Notes on September 11: An Oral History (2002) by Dean E. Murphy

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgAhead of reading Garrett M. Graff’s newly-released The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 (2019), I decided to take a look at another oral history of the tragedy — one I’d not read before: then New York Times reporter (and now Associate Managing Editor) Dean E. Murphy’s 2002 title September 11: An Oral History. I’m very glad that I did, and for more than a few reasons.

Published a little less than a year after the terrible events of the eponymous date, Murphy’s book is a very different sort of oral history than Graff’s. For one thing, while The Only Plane in the Sky questionably purports to be “the first comprehensive oral history of September 11, 2001” (more on that when I write about the book), September 11 takes the opposite approach. Speaking to CNN at the time of its publication, Murphy explained that he was deliberately not trying to write “the definitive record of 9/11 reminiscences.” The article goes on:

“I view [the book] as a foundation stone,” [Murphy] said. “Decades from now, when someone has a new tidbit, I hope something here can allow them to draw from” [sic].

Generally speaking, I’m wary of attempts at “comprehensiveness” or “definitiveness,” especially when it comes to enormous subjects like the attacks of September 11, 2001: invariably, it seems, projects that claim to include every relevant party wind up excluding some pretty important voices. This is one of the reasons I am personally more inclined toward approaches like Murphy’s. With that being said, I do think September 11 in and of itself makes a compelling case for observing and embracing limitations; it demonstrates the considerable virtues that come with the modest effort of laying a “foundation stone.”

In addition, when examined side-by-side, September 11 and The Only Plane in the Sky helpfully delineate at least two distinct paths of oral history practice that can be found within the world of mainstream book writing. The Only Plane in the Sky is clearly an example of what has been called “oral history as journalism” — or, work that presents a single story pieced together out of snippets from a wide-ranging collection of interviews. September 11, meanwhile, is much more in the vein of literary oral history — or, work which usually looks like an anthology of individual monologues, each with their own unique stories and perspectives.

Admittedly, the line between these two types can sometimes be blurry — it is in September 11, as we will see — but Murphy’s book ultimately has much more in common with works of literary oral history such as Studs Terkel’s Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970) or Wallace Terry’s Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans (1984) or Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (2005) than it does with The Only Plane in the Sky or another example of “oral history as journalism.” (I say this despite the CNN article’s perplexing claim that it “is not a Studs Terkel-like collection of interviews.” Murphy’s book might be dissimilar from Terkel’s in terms of content, but definitely not in terms of form.)

September 11 is built around forty-one interviews with survivors of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Readers will not find any interviews having to do with United Airlines Flight 93, however. (The flight crashed in a field near Somerset County, PA, after the airplane’s crew and passengers struggled to wrest back control from its hijackers.) While including the voices of first-responders, air traffic controllers, family members, locals, and others affected by the crash of Flight 93 might have helped to underscore something about the diverse experiences of that tragic day, their memories would be somewhat dissimilar from those gathered together in Murphy’s book: as he explains in the introduction, it is squarely focused on “eyewitness” accounts. Given each person’s respective proximity to a point of attack, all of the survivors/narrators featured in September 11 are eyewitnesses in the most conventional sense of the word (pg. 5).

Murphy’s approach to interviewing these eyewitnesses hearkens to some longstanding debates about oral history. As a mentioned in my notes on Terkel’s “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II, popular forms — including but not limited to “oral history as journalism” and literary oral history — are sometimes regarded with suspicion in scholarly circles. Specifically, critics have voiced concerns about the authors’ perceived lack of (academic) rigor, as well as their editing (however judicious). To his credit, Murphy is up-front about his methods (pg. 5):

[These are] first-person accounts of that day, but they are not verbatim transcriptions of tape-recorded conversations. They are mostly composites based on interviews, telephone conversations, e-mail exchanges, faxed letters and documents sent through the postal service. In some cases, people felt more comfortable writing down their thoughts in their entirety than speaking them aloud. In others, they turned to me to make sense out of a series of rambling conversations and written communications that retraced old ground, broke new ground and sometimes went entirely off track.

This may shock the more pedantic historians, but it’s worth pointing out (again and again) that that this does not mean Murphy is playing fast and loose with the verbatim material he has gathered. As he continues (pg. 5):

The flexibility ended, however, when it came to accuracy. I had one uncompromising rule: In their final form, the accounts had to reflect the best and most truthful recollections of the people who told them.

And the proof is in the putting: in each and every case presented in September 11, you can discern the unique “voice” of the narrator — in all of their fascinatingly human unpredictability. Murphy may have taken a stronger hand than usual in the editing process, but the result feels (for lack of a less troublesome word) authentic. There is no obvious authorial embroidery here, nor are there telltale signs of dramatic license; he has clearly been very careful and thoughtful about his work. In fact, Murphy goes on to note that when he would share drafts with the narrators, he often had to curtail their attempts to punch things up. “That could not happen if the history was to be accurate and credible,” he explains. “And in the end, they all concurred” (pg. 6).

This is not to say that September 11 does not include some striking creative flourishes — indeed it does. One especially brilliant device that recurs throughout the book is a kind of seed-planting: a memorably strange or unexplained detail in one narrator’s testimony pays off later in another’s. For example, the first narrator, Teresa Veliz, describes escaping the North Tower of the World Trade Center by going down a stairwell with hundreds of others, and seeing the surreal sight of a blind man and his guide dog among the crowd (pg. 12). Incredibly, Murphy follows her interview with one with that very man (Michael Hingson) and the colleague (David E. Frank) who helped him and his dog escape.

Similarly, many of the civilian narrators recall hearing repeated explosion sounds, unlike those that came from the impact of the planes and the collapse of the towers. For those readers who weren’t physically there — like myself — this is a somewhat mysterious detail. It’s not until fairly late in the book that these explosions are fully explained by Captain Anthony R. Whitaker of the Port Authority Police Department (pg. 188):

There were explosions everywhere. They were causing mass hysteria. Everyone started screaming about car bombs. What it was though, were hot pieces of structural steel from Tower 1 flying through the air like toothpicks. The steel was so hot that when it hit a vehicle it ignited the gasoline.

Ernest Armstead, an emergency medical specialist with the New York Fire Department, further adds in his interview that among those exploding vehicles were at least a couple of police cars and even a fire truck (pg. 154).

