If you missed out on this recent OH NSW seminar, you can now read ANU PhD student Atem Atem's presentation on interviewing Sudanese and South Sudanese for the Australian Generations Project here - comments welcome. Audio to follow soon.More »
The panel at the Oral History and Migration Stories seminar, June 26 - from left: Carol McKirdy (facilitator), Atem Atem, Helen Vatsikopoulos and Louise Whelan. The seminar was well attended and concluded with a lively question and answer session. Audio of the presentations will be available soon.
This paper will discuss some of the challenges that I faced conducting interviews for the Australian Generations Oral History Project. I also reflect on some selected themes that emerged from the interviews as I saw them.
I conducted interviews for the Australian Generations Oral History project between 2013 and 2014. My task was to recruit and interview four or five Dinka speakers in Dinka and then transcribe the interviews in English and make time summaries. I eventually interviewed seven Sudanese, two in Dinka, one in Arabic and the rest in English.
The interviews were conversational and in-depth. This was a similar interview method I used for my PhD interviews. I used a modified version of family migration histories interview schedule as proposed by Johannes Pflegerl, which focuses the interview on the whole lived experience of the interviewee from the time they were living in their home country, to displacement and transition, to migration to a new country and life as they experience it in the current host country. The interviews focused on finding out as much as possible about the interviewees in terms of their family social life, education, economic activities, religion, the process of displacement and migration and adjusting to life in the host country. In addition, there were specific questions that I needed to ask in relation to the Australian Generations Oral History project I was interviewing for. For example, there were questions on Medicare, leisure, sexuality, multiculturalism, etc. There were also generational questions that sought to find out what generations the interviewees identified with, how different the generations were from earlier and later generations and so on.
The participants I interviewed were all men except one. Sudanese males were more accessible to me and they had the time to do the interviews.
The age range of the interviewees was diverse, producing interesting dynamics during interviews. For example, Uncle Lungar saw me as a young person who was recording his perspective on the Dinka culture and life in Australia on behalf of South Sudanese youth in diaspora. Therefore, during the entire interview Uncle Lungar placed himself in a position of authority since he was carrying out his duty as an elder addressing the younger generation and in the process educating them on culture and life in diaspora. This also meant that he didn’t answer my questions in the way I would have liked them answered. As a result my role was to keep him talking as long as possible.
The interview with Achol Gai, the only female interviewee, was also quite interesting. She just arrived home as I walked to her flat to conduct the interview. She had left home early that Saturday leaving behind her young daughter and partner. As she showed me the way to her flat, she carried full shopping bags. I was asked to wait until she cooked dinner. Her partner was left with the job of entertaining me. As soon as the cooking was done it was time for dinner. It was not appropriate for me to refuse to join the family to dine since Achol and I know each other quite well. By the time the interview started Achol was exhausted and all she wanted was to spend time with her family.
Understandably, Achol was intending on making the interview as short as possible. It was not likely that the interview with Achol would go on for five hours. So answers were not forth coming or were very short and to the point. This interview was supposed to take half an hour but eventually took one and half-hours. I worked hard to keep the conversation going. Knowing Achol before hand allowed me to draw on common experiences in the past. This got her talking but I had to also accept that we would reverse roles sometimes so that she also asked questions of me. I found myself being the interviewer, the interviewee and the commentator as the interview progressed.
The length of the interview was forbidding for most people though I made it clear that the interviews didn’t need to go for the whole five hours and could be broken up to as many sessions as the interviewees liked. The majority of the interviewees chose to either have marathon five-hour interviews or broke the interviews into two sessions. It was sometime difficult to get people to do the interviews as scheduled. I was not surprised that I had to wait sometime for hours to only be informed that the interviewee was caught up doing something else. For example, in one case the interviewee drove to the airport but on their way back was stuck in traffic for two hours!
Carrying out interviews to obtain oral histories or any information for that matter in the way it is done in research is quite culturally alien for South Sudanese. The interviews were sometime difficult because they went against the culturally appropriate manner in which information was obtained. Normally, the person seeking information visited the person of interest at his/her home. The person of interest then showed the appropriate level of hospitality depending on the status of the visiting person and the pre-existing relationship if there was any.
