5 Questions About: Family Portraits in Global Perspectives

We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, Soledad Quartucci discusses her book Family Portraits in Global Perspectives: An Oral History Collection.

Read Michael Tomaselli’s review of Family Portraits in Global Perspectives online and in issue 47.2 of OHR.

What’s it about and why does it matter?

This book is a historical and family treasure. It was produced by first year students attending an international university in Southern California. As a historian and writing instructor, I wanted to create the type of assignment they would embrace with passion and with heart. I wanted them to fall in love with writing by writing with a personal purpose: interviewing an elder in their family and writing a family portrait of their life.

The student authors themselves offered the best evidence to why the book matters:

“In my writing 101 class, my professor assigned us to write a Family Oral History. I am glad she did because I had the wonderful opportunity to learn more about my African-American side. Through this oral history I got the chance to learn more about my father.” – Taylor H. on her father’s upbringing in the segregated South.

“I hope this oral history gives the reader at least some courage when you encounter difficulties. Without my uncle’s difficulties in life, I would have never known about this wonderful school, much less have traveled to study here. Moreover, I would have not had the chance to write about my uncle’s story and appreciate what my family has done before and even today. This is definitely the first paper I wrote for the real purpose of writing instead of just trying to make it perfect and hand it in on time. In order to let my siblings and my cousins learn about our wonderful grandparents and uncle, I have translated this oral history, and plan on expanding it next summer in Taiwan. Like it did for me, I hope you, too, are encouraged by my uncle’s life!” – Yu An Ma.

“I had always heard about the bombing of Hiroshima through the perspective of my great aunt, my grandpa’s little sister, who experienced it, but interviewing my grandfather made me realize the whole different kind of hardship that he went through, returning to his home in Hiroshima to find nothing and no one there, his search for his family alone, and having to work to provide for them. I think those experiences shaped who he is today, a humble, honest, hard-working, and confident man who is grateful for everything he has. His story, in a sense, made me reexamine my life, taking note of all the things I take for granted. My grandfather continues to encourage me to pursue what I love and to enjoy what I have, and I hope that sharing his story will be an inspiration for others to do the same.” – Ellie T.

“The war changed everything in my grandmother’s life. I could not imagine how many times she cried in her life. Before this oral history, my grandmother never mentioned a word about her suffering or about the war; instead, she always made me laugh with her funny stories during my youth. The interview was beyond my expectation about her sorrow. I cannot forget how her voice shuddered. I felt she did not like to recall those sad memories.” – Kenichi O.

“The interview took about two and a half hours because my grandma pauses to think a lot. I decided to interview her in particular because she had never shared her history with us, and she never exaggerates her stories. I thought I could get a real and pure image of life in Japan during the WWII period. Through this interview and Oral History assignment I was able to not only document and share an account of WWII that hasn’t been told, but also deepen our relationship as children of the Kurosaki family. I also greatly appreciate how I was able to understand and meet my grandpa who passed away before I could retain my memory. It is true that those who have suffered the most will become the happiest, because my grandma is living proof.” – Nobuko M.

“When I heard about this oral history project from my writing professor, the person who came up to my mind was my grandmother. It was because I did not know anything about her life before I was born although she is the closest to me among my grandparents. I didn’t even know her age! So I decided to interview my grandmother, my mother’s mother, and focus on her childhood. When I told this to my mother, she said, ‘You’re gonna interview your grandma? Hmm…you may not even be able to write 10 pages because her life has been so simple and normal.’ What my grandmother shared left both of us shocked. I am thankful for being given such an opportunity to connect with her more deeply.” – Nobuko N. 

“This oral history contains my grandmother’s story, my great-grandmother’s story, and my nation’s story; this is the Korean history of tears. As a Korean, I feel a strong responsibility for recording this history for my Korea. I will remember what happened, how people felt, how painful this history is, and what I need to do as a Korean-descendant.” – Yeji P.

“I have always known my Yaya to be a strong person. Previously, I had vaguely been aware of Yaya’s rough childhood, and ever since I can remember, I have always heard her stories of how she came to America all by herself at such a young age to marry a man she had never met. Nevertheless, this project was filled with so many jaw-dropping moments, and I learned things and stories that I had never known or been told about. I think I fully understand now what a hard life my Yaya had, but she persevered.” – Zoe, W.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

My intentions for the oral history project were multiple. I hoped to broaden students’ understanding of the past and encourage them to rethink the concept of historical actors. The assignment was intended to draw students closer to their narrators and inspire a deeper appreciation of their elders’ cultural heritage. As an instructor, I conceptualized the assignment as an ideal one to challenge students as writers, researchers, and as people. Oral history projects produce much better reads than college papers. This assignment engaged students personally.  The oral histories included in the collection offer a space from which to empathize with the everyday realities of the previous generations, and the many resourceful ways in which our ancestors lived their lives.

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

For my final assignment in Writing 101, I assign an oral history project. I ask students to conduct a life and family history interview with an older relative or someone who has lived long enough to have witnessed many historical changes. I encourage students to reflect on the significance of family history and consider their elder’s life within the broader context of national and transnational history. Family Portraits is the product of a collective endeavor as students worked closely with relatives, elders, and family friends from different generations and cultures to create a portrait of their narrators’ lives.

Writing family history is one of the most rewarding and meaningful ways to chronicle memories that too often leave the earth with their owner. Most of us can relate to experiencing regret for not having had one last conversation with an elder to learn more about their lives.  Oral history projects allow students to uncover a generational layer to their past. In recording these stories, student writers contribute to the humanizing and expanding of the historical record and develop a deep appreciation and humility for the hardships overcome in their lineage.

The process of going through a life-interview creates unique emotional legacies. oral histories help the younger generation to learn about their past, and to find their place in the continuity of their family’s journey. The distance between history and personal experience is shortened through oral histories. Serving as a bridge, oral history links private and public history making room for nuanced recollections of the past.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

If you are an oral historian and an instructor, the collection of oral histories here will remind you of why you love the field and the methodology so much. The process of conducting an oral history project as special as a family history is a journey into uncovering the true meaning of family heritage, providing clues for why we are the way we are.

What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?

Each story in this book will take a piece of your heart. You will be immersed into windows of a life, so richly depicted and tenderly recalled, you’ll feel you are in the fields of Mexico, in WWII Japan, in Greece, in the segregated South. Each story is a family treasure written and uncovered by first year students who were transformed as writers and as people by shocking conversations with elders they thought they knew well.