Cyprus Oral History Project: Seminar Notes

 

March 8, 2011

 

A wide-ranging group gathered in Nicosia for the first seminar in a series on doing oral history in Cyprus: a musicologist doing a study on folk-lore and songs, an environmentalist, an ethnographer who had just finished nine-months of field work in a mountain village, an historian who wanted to better understand the value of oral sources, an American teaching on a Fulbright, a computer teacher, teacher educator, graphic designer, and students from gender studies, sociology, education, and history. The mix was rich and hopeful.

Before introductions we began with a quick-write: five minutes on oral history, and reasons for taking this class. When we went around the circle and introduced ourselves, reading excerpts from the writing, it was immediately clear that there was a lot of wisdom in the room. People used words like “grass-roots history,” “history from below,” “the power of stories,” “different narratives,” “beyond the dominant story,” “voices from the margins,” “history of the everyday,” “personal meaning,” and “memory as history.” We were on our way.

Discussion was wide and smart, and contradictions were the focus of energy and debate: language/translation, subjective/objective, technique/stance or approach, total relativity/truth. Nothing was resolved, but simply naming the complex and contested territory felt illuminating.

There was as well a persistent question of representation—how do oral historians make and frame an archive (web, interactive, film, installation)? What are some of the creative ways people have communicated their work to and for a public?

 

March 9, 2011

 

Everything was reviewed and revisited, revised and re-opened—conflict and debate, contest and contradiction driving deeper. Other issues were added to the list: How open and how pre-planned should we be? Is the interview a Q and A event or an interpretive/relational event? How do we begin to find and select participants? How random, and how deliberate? How broad or how narrow do we reach for participants? How aware are we of our preconceptions and frames? Do we need a specific research question to organize the interviews, or is a phenomenon of interest adequate? Is an interview protocol advisable or should we ask an open-ended question and then follow along? How skeptical or credulous should we be? How aware should we be of the historical record and past events that are likely to surface? When does analysis begin, and how; when does it end? How stable/unstable is the record we make? In some ways, while irresolvable, these questions point, not only to rational research approaches, but, as well, to differing dispositions of mind and feeling.

In the course of the seminar we drew on slave narratives, 9/11, Tiananmen Square, events unfolding in Egypt and North Africa, events in front of our eyes like illegal migration, prostitution, and taxi drivers, demonstrations in the North against Turkish troops on the island. Again and again we saw the ability of this work to confound rather than confirm, to surprise and disrupt rather than to settle things. It’s a wildly weird, diverse, and queer world out there, and while illumination, enlightenment, and liberation are always possible, getting to the bottom of things, once and for all, becomes more elusive as each page is turned. Oral sources are the first draft of history, the interview the first draft of biography.

Participants spent the remainder of class interviewing one another, and then reporting to the group about the process. This exercise was in turn raucous, sober, thoughtful, emotional, revealing and concealing. It was also critical as we considered why the interviews went as they did, what questions were initiated and which pursued, how narratives were shaped and why. This could easily lead to a follow-up with a set of questions to drill still deeper.

 

March 10, 2011

 

We reviewed short excerpts from interviews done recently for the Cyprus Oral History Project. While short, each provided us many entry points to explore problems and possibilities with this work. Here are some of the questions that fueled our conversation:

Is it advisable to have two interviewers with one interviewee?

How do you become aware of and negotiate issues of power in the relationship?

What are the approaches, from formal to casual, available to interviewers, and how do you make your own style work for you?

How autobiographical can one be?

How important is it to come well-prepared, both technically and in terms of content?

How does one interrupt, or press beyond the surface of a well rehearsed or oft-repeated story, and should one? Is authenticity the point, or is the reason the story is told over and over what’s really interesting?

The most complicated and revelatory discussion was about the complex nature of language: When the interviewer says, “I want to talk about the events around 1974,” that carries enormous significance here. It points to a particular year as pivotal, as having elevated significance, and it locates the interviewer as part of a particular narrative, and distant from other possible narratives. One participant responded, “I’d rather start with 1958 and 1959…” which is quite a different signifier.

So the power of words to frame responses: Turkish coffee/Greek coffee—it’s the same coffee, or is it? Is there not a Cyprus coffee? No! What are we drinking with the coffee, and with our mother’s milk?

What is a refugee, and what an exile? Who are the missing, and who the dead? What is a war of liberation, and what is a catastrophe? What is fighting for freedom, and what is terrorism? Who is an illegal immigrant, who an undocumented worker? Is it Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City?  It depends, and it contains a narrative.

And so we reflected together on “I want to talk about the events around 1974,” and posited alternatives: “I’d like to talk about the modern history of Cyprus, and how we came to where we are now;” “I want to talk with you about the Cyprus issue as you have experienced it;” “I’m interested in your perspective on the Cyprus conflict, the things you or your family has experienced in your lives.”

 

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