I decided to look for someone who was working on an oral history project, because that’s a big part of what I want to do for my own research. I came across this article written by Duncan Barrett, one of two authors of “The Sugar Girls: Tales of Hardship, Love and Happiness in Tate & Lyle’s East End,” a story of working-class women in London. Barrett talks about the difficulties in collecting oral testimonies and writing the collected stories as honestly as possible.
One thing he discusses is building rapport with interviewees. For him, part of this entailed the struggle to suppress his own opinions and beliefs during interviews. He had to accept racist and homophobic comments that he would normally speak out against in order to respect the women’s perspectives and allow them to tell their stories. I think this is something I may have to deal with; I can’t speak for those I haven’t met yet, but I do know some of my family members are prejudiced against certain groups, either because of a history of violence (such as that between Hindus and Muslims) or just because of their own personal bias, and these prejudices can sometimes play a big role in choosing marital partners.
Barrett also says that he and his co-author aimed for a “novelistic style,” writing “not in [their] subjects’ own words but in a single authorial voice, in order to make the women’s experiences gel together as one story.” This is probably similar to what I’ll do; even though I know for sure that I want to include a lot of direct quotes from the women I talk to and make sure their voices come through distinctly, I’ll also have to work their stories into a larger context and present them in a way that makes sense to me. I think this will be really difficult and, for both ethical and fact-checking purposes, will require me to send drafts to the people I’m writing about. That’s what Barrett says he did, and he sometimes had to rework some passages or contend with changing testimonies.
After reading this article, I’m even more aware of the difficulty in collecting oral testimonies, but at the same time, that’s what I wanted: a process of discovery and of collecting real, potentially messy stories.