Oral History NSW
Giving Voice to the Past
Giving Voice to the Past

OHA Conference 2017 - been and gone

by | September 18, 2017

Global voices? OHA Conference 2017

CHENG Nien Yuan is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney’s Department of Theatre and Performance Studies. Her research explores the idea of oral history as performative in Singapore, and questions the assumptions of empowerment in oral history in this context. Ultimately she hopes to find a socioculturally appropriate way of subverting the state’s top-down oral history practice at home. For this conference she presented on ‘embodying’ the transcript with moving memories, derived from a forthcoming article in the Oral History Review (2018).

The conference was opened by OH NSW President Anisa Puri, who spoke a few words before introducing our first keynote speaker Dr Indira Chowdhury. Ms Puri remarked that what’s so wonderful about an oral history conference in Australia is the diverse group of people in attendance: academics, family historians, activists, librarians, and everybody in-between. As I looked around the room, one thing I did notice was the number of women in attendance who encompassed all these roles and more, from professors like Dr Violet Johnson, who would later give a gut-wrenching and inspiring paper about migrants from Sierra Leone in the United States, to performers like Lillian Rodrigues-Pang who breathed life into its main gathering space by installing a podcast exhibition called ‘A Mile in My Shoes’, which beautifully showcased ‘shoe stories’ from members of SCARF (Strategic Community Assistance for Refugee Families).

Indeed, Dr Chowdhury set the ‘key note’ to what would be one of the most enriching conference experiences I’ve had in my candidature so far. I had heard Dr Chowdhury speak at the International Oral History Association conference in Bangaluru the year before. The locale and cultural milieu of that conference had spurred a lot of discussion about oral history beyond Anglo-American contexts, and I’m glad that Dr Chowdhury brought this discussion to Sydney. She gave an illuminating talk on the Partition of India in 1947, and its stories of displacement and dispersal, weaving in her own family history as well. While it was a talk about a specific moment in South Asian history and its ramifications, many issues resonated with the people in the room, as the Q&A session indicated: oral history pedagogy in an age of conservatism; memory and dementia; nostalgia (normally dismissed) as resistance to state narratives; the connections between oral history and literary studies. It was a great way to get the conference going.

 The beautiful thing about oral history conferences is the promise of some storytelling in every panel and every room, no matter which session you choose to go to. Importantly, this storytelling is never couched in uncritical or apolitical terms, or steeped in the false belief that storytelling is emancipatory in itself – so-called ‘giving voice to the voiceless’. The presenters that I saw were very aware of the institutional, national and cultural contexts of their stories, and often were reflexive about their approach. In this context I’d like to highlight an incredibly illuminating panel in the conference’s second day, on “Being an Interviewer and an Interviewee”. There were only two talks in this panel, one for each aspect. It was well-attended, and rightfully so: interviewing and being interviewed is the crux of our practice.

 First was Dr Jodie Boyd’s contentious and timely paper on what her experiences of being an interviewee taught her about the politics of interviewing. Approached to be part of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Life Stories Oral History Project, Dr Boyd, reflecting on the interview, was uncomfortable on several levels: being ‘catalogued’ as a ‘lesbian’ in the collection’s archive, as if that were the only thing defining her identity; being steered during the interview to conform to the classic ‘coming-out’ story; becoming cognisant of the hetero-normative, institutional frameworks which underpinned such a oral history project. Dr Boyd was very careful not to criticise the interviewer and the oral history project per se, placing responsibility instead on problems in the field itself, or what she calls the ‘myth of equality’ in oral history, between the interview and the interviewee. To be fair, this myth has been called out many times, for example by feminist oral historians in the now-classic Women’s Words (1991), or in anthologies such as Oral History Off the Record (2013). But I have never come across it put so clearly from the perspective of an interviewee, who admittedly can only voice her concerns because of her very complicity and privilege within oral history institutions - which gave her not only a platform in this conference, but also the academic wherewithal to be what she called a ‘critical interpreter’ of her own interview. Many of our interviewees do not have that privilege. What then? How do we ameliorate this issue? This was a question we were left with after her talk.

 Dr Kelly Navies, museum specialist from the Smithsonian in Washington DC brought us to a very different geographical and conceptual space from the perspective of the interviewer. How did her lived experiences as an African American woman with a rich family history of storytelling shape her career? Her experiences were very appropriate to the conference’s theme of ‘moving memories’, for her work has brought her from California to North Carolina. Dr Navies’ Berkeley professor refused to give her a recommendation to go to North Carolina for her graduate studies, perceiving it to be 20 years behind in terms of its treatment of African Americans and their history! That said, UNC Chapel Hill and the Southern Oral History Program has been such a strong presence in oral history in the United States, with people like E. Patrick Johnson and Della Pollock in the forefront pushing for more innovative and socially responsible representations of oral history (namely, to understand oral history as performance and performative). Navies’ work in particular has made her a champion for African American voices in the country’s capital and political centre at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

This panel was just a taste, a microcosm if you like, of the diversity of viewpoints expressed at this conference. For instance, I personally did not expect - at a conference based in Australia, organised by an Australian association ‘ to meet fellow Southeast Asians like Kevin Bathman (‘The Chindian Diaries’) and Hanis Diyana Kamarudin (from the newly-established Malaysian Oral History Association) doing work so close to home. After presenting my paper I received feedback that I could immediately apply to the article I was working on. It is this face-to-face immediacy as well as the camaraderie I experienced (at no point was I awkwardly alone in the corner, even though I came not knowing anyone!) throughout, that made this conference special. These are the good points of a globalising oral history field. Nonetheless, we must also acknowledge the inequalities of such a phenomenon. I thank Oral History Australia for the much-needed bursary that allowed me to attend, but conferences like this are often prohibitively expensive for people from a less privileged background. These are some concerns that, in a field championing the voices of the marginalised, we must address for oral history in a global world.

Below: Nien (right) and Hanis

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