In November of 2015, Jeffrey H. Brodsky, OHMA alum, announced a generous annual cash prize of $3,000 for an outstanding thesis. The criteria for receiving the award is that the thesis must “make an important contribution to knowledge and exemplify the rigor, creativity and ethical integrity we teach our students.” For his own thesis Jeffrey conducted over 60 hours of videotaped interviews with politicians on their memories of their first campaigns. He created a video documentary based on his interviews, one of the first multimedia theses in our program, and was advised by OHMA co-founder Peter Bearman.
We had two excellent candidates this year whose work exemplifies the creative and intellectual contributions to oral history that inspired the Jeffrey H. Brodsky award. We are proud to announce the winner: Nyssa Chow, and Ellen Coon, the runner up. We invite you to consider the resonances between these two theses: in the recreation of the literal voices and memories of powerful women who tend to the living and the dying and all the attendant rituals in between, and who translate the stories that enliven the next generation.
Advisor: Mary Marshall Clark
In her extraordinary thesis, Intersecting Histories: The Story of Her Skin, Nyssa Chow embraces visual mediums of film and image, still life portraits and embodied stories as a way of telling the stories of the family of Trinidadian women who formed her. Like the filmmaker Alan Berliner, she refuses to abandon the word (the text) as an element of telling, but puts it in distinct tension with the moving image, the haunting sounds of voice and nature and the faces of those who tell her their stories. In doing so she has created a new and more generous genre of oral history that exposes the fullness of listening and watching, and – importantly - being watched. Nyssa invites audiences who only know the legacy of colonialism, racism and sexism from a distance to explore them up close, and lays bare that legacy through the intimate lens of the family for anyone who wishes to take the journey with her. Taking the journey with her will change you.
We are deeply grateful to Nyssa’s efforts to expand the imagination of oral history into the visual realm, and for her determination to demonstrate the power of interpretation using the medium of oral history storytelling grounded in the physicality of body, time and place. The questions she asks us: how can we know without seeing? what do we lose without the sound of the voice? And, how can we know one another across differences? are the burning questions of our field and our times. Too often we confine the act of interpretation and theorizing to scholarly writing and analysis alone. Nyssa’s writing and visual stories remind us that knowledge is also situated in the body, in gesture, in tone of voice that oral history affords. Her explication of why embodied storytelling is important to the understanding of histories different from our own promises a new approach to oral history that will engender transformative conversations across the disciplines and in the world.
It is for these reasons that we name Nyssa Chow as the winner of the 2017 Jeffery H. Brodsky Oral History Award.
Dil Maya Aji: Narratives of a Traditional Newar Midwife
Advisor: Amy Starecheski
Ellen Coon started fieldwork for this project over thirty years ago, in 1986. She came to OHMA in part to figure out what to do with the boxes full of audiotaped interviews she had collected with Newar tantric midwives in Nepal. This long engagement produces a unique depth of intersubjectivity that travels through time and space – some of the questions Ellen asked of this world about gender, spirituality and sexuality at age twenty-four overlap with those that concern her now but many of the questions she posed when analyzing the materials are different from those that were pressing for her when she began the research. The midwives’ voices now capture multiple pasts – the past in which they were recorded, and the even deeper past of which they speak. Ellen’s thesis, the seed for a book on which she is continuing to work, focuses on the life of one woman, Dil Maya Aji.
Building on the genre-breaking work of ethnographers like Zora Neale Hurston and Karen McCarthy Brown, the thesis weaves together scholarly knowledge, detailed ethnographic description, first person writing from all of Ellen’s time in Nepal, starting in 1970, and transcribed, translated, edited excerpts from oral histories. This work fills a gap in scholarly literature on tantric and Newar religion, which has for the most part focused for more on men than on women, on texts than on embodied voices. It tells us something about the cosmology of the Kathmandu Valley and the social and spiritual lives of its long-time inhabitants that could easily no longer be knowable. It is also funny, and bawdy, and wry, and unromantic – full of sex and bodies and evil and love.
Dil Maya Aji: Narratives of a Traditional Newar Midwife breaks new ground in several areas: work at the intersection of oral history and ethnography, and work that provides insight into the intersubjective relationships that are at the heart of oral history, particularly via innovative combinations of creative and scholarly writing. It is for these reasons that we name Dil Maya Aji: Narratives of a Traditional Newar Midwife the runner up for the 2017 Jeffrey H. Brodsky Oral History Award.