Telling Interview Stories: Understanding Oral History from the Perspective of Practice

Anna Sheftel and Stacey Zembrzycki

Oral historians often state that, at its core, interviewing is about relationships. This generally refers to the relationships that interviewers and interviewees build and nurture over the course of their encounters, so as to create open, safe, and respectful spaces where one side can share intimate stories, and the other can listen deeply and meaningfully to them. However, there are more relationships involved in the oral history process than just this archetypical one. Others in the room—co-interviewers, a videographer, family members that come in and out of the space—interact with and complicate the dynamic. And, there are also the imagined and real audiences, for whom the stories are being told. All of these people, and the varied relationships that result, have a profound effect on what happens within an interview. Reflecting on our experiences, as these relationships both thrive and flounder, can therefore only help us better understand the stories that they produce and the ways we interpret them later.

Let us use the example of one of our own multidirectional relationships. We had never done oral history interviews as co-interviewers until we joined the Montreal Life Stories project, the Concordia University-community-based initiative, which collected 500 life history interviews with Montrealers who had survived mass violence, between 2007 and 2012. Our first interview together, wherein we were already nervous about sharing the role of interviewer with another person, went something like this: It was a cool day at the end of November in 2008. We did not know what to expect from each other and from our interviewee. Would one of us dominate the space, while the other felt silenced? Would we overwhelm our interviewee? These thoughts quickly fell by the wayside when our interviewee opened the door and ushered us into their dining room. This person was a “tough cookie,” from start to finish. They were warm, friendly, and interested in our project—we were there to speak to them about their Holocaust experiences as well as the role they played in Holocaust education in Montreal—but they were also inquisitive and hesitant about doing yet another interview, which asked them to recount what they had been through. Why should they share their story with us? What would we do with it? Who would hear their story and how could we ensure that it was not used for nefarious purposes? We spent the better part of three hours discussing these important questions over mugs of tea. We did not conduct an interview that day. Instead, we engaged in an intense intellectual conversation about why this person ought to talk to us, what they could offer the project and what we could give them in return, and the conditions under which they would talk, if indeed they did, in the end, choose to share their stories with us. We left somewhat stunned, certain that neither of us had ever had an interviewee dissect our work like this before.

Eventually this person agreed to be interviewed, and when we returned to their home, the first thing they did was go through every line on our consent forms to negotiate each condition. Our interviewee was careful about setting boundaries that governed every aspect of our exchanges, determining the pace at which we would listen and what exactly we would hear. They would talk about their lifelong commitment to Holocaust education, but they would not, under any circumstances, share their own Holocaust experience with us. We agreed to these terms, but we worried about this arrangement. If we only knew the “second half” of this person’s story, so to speak, how could we contextualize it? What could we do with an interview that contained gaping holes and important silences? Whatever our concerns, these conditions made our interviewee comfortable, and so they were necessary. We happily deferred to these boundaries. And indeed, whatever our limitations, the time we spent together was productive and enlightening. The attention we gave to our interviewee’s questions and the ways that we respected their terms helped us establish trust. We conducted three interviews with this person over the course of the next year and developed a mutually respectful relationship that enabled us to learn a lot about Holocaust education together. We still do not know what our interviewee experienced during the war.

Our first meeting did not go as planned. They rarely do. These twists and turns are nerve-wracking, but they are also what makes oral history so exciting and unique. While the relationship we developed with our interviewee blossomed, we also learned to work together as co-interviewers, bouncing ideas off of each other and supporting the other through difficult moments. An in depth examination of nearly every aspect of our interviews helped us realize that questions about process—of the negotiations that take place within and outside of the interview and how they shape the stories we eventually record—were not only fascinating, but also fundamental to our practice. Valerie Yow describes the informal conversations that happen around oral history interviews as “corridor talk.”[1] The interviews we did together and the endless conversations we had about them in the car afterwards, on the phone, and over lunch made us realize that understanding the form, content, and process of oral history, and especially how these elements overlap before, during, and after our interviews, requires us to formalize our corridor talk. It is only by discussing our experiences in the field, including our incredible successes and abysmal failures, that we will come to understand our craft and the stories we hear, and don’t hear, during our interviews.

We began publicly sharing our interview stories in 2010 when we published “Only Human: A Reflection on the Ethical and Methodological Challenges of Working with ‘Difficult’ Stories.”[2] In it, we reflected on the interviews we conducted with a handful of survivors, including the person mentioned above, and asked our readers to consider a couple of pointed questions: “What can we learn about our interviewees when we fail to make a connection or struggle to listen deeply? How can we become better community-engaged oral historians by negotiating and arriving at an ethical and intellectual balance between respecting community taboos and maintaining academic integrity?”[3] We did not raise these questions and air some of our more uncomfortable interview experiences to simply debrief; we firmly believe that the answers to these questions enable us to better understand the important stories our interviewees tell us. When interpreting their interviews, most oral historians tend to rely on what they can hear in their recordings. But how, we ask, can everything else that transpires help us understand the nuanced and textured lives that we are studying? Being transparent about how our processes shape the recordings we eventually work from is key to developing a more rigorous oral history practice.

These questions are not easily answered, and so we have continued to ask them time and again. In April 2011, we organized an international workshop at Concordia University that posed these queries to our interdisciplinary and intergenerational participants. This workshop recently resulted in the publication of Oral History Off the Record: Toward an Ethnography of Practice (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). In this collection, our contributors reflect on their interview experiences and ask their own important questions: how do we balance the need for self-reflexivity with the desire to stay focused on our interviewees’ lives? How do we handle difficult moments in interviews that test our abilities to listen? How do we listen when faced with difficult circumstances that complicate the interview space, such as political violence and upheaval? Although our contributors adopt different approaches when it comes to critically and honestly reflecting on their work, their engagement with their “off the record” encounters helps us understand the humanity of interviewers, interviewees, and the process itself.

As oral history flourishes in Canada, we hope that these discussions about practice will continue. If you would like to participate in this conversation and learn more about this collection, please join us for a book talk and reception in Montreal on November 18; RSVP here. For those outside of Montreal, the book’s Facebook page also offers a place to discuss your interview stories.

Anna Sheftel is an Assistant Professor of Conflict Studies at Saint Paul University and Stacey Zembrzycki is an Affiliate Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Concordia University.

 


1. Valerie Yow, “‘Do I Like Them Too Much?’: Effects of the Oral History Interview on the Interviewer and Vice-Versa,” Oral History Review 24, 1 (1997): 55.

2. Anna Sheftel and Stacey Zembrzycki, “Only Human: A Reflection on the Ethical and Methodological Challenges of Working with ‘Difficult’ Stories,” Oral History Review 37, 2 (Summer–Fall 2010): 191–241.

3. Ibid., 209.

2 thoughts on “Telling Interview Stories: Understanding Oral History from the Perspective of Practice

  1. Carolyn Podruchny

    Thank you for sharing this fascinating and instructive story. It has implications for many settings, and especially in my field of Indigenous history.

  2. Stacey Zembrzycki

    I’m glad to hear this Carolyn and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the book! Julie Cruikshank and Tatiana Argounova-Low have a piece that may have particular resonance to your work, though I’m sure others will be applicable too.

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