Nyssa Chow, former alum and teaching fellow for Columbia University’s OHMA presents on her latest work, Still.Life., an oral history project documenting the lives of the women in her family in this workshop themed: Oral History and the Arts. Nyssa spoke about her experience in the U.S. as an immigrant of color and the differences in perceptions of skin tone here and in her native Trinidad.
A flick of her necklace, a raise of the eyebrows, a shift forward––then quickly backward and hand gestures galore. She is always moving, always thinking, always watching you, her, we. Reassured of the unsureness of herself. “Finding this program was like coming home and when an immigrant says that, it really means something,” she said as she began her presentation. Reflexive statements like that really capture Nyssa Chow’s essence. She reminds us that when she thinks of herself, she knows that she is by no means the effortlessly perfect, theoretically solid writer/historian/filmmaker that her work seems to indicate. No, Chow is not your run of the mill, bespectacled social scientist or veteran artist of film, and this is precisely why I believe that her project, Still.Life., represents one of the most significant contributions to the field of oral history in recent times. Because the heart of her work is so rooted in herself, her-story, this makes it instantly one of the most crucial entries into the genre yet. Chow’s work reminds us of the elasticity and malleability of oral history––that it need not focus solely on the largescale, the generalizable, or the abstract. That sometimes the strength of a project, product, or creation lies specifically in its nuance and its specificity. That sometimes you must be honest with yourself and play to your strengths.
When I asked Nyssa Chow about her writing process for her piece, Monster and how she developed her unique, riveting style over time, she responded:
“I didn't know that girl who existed then until that moment. It was someone looking back. I could never have written that any single year preceding it. Does that make sense? I didn't have––I wasn't far enough away to see the shape. Of everything...I actually had to lose someone before I could write Monster. I had to experience loss and also––and I lost someone in a violent way––I had to experience contempt and hate and rage before I could understand anything of what the "protagonist" I guess, what the "boy" even had to contend with. Until I had lost someone, I was too young to write Monster, you know? So yeah, it's––in a way to write that piece you have to do the work you ask your narrators to do. You have to go on that sort of associative journey yourself. That loss that I told you about, I've been trying to write about that since, and I'm not ready yet. I still haven't pulled far away enough to see all of, all of it. I keep trying. And until I finally do it, I will obsessively write these themes. And that's what's been happening.”
Chow again reminded me that she was not born being able to so fully and immersively conjure up the world that she paints in the piece. She had to live it. To live with it, and to reflect on it later on in life in order to reach that level. Of course, you have to start from somewhere, but Nyssa makes it clear that without her unique life experiences, her Trinidadian identity and family situation, she would not be able to materialize her style in the same way or with the same caliber.
It would have been a significant contribution for Nyssa to make any entry into a field (not necessarily specifically oral history, just academia in general) lacking perspectives from immigrant voices of color, but Still.Life. pushes even further past that. The project’s visual element forces one to be put on the same terms and in the same position of the narrator––that of the subject and the spectacle––by putting the narrator squarely, powerfully in the center of the frame, staring right at you, right into you. This prevents the viewer (or voyeur in the worst of circumstances), from “disappearing” the narrator, as Chow put it, and reducing their presence down to a disembodied voice floating harmlessly in and out of your ears. Of special note is the angle which Chow decided to portray Silla Rosales, her great aunt. Silla is poised, confidently situated above the viewer and locked in visual conversation with them.
Nyssa Chow’s work presents new ideas about representation in the field of oral history. As a budding oral historian, she has lit a bright beacon for me to follow in that respect. While I lack Nyssa’s prowess for film and scene-making, I wonder how else I can implement the principles she has laid out in her work
Desmond Austin-Miller comes to OHMA as a recent graduate of Lafayette College where he earned a B.A. in Anthropology & Sociology with a minor in Africana Studies. With a background in social sciences and cultural studies, Desmond studies the life experience of young black professionals who have recently graduated from college through the lens of oral history.