In this post, current OHMA student Yiyi Zhang reflects on the power of listening through Luis Sotelo’s talk on Performing Listening in the Context of Memorial Audio Walks.
Luis C. Sotelo Castro is Canada Research Chair in Oral History Performance and Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre at Concordia University, Montreal (Quebec, Canada). In his current creation-research, he investigates modes of listening in the context of oral history performance and, more broadly, in the context of performances of memory.
Have you ever fasted from words?
Fasting words is a practice introduced to the audience by Luis Sotelo in his answer to why listening fascinates him so much and how it changes his everyday life. Here is one anecdote he mentioned.
Well there was one person who was very problematic in a setting and I decided -- to avoid conflict I would not say anything. I would just listen. And it was interesting because, I would say it was a very successful meeting that we had. He ended up even saying like ‘I like you!’ and ‘It was so good to see you!’ and so I felt there was something that was happening here. So, I started to create things, that I never talked about until recently. For instance, I would say to a friend, “Are you going for shopping tomorrow? Let me go with you, but I am fasting words, so I would walk with you and I would just listen.” And I would do it for half an hour or so and it became an interesting experience as well.
I was struck by the power of just listening in that story and how it produced understanding and peace. Later that evening, Sotelo asked the audience to practice fasting words together. We were divided into groups of two, and were given 7 minutes each round to only listen or to only speak. My classmate Elly and I were paired for the practice. In the first round, I was the one speaking and she was the one listening. As the one speaking, I felt relieved and freed from regular social pressure of trying to find mutual topics and worries of not being understood or being interrupted. I was able to just share with her what was genuinely on my mind at the moment without trying to entertain her. Afterwards, she told me that she felt trusted by me because of how honest and vulnerable I was with her in those 7 minutes. As the one who listened without interruption, I felt I was able to both know myself and know Elly more in ways I would not have in a regular conversation. Her total control of the time gave her freedom to wander around and talk at her pace. And I became more aware of my own subjectivity, whether it was about the questions that I would have asked her, or how the dynamic between us shifted based on my nonverbal reactions. Sotelo commented on the exercise during our large group discussion time:
Isn’t it funny that someone’s presence in space already sets up a number of expectations? Partially the exercise is about highlighting the impact of someone’s presence on you, with you, in you etc. Spontaneously you had to try to understand yourself in the situation and that triggered conversation and really prompted both parts into a dynamic, a physical dynamic.
This comment especially pointed out the subjectivities and intersubjectivies at play during listening, and it deepened the impact of listening on both the narrator and the listener. Sotelo developed this technique and applied the thinking behind it to the audio walks that he created. He paid special attention to creating a deep listening experience for visitors on audio walks in such a way that they became aware of their own selves and questioned where they stood in relation to the stories they listened to.
But for Sotelo fasting words or listening had a spiritual basis to it long before it was used in social-political areas. It was rooted in a dream that Sotelo titled, the mountain, the moon and the poncho.
I dreamed of that situation, being on top of a mountain with a poncho. So you are warm and protected. Looking at the moon and I felt-- I don’t know why, but that was the image of spirituality for me. That was a situation being connected with the universe, but also with your body and with the earth. I started to do more research on meditation, tai chi, these type of things. It was only later that I started to think about listening in more social-political areas. But I would say that is the basis.
Has Sotelo mastered fasting words or listening yet? The answer, and the maybe the encouraging answer for us is no. It is hard, especially in the context of trying to listen to his children:
It is a constant struggle, but I do feel that when I manage to control myself and listen to them more, the relationship is much better. But I don’t succeed. [Audience and Sotelo laugh].
Yiyi came to pursue oral history because of her passion in promoting understanding and compassion between people, especially when it comes to the realm of religions and spirituality. She holds a B.A. and a M.A. in philosophy. For the past six years, she has been using philosophical frameworks to bridge conceptual gaps between people, but she is excited to explore other media such as audio, video, painting and dancing to share stories and reach holistic understanding of another human being. She is especially interested in interfaith dialogue.