Questions were not asked directly but a conversation ensued that had nothing to do with the purpose of the visit. After exchanging pleasantries and a general conversation, the person seeking information might weave his enquiry into the conversation. However, in the case where the issues were very serious or the person seeking information had no existing relationship with the person from whom the information was sought, either the person from whom the information was sought indicated that he/she wanted to know why he/she was receiving a visit or the person visiting indicated that he/she was visiting for a specific reason. The framing of the enquiry was done in such a way that it was respectful and normally no direct questions asked. A long vague story was commonly narrated from which the listener worked out what the issue of the enquiry was. The answer to the enquiry was equally long in an effort to address all aspects of the enquiry. The person enquiring then displays his/her satisfaction in what he/she heard or continued the enquiry until his/her enquiry was satisfactorily addressed.
Another issue was my position in relation to the interviewees. I knew two of the interviewees quite well. This can be good. For example, one interviewee hesitated to answer a question but then told me that since I was the one interviewing him he was going to be honest and say something controversial that South Sudanese might not like to hear. However, my position in relation to the interviewees could also be problematic. For example, in the case of Uncle Lungar as mentioned above, it was difficult to get him to speak to the questions because of our individual positions relative to each other in the community – he was an elder and I was a younger person.
One more issue was the fact that the interviewees were not sure of what to think when I explained to them that if they needed to use the stories they were going to tell me during the interview in the future they would need to take permission from the National Library of Australia. I did my best to explain to them how it works. However, it didn’t make sense to some of them that the National Library of Australia was going to own their stories. This was culturally a foreign idea. No one could claim ownership of a story including one’s own story. Once a story was told or experienced and reflected upon it could be used by anyone in the community as much as they wished without asking permission to use it. I made it clear to the interviewees prior to the interviews that they didn’t have to do the interviews if they didn’t agree that they would need to take permission from the National Library of Australia to use their story as recorded by the National Library of Australia in the future. I also assured them that the National Library of Australia couldn’t own their stories.
Impact of war
The majority of Sudanese and South Sudanese who live in Australia came to Australia through the humanitarian program. Their migration was a result of civil war. David Mawel spoke of his war experience. The war that led to the displacement of millions of people in South Sudan between 1983 and 2005 started in Mawel’s hometown. He witnessed it. Mawel was a child then and recalled that he didn’t understand the politics of the war. However, his quest for education made him seek refuge in Ethiopia in the hope of meeting Dr John Garang, the rebel leader, who might get him a scholarship to send him to school. Unfortunately Mawel ended up in the rebel army. Mawel, a child wandering alone in the bush, didn’t have his family with him. He had to survive without the warmth and love of the family. Family to him was important and symbolised in his mind what was normal – peace, order, stability, guidance, protection and love. He accepted to be deprived of his family for a higher and greater goal and that was the freedom of the people of South Sudan. The death of colleagues and friends on the battlefield made Mawel more determined to fight on because the only way to avenge their death was through liberating Sudan from oppression. The experience of Mawel growing up without family was unfortunately not unique. Thousands of South Sudanese children fled their homes leaving behind family. The high profile Lost Boys of Sudan were among these children.
Now that Mawel is in Australia, he wants South Sudanese young people who were born here or grew up here to understand that family is very important and should not be taken for granted. He is saddened when he sees South Sudanese young people in Western Sydney fighting their parents and choosing to live on the streets fighting, drinking and in many cases taking drugs. Mawel believes that authorities in Sydney need to work closely with South Sudanese community, South Sudanese elders and parents to help South Sudanese young people be the best they can be and play a significant role in moving their home Australia forward.
James Mayol experienced the war in a different way. When I met him, he was friendly and very engaging. He came across as an intelligent man and a man who would have led a normal life. During the early stages of the war, Arab militias attacked Mayol’s village in South Sudan. He was kidnapped and sold into slavery. As a young boy he lived as a slave for sometime. His master assigned him to cattle herding. Mayol’s master wanted him to forget his culture and language and take up Islam and the Arabic culture. Mayol quietly resisted. He refused to be assimilated. The process of his assimilation involved watching him closely and making him work hard to break his spirit. However, Mayol had other plans. When the opportunity presented itself to him he ran away. Mayol ended up in the nearest town after a long journey on foot.
