Book review: Anna Sheftel and Stacey Zembrzycki, Oral History off the Record: Toward an Ethnography of Practice (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013).

Oral History off the Record

We are very good at writing about the powerful stories that our remarkable interviewees share with us, but the circumstances that led to their telling rarely appear in our work. This is unfortunate given that all of our projects are contingent upon the kinds of relationships we form with our interviewees. Tracing their evolution reveals how we build trust, establish limits, ask questions, and, ultimately, listen (Zembrzycki, 131).

The essays in Oral History Off the Record: Toward an Ethnography of Practice, originated out of an international workshop Sheftel and Zembrzycki organized in April 2011 at Concordia University in Montreal entitled ‘Off the Record: Unspoken Negotiations in Oral History’. In the collection, the contributors reflect upon those elements of research using oral history that are not normally discussed, such as the conversations that were not recorded, the people who did not agree to be interviewed, and the relationships that were built up between interviewee and interviewer outside of the interview. Discussing the aim of the volume, the editors Anna Sheftel and Stacey Zembrzycki state, ‘Our goal is to explore how a more holistic approach to the interview might help us better understand the work we do and the people with whom we engage’ (7).

In the first part of the book, entitled, ‘Reflections on a Lifetime of Listening’, Sherna Berger Gluck, co-authors Julie Cruikshank and Tatiana Argounova-Low, and Joan Sangster discuss their own experiences of using oral history over many years and how their interviewing practices have changed. In the first chapter Gluck describes her experiences of two projects – interviewing early twentieth-century US feminists in the 1970s; and her research on women’s activist groups in the village of Kufr Nameh in Palestine between 1989 and 1994. She raises ethical questions about the issue of authority and how our decisions about what to ask and what to publish can affect the image of our interviewees, the information that we reveal, and the history that we make. She notes the importance of the very particular moment at which an interview is conducted, in respect to interviews with Palestinian women in intifada, within a space of a couple of years, things can completely change.  In addition, she explains how her experiences of interviewing Palestinian women have led her to question ‘our glorification of individual life history interviews’ (39).

The importance of collective narratives is also a central theme of Cruikshank and Argounova-Low’s chapter which considers Cruikshank’s long-term research in northwestern Canada and a collaborative project between Argounova-Low and Cruikshank in the Russian Far East in the mid-1990s. They found that ‘none of our collaborators took this as an opportunity to recount a personal narrative in any straightforward way—a genre often central to oral histories. Instead, narrators responded with what might be called classical stories, starting with ancient narratives and eventually linking them with events from recent history. Implicitly, foundational narratives provided reference points for talking about thoroughly modern issues or dilemmas they had confronted, scaffolding for framing life experiences’ (49).

In the final chapter in the first section, Joan Sangster discusses interviews she conducted with working-class and how she now approaches those interviews considering the developments in oral history theory that followed. Sangster notes that the last thirty years have seen two significant moments for oral history. ‘During the first moment of recuperation, circa the 1970s, our oral history praxis was often linked to new currents in social history and to the energy and goals of social movements for justice and equality. The second moment, 20 years later, was associated with more attention to memory, subjectivity, and identity, and to the influence of poststructuralist theory, with its skepticism about grand narratives, the unified self, and a knowable experience’ (59.). In the chapter Sangster explores the second moment by re-examining the interviews he had conducted during the first moment, ‘asking if and how a new emphasis on identity and memory enriched my analysis’ (66). She concludes that while the more recent focus on subjectivity has positively affected oral history theory and practice, the earlier political goals are still crucial.

The second part of the book looks at vulnerability in the oral history process. In the first chapter Martha Norkunas describes an interview she conducted with a woman dying of ovarian cancer. While being sensitive to the ethical issues involved, and her own role in shaping the interview through selecting the topics discussed (which may not have been the issues most important to her interviewee), Norkunas posits that oral history can nonetheless offer ‘a space for resolution or exploration of topics narrators may have been unable to pursue alone’ (93-4). Alan Wong explores the different challenges of being an outsider or insider to the community which one is interviewing amongst. In both of their chapters, Elizabeth Miller and Stacey Zembrzycki reflect on the transformative experiences for both researcher and narrator, that oral history can bring as the relationship between interviewer and interviewee develops over time.

In her introduction to the third part of the book Leyla Nezi explains that the authors of these chapters, ‘address the ways in which the positionality and politics of the researcher affect our interviewees’ stories and our own representations of them’ (145) In the first paper in the section Pamela Sugiman discusses how, after her research on Japanese-Canadian women interned during the Second World War was published, she received an email from a woman called Lois, who criticised her for presenting a partial picture of the experiences of the women involved. Sugiman reflects on her complicated relationship with Lois, whom she came to meet and interview, and how, while they remained at odds over the interpretation of the events, listening to Lois’ account helped her to understand the ‘relationship between personal memory and a wider public discourse’ (164). In her chapter Nadia Jones-Gailani reflects on her complicated relationship with her stepmother, who acted as her translator in the interviews she conducted with Iraqi women. Nancy Janovicek, using the example of her research on the back-to-the-land movement in Canada, notes that there is an assumption in recent historical work that people who were young in the 1960s shape their narratives according to the popularized tropes of the period. She argues however, that this may because ‘that is what we are listening for’ (195). Monica Eileen Patterson concludes the section with her account of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). She describes how the TRC’s agenda shaped both the accounts witnesses gave and how they were presented to the wider world.

Finally, part four considers the issue of silence. As Erin Jesse notes in her introduction to the section: ‘Silence has long been a subject of interest among oral historians’ (219). The authors, Alexander Freund, Luis van Isschot, and Anna Sheftel look approach the theme in different ways. Freund reflects on two interviews he conducted when his interviewees gave him information which was not voiced on the recording, and the problems this posed for him in his analysis. van Isschot considers the silences which characterises the interviews of people living under situations of political violence, in his case the recent history of Colombia. Finally, Sheftel, explores what she terms, ‘the ‘Achilles’ heel of oral history’, namely that ‘we only hear the stories of the people who are willing to speak to us’. She argues that to ‘deepen our understandings of what it means to remember a complex past, we should, at the very least, attempt to understand why those who refuse us make this choice’ (256).

In sum, Oral History off the Record is an extremely rich and diverse collection dealing with the wide spectrum of methodological and analytical challenges that undertaking oral history brings, but often go unspoken. It is therefore a very welcome contribution to scholarship on the process of oral history.

Angela Davis, University of Warwick

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