a former Singaporean midwife. Madam Mary Hee describes how midwives used a bicycle pump to induce labour in the 1960s:

Fig 1: Screenshot of the transcript, available online at the OHC portal.

 

There were a few surprised laughs among the audience, perhaps at the subject matter, as we took a little time to read the script. As Wong played the audio recording of that moment, those words, and some which had been edited out of the transcript, came to life (This is my printed representation of what the moment sounded like. Listen to the audio excerpt, starting from 19:55):

Ah! They use the thing, put in,

apply ah, the cup ah,         put in the head there

then is connect        aall the tubings        into the bottle?         Then got the bicycle pump ah, we pu-u-u-ump and pu-u-u-ump and pu-u-u-ump

and then pull thebabyout. You’ve never seen, eh? Oooooh, wonderful that’s why I say eheheh last time we really had tough time you know

pumping the thing 

Instead of beginning her explanation with a mere, ‘Yes,’ (as stated in the transcript), Madam Hee launches into it when an emphatic, very Singaporean agreement, ‘Ah!’ in a tone as if she were saying, ‘You better believe it!’. She relishes her interviewer’s surprise, as evidenced from her knowing, gleeful utterance of ‘You’ve never seen, eh?’, and the descending glissando of ‘Ooooooh,’ edited out of the transcript.

Madam Hee’s words may have come to life with her voice, but there are still gaps discernible in the spoken description which I represented with literal, extended gaps between her words above. To me these pauses, together with the instructive tone of voice Hee used, indicate that she accompanied her words with demonstrative gestures that stemmed from her embodied knowledge and history as a midwife who actually used these pumps. These gestures seem to make up the bulk of what she was trying to communicate to her interviewer, and the audio recording actually highlights the absence of some of these meanings.

Such moments benefit from a treatment of the body in the transcribed text to fill those gaps. There is a false distinction between ‘voice’ and ‘text’, one that excludes the dimensions of moving bodies in place. Embodying the transcript blurs this distinction by documenting the oral history interview event as a three-dimensional, affective performance, and allows us to include details that audio and even video recordings cannot. In my article, inspired by the expertise of people who have always been writing the body such as anthropologists and dance scholars, I put forth some practical ways in which we can do so. It’s not, by any means, a comprehensive handbook or a list of instructions, but it suggests ways in which we can begin to understand and practice oral history as what the legendary George Ewart Evans calls it: “flesh and blood archives”.


Nien Yuan CHENG is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney’s Department of Theatre and Performance Studies. Her doctoral research on Singaporean oral histories touches on the performance of citizenship, neoliberal storytelling and the interview as embodied performance and performative. She is co-founder and editor of Perspectives on the Past in Southeast Asia.

Featured image: Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 2007, by Flickr user Rosino. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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