Mayol joined a circus as he sought ways to go back home. His natural skills and positive attitude enabled him to join the army as a recruit. He eventually made his way up north and to Eretria to join the South Sudanese rebels. In Eretria, he was unable to join the South Sudanese rebels. However, due to his athletic skills he was chosen to compete at the Olympics. He didn’t compete at the Olympics but instead came to Australia.
Mayol’s life before coming to Australia was full of challenges but he conquered them all. His experience demonstrated his resilience and tenacity. He never gave up even when things looked so murky and impossible to work out. His resilience took him far and continues to drive him. In Australia, Mayol worked hard and took himself through university and simultaneously raised a young family. He completed his university studies in Sydney and returned to South Sudan. He is currently a government minister in South Sudan.
It has been observed that refugees are resilient people. Refugees are determined and innovative in addition to being resilient. This means that they can make something for themselves anywhere they go. Australia’s refugee policy especially that on asylum seekers and the negative discourse around refugees generally have negative impact on refugees in Australia. Australia should be grateful for each refugee who comes here because refugees can make Australia a better place through their resilience, ingenuity, hard work and commitment to this country.
It is very difficult to develop a clear sense of identity in the context of continuous displacement. Achol Gai was born just about the time war broke out in South Sudan in the early 1980s. She separated ways with her parents and siblings who sought refuge in Ethiopia. Achol was left in the village with her grandmother. When Achol was old enough to go to Ethiopia, she joined her family in Ethiopia. However, her father was caught up in the politics of the liberation movement and was detained. He was one of the founders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) that planned the war for independence of South Sudan. SPLM has been the ruling party in South Sudan since it gained independence in 2011.
Achol never met her father but had her mother with her always. Strong women had always surrounded her. She spoke of her feminine identity as a source of strength and she would want to pass that on to her young daughter. In Ethiopia she didn’t know she or her family were refugees because no one spoke of refugees. The fact that her father was highly regarded meant that she lived a sheltered life in Ethiopia.
At school in Kenya, Achol came face to face with identity challenges. She was in a foreign country where people spoke different languages and looked different. This was no different from Ethiopia. However, Kenyan schoolmates pointed out that Achol was a refugee. Initially Achol didn’t understand what that meant. The concept of being a refugee in Achol’s mind until she went to school in Kenya was not there. For her, one could live in another country but that is all there was to it. In practice, for Achol, her refugee identity didn’t make any difference. She went to school in Niarobi like other Kenyan children. She spoke Swahili like everyone else and she lived in a decent house that was sometime crowed but as decent as everyone else’s. However, Achol felt that she was walking around with a mark on her forehead that said ‘REFUGEE’. Achol didn’t feel settled in her own skin and Identity in Nairobi. Nobody knew her outside school. Her father in Nairobi, apart from donors who lined up to support her family financially, had no profile and was not known.
Ironically, Achol found her identity in the refugee camp. She loved visiting Kakuma Refugee Camp where most of her relatives lived. They recognised her and her father. She was the daughter of the beloved Martin Majir who was the most respected South Sudanese politician of his time. People in Kakuma recognised Achol as part of the big family. She felt there that she was accepted entirely. The people of the camp were her people and she belonged to them. Before Achol migrated to Australia she lived in Kakuma Refugee Camp where she taught to give back to her community.
Achol’s story seems to suggest that identity is closely connected to the sense of belonging. The way a person is received and perceived in society determines whether someone identifies with that society or not. For Achol, the sense of belonging was found in the most difficult place in Kenya – a refugee camp where she felt her identity was recognised and celebrated. For Achol, it didn’t matter how much she personally gained materially and socially in Nairobi. Her refugee status seemed to place her, at least emotionally, in the category of the other. However, in the refugee camp her refugee identity disappeared and her being who she was was celebrated.
Multiculturalism is probably the most misunderstood and controversial concept. It means different things to different people. For example, for Achol Multiculturalism meant giving people like her another chance. It safeguards against discrimination and racism. However, for James Mayol, multiculturalism at the one level is an enabler allowing him to learn English and maybe find a job of some sort. However, it doesn’t go far enough.
