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Oral history is where do we go from here

Updated: Feb 8, 2022

On May 14, I arrived in Hudson, New York after an 8-hour train ride through the Adirondack region, not realising how much I needed to be there. To tell you the truth, I've been trying to write this blog post for two weeks, but I always ran out of steam. In many ways, it feels like I was there for ages. I've learned so much and am full of ideas. On the other hand, the time flew by and here I am, in my bed. The feeling of "did that actually happen?" has already long since kicked in, and the slow fade of everything that was so clear and fresh in my mind over those eleven days has already begun.

I was there attending a ten-day intensive workshop called Oral History Summer School: Experimental Ethnographies. And seriously, it was amazing. And exhausting - in a good my-brain-is-so-full kind of way. Learning with and from my fellow workshoppers was inspiring and, at first, intimidating (serious impostor syndrome alert chronicled in a Tweet thread). Our teacher, Suzanne Snider, is beyond words, really. She's innovative and brilliant and incredibly hardworking.

It's always so strange settling back in to your 'regular life' after immersing yourself in another world, even if only for ten days. You get used to a new schedule, and rhythm to your days, new faces, and voices. How lucky was I to be in the company of these people? - artists, educators, organisers, journalists, oral historians - and to get the chance to learn about who they are, what they care about, and just be vulnerable together. It's also strange knowing that you may never cross paths with some of these people again after literally living with them, and spending almost every waking moment in each other's company. Strange.

Today, I'm finally going to finish this blog post. I had to change a couple of verb tenses up there, but for what follows, I just want to sit with some of my thoughts on the experience and on the practice of oral history. Since I spent all weekend relaxing after arriving via Greyhound at 3:00 AM on Friday, I want to dedicate the next little while to thinking about Hudson and my new friends and teachers.

"Oral history is 'where do we go from here?'" Suzanne said this in one of our discussions and I feel like it's become my new mantra for OH work. It so beautifully and succinctly captures a lot of what I love about oral history. It's about the future, vulnerability, it's about saying "I know nothing - please tell me...". It's a process and an experience; it's humbling; it's about doing no harm. And these are questions I turn to again and again in my historical and even artistic work: how do we use our past to imagine a future? How are our past and present in conversation?

Prison Alley, view from behind Drop Forge and Tool, where our workshops were held and where I lived for two weeks

I got to stay at the beautiful Drop Forge and Tool with three other people, while our workshops were held on the main floor. Even though we would be exhausted at the end of each day, we would sit together at night to have some mezcal or beer, talk about our projects, our lives, and - as we grew more comfortable with each other - the people we love.

Halfway through our workshop, we got paired up to interview each other. I was beyond nervous - not to interview my partner, but to be interviewed. We were doing full life story oral histories. That's 1.5-2 hours of you talking about your life with very little interruption. I wondered what I could possibly talk about that anyone besides me would find interesting. We had a discussion session the hour before the interview, and I don't remember a single thing because I was so nervous.

I went in without a plan. I didn't really know what I felt like talking about or how it would go, but you're in it together - the interviewer and narrator (interviewee). Sometimes you have to sit through some awkwardly long silences, but you're doing that together too. I ended up talking about things I haven't even really thought about for years. It was so interesting. I cried, which also made me laugh because I was crying about something I didn't really think I could cry about anymore. My partner handed me some kleenex super quietly and I babbled on (always carry kleenex with you for interviews because you literally never know when someone will cry, pro tip from Suzanne). And then, the 1.5 hours were over - but I had so much left to say and he had so many questions he wanted to ask. That's oral history, too.

Post-dinner walk to the water

I did improv in a store in front of everyone and cried again because I literally hate it, but I made it part of my skit, so it ... worked? I went on sound walks. I got to witness and record a really cool after school program for girls, The Perfect Ten, with another workshopper, as they watched and talked about Childish Gambino's "This is America" (and this is going in the Hudson oral history archive, which is amazing and so exciting). I ate some pretty good - though often overpriced - food. I cooked the best chicken I've ever made and covered it with chutney made from local rhubarb that I got at the farmer's market. I listened and learned. I walked to the water. I sang a song and that recording will be in the Hudson oral history archive as well (sorry). I made friends.

And I imagine that I won't be talking to these friends every day, or week, or month for that matter. I imagine that we will continue to go our separate ways. But we shared something together for those ten intense days, and I hope they all know that they are always welcome wherever I am, even if the years continue to fly by.

Inside Spotty Dog, book shop and bar, next door to Drop Forge and Tool

At the end of the workshop, we had about two days to work on our "experimental outcomes" using the sounds and songs we had collected, and our interviews. I had a great idea, but I didn't have the time to execute it, so I put something else together instead. And I think it came out great. I feel like it's honest and simple, and I can't wait to share it with you all here! Everyone who shared their work had created something so beautiful, I wish I could make you listen. That day, we stayed until almost 8PM, I think, just listening to our work.

Our last day was bittersweet. It had felt like I was so disconnected from my life for so long, so I was excited to come back. But, at the same time, I also felt like I didn't have enough time with these people and this place. I'm in my bed with my kitty right now, happy to be back and get to work on my internship for the summer, and continue working on Ottawa Love Stories. Start my masters project! That's happening. And every so often, I think about the people I've met over the last two weeks and everything they have taught me. I'm so grateful and honoured to be their friend and colleague in the contradictory, confusing, exhilarating work of oral history.

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