Oral History, Radical Honesty and #metoo in our Challenging Times: Reflections on this Year’s Annual Meeting

Anna Sheftel reflects on the Oral History Association’s Annual Meeting that was held October 11-14th in Montreal, Canada

By Anna Sheftel

In my recently published article for the Oral History Review, “Talking and Not Talking about Violence: Challenges in Interviewing Survivors of Atrocity as Whole People”, for the special section, Inside the Interview: The Challenges of a Humanistic Oral History Approach in the Deep Exchange of Oral History, I talk about how we are all more than our stories. In particular, I argue that when interviewing survivors of mass violence and genocide, it can be difficult to see the whole person behind the narrative of violence, because of how we frame our projects, as well as how we construct meanings about people’s lives.

Having just come down from the intensity of this year’s Oral History Association’s Annual Meeting in Montreal, I am struck that this is true for oral historians as well. We are also more than our stories. I was tremendously moved by what I saw as a real, radical honesty coming from so many scholars and practitioners this year. It made for a transformative few days. In my co-edited volume with Stacey Zembrzycki, Oral History Off the Record, we called for a more honest discussion about what it means to do oral history; we argued that reflecting deeply on our processes would help us understand our resulting work better. This year was the most honest Annual Meeting I have yet to experience; people spoke openly not only about our interviews, but also about everything around them, including the profession itself.

My awe began during the plenary on “Centering Indigenous Storywork: Listening to and Learning from Stories of the Past,” when Autumn Varley described going head to head with her university’s Ethics board as they told her she needed to get permission from her community’s Elders in order to be allowed to interview her own grandmother. She countered that she had her own family and community’s ethics to ground her; the university’s regulations were not at the centre of her practice. I was buoyed by this gutsiness and honesty. Throughout the weekend, I kept finding myself at panels in which Indigenous women spoke openly, personally, compellingly and unapologetically about what it really means to listen to another person, and what it looks like to do so when working to decolonize these lands.

I stumbled into a panel entitled “The Challenges of Dealing with Precariousness, from the Precariat” led by Andy Clark, only one of four UK presenters who made it to Montreal, which in and of itself demonstrated the relevance of the topic. Andy deftly made connections between oral history as being in the business of precarity (as he called it, “oral history as a precarious resource”), the precarity of academic labour and the recent strike in the UK, and then the specifically precarious position of oral historians. Often hired to work on projects with finite mandates and funding, most oral historians struggle to find permanent work. How does this affect our projects, and of course, our lives? We see ourselves as working in a progressive field and yet the labour of doing oral history often puts people in very precarious positions. Andy and his colleagues (through him) powerfully shared the personal impacts of their uncertain professional trajectories. They presented their work and their lives as symbiotic and intertwined.

Leyla Neyzi delivered a powerful keynote talk in which she seamlessly made connections between her personal circumstances, the changing political landscape of Turkey, her work as an oral historian, and the struggles of her narrators. Leyla also demonstrated how our lives as oral historians are not divorced from the circumstances we live in, how our narrators challenge us, and how the politics of our projects connect to the larger political context that is constantly changing.

Finally, in a panel that I chaired as part of the new edited volume, Beyond Women’s Words: Feminisms and the Practices of Oral History in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Katrina Srigley, Stacey Zembrzycki and Franca Iacovetta, I listened to women talk about what it means to do oral history, especially when engaging with new technologies, with more thoughtfulness and reflection than one usually encounters in discussions of the digital. Sady Sullivan aptly pointed out, during her presentation, that she has found that she is taken less seriously when she talks about nurturing relationships in her work. And then she talked about just that.

This honesty, and this understanding of oral history as part of our whole selves, came out not just in papers, though, but in spaces; for example, at the launch for Beyond Women’s Words, where we were treated to the warmest hospitality, with children running around (my own included) with hands full of delicious Syrian food and where we collectively shed tears over the Tasht Collective’s moving performance of Come Wash With Us. It was in conversations I had with beloved colleagues and new friends, about the hard years we have been having, and how we are working through it, how we are mobilizing and resisting it, how we are surviving in these “challenging times”.

As I looked through the #OHA2018 Twitter hashtag, I fell in love with this tweet, which was my favorite from the conference:

This openness, this exuberance, this connection that happens in the best moments in our work—I am happy to see us naming it, inhabiting it and celebrating it.

I was also moved by the robust conversation, in and around the conference, about #metoo and the OHA’s approach to it. I have been impressed by the organization’s dedication to meaningfully responding to this political moment, and especially by Todd Moye’s unequivocal letter in this regard. I have been reflecting that #metoo is in many ways a natural fit for oral history; it is all about bringing to light stories that had previously been hidden, or whispered, or silenced. And it is about believing people when they share those stories. This filtered into many of my conversations, usually with other women. We talked about how women and non-binary people, in particular, have been crucial to making our work more honest and making space for our lives within our work. We also talked about our own #metoo stories; some about sexual harassment and violence, but also some more generally about what it means to be a woman or non-binary person in this field.

It made me reflect on the often painful stories that we oral historians carry with us: the stories of our narrators, and also our own. Even in a field that is all about talking, there are secrets…

It made me reflect on the often painful stories that we oral historians carry with us: the stories of our narrators, and also our own. Even in a field that is all about talking, there are secrets; the sleazy senior scholar, the exploitative project manager, the supervisor who can’t seem to keep female grad students. I carry my own stories about how I have been hurt in this field, and I doubt I know a woman or non-binary person who does not have one. We carry them with us because it is so difficult to speak, because we don’t want these experiences to define us and because we know that there is no honesty without consequences. We share them with safe people, we warn each other, we exercise our small forms of solidarity, so they are never entirely secret, but we rarely make them fully public. In this way we protect ourselves but also the people who have harmed us. I love going to the OHA because it is an energizing and inspiring place for me; and yet this side of it means it is always somewhat fraught, never uncomplicated.

This negotiation, about when the risk of speaking is worth it, is one that every single person we interview engages in, whether the project is inherently political or not. It is one of the reasons, as I argue in my article, that we never get the “whole story.” I hope that our own #metoo moment will encourage us to recognize this and be humble in awe of what people give to us despite the risk. I also hope it will encourage us to continue to speak openly about the strengths and the limits of what we do, the political contexts in which we work, and the people who help us and hurt us. And I hope that we will believe each other.

The honesty that I heard at the OHA this year felt like a radical act. I am so thankful for it. It was a balm during these challenging times. I will carry it with me until we meet again next year.

‘Oral Historians: Honouring the Treaties we Make with Our Indigenous Narrators’.

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@ohmacolumbia Excellent presentations at this afternoons paper session, ‘Oral Historians: Honouring the Treaties we Make with Our Indigenous Narrators’. Special shout out to OHMA student Valerie Fendt for her contribution on Non-Native Americans working with Indigenous Communities. #oralhistory #ohaconference #indiginouspeoplesday


Anna Sheftel is an associate professor of Conflict Studies at Saint Paul University, in Ottawa, Canada. She has done oral history work with Bosnians and Canadian Holocaust survivors, and written extensively on ethics and methodology, most notably in Oral History Off the Record: Toward an Ethnography of Practice, coedited with Stacey Zembrzycki, which won the Oral History Association’s 2014 Book Award. She completed her PhD in modern history at the University of Oxford.

Featured image was taken by the author: Tasht Collective’s performance of Come Wash With Us: Seeking Home in Story at the OHA Annual Meeting on October 12, 2018.