Mayol was concerned about the fact that communities in Sydney seemed to be segregated. In a multicultural society he failed to understand why all migrants were settled in Western Sydney. Why was it that North Sydney was reserved for Anglo-Australians? Why was it that the Lebanese congregate in one part of Sydney while the Vietnamese in Another? Mayol suggested that there was little intercultural interaction that was going on among communities in Sydney. This, according to him, was not what he understood multiculturalism was or should be.
Mayol also pointed out that in a multicultural society, people with difference should be accepted and included. However, in Australia multiculturalism seemed to be about some exclusionary hierarchy based on material possession. He felt that his children would always have less then everyone else because he had nothing to pass on to them. When Australian children grew up they inherited money or property that they continued building on and eventually passed on to the next generation. Mayol predicted that it would take generations for his descents to get to the point where they had accumulated enough wealth to set them up at equal footing with other Australians. Mayol seemed to think that in a multicultural society this should not be the case – people should not belong based on what they own but on who they are.
In addition Mayol gave some psychological interpretation of what happened to migrants in a multicultural society – they were torn between the home country and the host country. Migrants couldn’t forget their home country and the people they lived with before migrating. However, the migrant cannot leave his/her children in Australia and return home. So the migrant in a multicultural society was torn between two worlds – the world of his people and the new world of his children. The migrant would go back home for a little while to enjoy the company of his people that he would miss while in Australia. However, he would miss his children while at home and would feel that his absence from his children for long periods wasn’t acceptable. Mayol concluded that there was no resolution to this struggle.
I have described above how I carried out interviews for the Australian Generations Oral History Project and the issues that I had come up against as I worked with different members of the Sudanese community. My status as a member of the community was very influential in how interviewees were recruited and the way the interviews preceded. The interviewee’s choice of what questions to answer and how to answer them was entirely determined by the interview dynamics created by my community membership and my status in relation to individual interviewees.
Ownership of recorded oral history material was difficult to explain to people from oral traditions. At least in the Sudanese and South Sudanese oral traditions, the community owned histories and stories collectively and every member of the community had the right to use oral history, stories, songs, poems, etc. in the way that best suit them. In most cases the way oral material was used was dependent on the occasion when the oral material was performed and the audience. This issue needs to be recognised and addressed when recording oral history with people who might come from oral traditions like the Sudanese.I have also presented a selection of themes for this presentation. These included the experience of war by former refugees; the resilience former refugees brought with them and continue to thrive on, identity and finally multiculturalism. These themes are common in migration studies. However, seeing them from purely Sudanese and South Sudanese perspective could give us a more nuance understanding of them. The themes also engage with what it means to be Australian and how Australians should treat each other irrespective of their heritage and legal status. In addition, the themes engage with the place of Australia in the world and how Australians should respond to international humanitarian crises that often bring people on to Australia’s shores seeking asylum.
Presented by Oral History NSW President Paula Hamilton. Details here.
Catch up on OH NSW's first seminar of the year, 'Making digital history', with presenters Hamish Sewell and Bronwyn Murphy - full audio now available.More »
‘Digital projects have made us rethink the scale and depth of what we can do’, OH NSW President Paula Hamilton told the audience in her introduction to OH NSW’s first seminar for the year, ‘Making digital history’. The seminar was the first in a series that aims to explore oral history’s development in different directions and its uses in the public sphere, she said. It also hopes to inspire oral historians in their own practice, particularly in looking beyond the traditional focus on the interview and the archive.
The two speakers at the seminar were Bronwyn Murphy, sound recordist/editor and co-ordinator since 2013 of the National Film and Sound Archive’s oral history program, and Hamish Sewell, oral historian/radio producer and founder of Soundtrails, an app which uses recorded stories and sounds as a way to bring places to life.
I attended this event, held on March 12, and fully intended to keep detailed notes. But the speakers were too engaging and their subject material too interesting, so in the end I just listened - an option now open to all, as the speakers have generously allowed recordings of their presentations to be made available through the OH NSW website, here.