Murphy also wisely orients things around geography and (when appropriate) particular ordeals. The book’s sections include “In the North Tower,” “In the South Tower,” “On the Outside,” “To the Rescue,” “Narrow Escapes,” and “In the Pentagon.” Each of these zones of experience has its own unique, shared aspects, as the narrators reveal in their interviews. “In the Pentagon” is the only portion of the book dedicated to what happened in Washington, though it’s more robust that I initially presumed it would be. In fact, the interviews are hugely clarifying about things that are probably comparatively fuzzier in the public consciousness; it may be just one section, but it likely won’t leave readers wanting.

One choice that hasn’t aged especially well, though, is Murphy’s decision to begin each section of the book with a quote from either Rudy Giuliani or George W. Bush. As the de facto spokesmen for the tragedy, this might have made some sense at the time of publication; but today it seems to give their words a kind of authority that they don’t deserve, and to ignore their propagandistic qualities (which where plainly obvious then as now).

Still, this is really the only noticeable blemish. And there is at least one more major strength to be enumerated, and that is the amazingly short time-span in which this book was researched, written, and published. Murphy did all of his preparations, conducted these interviews, and had the book in print within a year of the attacks. This means that the memories, stories, thoughts, and feelings contained in September 11 are alive in a way that they might not have been if the book were written, say, last year. Furthermore, it speaks to his incredible efficacy, resilience, and ability to roll with a colossal story as it unfolds. In this regard, it reminds me of Spike Lee’s masterpiece When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006), a massive documentary film in the oral history mode that was miraculously completed by the one-year anniversary of its subject: Hurricane Katrina.

I’ll be interested to see what The Only Plane in the Sky is able to do in terms of illuminating aspects of the attacks of September 11, 2001, that previous histories (including other oral histories) have not been able to illuminate. That said, I’m sort of rooting for it not to become recognized as “the definitive record of 9/11 reminiscences,” if only because I would hate for readers to miss out on existing (and future) oral histories on the subject, including especially September 11. It’s out-of-print as it is — an ignoble fate for what I would say is an essential and irreplaceable document.

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My Post about the Chinese Jamaican Oral History Project for the Oral History Review Blog

I am incredibly honored and excited to be able to share the news that I have written a blog post about my M.F.A. thesis, the Chinese Jamaican Oral History Project, at the invitation of the Oral History Review — “the U.S. journal of record for the theory and practice of oral history.”

Dr. Janneken Smucker, the digital editor of the Oral History Review, describes my contribution this way:

Oral history provides the opportunity to explore intersubjectivity and positionality. Here, Daniel Clarkson Fisher shares his work with the Chinese Jamaican Oral History Project centered in Toronto. The moving video excerpts from interviews below demonstrate shared authority in practice.

Check out the whole post, including those video excerpts, right here.

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Notes on Notes from the Field (2019) by Anna Deavere Smith

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgI started blogging about oral history as a mode within the documentary arts not just to “teach” about this kind of work, but also to educate myself; though I’m already actively working in this mode, there’s still a lot that I don’t know and want to learn. While it may not seem like that vast an area, there are definitely certain aspects I’m somewhat less well-versed in than others. Case in point: verbatim theatre.

I have long been interested in what Drama Online defines as the “form of documentary theatre which is based on the spoken words of real people,” but, until recently, didn’t really know much about it beyond the small handful of plays I’ve seen over the years. And I only knew about those because I have so many family members and friends who do or have worked professionally in the theatre. For example, an actor friend was featured in a production of Robin Soans’s Talking to Terrorists, and that was how I found out about that particular title. Similarly, I was introduced to Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues through a staged reading of the play that quite a large contingent of friends at Denison University participated in. And I first encountered Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project‘s The Laramie Project by way of a production at nearby Kenyon College that featured my sister Anna. (Later, during my time at Naropa University, I also got to meet Moisés and several members of the Tectonic Theater Project when they came to workshop verbatim pieces produced by friends in the M.F.A. Contemporary Performance program.)

So I knew that as part of my self-directed studies here, I wanted to look much more closely at both verbatim plays and theoretical/practical materials about the art of verbatim theatre. A natural place to start seemed to be the most obvious gap in my knowledge: the work of National Humanities Medal recipient Anna Deavere Smith. I’ve been aware of Smith’s pioneering plays for years, but had only ever seen bits and pieces of them; for quite a while now her output has been on the list of things I promised myself that I would get to some day, and it jumped to the front of the queue when I started blogging again. Because her most recent play, Notes from the Field (2019), was just published (by Anchor Books) and televised (on HBO), I decided to start there.

Within the constellation of creative efforts that we categorize as verbatim theatre, it’s fair to say that Smith’s star shines both brightly and distinctively. While many of the (sub)genre’s hallmarks are present in her plays — her building blocks are the transcripts of the interviews she conducts with various individuals, for example — they are unique in at least one significant regard: hers are one-woman shows, in which she herself performs all of the voices that make up each play. (The other verbatim plays mentioned above have full — and sometimes, depending on the production, sizeable — casts.) The quality of this performance work is very well described by Decider’s Jade Budowski in her review of Notes from the Field:

Smith is almost eerily natural in every role she plays; each person is performed with a lived-in quality, a true embodiment of the individual. Her voice booms and goes down to a whisper, her demeanor shifts from upright and confident to bitter and resentful, her face morphs and molds to whoever’s turn it is to make themselves known. We aren’t watching Anna Deavere Smith. We are sitting down with the individuals affected by these terrible systems. No one is ever presented as a caricature – we need to see these people. And that’s exactly what Smith allows us to do.

While she is not the only solo performance artist in the documentary theatre space, Smith has unquestionably been a singularly effective and important innovator.

Not only that, her work has had an appreciably large impact on theatre broadly. The various honors her plays have received certainly attest to that. For instance, Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities (1992), based on interviews about the 1991 Crown Heights riot, and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1993), based on interviews about the 1992 Los Angeles riots, received back-to-back Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding One-Person Show. In addition, the former was a finalist for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the latter nominated for the 1994 Tony Award for Best Play. Both were filmed and televised on PBS as well.

Notes from the Field is the most recent installment in what I consider my life’s work: a series of plays I call On the Road: A Search for American Character,” Smith writes in the introduction to the play’s text (pg. xv). This series includes Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, as well as her other well-known works in this vein that cover a wide range of topics. She further explains that Notes from the Field puts its special focus on “the school-to-prison pipeline” — or, what the American Civil Liberties Union defines as “a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.” The organization continues:

Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse, or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished, and pushed out.

