We ask authors of projects reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should explore what they made. In our latest installment of the series, Natalie Milbrodt and Melody Cao discuss the Queens Memory Podcast Season 3: Our Major Minor Voices.
What’s it about and why does it matter?
The stories in the third season of the Queens Memory Podcast, “Our Major Minor Voices,” document the experiences of our borough’s rich and diverse Asian communities in their own voices.
Each episode features stories about identity and belonging from this broad array of people who have made valuable contributions through their cultural traditions, belief systems, and linguistic diversity. Bookended by the season introduction and finale, the series includes eight bilingual episodes representing the most widely spoken Asian languages in Queens: Bangla, Hindi, Korean, Mandarin, Nepali, Tagalog, Tibetan, and Urdu.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, these communities have been in turmoil. Already grappling with longstanding issues such as income inequality, immigration barriers, and racial stereotyping, Asian Americans now faced concerns for their personal health and public safety.
In this unique moment, we aim to document the stories of these vital communities and capture snapshots of our ever-changing neighborhoods as they are now.
How do you use oral history and make novel use of media in your podcast?
We use our podcast as an opportunity to collect oral histories in an area where we want to grow our collections. In this case, we have an NEH grant to support the collection of stories from our Asian American neighbors in Queens. That funding allows us to hire talented producers who can conduct those interviews in Bangla, Hindi, Korean, Mandarin, Nepali, Tagalog, Tibetan, and Urdu, as well as English. In some cases, these are the first additions to our collections in those languages.
We are so excited to share these producers’ beautifully written, edited, scored and mixed podcast episodes, but we are just as thrilled to archive and share their behind the scenes, full-length interviews too. Many of the producers have never contributed to an archive before and they are being very patient with all of the metadata we are requesting from them for each of their interviews!
One of the interesting challenges in producing the same episode in two languages has been the translation and voicing of not only narration, but also of the interviews themselves. In some cases producers have worked with their interviewees to record translations of their own interview segments featured in the podcast. It’s so nice to have the real person’s voice in two languages! In other cases, producers have cast professional actors, or even family and friends to voice the translated portions of their episodes. They did their best to capture the emotion and intent of what our interviewees were communicating. There were also interesting challenges matching intergenerational differences between speakers who, like in our Korean episode, almost sound like they are speaking different languages based on how many decades ago they left their countries of origin. We also decided as a team that we wanted to hear an interviewee’s real voice for a while before overdubbing with a voiceover. Our intention is to uplift and amplify voices that do not always get the attention they deserve so it was important to us that we followed through on that by literally keeping the volume up as they spoke!
What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?
As a tool for understanding History, oral histories are powerful because we can connect with them emotionally. Those moments of emotional connection imprint lasting impressions (learning!). And when we learn History by way of personal accounts of lived experiences, our empathy response helps us understand that we, too, are part of History and we can begin to see our own circumstances with a broader perspective.
The small details that come through in someone’s recalled memories often stay with us for years after hearing them. As humans, we are hardwired to understand the world around us in the format of stories. So if we at the Queens Memory Project want to increase empathy and decrease social isolation, connecting people with different life experiences through their life stories seems like a good approach.
As a tool for understanding history, oral histories are powerful because we can connect with them emotionally.
Why will fellow oral historians be interested in the podcast?
The voices and stories in these episodes are irresistible. They tell us so much about the world while focusing on this small collection of individuals. And for folks who enjoy beautiful audio production, they are in for a treat with the scoring and mixing the team has put so much care into creating.
What is the one thing that you most want the audience to remember about the podcast?
We want people to know what a partnership this podcast has been with all of its contributors. That extends beyond our production team to the dozens of community partners who have contributed their knowledge, shared introductions, and helped in other countless ways to ensure these episodes are true reflections of life in Queens, New York.