In this post, OHMA student Yameng Xia (2017) considers Jennifer Egan’s work Manhattan Beach and the interviews Egan conducted for the book. Jennifer Egan is a Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer and she came to Columbia University to give a public interview on how she used an oral history approach to get raw material for her new novel, Manhattan Beach.
In Jennifer Egan’s public interview, she talked about the process of creating Manhattan Beach, which is her new book using oral history as a raw material. She said, “I was always interested in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and I talked with a couple of women who worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the Second World War. During the interview, I came to realize that I can know much more about the Brooklyn Navy Yard through talking with people who worked there during the Second World War. That was the moment that I realized the value of oral history that any other kind of materials could not accomplish.”
Brooklyn Navy Yard is a huge place. There were about 70,000 people who worked there at its height. People have totally different feelings and memories about the same place. However, in Egan’s interviews, many of the interviewees talked about one same location or one same event, if sometimes from different perspectives. Egan said, “It is interesting to hear the same thing from different points of view. It is interesting to hear it from up, from below and across the river.” Egan particularly looked for the places where multiple memories converged, or where people disagreed. This complicated nexus of personal and shared memory is what oral historians might call collective memory.
Collective memory is the shared pool of knowledge and information in the memories of two or more members of a social group. Collective memory is both shared by many people and contains contradictory memories. On the one hand, as an oral history master student, I am trained to cherish and focus on individual stories. On the other hand, we cannot understand those stories in a vacuum, and it is interesting to hear about the same event from different people. Collective memory is valuable because it can help us understand one event better. And collective memory of an important event may elicit the shared emotions of a whole social group.
Actually, collective memory powers many arts forms. For example, last month, one Chinese movie called The Youth was screened in New York, which showed the stories of an ensemble during 1960s in China. The story is based on the collective memory of our parents’ generation. The movie was so popular in China that many people of my parents’ generation went to the cinema for over five times and cried because they found some elements belonging to their youth, including the atmosphere, the language, the decoration, the war and so on.
Sometimes collective memory is not only about shared experience. For example, there is a book published in 2007 in China named The Death of Laoshe under oral history. The author, Fu Guangming, interviewed different people who were connected to the death of a well-known Chinese writer, Laoshe. Laoshe committed suicide because he was humiliated and persecuted during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Interviewees said different things about Laoshe’s suicide. As an interviewer, the author didn’t use his knowledge to challenge the interviewees. He wrote down different interviewees’ answers and used oral history methods to analyze the reasons why those interviewees remembered differently. Some of the differences are because the memory is so remote, but some of them are because the interviewees have their own divergent interests and points of view. The Chinese Cultural Revolution has passed and Laoshe is cherished by the nation now. People who humiliated him don’t want to admit what they did. They are afraid of the pressure and curse after they told the truth. The contradictory part of the collective memory could help us get closer to the truth.
Basically, the collective memory documented with oral history could not only power many art forms like books and movies, but also help us understand deeper and better of an event from different perspectives.
To learn more about how Jennifer Egan used oral history in her work, check out this Harvard Gazette interview.
Yameng Xia comes to OHMA with a BA in History from Fudan University in Shanghai, China. In her oral history work, Yameng has previously focused on Chinese Modern History, with the Down to the Countryside Movement Oral History Project. She is currently working on a thesis about the educated youths, a generation of teenagers who were sent down to the countryside to participated in agriculture work by policy during 1970s.