“Zero-tolerance” policies criminalize minor infractions of school rules, while cops in schools lead to students being criminalized for behavior that should be handled inside the school. Students of color are especially vulnerable to push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline.

In view of this trend, and some other very troubling and relevant data, Smith argues that “this is a time for people to cease being spectators and to instead be moved to get out there and do something to effect change” (pg. xix). She goes on (pg. xix-xx):

It is time to ask ourselves, “Who are we? What do we believe in? What kind of country do we want to be?”

I believe that art can inspire action. It can motivate us to reimagine a world where schools are more than sorting mechanisms for the haves and the have-nots, where they can function as centers for a culture of learning in which teachers, staff, administrators, parents, and students from all communities are respected and nurtured intellectually, physically, and creatively.

But that is a type of reimagining that needs to include all kinds of voices, especially those that have been historically discounted. It is a reimagining that requires courage, empathy, and action. And it has to start with listening.

Though the content of Notes from the Field is definitely very powerful all by itself — as usual, Smith has gathered together an elegantly varied and remarkably informative collection of voices — the play’s particular form manages to convey its voices in such a way that their potency gets a considerable boost. Expanding on the idea that her process starts with “active listening,” Smith explains (pg. xv):

My goal is to pay careful attention to the people I interview and then to reflect back what I have heard in the hope of sparking a conversation, of making change possible. I aim not to merely imitate but to study people closely enough so that I can embody them on the stage, using my own voice and body. When I was a girl, my grandfather told me, “If you say a word often enough, it becomes you.” People speak of putting themselves into other people’s shoes. My way of doing that is to put myself into other people’s words.

Smith’s aim in doing all of this is to give these voices a more lasting impact than they might have if they were presented to audiences in other ways. For some, though, Smith’s approach might seem like the kind of thing that would be doomed from the start. Newsday‘s Verne Gay speaks to exactly this point in his review of Notes from the Field, writing:

The idea of a one-woman show, or one-man show or one-anything show is tough to get your head around because of the finescapable fact of that oneness. TV viewers have long grown accustomed to the many. We’re used to seeing lots of people say lots of things because that’s what we’re used to in real life. Also, by cutting out the role of the imagination — ours — TV does our work for us.

What’s more, as Budowski adds: “Due to the inherent difficulty of successfully creating a one-woman show, it would undeniably be quite easy for Notes from the Field to venture into hokey territory…” And yet, as she ultimately concludes, “there’s never a moment here that doesn’t work.”

Part of the reason for this, of course, is the fallacy of presumption that a one-person show is inherently some kind of non-starter or hard sell. Gay is quite right to note that

…Broadway figured out the magic of “one” long ago, or at least Hal Holbrook, Spalding Gray and [Smith] did. Largely nourished by the primal elements of story and music, the one-person show can have a power and beauty all its own. As spectator, the novelty soon wears off and the trance begins. You are in somebody’s spell and have no idea why.

Those last couple of sentences provide quite an apt description of what happens when you experience one of Smith’s plays; there is indeed a wonderfully mysteriously alchemy at work in her performances, and it’s not the easiest thing to explain. Using the language of “spells” and “trances” feels right on to me. It may be a cliché, but it’s also true: you kind of have to see one of her plays (even on television) to appreciate the full, hypnotic effect.

Consider the monologue derived from Smith’s interview with Taos Proctor, a man described simply as “Yurok fisherman/former inmate” (pg. 41). It was at the end of this monologue that I noticed the “trance” had begun for me: Smith represents this narrator very simply — wearing waders and speaking in an idiosyncratic timbre and cadence — but the effect is so powerful that the distinction between Smith as the interpreter and Proctor as the primary source blurs to the point of almost dropping away completely. Between her selections from the transcript and subtle use of artifice, I essentially forgot I was watching a performance — I was completely drawn into the monologue. In cases like this one, it really feels as though her narrators are being conjured rather than performed.

In other instances, when Smith portrays well-known public figures, she wisely tends to zero in on the essence of their character, rather than their most recognizable characteristics. Her closing incarnation of U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-GA), for example, has much more in common with, say, Anthony Hopkins’s discursive rendering of Richard Nixon in Nixon (1995) than Daniel Day-Lewis’s uncanny channeling of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln (2012): Smith doesn’t look or sound much like Lewis, so she instead goes for and absolutely nails his immense sense of perspective and the way he speaks truth to power from a place of deep experience.

As I begin my exploration vebatim theatre, I’m thankful to have started with Anna Deavere Smith, whose work has done so incredibly much to underscore the medium’s tremendous capacities for bringing memories, stories, and oral testimony to life. Her plays, including and especially Notes from the Field, set a intimidatingly high bar for work in this area, yes, but I think that those of who want to create things that “spark conversation” and even “make changes” would do well to try to follow her assiduous and inventive example. We may not reach their heights, but why not aim for that? And as Smith reminds us again and again, making verbatim theatre starts with a simple act indeed, and one that those of us making documentary art in the oral historical mode are already working on: “listening.”

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On the Passing of Branko Lustig

Branko Lustig’s autograph in Daniel Clarkson Fisher’s paperback copy of Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List (1982)

Last week, Branko Lustig, the double-Academy Award-winning producer of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), passed away. A Holocaust survivor, he was also a driving force behind the awe-inspiring USC Shoah Foundation, whose mission is “to develop empathy, understanding and respect through testimony.” (The organization has recorded tens of thousands of audiovisual oral histories with Holocaust survivors and many others.)  As they explain in their remembrance of him:

Shortly after [Schindler’s List‘s] 1993 release, Lustig — who witnessed horrific atrocities at Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and other concentration and labor camps — led the drive to implement Steven Spielberg’s vision of collecting 50,000 Holocaust testimonies for what was then called Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

“Branko was an essential guide throughout the production of Schindler’s List and the subsequent establishment of Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation,” said Stephen Smith, USC Shoah Foundation’s Finci-Viterbi Executive Director. “He helped set the tone for the organization so his fellow survivors – witnesses from around the world – would feel comfortable to come forward to share their stories.”

