In real life, I talk a lot. Like way too much! Sometimes I even bore MYSELF, going on and on in broken record mode about some ancient grievance or tedious domestic whinge. But when I get out my audio recorder to capture someone else’s story, I morph into a model of mute and rapt attention. Someone called it aerobic listening, which describes well the intensity with which I absorb what the person across the table from me is saying. It’s usually a kitchen table – my preferred place for hearing life stories, which by definition are intimate, and so belong in the heart of the home, the kitchen.
People often ask me how I ‘get’ someone to tell me highly personal details of their lives – I’ve heard everything from family feuds and political shenanigans to a mother who watched her child die. All I do, I tell them, is listen. But with both ears, laser interest and total empathy. Simple curiosity, a desire to hear what someone thinks, or listen to what happened to them, is a guaranteed connector. It’s not like I invented it. Studs Terkel, the celebrator of American lives for sixty years, knew it. He wanted that on his gravestone: ‘curiosity never killed this cat!’ But he won’t get it, because there IS no gravestone. His ashes, mingled with those of his beloved wife Ida, are buried in an unmarked corner of an inner Chicago park, right where ordinary citizens used to mount an unofficial soapbox and have a say about what bugged them. Maybe that’s why it’s called Bughouse Square.
I went to Chicago as a homage to Studs. I’ve always loved his energy, his optimism and his total embrace of humanity, including – especially – the folk who do it tough, and the ones who make mistakes. Sure, he interviewed high-flyers – his 1959 radio documentary Born To Live included some of the biggest names of the twentieth century, from Bertrand Russell to Simone De Beauvoir, and even I think Einstein. But it also had everyday anonymous folk, from an old Tennessee woman recalling how much wood she chopped as a girl to an Indian man explaining the thrills of a drumming ritual. Studs revelled in life itself, with all its curly bits.
That’s what I’m passionate about too, and what I seek to do through my oral history interviews, which I re-package as radio and books. I love the intimacy of sound, and the power of voice. But sometimes, I admit, you need the printed text. I like debating the merits of these two, but after some recent bruising encounters, I don’t want to do it via academic oral history outlets. The pedants are running most of the oral history institutions it seems, and process now takes precedence over the key ingredient of oral history – PEOPLE.
You have to care about people and their stories – that’s number one. Studs knew it. He didn’t interview by rules. He didn’t get vetted by an ethics committee. He probably wouldn’t have got past one! Yet show me anyone he interviewed who feels hard done by, or that he didn’t tell their their story ‘right’. They must be out there – if we believe Janet Malcolm, the subject can never be happy with the way their interview is presented. But what if she’s wrong, and instead they actually felt pleased, validated, honoured, even tickled pink, to be part of his great chronicles of American life? Can someone please give the interviewer a bit of credit as a story-teller who may just raise the interview to a higher place in the re-telling? Like sometimes our editing IMPROVES your halting or waffling tale!
But there’s a case for keeping tape intact too. I once interviewed an Australian woman, Elizabeth, who had gone to Vietnam in 1968 as a go-go dancer, to entertain the troops. She was 20 at the time, a hairdresser’s apprentice from a large, poor family, who seized this chance to see the world and have a bit of an adventure. She found herself in a strange and surreal landscape, where men often outnumbered ’round-eye’ (European) women 20,000 to 1, where there were no frontlines and no obvious enemy, and where the US soldiers she was to entertain were fighting an internal war based on race. Here she is, talking about one of the weirder moments in Vietnam, when she reckons her band stopped the war – for a while at least.
AUDIO – Elizabeth
Elizabeth had no prior knowledge of the politics of this or the other war, nor of the culture or history of Vietnam. A lot happened to Elizabeth in her twelve months there: life-changing stuff. ( See my book Minefields and Miniskirts for more)
My ‘process’ was based on an old-fashioned concept: trust. Trust cannot be determined by committee; it cannot be enforced, or regulated. It has to be genuine, based on mutual goodwill, and the desire to honour the truth. Elizabeth trusted me to do right by her. I trusted her to tell me what really happened to her in Vietnam and how it affected her. We both feel it was a worthwhile exercise, which benefited many and did harm to none.
Yet a few academics who seem to believe they ‘own’ the moral high ground around oral history showed so little respect or interest in Elizabeth’s own story that they never even listened to the end of her harrowing experience – surely the ultimate insult.
‘The way I look at it is I suppose something like the way a sculptor looks at a block of stone: inside it there’s a shape which he’ll find and he’ll reveal it by chipping away with a mallet and chisel. I’ve got a mountain of tapes and somewhere inside them there’s a book. But how do you cut without distorting? Well you’ve got to be skillful and respectful and you can reorder and rearrange to highlight, and you can juxtapose, but the one thing you can’t do is invent, make up, have people say what they didn’t say.’