“I often reflect upon what it means to identify as an oral historian. What makes each one of us an oral historian…? Are we oral historians only if the interviews we conduct are transcribed, indexed and deposited into a traditional archive? Is it someone’s masterful interview technique that allows them to identify as an oral historian? Or, is it how one interprets, analyzes and then artfully incorporates oral histories into their research, book, podcast or exhibit design?”
– Shira Hudson in her post “The Identity of an Oral Historian” for the blog of Columbia University’s Master of Arts in Oral History program
Almost two years ago, my friend Aaron passed away after a bout with cancer. He and I were able to speak by phone a few days before his death, and though I had been afraid that it was a “goodbye” call, he was hopeful about overcoming his illness, curious about all that Steph and I were up to, and wanting to make plans to share some of our writing back and forth with each other. Just before we hung up, though, he was serious for a moment and said, “Remember to enjoy your life.”
On its face, this might seem like the parting wisdom of a dying friend. It was that, I think. But it also felt like the final punctuation to an earlier part of our conversation: specifically, a lengthy discussion about professional identity.
Aaron had observed that I seemed to be struggling mightily with my own. In fact, as anyone paying attention to my online presence at that time might have noticed, I had been something of a dilettante, trying on a series of self-descriptors over a period of months — from “writer” to “video essayist” to “video activist” to “filmmaker” to “documentarian” and back to “writer” again.
To be fair, these all corresponded with the study, experimentation, and play I had been doing to discern my own place in the documentary landscape. But rather than just study, experiment, and play, I was obsessive about putting a label on myself, clearly in the habit of donning one before I’d even determined if it was a proper fit.
Aaron wanted me to relax, smell the roses, and have faith that such things would work themselves out in their own time and in their own way.
On the one hand, I had to agree with him; experience had taught me that fixation was inversely related to my ability to make meaningful progress on almost anything. For example, Steph and I often wonder if we would have gotten together (or stayed together) if, when we met, we hadn’t both been at a point where we’d stopped “worrying” about being single and learned to be (and enjoy being) alone. (I don’t know how I would have been fully present to our relationship if I was preoccupied with being in a relationship, if that makes sense.)
On the other hand, though, I wasn’t sure this sort of approach was entirely practical when it came to my professional identity. I was at the start of a second career, and no spring chicken; I needed to pin down “my thing,” get moving, and make up for some lost time. I also knew that I was going to be completing a major research project (M.R.P.) as part of my M.F.A. degree; in order to make best use of that time, it sure seemed like I ought to get as clear as possible about my own documentary practice…and, at that point, there wasn’t a lot of time left to do that. If finding my thing felt urgently important, then, perhaps that’s because it actually sort of was.
After Aaron died, though, I thought a lot about what he said and tried to relax at least a little bit. I figured that if I kept my nose to the grindstone and my wits about me that I would get closer to finding my thing, slowly but surely — though hopefully not too slowly.
And I’ll be damned if that’s not pretty much exactly what happened.
Flash-forward more than a year: I’m at home one evening, at work on my M.R.P., the Chinese Jamaican Oral History Project. A digital storytelling initiative inspired by Steph and her family, it’s a project I haven’t been able to shake: I’d applied to the M.F.A. program with the idea, and though I’d entertained others (one in particular), I couldn’t seem to set this one aside. It’s now or never, my guts seemed to say.
So there I am working. When I’m not editing or adding components to what will become CJOHP.org, I’m expanding and revising my support paper. There are books, memory cards, and papers everywhere. It’s a moment representative of how I’ve spent (and will spend) many, many identical hours in the months leading up to the 2019 DocNow festival.
On this particular evening, Steph sits beside me on the couch, doing some of her own work. Ordinarily, I love it when we’re both sitting together, quietly reading, watching a movie, or even, yes, working overtime. But on this night, I hardly notice she’s there: I’m definitely in a state of “flow.” That is, I’m completely and totally wrapped up in my work — “in the zone.” And this isn’t unusual either; it’s like this a lot when I’m working on the M.R.P.
