by Lyann Murdock-Finegold
Students of the Working Class Public History class reflected on their experiences of representing oral histories of Pointe-Saint-Charles which are part of the archive at the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling.
For the ‘Speed Dates with History’ exercise I was given Joe Mell’s interview. While listening to the interview I tried to pick out bits that I thought were important in explaining who Joe Mell is. 90 seconds in not a lot of time to say much about a person so I chose aspects of his life that influenced him the most. I decided to focus on his family’s involvement in the military and Leo’s Boys. He was involved with a lot of different organisations throughout is life. I chose to focus on just Leo’s Boys due the connection to his brother Leo and how he and Leo formed the first softball team in Pointe Saint-Charles. Leo’s story provided a smooth transition between his family’s military history, father’s and brothers involvement in the military, to Joe Mell’s community involvement. I made the decision not to mention his younger brother that got killed by a drunk driver because I felt that if I mentioned it I would just be saying that story to say it. While that event impacted Joe Mell’s decisions to a huge extent, I think Leo did just as much but in a different aspect. I also found out that there was some connection between his family and mine through boxing. Concerning becoming Joe Mell for the speed dating, I was extremely apprehensive.
Due to my unique identity, ethnicity and background, I know how representation is a sensitive topic. From the beginning I knew I was not going to pretend to be him because I would never pass. It would be different if it were in a theatrical setting but this exercise was supposed to about becoming the person, there would not be any artistic interpretation. I do not like it when I see people pretend to be another ethnicity, especially if it is non-Caucasian. I think it is difficult to represent another person as a character while still respecting them. I did not want to turn Joe Mell into a caricature. I had mandatory drama classes in high school but that is the extent of my involvement in anything theatrical. I was horrible at acting in high school and knew that I would never be able to pull off becoming Joe Mell. I tried to copy his relaxed air and how he would add a funny side note or comment between stories. I wanted to convey his genuine care for the Pointe Saint-Charles community.
The time limit of 90 seconds was restrictive and it forced me to edit his life into what was worth trying to convey to another person and what was not. I was not comfortable at all with that part. I knew what I wanted people to take away from my portrayal of Joe Mell but I did not think it was right for me to decide what aspects of his life should be told. Similar to the 10 images exercise with the theatre students, where we had to show our lie in 10 images. I had to decide and edit which parts of my life to show in 10 images. I felt like I was doing that to Joe Mell’s life. I was making value judgements on his experiences and background based on my feelings. Calling the exercise ‘Speed Dates with History’ eliminated interpreting the interviewee’s personality to represent them. It would be like writing a biography of a person but in the perspective of an autobiography.
My feelings behind representation also come from my training in anthropology. Anthropology, particularly social and cultural, is similar to oral history in that the discipline is centred on gathering information from living things. I have already been taught to always factor in ethics and how you are representing someone in research. There is a huge emphasis on reflexivity in fieldwork. Due to my anthropological training I find that my experience ‘becoming’ Joe Mell was different. I was never conflicted about ethics since I had already been confronted with them. The process of ‘Speed Dates with History’ does make me think that other disciplines should learn more about reflexivity and accountability. I had never questioned if I would be held accountable. I was surprised to hear other students talk about accountability in history as something new. My experience is not as conflicted as others.
During the speed dating exercise I become more comfortable the more I repeated his story. I stuck to the same information for each person and did not deviate from that script much. I liked how Joe Mell said that he was almost born on Saint Patty’s day but it would have been in Ireland and I opened with that. He seems like a really nice and funny man and I wanted the other person to get that feeling. In regards to reacting to other people, I do not know the level of French knowledge Joe Mell has so when confronted with French I just listened. For the other interviews I just smiled and made sounds of agreement or inquiry. I feel that when people talked to Joe Mell he really listened and would have waited to ask anything after the person had finished talking. It would have been a useful skill for all of his social work.
I enjoyed working with the theatre class and getting to know the students. Even though I was ridiculously uncomfortable during the entire verbatim theatre exercise I did have fun and become somewhat comfortable by the last class to perform our skit. I chose two stories to share with the theatre class. The first is a small line from the beginning of Joe Mell’s interview when he explains how he was too young to enlist in the Second World War so he stayed home and played spy along the Canal. I thought it would be interesting to act out since it would show the innocence of youth contrasted with a nation a war. The second story is when they sang the Russian national anthem for the first time outside of Russia for the visiting Russian team during the Cold War. I felt that story really represented Joe Mell and Pointe Saint-Charles. It was a community event centred on a sport and it showed the pride they had in being from Pointe Saint-Charles. My group chose to act out Donna Leduc’s bus ride that got brought to the police station. I was a bit sad that the theatre students did not factor in the significance of stories but focused more on, what seemed like, the most theatrical story.
However, overall I find the experience very skewed towards the theatre course. Aside from the 10 minute interviewing lesson, where I was paired with another oral history student, there was no oral history aspect. I found that the oral history students did not teach the theatre students anything. All I learned within those three weeks were theatre techniques and ideologies. While that was interesting and informative, I think it should have been a bit more even. It felt like a one-sided conversation. I enjoyed the experience but it could have been more evenly integrated and the distribution of time not allocated almost entirely to theatre.
by Lyann Murdock-Finegold