Voice & Authorship in Oral History

By Elizabeth Tabakow 

“Even accepting that the working class speaks through oral history, it is clear that the class does not speak in the abstract, but speaks to the historian, with the historian and, inasmuch as the material is published, through the historian.”

Alessandro Portelli, “What Makes Oral History Different,” in The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History (Albany: SUNY Press, 1991), 56.

In our construction of an audio walk for Point Saint-Charles, arguably some of the most essential components are the oral histories that we will draw on to populate and narrate the story that we decide to tell. Thus far, each of us in the Working Class Public History seminar had to database an interview using the “Stories Matter” software, tagging the main themes and geographic locations which emerged, as well as write a reflective paper highlighting stories for potential inclusion in the audio walk. The interviews used were all categorized as open and accessible for public dissemination, according to the consent forms signed by the interviewees. However, in dealing with human subjects in research, the ethical guidelines imposed by the university, such as the use of consent forms which allow interview partners to choose their preferred level of disclosure, do not encompass all the challenges of collaborative work in a humanistic tradition. For example, two points which have emerged prominently in the reflexive work of oral historians are the choices surrounding the use of voice, and the authorship of (public) histories.

For my MA, the main source base which I used to construct a study on the history of recent Japanese migrants to Montreal, Quebec, Canada, was oral history. As eminent oral historian Alessandro Portelli notes in his chapter “What Makes Oral History Different,” while oral history has the potential to have interview partners tell their own story, historians themselves are implicated in the memory-making and storytelling in quintessential ways: “it is the historian who selects the people who will be interviewed; who contributes to the shaping of the testimony by asking the questions and reacting to the answers; and who gives the testimony its final published shape and context” (56). For my own project, I was keenly aware that the questions that I was asking, even deceptively straight-forward ones, such as why my interview partners had chosen to migrate to Montreal, were affecting the narrative outcome. For instance, I found that some interviewees were confused by the previous question because Montreal was not central to their decision-making process; rather, they had chosen a large city which they did not recognize in the hopes that there would be a smaller Japanese community than in Vancouver or Toronto, thus forcing them to interact primarily in English or French. Thus, while the responses to questions oral historians ask are indeed in the interviewees’ own words, the narratives are shaped by the historian’s participation. This brings me to a fundamental concern that I have about the construction of our audio walk. For the purposes of narrative clarity and coherence, it seems impractical to have the interviewer’s voice included in the clips chosen to represent Point Saint-Charles. In the Canal walk, for example, the historian’s guiding questions were omitted in favour of a focus on emotive stories. Yet, without the questions, the implication is that the stories we choose “just are” without our active intervention at bringing them out. Similarly, it implies a stability of subjecthood for the interviewee who is unlikely to be represented by more than one story in our short audio walk; he or she will be frozen at the place and time where the chosen story is set, perhaps contextualized in the larger history by information in the booklet which we create, but in all likelihood, not in his or her own life story. Given the probable removal of the historian’s words, the stable unitary voice of the narrator can only embody his or her own subjectivity in a reductive way, shorn of the interviewer’s reactions and prompts as well as the larger psychological picture of a lifetime of change.

Relatedly, the question of authorship of history becomes sharply contested in community-based projects, although I think it should also have a place in discussions of archival research. When the result will be a string of local voices, tied together by one or two narrators, either of the community or outside of it, who is the author of the audio walk? Does authorship lie in the curation of the walk, the choices that we will make as a class on which stories and spots to include, and how the narrator will contextualize events and places? Or, are interviewees the true authors of the audio walk, with our choices only being informed by the strength of their presentations of place, community, and personal history in the interviews that we hear? At the Centre of Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia University, most of our projects attempt to follow Michael Frisch’s notion of “sharing authority” (1990) with our interview partners. In this vein, community partners will be given the chance to respond to our representations of place at the beta-launch of our audio walk in November. When considering sharing authority, as a class, we will have to be deeply reflexive and open about how and why we are making curatorial decisions. For instance, if we choose, as has been implied, to have a political edge to our audio walk, what is the most responsible thing to do with interview stories which do not fit this narrative? If we merely omit the divergent stories, then we risk homogenizing community sentiment, simplifying the diversity of individual experience and opinion in the neighbourhood. Conversely, including these stories within a larger narrative arc with a contradictory focus risks implying that certain presentations of neighbourhood and self are less welcome than others in our audio walk. For example, if our project narrative is more or less anti-gentrification, even if we include voices which contest this view, these stories could seem marginalized, if not devalued, in the context of the entire audio walk. In this way, in order to share authority and best respect our interviewees, open reflection seems to me absolutely necessary.


Frisch, Michael. A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft And Meaning of Oral and Public History. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.

High, Steven. “Sharing Authority: An Introduction.” Journal of Canadian Studies 43 (2009): 12-34.

Portelli, Alessandro. The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History. Albany: SUNY Press, 1991.