I met Lustig at the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis many, many years ago. He signed my copy of (Thomas Keneally’s novel) Schindler’s List (1982), and left me struck by his kindness in the brief few moments that we talked. I was, after all, just a dopey teenager with a tunnel-vision interest in “the movies,” and no sense that I would later become far more interested in the kind of work Lustig was doing with the USC Shoah Foundation. He didn’t have to be quite as warm and generous as he was, which make his warmth and generosity that much more impressive in retrospect.

I’m sad to note his passing.

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Why I Signed the Writers’ Petition to the Toronto Public Library

(Image: The New York Public Library)

One day, early in the first year of my MFA program, I was in middle of working on a scholarship application when I got a call at home from one of the professors writing a letter of reference for me. We didn’t know each other well at this point, so he wanted to ask me some questions about my resume. The big one he had was, “Of all the things you’ve done in your career, what are you most proud of?” I didn’t even have to think about it: I was most proud of having been invited by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles to moderate one of their ALOUD events. I explained, though, that this was not because of the high-profile guests of honor — though they’re certainly two of the finest and most impressive gentlemen you could ever hope to speak to — but because one of the greatest libraries in the world thought I had something (however small) to add to one of their programs. I couldn’t (and still can’t) think of anything I’m more proud of than that.

To me, libraries are hallowed ground; there are no physical spaces that I revere more. I can tell you a lot about the local libraries wherever I’ve lived because I’ve spent a lot of time in them. Furthermore, I am in awe of the work that librarians do, especially in terms of attending to vulnerable and at-risk individuals. Yes, there are a lot of librarians in my family (including my mother, my paternal grandmother, and my late uncle), but I think I’d feel this way even if there were none: I worked at the Allen Ginsberg Library during my first stint in graduate school, and it remains one of the most humbling and rewarding jobs I’ve ever had.

It’s been more than a little heartbreaking, then, to watch my current local library, the Toronto Public Library, make such grievous errors in judgment over the past week or so. As the CBC reports:

The Toronto Public Library is standing by its decision to rent out space to a third-party event featuring a writer and activist who argues against transgender rights, despite mounting opposition from authors, politicians and the city’s mayor.

Meghan Murphy, who runs the website Feminist Current, has argued that “allowing men to identify as women” undermines women’s rights, and that transgender women should not be allowed in women’s spaces.

She has publicly opposed Bill C-16, which made it illegal to discriminate based on gender identity and expression, and was banned from Twitter in 2018 for violating its hate speech policy.

Worse still, Vickery Bowles, city librarian for the Toronto Public Library, tells the CBC that she refuses to reconsider the institution’s decision to rent the space to Murphy because to do so would run afoul of “free speech.”

However, as that aforementioned coalition of opposing authors (led by Alicia Elliot, Catherine Hernandez, and Carrianne Leung) has noted in their petition, renting space to Murphy for this event seems to be at odds with both the library’s stated values of “equity, diversity, inclusion, intellectual freedom and integrity,” as well as their “Community and Event Space Rental Policy” (which specifies that the library “reserves the right to deny or cancel a booking when it reasonably believes…use by any individual or group will be for a purpose that is likely to promote, or would have the effect of promoting discrimination, contempt or hatred for any group or person…”).

From the sounds of ace Ryerson University journalism student Julia Duchesne’s reporting on Twitter, the situation did not seem to improve at last night’s Toronto Public Library board meeting. Among other things, the library board apparently responded to concerns about their rental policy by pointing out that Murphy “has not been charged with a crime.” But, as academic librarian Jane Schmidt pointed out to them, that’s actually “not a criterion in [their] updated policy.” In addition, when one library board member was asked by a trans woman “if he [believed] she [was] a woman,” the board member apparently did not reply.

As Elliott, Hernandez, and Leung put it in their letter:

In a province where 20% of trans folks have been physically or sexually assaulted due to their identity, and 34% have been verbally threatened or harassed, we should be safeguarding access to public institutions to our most vulnerable. Offering Murphy a platform means denying the resources and promise of safe and equitable space to trans communities. … It is hard to believe that the event which Meghan Murphy is speaking at, titled “Gender Identity: What Does It Mean for Society, the Law and Women?” would not be bringing together all of her talking points mentioned above in order to “promote, or… have the effect of promoting discrimination, contempt or hatred” for trans people. In a city where trans communities are already unsafe, your decision to allow this event to happen within [the Toronto Public Library] will intensify this danger.

In addition, I call bullshit on the idea that renting space to Murphy must be done to protect free speech. A quick search of their catalog shows that the library holds physical, electronic, and audio versions of Andrew Marantz’s new book Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation (2019) — it might do Bowles and the library board some good to check it out. As the author shows there and opines in a recent piece for the New York Times, the claim of protecting “free speech” can sometimes be a “cop-out,” “intellectually dishonest,” and/or “morally bankrupt.” He continues:

Libel, incitement of violence and child pornography are all forms of speech. Yet we censor all of them, and no one calls it the death knell of the Enlightenment. … Like all values, [free speech] must be held in tension with others, such as equality, safety and robust democratic participation. Speech should be protected, all things being equal. But what about speech that’s designed to drive a woman out of her workplace or to bully a teenager into suicide or to drive a democracy toward totalitarianism? Navigating these trade-offs is thorny, as trade-offs among core principles always are. But that doesn’t mean we can avoid navigating them at all. … We can protect unpopular speech from government interference while also admitting that unchecked speech can expose us to real risks. And we can take steps to mitigate those risks.

The library’s rental policy is supposed to be one of those steps; not enforcing it, and citing the protection of “free speech” as the reason, is both wrongheaded and dangerous.

All this in mind, I have signed on to Elliott, Hernandez, and Leung’s petition, along with thousands of other “Toronto and Ontario writers and members of the literary community.” I urge you to do the same if you fit this bill. If you don’t, but are concerned about the Toronto Public Library’s decision, I hope you’ll register your concerns some other way. (All of the library’s contact information, by the way, can be found right here.)

At last night’s library board meeting, Schmidt apparently also said, “I don’t think TPL [the Toronto Public Library] can come back from this.” At first I thought that perhaps it could (in time) by cancelling the booking, doing some serious soul-searching, and at least a doubling-down on efforts at allyship. At the moment, though, it seems like the situation is getting worse and worse with each development. Schmidt might be right.

