Christina Pae is a current OHMA student. In this post, she reflects on doing justice to our narrators in conducting oral history projects.
As an OHMA student, new to the field of Oral History, I’ve been learning about how fraught the experience of being an oral historian can be. From issues of transcription described by Elinor A. Mazé in “The Uneasy Page: Transcribing and Editing in Oral History” to interpretation in Katherine Borland’s article, “That’s Not What I Said: Interpretive Conflict in Oral History,” oral history presents a minefield of ethical issues about how we portray and interpret the stories of our narrators. These issues can strain the relationship between interviewer and narrator and maybe even leave us asking ourselves:
For whom are we doing this work?
Crashing through these dangerous waters is Judith Sloan, a self-described actor, audio artist, writer, radio producer, human rights activist and poet who combines oral history with books and audio and visual performance to portray stories of immigrants, holocaust survivors and whistleblowers, to name a few. She seeks to “subvert the commonly held narrative” of often “uncelebrated” people in order to “[foster] understanding across cultures, generations, gender and class.”
It all sounds great, and her book Crossing the BLVD: strangers, neighbors, aliens in a new America is a gorgeously colorful montage comprising the stories of 79 immigrants living in Queens, with beautiful photographs, maps and footnotes. Just as colorful are her multimedia shows in which she uses her own voice and persona as well as layers of audio that she controls using a bluetooth remote. In these performances, she presents the voices of her narrators, moving easily from the accent of a prophetess in a Nigerian Pentecostal Church to a dancer from Tajikistan to a former journalist and writer from the Philippines. But I couldn’t help but wonder about the ethical issues surrounding all of these interpretations. How did she get comfortable editing all of these stories and performing all of these characters?
Turns out, it was no easy feat. Judith described Crossing the BLVD as ground breaking because she was one of the first oral historians to veer away from using narratives in a straightforward, largely unedited format. She cuts and crafts the story to make sure that she brings these different voices to life. She describes her work as “oral history-ish.”
A whole person; reducing them to a story. As oral historians, that’s what we do.
In addition to having her narrators sign full releases for use in all types of media, she said that she was “up front” with her narrators that she would be using the stories and their voices in multiple ways, including cutting them up. She stressed the importance of having a relationship with her narrators so that she could ask them repeatedly, “Are you ok with that?” With one narrator, she “had to sit with her for a really long time to figure out what we could say.”
Perhaps most difficult were the narrators who were in precarious situations, such as the undocumented. In those cases, she changed names, excluded parts of their stories and depicted them in shadow to hide their identities.
She also acknowledges how complicated it is to perform other people’s voices, that she was “treading” in dangerous territory.
What does it mean to walk in someone’s shoes?
With her theater background, her ability “to know where to throw her voice,” and the hours she spent listening to the voices while transcribing interviews, she feels comfortable that she can embody the voices accurately. When she brings in other actors to help portray the characters, she acknowledges the hazards and has them speak in their own voices without accents.
In the end, perhaps the best proof that she’s gotten it right is the narrator response to her work. Three came to a recent performance at City Lore. They talked about their rewarding experiences with the book and one commented that Judith’s impression of the Filipino journalist and writer was “spot on.” When discussing what she gave back to the community, she described various ways in which narrators have used the book, from obtaining visas for their family members, as part of a law school application and in asylum applications.
In many ways, Judith’s work further emphasizes how hard we have to work as oral historians to get it right. Becoming part of the community in order to hear and preserve important and valuable stories is only part of our task. Understanding who our narrators are and negotiating with them about how we plan to use their narratives is a complex, but necessary dialogue we must have if we want to tell others’ stories responsibly.