A few moments from the presentations: this is Hamish explaining the experience of following a soundtrail - LISTEN [at 13.09 in the full audio], and here is a link to an earlier project he initiated, based on Story Corps in the US, which invites participants to be their own oral historians - this is the Uralla Story Project.
And here is Bronwyn talking about the first full NFSA oral history interview put up on SoundCloud, with Doc Neeson - LISTEN[AT 12.43 on the full audio]. You can find that interview here. This link takes you to the NFSA's site and an example of an online exhbition in which oral history interviews feature as part of a rich range of materials including scripts, film clips, music, photographs and other images. And here is another component of the work done in the NFSA's oral history program - this is an index of brief video interviews with oral history interviewees, usually done at the end of a longer interview session, which are posted on YouTube and publicised via twitter and facebook as a way to enhance the program's accessibility and promote its activities overall.
The NFSA wesbite, portal to the activities of the oral history program, is currently being rebuilt. Bronwyn is optimistic about the new opportunities it will provide to access and share the content. And Soundtrails is also at a crossroads, as Hamish explained in concluding his presentation: hamish_sewell_5.mp3 [at 34:20 in the full audio] - more opportuntities, more challenges.
The Australian Generations project provides the content for the latest issue of Australian Historical Studies.More »
The latest theme issue of Australian Historical Studies (AHS), edited by Katie Holmes and Alistair Thomson, features seven articles by members of the Australian Generations team in which we use the project’s oral history interviews to illuminate a range of topics in Australian social history, and to discuss innovations and issues in oral history. The open access online editorial on ‘Oral History and Australian Generations’ by Katie and Al introduces the project and the articles. Katie and Al also discuss the articles in this video clip on the AHS Facebook site. Use this link to access all the articles. To view individual articles click on any of the following links (note that if you are not an AHS subscriber you will need to view through a local, state or education library, or pay for access):
Class, Social Equity and Higher Education in Postwar Australia (Christina Twomey and Jodie Boyd);
Telling Families and Locating Identity: Narratives of Late Modern Life (Kerreen Reiger);
Creating an Oral History Archive: Digital Opportunities and Ethical Issues (Kevin Bradley and Anisa Puri)
Oral History in the Digital Age: Beyond the Raw and the Cooked (Michael Frisch)
The Radio Documentary and Oral History: Challenges and Opportunities (Michelle Rayner)
This journal theme issue is the major academic outcome from the ARC-funded Australian Generations Oral History Project, a collaboration between historians at Monash University and La Trobe University and colleagues at the National Library of Australia and ABC Radio National which produced 300 life history interviews with Australians born between 1920 and 1989.
Later in 2016, Monash University Publishing will publish Australian Lives: An Aural History by Anisa Puri and Alistair Thomson. This book uses interview extracts to illuminate the lived experience of Australian history across the 20th century, arranged in chapters on Ancestry, Childhood, Faith, Youth, Migrations, Midlife, Activism, Later Life and Reflections. The book will be published as a paperback and e-book, and e-book users will be able to listen to each interview extract as they read – an ‘aural history’ first!.
Academic and co-author Leonard Janiszewski provides some background on the evolution of the project that became Greek Cafes & Milk Bars of Australia (pub. Halstead Press).
About the project
In 1982 Effy Alexakis commenced a detailed and ongoing research project investigating the historical and contemporary Greek-Australian presence, both nationally and internationally. I joined her in the following year. The project, ‘In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians’, is now recognised as one of the most comprehensive visual, oral, and literary archives on Greek-Australians. Our initial aim was to break down the pre-existing stereotypes of Greeks in Australia – such as the ‘urban stereotype’ of Greek café, milk bar and fish’n’chip shop proprietor, and the ‘folkloric stereotype’ of Greek festivals and dancers in traditional costume. These were dissolved within the broad and diverse plethora of occupational pursuits and socio-cultural activities engaged by Greek-Australians, both past and present, and on a national scale. A sweeping, fresh panorama of a people’s migration, settlement and identity emerged. Exhibitions, publications and film documentaries followed.