Toronto’s transgender community deserves far, far better than this from their public library. This has all had an awful effect, transforming a place that should be a welcoming space into a hostile environment. And for what?

You’re in the wrong, TPL. Fix this.

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Notes on The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II (1985) by Svetlana Alexievich

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit Last week, Sara Danius, the first woman to serve as Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy — the “independent cultural institution” which has, since 1901, been responsible for choosing each year’s laureate for the Nobel Prize in Literature — passed away. She resigned her distinguished position last year, as the Associated Press notes, “after an internal dispute grew into a sexual misconduct and financial crime scandal that aroused concerns in the king and brought criticism from the Nobel Foundation’s board.” Though she “wasn’t accused of personal wrongdoing” herself, Danius stated at the time that “her academy colleagues had lost confidence in her leadership and acknowledged the internal turmoil had ‘already affected the Nobel Prize quite severely.'” For instance, two laureates were named this week — Olga Tokarczuk for 2018 and Peter Handke for 2019 — because the scandal has been so disruptive to the Academy’s processes. (Honoring Handke in spite of his very troubling politics suggests that there are still some kinks for the body to work out, however.)

I confess, though, that my first association with Danius is a much brighter spot in her career: her oversight of the Academy’s decision to bestow the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature on one of my heroes — Svetlana Alexievich.

In addition, on the morning the prize was announced, Danius was asked to name her personal favorite of Alexievich’s books, and I think her answer is especially beneficial for interested readers: without hesitation, she answered that it was 1985’s The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II. “[And] that’s the one book that I would [also] recommend that people begin with [if they’re wanting to explore Alexievich’s writings],” she added.

There are several possible reasons that someone might name this particular book as a starting point for neophytes. For one thing, this was the book that really, in quite dramatic fashion, announced the Belarusian author as a titanic figure in the world of literary oral history. Alexievich’s biography on the Nobel Prize website tells the story:

In 1983 she completed her book The Unwomanly Face of War. For two years it was sitting at a publishing house but was not published. Alexievich was accused of pacifism, naturalism and de-glorification of the heroic Soviet woman. Such accusations could have quite serious consequences in those days. All the more so since already after her first book I’ve Left My Village (monologues of people who abandoned their native parts), she already had a reputation of being a dissident journalist with anti-Soviet sentiments. On order of the Belarusian Central Committee of the Communist Party Alexievich’s already completed book was destroyed and she was accused of anti-Communist and anti-government views. She was threatened with losing her job. They told her: “How can you work on our magazine with such alien views? And why are you not yet a member of the Communist Party?”

But new times came with Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascent to power and the start of perestroika.

In 1985 The Unwomanly Face of War came out simultaneously in Minsk and in Moscow. In subsequent years it was repeatedly reprinted; all in all more than two million copies were sold.

For another thing, Danius points to the unique content of the book itself, which raises the voices of those whose participation in World War II is not often discussed, or even well understood: women. Specifically, The Unwomanly Face of War records the reflections of Soviet women during the Second World War, including a large sampling of those who served in various capacities in the military. As the historian whose interview opens the book explains (pg. xii):

During World War II the world was witness to a women’s phenomenon. Women served in all branches of the military in many countries of the world: 225,000 in the British army, 450,000 to 500,000 in the American, 500,000 in the German…

About a million women fought in the Soviet army. They mastered all military specialties, including the most “masculine” ones. A linguistic problem even emerged: no feminine gender had existed till then for the words “tank driver,” “infantryman,” “machine gunner,” because women had never done that work. The feminine forms were born there, in the war…

For me, though, a key reason for recommending The Unwomanly Face of War ahead of the author’s other books would be the prefatory material, which amounts to her creative manifesto — a very significant thing in and of itself. If you want to understand both why and how Alexievich has “developed her own nonfiction genre, which gathers a chorus of voices to describe a specific historical moment” — and, as I like to say, if you’re reading a blog devoted to thinking about the places where oral history and the documentary arts intersect, why wouldn’t you? — then this is the place to start.

In these preliminary pages, entitled “A Human Being is Greater than War” (at least that’s how it’s rendered in English by translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky),  Alexievich begins by talking about a crucial inspiration — namely, a book that she found in the midst of her “[search] for a genre that would correspond to how I see the world, how my eye, my ear, are organized” (pg. xv). She continues (ibid.):

Once a book fell into my hands: I Am from a Burning Village, by A. Adamovich, Ya. Bryl, and V. Kolesnik. I had experienced such a shock only once before, when I read Dostoevsky. Here was an unusual form: the novel was composed from the voices of life itself, from what I had heard in childhood, from what can be heard now in the street, at home, in a café, on a bus. There! The circle was closed. I had found what I was looking for. I knew I would.

Ales Adamovich became my teacher…

It’s important to mention here that when Alexievich uses the term “novel,” whether to describe I Am from a Burning Village or one of her own books, she does not mean “fiction.” As Laura Esther Wolfson explains:

The Russian language lacks a term for oral history, and so, with refreshing disregard for the sometimes heavily fortified border separating fiction from nonfiction, Alexievich…[came] up with her own, calling her books “novels in voices,” or simply “novels.” This despite the fact that their content [comes] verbatim from taped interviews, [has] no narrative through-line, and [swaps] in a new protagonist every couple of pages.

And, in fact, as Timothy Snyder sees it, Alexievich’s so-called novels are really “a kind of anti-fiction, and alternative to the alternative realities which, in both Russia and Belarus, arise behind the blindfold of a double nostalgia: of today’s ruling elite for the 1970s and 1980s, which were themselves a time of manufactured nostalgia for the Soviet 1930s and 1940s.” Hence it is not terribly surprising that the authorities have taken such a belligerent attitude towards her work.

But regardless of what we call them, it is the quality of the voices contained in Alexievich’s books that matters most. As she writes about those collected in The Unwomanly Face of War (pg. xvii):

I’ve happened upon extraordinary storytellers. There are pages in their lives that can rival the best pages of the classics. The person sees herself so clearly from above — from heaven, and from below — from the ground. Before her is the whole path — up and down — from angel to beast. Remembering is not a passionate or dispassionate retelling of a reality that is no more, but a new birth of the past, when time goes in reverse. Above all it is creativity. As they narrate, people create, they ‘write’ their life. Sometimes they also ‘write up’ or ‘rewrite.’ Here you have to be vigilant. On your guard. At the same time pain melts and destroys any falsehood. The temperature is too high! Simple people — nurses, cooks, laundresses — behave more sincerely, I became convinced of that… They, how shall I put it exactly, draw the words out of themselves and not from newspapers and books they have read — not from others. But only from their own sufferings and experiences. The feelings and language of educated people, strange as it may be, are often more subject to the working of time. Its general encrypting. They are infected by secondary knowledge. By myths.