At some point, I feel eyes on me and look up to see Steph smiling warmly. “What?” I ask.
“You found it, didn’t you? You found your thing.”
I hadn’t even noticed. “You know…I think I might have.”
It’s probably obvious, but the thing that I’d found was “oral history.” After two-plus years of study and practice in documentary media-making, I can say that I definitely have a very strong affinity for oral history as “a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events” (to quote the Oral History Association).
Funnily enough, I’ve always been drawn to nonfiction work built around oral history and testimony — everything from Studs Terkel’s literary opus Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974) to verbatim theater like Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project’s The Laramie Project (2000) to documentary films like Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006). Working on my own oral history project, though, showed me that it’s not just an area that I have a particular appreciation for — it’s something I really want to do.
In retrospect, the pull towards an oral history methodology makes a lot of sense — I’m sort of surprised I didn’t figure it out sooner. For example, my first career in spiritual care and counseling relies on many of the same skills, including and especially active listening. I still have a great deal to learn about oral historical work, but I definitely come to it from a background that could be described as “complementary.”
What’s more, the oral history methodology speaks loudly and clearly to the frustrations I’ve felt as a so-called “documentary artist.” For example, when I came across this quote from the Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich — author of such literary oral histories as The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II (1988) and Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (2005) — I wept because I could so identify with it:
I’ve been searching for a genre that would be most adequate to my vision of the world to convey how my ear hears and my eyes see life. I tried this and that and finally I chose a genre where human voices speak for themselves. … Today when man and the world have become so multifaceted and diversified the document in art is becoming increasingly interesting while art as such often proves impotent. The document brings us closer to reality as it captures and preserves the originals. After twenty years of work with documentary material and having written five books on their basis I declare that art has failed to understand many things about people.
Of course, if oral historical work is my thing, then that raises more questions about professional identity — specifically, though, the one raised by Shira Hudson in the epigraph of this post: “What makes each one of us an oral historian?”
Terkel famously eschewed the label, asserting that he wasn’t an academic historian and it wasn’t an appropriate classification. I’ve got one graduate degree that says “history” in it, and I took a course on historiography when I was working on my doctorate, but I’m not a historian either. Rather, acording to Ryerson University, I’m now a “Master of Fine Arts.” So do I have any business calling myself an oral historian? Is favoring an oral historical methodology enough to call oneself that?
Blessedly, the field of oral history itself seems fairly broadminded and open to a wide variety of approaches. The Oral History Association, for example, notes that its membership represents “various [academic] disciplines” and also includes those from “both inside and outside the academy.” Indeed, there are all sorts of community practitioners, and it would certainly be the height of snootiness to begrudge them the label just because they don’t work in the ivory tower.
All of that said, I don’t know that I even need to call myself “an oral historian.” I’ve tried it on already (of course — sorry, Aaron), but it doesn’t feel like something I actually need to do. Alexievich’s professional, English-language bio just says that she has “developed her own nonfiction genre, which gathers a chorus of voices to describe a specific historical moment.” I like that. That feels like enough.
I’m similarly content to say simply that I’m a writer and educator who is working and thinking at the intersection of oral history and the documentary arts. I’m interested in all of it — from the most rigorous academic oral histories to literary oral histories to verbatim theater to digital storytelling to films made from witness testimony to everything in between. That’s my thing. Beyond that, I don’t need a label. I’m good.
But I do want to devote more time here at this blog to focused learning and development in this area. I imagine there will be book reviews, reflections like this one, discussions of relevant tools and resources, video essays, and possibly more. (I know I’ve made noise about restarting the blog before, but I’d only partially identified my thing at that point and got sidetracked.) It’s largely for me, I suppose. But for those practitioners who do care about the places where oral history and the documentary arts intersect, I hope this space will end up offering something meaningful.
So here we go again. My thanks to you, the readers, for indulging me.
And thank you, Aaron.