Yet, whilst Greeks did enter a wide variety of occupations over the last two hundred years since their initial arrival in Australia, Effy and I understood that they nevertheless had played a large part in Australia’s food-catering industry, particularly through the Greek café. The occupational stereotype of the Greek café existed because of their abundant numbers, their popularity, and as the enterprise was the most common social and business point of contact between British-Australians and Greek-Australians. The importance of the Greek café was also recognised in memory by the institution’s proprietors, staff and customers. Unfortunately though, the Greek café had only received a thimble measure of recognition within the seminal publication on the history of eating in Australia – Michael Symons’ One Continuous Picnic (1st edition 1982, 2nd edition 2007). Symons’ relative silence on the Greek café provided an irresistible opportunity for Effy and myself.
From the mid-1980s Effy and I had started to recognise that an American element of influence was clearly present in regard to the Greek café. Early historical photos featured Greek café window signage declaring ‘American Ice Cream and Chocolates’. Interviewees had spoken of Greek migration to American and then Australia, of the consequent ‘American style’ of Australia’s Greek cafés, or of their personal enjoyment of ‘American Beauty’ sundaes and ‘American milkshakes and sodas’, and how the cafés captured a sense of ‘Hollywood’ as seen in the cinemas, or was their first introduction to Rock’n’Roll. We pursued this theme further within both our field and archival research, and were well rewarded. The ‘Greek café project’ became a major area of investigation within the overall ‘In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians’ project.
So, over the course of three decades, having completed hundreds of field trips and almost 2,000 interviews across five countries, we can now, in detail, begin to confidently negate Symons’ failure. What has arisen is an Australian story, but one with significant international components.
The book and exhibition
Utilising oral reminiscences and literary-based documentation to provide a narrative context, Greek Cafés & Milk Bars of Australia interplays historical and contemporary images. Structurally, the work is divided into number of thematic chapters – very loose groupings of sub-themes appear within the chapters. A historical over-view is provided by the opening essay. Readers should not feel obliged however to read the publication as a rigid linear narrative. We encourage that the reader’s journey through the work, like an exhibition, should be self-determined (at least in the first instance) – wandering at will from one story to another, both within and amongst the chapters. Such a random manner of reading will emphasise change – changes in time (forwards or backwards), place, circumstance, outlook and emotions will confront each other suddenly rather than appear to gently evolve as in a smooth progression of a linear narrative. Most readers should then be tempted by this process to find out why and how such changes occurred. A curiosity, which, it is hoped, will lead them deeper into the publication’s content.
Most archival material (oral, visual or literary) used in this publication, unless otherwise specified, is held within our project’s archive. The qualified statements of interviewees – both proprietors and customers – dominate the textual component of the work. Indeed, their statements, their voice, should – this is their story. Most interviews were conducted in English. Those undertaken in Greek have been translated as closely as possible to what was said. All transcripts attempt to reflect the language style and structure employed by each interviewee. The English spelling of given and surnames of Greek interviewees are provided in a manner which they utilised, or are spelt phonetically. The names of Greek historical identities are spelt in English based upon the most common spelling in documents, or according to the manner preferred by descendants. At times, multiple spellings are provided if each has equal currency of recognition.
The book is also a companion publication to our touring exhibition Selling an American Dream: Australia’s Greek Café, which opened at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, in 2008. The exhibition has continued to tour around the country ever since – a tribute to the popularity of the subject. Both Effy and I hope that Greek Cafés and Milk Bars of Australia will potentially lead to another volume on the subject – particularly given the vast and diverse array of information at our disposal.
Macquarie University, 2016
Oral History NSW is pleased to announce that two grants of $600 each may be awarded to any member undertaking research based on, or concerning, oral history and who will be attending or presenting a paper at the National Oral History Association of New Zealand (NOHANZ) Conference Tell Me More: Sharing Our Stories, October 2-24 2016 in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Grant applicants are not required to present a paper at the conference in order to apply for this grant. All grant recipients will be required to write a 1000-1200 word post on their experience at the conference for Oral History NSW’s blog. Conference proposals must be submitted by Friday 8 April 2016. See the NOHANZ Call for Papers for full details - here. And find the grant application form here.
Closing date for applications - May 9. Details here.
- call for papers. Deadline Friday 8 April - details here.
- deadline April 15. Visit here for details.