Earlier this fall, DW Gibson, author of Not Working and The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century, gave an OHMA Workshop Series lecture in on how he used oral history to reflect the changes in peoples’ lives through gentrification. This article—written by current OHMA student Liu Ting (2016)—focuses on how Gibson presents oral histories in his book and how his own narrative interplays with the interviews.
The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century, is built around edited transcripts of the interviewees’ narratives, which are framed by the author’s secondary narrative. What does the voiceover—the narrative outside the narratives—bring to this oral history book?
In other contexts, these interviews have been presented without Gibson’s voice. For example, the version of Raul’s story (an interviewee born in Coney Island, living on Houston Street, who grew up in East Village) published in Harper’s Magazine presents a compact version of him reminiscing about the neighborhood, as if speaking directly to the reader:
“’It was a good neighborhood, the East Village. It was bugged out, rich people, poor people, everybody on top of each other.’”
In contrast, Raul’s interview in Chapter 8 of The Edge Becomes the Center begins with Gibson’s description and analysis of Raul’s motions, expressions, and the interaction during their interviews. For example, Raul’s characteristic “cackling” has an extensive presentation in the book:
“He cackles. Raul’s always cackling, and when he does, it is equal parts sinister and vulnerable. There is a hint of something underhanded or plotting in his cackle but you also hear a need—longing for some discernable response. Show me, Raul seems to say—show me that we are connecting.”
Raul’s narrative alternates between the past and present with his life stories intertwined and mingled with the historical transition of the community. From Raul’s angle, we see a timeline beginning from the present and extending to the past with two fused lines of his life and history. The author’s narrative is present tense, which is in the same time-dimension with Raul telling his stories.
In the author’s narrative, Raul as an interviewee comes to life with his motions, expressions, and everything projected in the author’s mind during the interview. With the author’s observing, describing, and interpreting, the interviewee behind the narrative becomes a solid character. The interplay of the narratives focuses not on the history but the present, that is how the interviewee tells the story—a combination of what is the story (narrative of the interviewee) and who is telling the story (narrative of the author).
In the book, Gibson edited all the questions out, which could serve to obscure the author’s role as an oral history interviewer. On the other hand, his-first person accounts make him another narrator in the book. His narrative weaves the fragments of the interviewees’ narrative into a whole piece through which the concentration on oral history narrative as testimony and historical facts shifts to include a focus on individuals’ narrative and performance.
The author’s narrative breaks the form of question-answer in oral history interviews, and sets a tone that orchestrates different instruments—the narratives of different interviewees—into a symphony. For example, before mTkalla’s narrative (the interviewee featured in the first chapter) Gibson sets the scene like this:
“The mayor’s neighborhood of Park Slope—reminiscent of The Cosby Show and the affluent middle class—is already subsumed and the vapors are advancing on the crumbling brick facades farther into Brooklyn. I follow the vapors…
I find a forty-five-year-old man on the front porch of a towering Victorian home. It is late, deep into the night but still his snug, gray suit remains unwrinkled. His polka-dotted pocket square hasn’t budged.”
Later comes mTkalla’s narrative, a story not about the broad history of gentrification but a narrative about being the son of the first black man to own a house in Park Slope:
“’When I tell people that I’m moving out of Park Slope back to Lefferts Gardens, people’s like, “You’re crazy. You are bugging out. How could you move? You’re one of the only black dudes that owns in Park Slope,” da da da da.’”
The tone of mTkalla is vividly clear as a new narrative compared to the author’s fundamental key beforehand, which develops into a duet in the interplay of narratives.
“’To have a driveway’—mTkalla smiles like a conquering teenager—‘I just like saying it: driveway—I could just repeat driveway, driveway, driveway…’
The smile runs on with the incantation of the word until mTkalla turns and walks toward the garage. He stops suddenly—‘I’m no Hugh Hefner or anything like that but—‘and continues walking.”
I find that the two narratives form a new conversation: not just the interaction between the interviewer and the interviewee, but a performance of doubled narratives.
For more information on DW Gibson’s work, please visit his website.
Liu Ting is an international student from China. Her study in oral history focuses on narrative and culture dissemination in oral tradition.