By Mitchell Edwards
The Deep Dark Secret of oral history is that nobody spends much time listening to or watching recorded and collected interview documents. There has simply been little serious interest in the primary audio or video interviews that literally define the field and that the method is organized to produce.1
As a recent convert to its practice, I find myself increasingly interested in the methodological processes, dilemmas and opportunities that not only define oral history, but also distinguish it from other forms of studying the past. While the privileging of orality within the field was what initially captured my interest, my attention has since been directed towards how the sensory nature of such sources might retain their important oral and aural dimensions when incorporated into other modalities— projects, publications and productions that employ different methods to present and analyze the past.
My thinking on this subject was reawakened last Saturday as Karoline Truchon and I discussed our class en route to the beginning point of our much-anticipated audio walk. Our conversation regarding the practice of oral history and the class itself made me realize how our cumulative project seeks to counter the deep dark secret Michael Frisch so rightly exposes: the paradoxical neglect of orality/aurality within the realm of oral history.
Instead of merely viewing oral history interviews as a means to an end or a preliminary step in the history-making process, our class has learned to appreciate these interviews as offering meaning as they are, by themselves, in their original form. As we’ve all experienced first-hand this semester, an oral source inevitably loses important dimensions when placed on the chopping block of transcription. Frisch argues this voice-to-script transformation entails a “flattening of meaning,” a meaning that is “carried and expressed in context and setting, in gesture, in tone, in body language, in pauses, in performed skills and movements.”2 An audio walk comprised of multiple oral history interviews in (nearly) their original form showcases the power of these often excluded oral and aural elements. Through such an experience, one realizes that reading about gentrification is not the same as listening to the raw emotion with which someone shares their fear of not being able to continue living in their childhood neighborhood. In short, oral sources contain meanings that simply do not make it into the text.
Given the benefits associated with retaining the completeness of oral sources, throughout the semester I have been wondering what the adoption of such a methodological “turn” would look like in my own area of research. As a student of modern East Africa history, one might think employing such an approach would seem natural, especially considering the region’s rich oral traditions. However, if one surveys the historical works that utilize oral history for the study of African topics, few examples can be seen as representing spoken word in its original form. By the time of their presentation, such stories have been deprived of their oral and aural elements, cleaved from the voices that once spoke them into existence, and neatly framed within the confines of a typed document.
My own research follows suit. Drawing from interviews I conducted while in Kigali last June, my current research project explores the processes that worked to sustain, alter and embolden a sense of “Rwandanness” amongst members of the Banyarwanda community living in neighboring Uganda before the genocide of 1994. While transcribing these interviews over the course of the semester, I have been temporarily transported back to the crowded markets and sleepy cafes where these conversations took place. The atmospheric sounds of lively bartering, laughing children and muffled Kinyarwanda have informed my listening experience, just as the pauses, accents and emotion of the interviewees’ voices have shaped my understanding of the topic. But who else will listen to these conversations? Once I have transcribed and incorporated them into my paper as text, what purpose will these recordings have?
Furthermore, what about the interviewees that so willingly opened their homes to me, broke bread with me, shared their stories with me? How does the important concept of “shared authority” play out when dealing with people half a world away? I would love for the Rwandans I interviewed to have the opportunity to be part of the ongoing history-making process, but how would such involvement be possible when several are without reliable internet access? And finally, without accommodating the interviewees’ ongoing engagement with my work, am I simply perpetuating a different type of (neo)colonial project, one that extracts valuable sources for my own benefit?
These issues garner greater complexity when considering the ramifications of a more democratized, accessible approach to history-making in political and social contexts defined by control and conformity. In our audio walk we sought to incorporate conflicting narratives and differing opinions in order to complicate dominant understandings of the past and shed light on the diversity of memory. How would such an approach play out in a repressive state where official narratives of the past are touted and dissent is met with severe consequences? Having anonymous informants share their stories on paper is completely different from having that actual voice audibly express itself for public consumption.
Oral history revels in the multiplicity of narrative, the idea that individuals tell unique stories for unique reasons. As our final project effectively illustrates, the oral and aural dimensions of these stories contain meanings that complicate and enhance how the past is remembered. But how do these practices translate into other contexts, where accessibility to technological modes of production is more limited and attaching voice to memory might very well lead to serious consequences? Fortunately, the field of oral history shows little sign of shying away from such difficult questions.
1 Michael Frisch, “Three Dimensions and More: Oral History Beyond the Paradoxes of Method” in Handbook of Emergent Methods, ed. Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber and Patricia Leavy (New York: The Guilford Press, 2008), 223.