Intro: In this post, OHMA alumni and recipient of our alumni travel grant Svetlana Kitto reflects on her 2018 Oral History Association experience in Montreal.
Bursts of epiphany and warm feelings of community and clarity accompanied me on my trip to Montreal for OHA 2018 this past October. I hadn’t attended an OHA conference since 2011. Back then, the OHA annual meeting felt more like an oral history retreat for like-minded and -spirited folks, from a wide variety of disciplines, who attend in hopes of making real connections, than the other academic conferences I’d presented at. My experience this time, a decade after I first began working in the field (on a project with Gerry Albarelli, for whom I worked as an intern on an oral history project with the Mashantucket Pequot Museum back in 2008) was that much more nourishing, challenging and fun: rich and rigorous panels, exciting conversations over lunch at Burstan, a road trip back to NYC through John Brown country with three brilliant oral history/activist minds, and a “power lesbian” dinner at an Italian restaurant on Rue de Sherbrooke Ouest, where I got to meet a bunch of queer womxn who practice oral history, as well as indulge in a favorite lesbian pastime—obnoxiously sharing stories and pictures of pets.
I arrived in Montreal a couple of days ahead of the conference with my friend and colleague, Cassie Mey, who runs the Dance Oral History Project at NYPL, which commissioned me to do an oral history with Judith Ren-Lay in 2017. Cassie and I stayed in the neighborhood Rosemont, where we ate pupusas and delicious pho, and visited Mile End for bagels and books. I always appreciate Cassie’s perspective as a dancer and oral historian: something she talked about with me is the questionable ethics of not paying interviewees for their time; especially dancers, who are already so grossly underpaid and undervalued in the performance world. I appreciate when people question best practices that are so easily taken for granted as correct; a good argument for the employment of multi-hyphenate oral historians!
After Rosemont, I moved to a rental near McGill to be closer to the conference. The first event I attended was the roundtable Writing with Our Narrators’ Words: Editing Oral History, with myself, Leyla Vural and Sara Sinclair (all OHMA alums). The event was very well-attended, despite it being at 830am, and the three of us managed to have a truly vulnerable and spontaneous conversation in front of an energetic audience.
Sara Sinclair’s questions for us ahead of the event helped me think through my process around editing and rewriting oral history. Her first question—How do we honor the open-ended spirit of the oral history interview in the editing process?—would come to be both a lens and refrain for me throughout the conference. During our talk, I spoke about a literary oral history I wrote for Gordon Robichaux gallery in 2017, Ken Tisa: Time, Objects, Offerings, as an example of how profoundly “the spirit of oral history” can enliven art-historical writing. Sara Sinclair spoke about her experience doing very similar work for her forthcoming book of narratives from the Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project.
I also got to hear Leyla Vural discuss her ideas around ethics and oral history, which she wrote a great essay about, and the importance of being transparent with narrators about the editing process in the documentary films she makes from her interviews for the Rockefeller University Oral History Project. I think my favorite part of the roundtable was during the Q&A when Leyla said that there’s no need for us to apologize for our creative applications of oral history as long as we are transparent with our narrators. These were words that would have been very useful for my younger self, fresh out of grad school, to hear, though hearing them now was almost as good. It was encouraging to kick the conference off with a real-live conversation about oral history with these badass women—I am happy to now have them as part of my community.
I also participated on the panel, Oral History in Dialogue: Community Organizing, New Documentary Work, and Our Changing Practice, with OHMA alums Cameron Vanderscoff, Lynn Lewis, and Eylem Delakanli, all of whom are doing incredibly exciting and inspiring work in the field. In my presentation, I got to talk about my experience using oral history to develop exhibitions, both physically and intellectually. I also talked about my cultural journalism, specifically a story I wrote about artist Leilah Bairye, and how bringing the oral history spirit to my “narrators” obviates them as “subjects.” That is to say: having gone to oral history instead of journalism school, I’m a better writer, listener and thinker.
One panel I attended, Engaging/Critiquing LGBT Oral History, introduced me to the work of David S. Churchill, a queer studies professor at University of Manitoba, who has done a lot of thinking about and producing of queer oral history. The problem with queer projects that contain ideals of community building, according to Churchill, is that “all [spoken] terms fail to capture the multiplicity of sexuality”—risking erasure of complicated and dissident sexualities. He advocated an appreciation of sexual difference in thinking about collecting queer oral history, against feel-good notions of community and the politics of sexual sameness. These theoretical tools were very helpful to me as I approach leading a large-scale queer oral history project in the next few months.
Another highlight was listening to Zaheer Ali from BHS, on the Oral Histories of Muslim Americans panel, discuss the Muslims in Brooklyn Public History Project, for which I contributed three oral histories this past fall. Ali described the project as a “facilitated memoir of a community” that has perhaps “never been authentically listened to.” He also talked about needing to rethink the word “document,” in this anti-immigrant climate, in creating language for the project’s mission statement, and how him and OHMA alum Liz Strong chose to use “chronicle” instead.
I also helped facilitate small groups for the Within Silence: HIV/AIDS and the Visual Arts Listening Session panel, led by Liza Zapol and Ted Kerr, about the Smithsonian Visual Art and AIDS Epidemic Oral History Project, which I worked on as an interviewer this past year, contributing oral histories with Bill T. Jones and Nancy Brooks Brody. Zapol, an OHMA alum who curates and manages new oral histories for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, proffered some brilliant commentary on the function of silence in AIDS oral histories:
"…Within oral history, if sound is resistance, then does silence = death? Nothing erases this powerful political statement. We are inviting everyone to think expansively about silence, and today we invite you to consider some silences we hear when addressing these interviews...silence as information, content, as rich and with depth. We imagine rhetorical silences, obfuscations of detail, omissions, as invitations for inquiry and imagination.”
One of the most exciting takeaways of the conference was getting to talk to other folks about teaching oral history. The panel Teaching Oral History to Undergraduates featured Anne Balay, whom I met at my first OHA back in 2010 when she presented on what would become her first book of queer and working class oral history, Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers. This time around she had a new book in tow, Semi Queer: Inside the World of Gay, Trans, and Black Truck Drivers. On the panel, Amanda Littauer from Northern Illinois University talked about how students approach the oral history interview like a bad first date—“Tell me everything now!”—and have to be instructed to listen well to both the boring and the juicy. Balay also talked about the difficulty of teaching oral history as an adjunct professor, since you don’t know if and when you will ever see your students again. As a person who teaches a lot of one-off oral history workshops, I relate to this dilemma. Benji de la Piedra (OHMA 2014) and I had a great conversation at Burstan (the best Lebanese food I’ve had in not-Los Angeles) about teaching oral history workshops: How do we responsibly deal with the question of what oral history is and isn’t, when we know from our practice that rigid definitions don’t really apply to this field? It’s a spirit, we decided as we mopped up the last of our hummus, conspiring to co-teach a class henceforth.