We’ve asked authors of books that are going to be reviewed in the upcoming edition of the Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read them. In our latest installment of the series, Sujatha Fernandes discusses Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling.
A Review of Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling will be available in 2019
What’s it about and why does it matter?
In Curated Stories, I examine the contemporary proliferation of storytelling as deployed by governments, nonprofits, and advocacy groups. While stories are often presented as a panacea to myriad social problems, I argue that the conditions under which stories are told and the tropes through which they are narrated may disguise deeper contexts of global inequality. Drawing on theories and methods of oral history, I analyze a range of stories and storytelling practices from the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, the domestic worker and undocumented student legislative campaigns in the United States, and the Misión Cultura project in Venezuela. These curated narratives may move us deeply. But what do they move us to? What are the stakes in the crafting and uses of storytelling? Curated Stories shows how stories have been reconfigured to promote entrepreneurial self-making and restructured as soundbites mobilized toward utilitarian ends. But the book also explores how storytelling might be reclaimed to allow for the complexity of experience to be expressed in pursuit of transformative social change.
How does oral history contribute to your book?
I found that the work of oral historians such as Alessandro Portelli and Daniel James was very helpful in thinking about how we can understand and analyze stories. It was a useful corrective to much work on storytelling within my discipline of sociology, that tends to celebrate and romanticize storytelling. Stories are especially fetishized when they come from marginalized groups who are constructed as “voiceless” or “silent.” But oral historians have had a more critical view of narratives and stories, questioning the dominant tropes and constructs that may frame stories, even when they come from a marginalized sector of society like migrant workers or undocumented students.
What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?
I didn’t carry out any oral history interviews for this book, although it is a method I have used in the past and am planning to use in the future. Rather, what I used was the theoretical frameworks of oral historians who have offered some of the most cogent ways of analyzing what stories do and how we can interpret them.
Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?
I hope that they will find in my book a way of engaging with the transcripts and narratives that are produced through doing oral history research. My book shows that we cannot take these stories at face-value, in order to construct an unmediated history or narrative. Rather we have to look at the broader social constructs that frame these texts and the conditions under which they are produced. I don’t subscribe to the more radical claims made by literary theorists such as Gayatri Spivak that the subaltern can never speak, but my book cautions oral historians to pay attention to silences, tensions, and contradictions in the voices of our subjects that may offer other kinds of interpretations.
What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?
I would want readers to take away a sense of the power of stories, that despite the neoliberal shift to commodify and soundbite stories, they remain a powerful tool for communicating deep truths about the human condition. When domestic workers from the group Andolan were disturbed by how their stories were framed by the media and in legal campaigns, they responded by setting up an oral history archive where they could tell stories that were honest, potentially contradictory, and showed their complexity.