As the author sees it, “at least three people participate” in her process of interviewing a narrator: “the one who is talking now, the one she was then, at the moment of the event, and myself” (pg. xx). She continues (pg. xxi-xxii):

I’m interested in not only the reality that surrounds us, but in the one that is within us. I’m interested not in the event itself, but in the event of feelings. Let’s say — the soul of the event. For me feelings are reality.

And history? It is in the street. In the crowd. I believe that in each of us there is a small piece of history. In one half a page, in another two or three. Together we write the book of time. We each call out our truth. The nightmare of nuances. And it all has to be heard, and one has to dissolve in it all, and become it all. And at the same time not lose oneself.

Alexievich’s books, then, are, in her words, “temples [built] out of…feelings” (pg. xxi). And it is precisely this exaltation of subjective affective experiences that has earned the author the ire of government censors. Speaking about The Unwomanly Face of War in her 2016-17 Henry E. and Nancy Horton Bartels World Affairs Fellowship Lecture, entitled In Search of the Free Individual: The History of the Russian-Soviet Soul, she explains:

The censors were particularly indignant about an episode describing 200 young women soldiers marching. The men marching behind them tried not to look down at the sand, where there were drops of blood. It was that time of the month for many of the women, and they needed cotton, or something, but the Soviet army didn’t issue those sorts of things. The women were ashamed. When they reached a ford crossing a river, the Germans began bombing. The men all hid, but the women rushed into the water to wash themselves — making an excellent target. Almost all of them were shot from the air. “Why are you bringing biology into it? You should be describing the heroism!” the censor shouted at me. I tried to argue that humans are made up of many things, including biology. I’m interested in the body as a connection between nature and history. Ideals can’t be made of plaster, like monuments. In the end, that page was cut out of the first edition. I was able to reinstate it only 10 years later. During perestroika. The censor even deleted the following scene: I asked a woman, a former sniper, what she took to the war with her. Her answer: “A suitcase full of candy. I spent my entire last paycheck buying chocolates.” And we laughed. “You call this history…these candies?” The censor was angry. “Yes, it’s history,” I replied. “These kinds of details make a huge impression.”

If Alexievich’s work has a subversive power, it is because she presents “oral history stripped down to segments so raw that it can stretch both credulity and the reader’s tolerance for pain,” to borrow Masha Gessen’s eloquent and spot-on description.

But how exactly the author is able to elicit such impactful reflections from her narrators? The answer, Alexievich explains in The Unwomanly Face of War, is all in how she sees the world around her (pg. xix):

Texts, texts. Texts everywhere. In city apartments and village cottages, in the streets and on the train…I listen…I turn more and more into a big ear, listening all the time to another person. I “read” voices.

If this seems a bit too poetical to be practically useful, she does get down to the nitty-gritty elsewhere in the preface (pg. xvii):

Often I have to go for a long time, by various roundabout ways, in order to hear a story of a ‘woman’s,’ not a ‘man’s’ war: not about how we retreated, how we advanced, at which sector of the front…It takes not one meeting, but many sessions. Like a persistent portrait painter.

I sit for a long time, sometimes a whole day, in an unknown house or apartment. We drink tea, try on the recently bought blouses, discuss hairstyles and recipes. Look at photos of the grandchildren together. And then…After a certain time, you never know when or why, suddenly comes this long-awaited moment, when the person departs from the canon—plaster and reinforced concrete, like our monuments—and goes on to herself. Into herself. Begins to remember not the war but her youth. A piece of her life…I must seize that moment. Not miss it! But often, after a long day, filled with words, facts, tears, only one phrase remains in my memory (but what a phrase!): “I was so young when I left for the front, I even grew during the war.” I keep it in my notebook, although I have dozens of yards of tape in my tape recorder. Four or five cassettes…

All of this is to say that a truly incredible amount of time and effort go into getting just one of the many interviews that make up a book by Svetlana Alexievich. And, of course, it takes much more than simply hard work and long hours; as the author herself acknowledges, doing an interview means that has to be “simultaneously a writer, reporter, sociologist, psychologist and preacher,” and that “all [her] mental and emotional potential is realized to the full” during the process.

There’s much more in these early pages of The Unwomanly Face of War — about Alexievich’s thoughts on history, truth, women, and other vast subjects — but, again, I think these portions about her methodology are especially valuable for those of us who work or are interested in the places where oral history and the documentary arts converge. (Discussing the preface in his review of the book for the Boston Globe, John Freeman writes that “anyone who has ever elicited important stories or traumatic remembrances ought to read it,” and that it’s “worth the book’s cost alone.”) Too often the work of authors like Alexievich or Studs Terkel or Wallace Terry is reductively described as “oral history for a popular/non-academic audience.” But, of course, far more goes into thinking about each of these authors’ approaches to literary oral history than just how to make the work interesting to the widest possible readership. Few practitioners, though, have really delved into their own process for readers with the thoughtfulness and robustness that Alexievich does here.

On the one hand, I’ve always felt that the gobsmackingly beautiful interviews in books like The Unwomanly Face of War really speak for themselves. And while literary oral histories are indeed distinct from academic oral histories, I thought that that was generally understood (except by the most pedantic among us) and sort of the point. On the other hand, though, I also think that Alexievich’s reflections do enrich the interviews: in addition to being constructive exercises in self-definition and self-assessment, they go a long way towards contextualizing the narrators’ contributions and situating the author among the voices in her book. Not only that, such reflections will probably encourage future efforts at literary oral history; while not a guidebook, the preface offers an instructive and indispensable look under the hood of an essential work in the genre. (If nothing else, it has been inestimably helpful to me!)

“…I don’t love great ideas,” Alexievich tells readers near the end of her preface, shortly before we are fully immersed in the vivid memories and unforgettable stories of The Unwomanly Face of War‘s narrators. “I love the little human being…” (pg. xxxvii). By the end of the book, it’s strikingly clear why that is. What the author may not have counted on, though, is that her own voice earns as much of the reader’s empathy, respect, and affection as any of her narrators.

