Never Turn off Your Tape Recorder: Stories I Skipped

Hongru Pan is a Master's candidate in the department of History at Columbia. Watch the full lecture on YouTube.

Rejection is your finding
Silence is as loud as speaking.

-Alessandro Portelli

Professor Alessandro Portelli, the author of the The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories, is one of the world’s leading oral historians. We were honored to have him in our Oral History Workshop class to have a private conversation with students before his public lecture on “Stories I Skipped: Narratives of War, Narratives of Care.” I was interested to find out that before he entered into the field of oral history, he actually studied American literature in Italy and became a professor of American literature at Rome University. He stumbled into oral history through a project collecting folk music. Because Professor Portelli is an entirely self-taught person in the oral history field, he has been thinking about what he did right and what he did wrong in the past interviews. “There is one thing that I learnt from something I did wrong,” he stated, “stories that I heard but I would not listen to.”   

Professor Portelli kept explaining by saying that “oral history is an art of listening and is one of the things giving hearing to people; however, we do not listen all the time with the same intensity, partly because oral history is an encounter between two agendas.” Oral historians have agendas of what they want to hear, while interviewees have their agendas of what they want to share.  He continued to point out that most interviewees were not formally trained as historians and they would not be familiar with the academic’s categories of political history, scientific history, or intellectual history. In this case, oral historians should not expect interviewees to fit their category or agenda. “Never turn off your tape recorder”, he suggested, “because it’s a signal for ‘I’m not interested in what you are talking about.’ You will never know what is not interesting you right now will turn out to be interesting ten years later, which is what we have archives for.”

With regard to the popular question of how to treat oral historical sources, he states that “there is no false oral sources,” because oral sources are narratives, which provide not only the historic facts but also insight into people’s emotions and desire. In this sense, oral historical sources can be seen as both primary sources and secondary sources. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to both historical facts the interviewees would provide and interviewees’ own feelings and reaction, even their rejection, towards the questions.

In some cases, people would refuse to be interviewed by an oral historian. For example, one student was doing research in a hospital and failed, after many attempts, to secure interviews with doctors. She asked Professor Portelli how to deal with rejection. Portelli’s answer fascinated us: “Rejection is your finding.” People’s rejection shows their unwillingness to speak about an issue, which reveals their sense of shame or their paradoxical situation.  With regard to his recent research with working class people in Harlan County, Kentucky, he also faced initial difficulty in interviewing workers and workers’ families. People in Harlan County at first found it strange for an Italian to interview them, which indicates a cultural boundary. However, Professor Portelli solved the problem by engaging in their daily lives. This project can be seen as a complement to his legendary research on working-class people’s stories in Italy. Portelli’s work shows us that history should not only be learnt through studying written documents but through creating oral documents; otherwise, important stories of individual lives would be ignored and never be picked up. Oral history allows people’s stories to become part of history, whether it is their rejection of the interviewee’s request or their trivial daily lives’ stories. “They talk about their lives. Whether it is history or not, they will tell about it. It is not a testimony; it is narrative. Whether your life considered significant as history or not, it is your life.”  

So, never turn off your tape recorder. Respect your interviewees, or you will never know what you will miss.