William Schneider, ed. Living With Stories: Telling, Re-telling, and Remembering. Logan: Utah State Press, 2008. pp. 175 pages. ISBN: 978-0-87421-689-9 (cloth) $27.95 cloth, $23.00 e-book.
Living With Stories grew out of a panel at the 2004 U.S. Oral History Association meeting, and its structure consciously echoes that of a conference session—each chapter is deepened and developed by a following interview between the chapter’s author and a notable scholar whose own, related research makes them uniquely able to expand upon the original paper. These “conversation” chapters extend to the reader a sense of privileged participation, a vicarious presence at an especially coherent and insightful conference discussion. The transcribed conversations are more engaging, and more truly dialogic, than the usual “response” essays in similar volumes.
In his introductory chapter, William Schneider frames the included articles with a concise and informative definition of oral history, as concept and practice. New students and non-specialists will appreciate this accessible grounding, which covers such diverse subjects as cross-cultural awareness, the role of oral history in nonliterate societies, folklore of the individual, the therapeutic effect of speech, and the troubled authority or significance of oral sources in a modern society. The emphasis throughout the volume is on context, the fluidity and multivalent potential of stories, rather than the reductionist reconstruction or degeneration of “original” texts. Living With Stories focuses particularly on the ways that oral histories serve different purposes for tellers at various points in their lives—the story is not a static object, in which the earliest recorded version is the most accurate, but rather a constantly transforming vehicle for the making and re-making of identity. The aim of the book, Schneider articulates, is threefold: to increase appreciation for oral history, to underscore the significance of context and audience in the production and reiteration of a tale, and to emphasize the role retelling plays in how and what we remember.
The first chapter, by Holly Cusack-McVeigh, is written in the style of an ongoing narrative, like a field journal. While somewhat unfocused and rather more speculative than conclusive, the essay delves reflexively into the ethnographer’s developing awareness of how her own presence in the community. Furthermore, Cusack-McVeigh recognizes the role that oral histories play in socialization, in her case, in educating an ignorant ethnographer in community-appropriate gender roles through a story.
The second chapter is co-authored by Crowell and Estelle Oozebaseuk, a Yupik elder working with the Smithsonian for the repatriation of bones from the victims of a 19th century epidemic/famine. Offering explanations for the objects in a permanent exhibition at the Anchorage Museum, Oozebaseuk uses a sanightaaq, a ceremonial seal intestine parka, as the locus for intersecting narratives. The parka is an object with both traditional and Christian significance, and the authors focus on how the oral histories told in the Yupik community represent a complex syncretism of traditional and Christian beliefs, rationalizing the tragedy by fitting it into Yupik morality and worldview.
Kirin Narayan’s reflexive and lyrical contribution is a close analysis of women’s song performance during a wedding in the Kangra district of Northern India. After a brief cultural, historical, and personal framing of the community, Narayan focuses on a specific text, that of a song detailing Krishna’s seduction of the beautiful cowherd woman, Chandravali. Narayan incorporates the interpretations of her participants, who offer their own explanations, both initially and upon re-hearing Narayan’s recordings on a later visit, for Krishna’s outrageous and entertaining behavior. She then goes on to thoughtfully draw out the way that “in women’s folklore, mythological events are often recast to emphasize women’s perspectives” (78). Narayan points out that the performance itself is politically and historically situated, invoking a rich tradition of women’s knowledge.
In Joanne B. Mulcahy’s chapter, the author reiterates the power of persistent cultural metaphors, specifically the image of heritage as a tree with healthy roots. Though the chapter is not co-authored, Mulcahy incorporates lengthy, key quotes from the teller, Eva Castellanoz. A teacher, folk artist, and curanerismo living with cancer, Castellanoz has a complex narrative understanding of heritage, faith, and health. Mulcahy argues that Eva’s stories are “social acts,” and that her invocation of tradition is “more than mere nostalgia [but] a creative use of history to meet the demands of contemporary Latino life” (112). The power of metaphor, the author notes, is crucial to the ability of stories to transcend the narrative space and do social work. Remarking on the chapter, Barbara Babcock stresses the role of storytelling in navigating intersubjectivity, particularly as a ‘safe space’ for women to explore themes and relationships that are often deemed ‘too feminine’ and by extension ‘too trivial.’
Sherna Gluck’s chapter looks at the emerging feminist consciousness of Palestinian women before and after the first (1987-1994) intifada—uprisings against Israeli occupation of the West Bank. In clear, well-organized prose, Gluck draws on six years of fieldwork to examine the ways that narratives shift over time with changes in the political climate. The question of how to negotiate a place for “women’s issues” within broadly nationalist pursuits was something with which her participants struggled. Comparing earlier and later interviews, Gluck concludes that it was not feminist consciousness that changed over time—what changed was the openness of the national community and thus women’s freedom to express themselves.
The final chapter, a particularly exciting discussion of how Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry has moved to incorporate performance and participation into their exhibitions by Lorraine McConaghy, reads as a “what’s next” for oral history. McCohanghy critiques the kinds of narratives that have constrained the Museum in the past, overshadowing the important stories of less socially visible people. By incorporating new and more dialogic methods of display, such as Reader’s Theater, the public is invited to become emotionally involved with the stories they perform, and realize, moreover, that their own stories are valuable and tell-able. By “liberat[ing] the narratives from the archive’s shelves,” the history becomes approachable and relevant to a new generation (152). Rather than simply being ‘saved’ and set aside, the oral histories are put to work as theater, social work, or even therapy. While all the contributors and commentators bring something to the discussion, this final, forward-looking chapter feels the most vital.
Living With Stories includes such a diverse group of essays, each with its own theoretical agenda, that it threatens to become ill-defined. However, careful editing and a unique format turn the volume from a hodge-podge into a rambling conversation—rarely dull, and occasionally brilliant.