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Notes on “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II (1984) by Studs Terkel

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit“The ordinary person feels not only as good a being as I am; rather he feels somewhat superior. The average American has an indigenous intelligence, a native wit. It’s only a question of piquing that intelligence.”

Studs Terkel

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the things I’d like to start offering here at the blog is book reviews. “Reviewing” may not be quite the right word for what I’ll be doing, though; I think it will be something more like “making notes.” I should think that either reviews or notes would be interesting for anyone who cares to follow a blog focused on “the intersection of oral history and the documentary arts,” but it’s the latter option that would certainly be most useful for me personally. (That said, you can expect actual reviews from time to time — in fact, I’ve just agreed to review a germane new book for a publication that I’ve written for in the past.)

There are a few practical reasons for not writing reviews as such. Reviews are meant to provide a comprehensive overview and robust assessment of the book under consideration; in these ways, they’re a lot of work for the reviewer. Also, while I suspect that reviews of new books would be most useful for interested readers, I’d like to discuss books both new and old. In addition, there are certainly lots of options elsewhere if you’re looking for formal book reviews.

And, of course, some books don’t exactly need reviewing. Take for instance the great Studs Terkel’s magisterial “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II (1984): among many, many other plaudits, it received the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction and has been called “the richest and most powerful single document of the American experience in World War II” by no less than the Boston Globe. Am I really going to sing its praises more eloquently or astutely than others already have? Probably not.

What I think I can do that’s at least a little bit different is consider books like “The Good War” through the prism of my interest in the places where oral history and the documentary arts intersect. However, this is not to say that Terkel’s place within this constellation hasn’t already been argued over elsewhere; quite the contrary. Approaching this issue head-on for a 2014 article in the Oral History Review, Michael Frisch writes:

For a long time, many oral historians have had reservations about how seriously Terkel’s work can be taken, whether methodologically, substantively, or theoretically. Many have felt Terkel to be, at best, a figure from the informal prehistory of a rapidly growing scholarly field. He has always seemed to some a popularizer with great appeal but little discipline or depth, or a romantic populist evoking the voice of the people but not engaged with the more complex questions, intellectual and political, that have come to inform studies of orality, memory, and narrative in recent years.

Elsewhere, in the 2014 edition of his essential textbook Doing Oral History, Donald A. Ritchie notes (pg. 129):

Oral historians have expressed suspicion over the popular books of Studs Terkel, who usually removed his own questions and sometimes reordered his interviewee’s answers. When Charles Morrissey questioned some of the Vermonters quoted in Terkel’s American Dreams, Lost and Found (1980), they objected to the way their remarks appeared in print. One complained that Terkel ‘applied his thoughts to my words and came up with the version in his book.’ Another felt that his words had been rearranged ‘in such a way that I can’t make sense of it.'”

Frisch also discusses ways these criticisms have played out within the field of oral history as it has developed. Highlights include “a testimonial plenary at the 1995 Oral History Association annual meeting” that was rocked by “considerable controversy about how, or even whether, to honor Terkel.” Not to mention William Morris’s review of “The Good War” for the Oral History Review, which “[answers] its title question, ‘Oral History or Literary Impressionism?’ by consigning Terkel’s work to the latter.” His books seem to have been viewed very much the same way in journalistic and literary circles as well: as Frisch notes, for instance, the Pulitzer Prize for “The Good War” was “awarded for general nonfiction, not for history (oral or otherwise).”

Terkel and his books have always meant a tremendous lot to me personally, so much so that when I used to visit Chicago (while he was still alive) I would make sure to swing by “Bughouse Square” (aka Washington Square Park) — his favorite spot in the city — just to see if I could spot the man. In addition, during my time as a student of religion, Terkel’s exceptional Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith (2001) was one of the books I returned to often.

Having said that, it’s not sentiment alone that makes me dissatisfied with how Terkel and his works have been treated by oral history “gatekeepers.” For one thing, as I mentioned in the aforementioned post from a few weeks back, Terkel famously eschewed the label of “oral historian,” choosing instead to call himself a “guerilla journalist.” Furthermore, describing his work in the introduction to “The Good War”, the author quotes from his own earlier volume, 1970’s Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (pg. 3 in both books):

This is a memory book, rather than one of hard fact and precise statistic. In recalling an epoch, some forty years ago, my colleagues experienced pain, in some instances: exhilaration, in others. Often it was a fusing of both. A hesitancy, at first, was followed by a flow of memories: long-ago hurts and small triumphs. Honors and humiliations. There was laughter, too.

Terkel’s books are definitely oral histories, but they are not academic oral histories. Holding them to the same standard that we might hold the work of, say, Ritchie or Frisch, then, is really dirty pool.

The mighty Alessando Portelli helpfully clarifies things in the essay “Oral History as Genre” for his 1997 book The Battle of Valle Giulia: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue (pg. 18 – 19):

Speaking to specialists implies the use of a more rigorously technical language (including bibliographies, footnotes, etc.); speaking to the community or to the general public requires a more pointed effort toward communication; the former will be more interpretive, the latter more narrative. Ironically, the originary orality of the sources tends to be retained much more extensively in works not intended primarily for a scholarly audience.

Speaking to the community, or targeting a broad, nonacademic audience, then, does not necessarily subtract from the quality of the work. One of the things that makes oral history different is its democratic potential, which can make an oral history project academically relevant at the same time that it is accessible to the general public, not only through readable books, but also through community projects, exhibits…film, video, the theater. Rhetorical strategies vary significantly, however.

To be sure, Portelli continues, “in the case of the community or the general public, attention must be gained and retained — or, if the word does not offend — entertained” (pg. 19).

In this respect, Terkel and his work have much to teach academic historians. As Peter Dreier explains in The Nation:

Terkel was not the first oral historian, but he transformed the genre into a popular literary form. His books reflected Terkel’s genius for interviewing people and eliciting vivid and fascinating stories from everyday persons, a skill honed over the years on his radio program. He drew people out, creating a tapestry of conversation that revealed insights into the American character. Terkel made people comfortable by being respectful, really listening to them… He believed that most people had something to say worth hearing.

