Reflection on “Speed Dates with History”

by Arwen Jean Fleming

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.

Speed dating with history

When I first learned that our course assignment to “become an expert in someone’s life story” would involve performing as our interviewee, I felt deeply uncomfortable. In part this was because the idea sounded incredibly awkward: the interviewees would be chosen at random and we would have only 90 seconds in which to convey their story, using only their own words, in an exercise our professor called “Speed Dates with History.” But I also felt even more uncomfortable with the ethics of representing the life story of someone I had never met, and whose “story” would only be available to me through an interview conducted by someone else.

Who was this person? How would they feel about being “performed” in an exercise that might be recorded for public display? The process felt one-sided, since I could not ask the interviewee for clarification, let alone permission. The interviewer, too, didn’t know me and wouldn’t be able to ask me questions or suggest changes to my interpretation of their life. This lack of relation felt at odds with the ethics of my research so far, which has involved direct, informed consent as well as an open and ongoing relationship with interviewees. Working in this way allows me to clarify their wishes and accommodate how their stories might change over time. It also means they can challenge my interpretations at any point in the research process. With this exercise, I didn’t know how to be accountable to “my” interviewee. How could I convey their story in a respectful and honest way while still making room for the differences and disconnects between us? The purpose of this assignment, it seemed to me, was not to “become” our interviewee or vampirically assume their experiences or identity, but rather to find a way to channel their stories in a way that would allow us to make connections between stories and place, as well as to new questions about the neighbourhood and the place of our own work there.

When it came time to choose a resident’s story, I drew Richard Stilwell’s name. I soon discovered that Richard’s interview was particularly challenging to animate because, unlike many of the other residents’ interviews in the collection, there was no video recording or transcription of his conversations. It was lucky that he had visited our class earlier in the term, which reassured me that he knew about the performances and clearly wanted to be involved in our course research. His visit also provided me with some kind of baseline for how I might connect his interview responses with specific bodily gestures, facial expressions, and emotions, but otherwise I was forced to rely solely on audio for interpretive cues, including Richard’s voice and that of his interviewer, Simon Vickers, as well as whatever ambient sounds I might be able to glean from the background. As someone who has relied so much on face to face interviewing, I found it difficult to focus on the audio in isolation, and often wished that there was a transcript to visually ground my listening, since I spent a significant amount of time re-listening to ensure I had heard his words correctly over the street noise on the recording.

The fact that it was a walking interview also produced challenges. Richard never provided a clear chronological account of his life in the Point, and it was sometimes difficult to figure out how some of the stories he told to his own feelings and experiences of the place, let alone exactly where they were walking and how their conversation related to specific geography. Richard occasionally mentioned street names, but it wasn’t always clear whether or not he was on that street. His stories often broke off mid-sentence to remark on buildings or activities that I couldn’t see, and he often chose to ignore some of the interviewer’s questions. His responses felt much more like those of a public tour guide or spokesperson than of someone speaking from direct experience, and he often distanced himself from the activities of the street he described. It was hard to tell if this was because he had felt like an outsider in some way during his childhood, or because he was being guarded about his involvement and preferred to speak more generally about how he saw the neighbourhood instead of how he saw himself within it.

I worried that the exercise of performing a 90-second snippet from this kind of interview would only introduce yet another register of dislocation to Richard’s story. Already, it was removed from the street and disembodied from Richard, with no facial expressions or body language to guide me, and performing excerpts outside of the context of a much longer conversation risked making it even less of his own story. Richard’s responses also gave me the impression that they had been filtered or polished in some way, as though he had carefully selected a small number of stories to share and preferred to stay “on script” as much as possible. Whether or not he had been an outsider in his childhood, his current perspective (that of a philanthropist-retiree who had been living in Toronto for several decades) was that of an outsider, albeit one who was invested in advocating for and financially supporting the neighbourhood and its social programs.

I wanted to respect Richard’s choices about what he felt comfortable sharing, but his way of storytelling often felt at odds with the assignment, which asked that I become an “expert” in his own life story. I found myself listening for those rare moments of the interview where he seemed to open up more and express a direct connection to a time or place. In the end, I chose to link together two or three brief memory images that I felt conveyed palpable emotions or sensations that I could relay to other listeners: his obvious, if quiet, joy in recalling movie nights at St. Columba House, and his description of sneaking across the Champlain Bridge construction pilings to swim off Nun’s Island in his teens. Conversely, I left out some of his words because they seemed to take on a different meaning outside of a longer conversation. During his swimming story, for instance, he made a brief aside about crime that sounded unfairly careless out of context. I felt protective of him, and obligated to accurately represent his intentions, even though I didn’t know him and had to rely on my own interpretations of what he “really” meant. As I crafted a miniature narrative out of these short excerpts, I often relied on my partner as a sounding board for practice versions of my performance to hear some of the interpretations (or misinterpretations) I hadn’t considered.

Because I was interested in the emotional content of Richard’s stories, I paid close attention to his diction and the way that his pauses and tonal shifts seemed to suggest feelings like wistfulness or mischief. I practiced speaking in a way that would convey how he spoke without descending into a caricature. I didn’t want to imitate Richard in a way that distracted from what I felt he was saying, but the way he spoke seemed crucial to capturing the feelings carried between his words. I found myself trying to create a hybrid between our styles of speaking, following the cadence of his speech while speaking in a way that made sense with how my own voice conveys emotions. It wasn’t an accent, but it wasn’t quite my own voice either.

I’m not sure I was entirely successful with interpreting his voice in this way. During the exercise, it was unclear to me whether or not Richard’s emotions came across to my fellow “speed dates.” My concerns about the cryptic quality of Richard’s story intensified as several of them asked me basic questions about his life that I could not answer because he had either not been asked them during his interview or had evaded answering them in some way. This was frustrating, but also interesting, since it required me to channel the friendly but evasive quality of his interview that I found challenging throughout my preparations for the exercise. It also revealed how many of us, myself included, privilege specific, chronological details in our understanding of “life story.”

In the end, I’m not convinced that I now “know” Richard Stilwell or that I became an expert in his life story. But I do feel that I became intimate with his voice and his style of storytelling, which I suspect reveals more about his current relation to Pointe-Sainte-Charles than it does about what it was like to grow up there. (And perhaps this is true of most memories conveyed in oral histories, after all.) I wish that we had had more time to reflect with classmates about the process, and I would have liked to speak with all of the students who were also assigned to perform Richard’s story about their experiences and choices to see how similar (or not) our thought processes were. While I had some brief conversations with another student in my course section who performed Richard’s story, I never saw the other performances and would have like to have had the chance to compare them. I felt that we could have benefited from more space for critique and reflection with each other, so that at least we could have been accountable to each other for our interpretations.

If anything, the questions of accountability and relation that I raised at the outset of this exercise feel more urgent and important. I would be curious to share my reflections with Richard and ask him if he would feel comfortable speaking more directly with me about his life in the Point and why certain stories, and the way he tells them, have become important to his work in the neighbourhood today. Does he feel that his interview reflects his life story? If he had to condense his story to 90 seconds, what would he say and why? What kinds of critiques or questions would he have about my representation of his stories and speaking style? Would he even be interested in this kind of discussion? Who was this exercise for, and how might it be improved through direct contact with the interviewees?

by Arwen Jean Fleming