From Mouth to Page
Lynn Abrams, Oral History Theory (Routledge, 2010), 214 pp.
Oral History Theory is a well-written and accessible survey of contemporary approaches to the analysis and interpretation of oral histories. The focus of the book is upon the interview encounter. Abrams suggests that oral historians rarely ‘write candidly about their interview experiences’ and as a consequence the interview has received the least attention in oral history theory. This is not a ‘how to’ book, however. Abrams discusses the theorization of the ‘self’, ‘subjectivity and intersubjectivity’, memory, narrative, and performance, and ends with a chapter on ‘power and empowerment’.
While the author draws upon the rich oral history literature in English, almost exclusively her attention is to the work of historians. Yet both in theory and practice oral history is interdisciplinary rather than being confined to history alone. Given this it is surprising that there is little attention to approaches in cognate fields such as social and cultural psychology, or narrative gerontology. The virtual absence of reference to recent work in psychology is most surprising, particularly in the chapter on memory that draws primarily upon Maurice Halbwachs’ sociological approach to collective memory, produced in the 1920s.
Abrams observes that oral historians have shifted their emphasis from the collection of information to the analysis of the ‘creative’ dimensions of memory narratives (pp. 103, 56). The strength of the book lies in the clear exposition of some of the core theoretical dimensions that underpin this shift: composure, subjectivity and intersubjectivity, cultural discourse and the cultural circuit. Each theory is effectively illustrated through the use of specific examples from oral history research, making the text particularly accessible for students coming to the field for the first time. In terms of this shift of focus, an unresolved question remains: what is the relationship between oral history and the resolutely empirical nature of historical practice, in the U.K. at least? Are oral historians pushing the boundaries of the discipline, or are they actually moving into a new field such memory studies or the study of historical consciousness?
Abrams rightly argues that oral history exists in four forms: ‘the original oral interview, the recorded version of the interview, the written transcript, and the interpretation of the interview material’ (p. 9). It is the first of these upon which this book concentrates. There is no reference in the text to the secondary use of oral sources, when the interview, either in audio or transcript format, is subsequently analyzed or interpreted by a researcher who did not make the original recording. This will become increasingly significant as oral history archives grow, with implications for the analysis of intersubjectivity within the interview process.
A major question within oral history, and cultural theory more broadly, was identified by James Fentress and Chris Wickham in 1992: what is the relationship between individual or personal and collective or public memory? Abrams draws attention to this tension, between ‘the power of culture and the power of individual agency’ (p. 48). I have to make a disclaimer at this point, in that I believe Abrams has misrepresented my position on this question. Arguing that oral historians need to take a nuanced approach to the application of cultural theory, and pay attention to the ways in which individuals reflect upon and negotiate complex discourses within autobiographical memory, does not imply rejection the influence of the social and cultural context. But I do query whether the ‘self’ is quite as fluid and malleable as Abrams asserts it to be. Citing the influence of poststructuralist theorists, she argues that ‘what the individual presents to the world, and to themselves, changes hour to hour’ (p. 57). My own oral history research indicates that the narrative construction of individual identity has more temporal stability than that, even when presentation and/or performance are modified for particular audiences.
This book is an interesting and thought-provoking survey of oral history theory. I hope that a consequence of its publication will be the stimulation of open-minded debate and discussion around the many interesting questions about subjectivity that continue to engage oral historians around the world.
Lenin Fisher, My Life, My Revolution: The Life of a Worker Named Luis Fisher Leon. Nicaragua: Editorial Universitaria, 2010.
“An ordinary citizen distant from the circles of power” shares his life story and through it, he allows us to understand how consciousness and commitment inspired him to become, in the underground, an active player in the formation of an armed struggle that after decades of activism reaches victory.
Luis Fisher has so much to tell. Since early age, his whole existence has been closely related to the Sandinista Popular Revolution and, to this date, he continues “upholding the red and black banner”.
In the book My Life, My Revolution he reflects, analyzes and interprets his own reality as a worker and militant, who took part in important historic events in Nicaraguan history, such as the formation of the Sandinista Front of National Liberation and the establishment of its first military and political training school.
His son, Lenin Fisher, “spontaneous aficionado” –not a professional historian or academic- acknowledging the value of his father’s testimony, visits with him the spaces of memory, within the intimacy of the family bond, to create an oral and written record of great value, for the information compiled (for instance, the origin of the Sandinista anthem To Struggle and to Win and the revolutionary movements which preceded the formation of the FSLN), but also for integrating and contrasting significant events in the labor and militant life of his father with documental sources regarding the historic context in which his life unfolds.
Luis’s memories of everyday life during his childhood and youth offer an interesting view of the conditions that motivated “a process of transformation of a rebel youth against injustice”. He had left his family in the early 50s to try his fortune, worked in the tunu plantations (raw material for chewing gum latex), and later on he moved to Bonanza, a mining region, where he witnessed , the privileged life of the staff from the United States in contrast with the town’s people.
The student massacre of 1959, perpetrated by the National Guard, had a profound impact on him. From his experience as a worker, he identified himself with the university students and took a step further from reflection to armed struggle.
The unique voice of Luis Fisher telling his life story, shares the experiences of a Nicaraguan family, from the travels of a great grandfather -who arrives in the Atlantic Coast in the times of the gold fever in California- to the various jobs of his father in isolated regions of the country, the death of his young wife, and the activism of his “heroic, imprisoned, tortured, wounded children…”, who suffered in their own flesh the war of liberation and who, just like their father, participated actively in the defense of the revolution.
The information contained in My Life, My Revolution enriches the study of the recent history of Nicaragua and the leftist movements in Latin America; therefore, it helps us set the foundation to establish a serious and profound historical memory.
Review written by Ileana Gadea Rivas, Member of the Nicaraguan Association of Oral History