Indeed, Ritchie adds that “a new generation of American historians [who] began writing history ‘from the bottom up'” were “[encouraged in] these efforts [by] the best-selling books of Studs Terkel…” (pg. 7). I should think, then, that academic historians could stand to be a bit more generous when it comes to acknowledging Terkel and his influence, in spite of their qualifications about certain aspects of his work.

Of course, this is not to say that he doesn’t have advocates in the ivory tower — he absolutely does. Frisch, for example, has defended Terkel and his books. He even goes so far as to say that the author of “The Good War” is not only an oral historian, but a historian in the fullest sense:

Studs Terkel is a historian, first if not foremost, because he has done so much to document and study our past. His books will remain a cumulative, definitive chronicle of virtually every dimension of modern American culture and history (with the exception of gender, a subject perhaps for the next Studs Terkel). It’s also worth noting, and with a satisfying sense of irony, that Terkel is most appropriately called a serious historian because, however great his distance from the academy and maybe precisely because of that distance, for over forty years he unfolded, in one major work after another, those arguments about history and historical practice recently trumpeted as “discoveries” (and with so much postmodern huffing and puffing): about history as memory and memory as history, about the social construction and historicity of categories like race, about “sites of contention,” the discourses and dialogics of difference, and so on. Important insights all and crucial tools in the broadened interrogation of the past that propels modern historical scholarship, but in stark danger of implosion into the black hole of academic preciousness, preening, and self-imposed isolation.

If there is one book of Terkel’s in which this is all most apparent, it is surely “The Good War” — Frisch is quite right to dub it “the most historically organized and focused of all his books.” (I think it’s probably reasonable to assume that these facts were part of the Pulitzer committee’s thinking when they chose to honor this book of Terkel’s and not, say, 1974’s better-known and much-beloved Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do.) In a career that has produced many more than its fair share of masterpieces, “The Good War” undeniably stands out.

Though it is exemplary in terms of the Terkel hallmarks discussed above, there is something else that really sets “The Good War” apart: the wideness of the net that it casts. The assembled voices include not only the White male veterans whose stories we’re used to hearing in works like Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (1992) or narrator E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (1981), but also those whose stories we’re far less used to hearing even today, thirty-five years after the book’s initial publication. Among many others, we hear from women, people of color (including incarcerated Japanese-Americans), LGBTQIA+ individuals, children, noncombatants, conscientious objectors, and artists.

In other words, “The Good War” is incredibly “woke” for its time. I am by no means a connoisseur of World War II histories, but I have a very strong suspicion that few — if any — other relevant titles from the 1980s will hold up nearly as well as this one.

We can probably attribute some of this to Terkel’s excellent, leftist politics — or, more specifically, one part of their origins. As Dreier explains: “During the 1930s, his political awareness was…nurtured at Bughouse Square, a free-speech area of a local park where an assortment of Socialists, Communists, vegetarians, Christian fundamentalists, and others would mount soapboxes and hold forth.” Much like his old stomping ground in its heyday, “The Good War” offers a remarkable diversity of voices. And thanks to Terkel’s nonjudgmental listening and skillful interviewing, these voices yield an invaluable assortment of thoughts and opinions on a range of topics — everything from the Atomic Age to how movies depict the combat experience to U.S.-Russia relations in the years after the war.

At the same time, “The Good War” never suggests that the reader should adopt some kind of misguided relativism; Terkel’s moral compass never falters, and he is a clear-sighted and stalwart guide through these vast and varied voices. Consider the the scare quotes in the title. As he explains (pg. vii):

The title of this book was suggested by Herbert Mitgang, who experienced World War II as an army correspondent. It is a phrase that has been frequently voiced by men of his and my generation, to distinguish that war from other wars, declared and undeclared. Quotation marks have been added, not as a matter of caprice or editorial comment, but simply because the adjective “good” mated to the noun “war” is so incongruous.

Discussing common themes in the book’s collected interviews, he continues: “In battle, the order of the day was often disorder. Again and again survivors, gray, bald, potbellied, or cadaverous, remember chaos” (pg. 7). Terkel was a veteran himself, though his was “limited service” in the “air force, 1942-1943” due to a “perforated eardrum”; for him, things were “stateside all the way, safe and uneventful” (pg. 4). The relative ease of his own experience notwithstanding, the author has no illusions about what war is and what it isn’t: the romantic jingoism and selective nostalgia that taint so many World War II histories get no quarter here, and “The Good War” is all the greater for it.

I’ll give Frisch the last word, because I don’t think there’s another scholar who understands Terkel quite as well as he does:

As a historian, he never forgot Marx’s enduring challenge that the point of understanding and interpreting the world ought to be to seek to change it. And in the process of making this point to so many millions of readers and listeners, he changed the practice and potential of oral history profoundly — and of American historiography as well. [Terkel critic Edward] Rothstein was right: “He gave voice to many, among them himself.” Studs Terkel’s enduring works of history preserve many voices and present his own, all in a rich, productive, transparent, engaged conversation that readers will continue to find it easy and meaningful to join. Which is exactly what characterizes the best historians and the histories they leave us.

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“Visual Media in Syria”

I’ve written a review of Donatella Della Ratta’s exceptional new book Shooting a Revolution: Visual Media and Warfare in Syria for H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online’s H-Socialisms network. You can read the whole thing right here.

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Finding My Thing

(The obligatory headphones-on-oral-history-bookshelf snapshot common to so many blogs and websites.)

“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, 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, choosing instead to call himself a “guerilla journalist.” 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, according 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.

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“Doc This!”: Episode Six (Season Finale)

As previously mentioned, two of my classmates, John Verhaeven and Kenny McDonald, have been producing a podcast called “Doc This!” Its goal is to “get behind the minds and processes of Ryerson University’s MFA Documentary Media students.” I’ve been the regular co-host with another classmate, Sara Wylie.

Episode Six, the “season finale,” is now live, and you should definitely check it out: in this “souvenir edition,” every member of my MFA cohort (including me) gets a turn at the mic talking about their thesis project. It’s all stunning work, made by lovely people.

I’m not sure what the fate of the podcast will be after this season — I’ll certainly keep you posted. If this is the end of my run with it, I’ll just say that it has been an honor, a pleasure, and a learning experience (in all the very best ways). My deepest gratitude to Sara, John, Kenny, and so-frequent-a-guest-co-host-that-he-might-as-well-have-been-a-regular-co-host Pearson Ripley.

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