Intimate Stories, Challenging Histories: 2019 Biennial Conference of Oral History Australia 10-13 October 2019

The State Library of Queensland is perched on the south side of the Brisbane River and is where the 2019 Biennial Conference of Oral History Australia took place from the 10-13 October. The theme of the conference was ‘Intimate Stories, Challenging Histories’ and many presenters engaged thoughtfully with these sentiments. The papers given at the conference covered a variety of topics including indigenous history, migration history, local and community histories, women’s history, racism and discrimination, trauma and commemoration and the use of oral history. Presenters and audience members came from across Australia to attend the conference, with a number of international visitors from Canada and Singapore in attendance. Presenters and attendees came from a diverse range of contexts including historians, librarians, archivists and museum curators just to name a few.

Day one of the conference begun with a keynote by Dr Katrina Srigley, a Professor in the Department of History at Nipissing University in Canada. Srigley discussed two oral history projects that she has been involved with on Nbisiing Anishinaabeg territory. The first was a project about the Nbisiing Warriors Hockey Team and the second was about Nbisiing Women’s Stories. While both projects are extremely interesting, it was the way that Srigley spoke about her oral history practice that I found most intriguing. Srigley reflected on how working with the Nbisiing community taught her how to conduct oral history with Zaagadwin (love). She argued that working with love means having both an open heart and an open mind while at the same time telling the truth about the past. Ultimately, Srigley argued that her experiences of conducting research both on and with the Nbisiing community taught her that relationships can be more important knowledge. Srigley’s keynote highlighted that the power of oral history does not only lie in its capacity to recover the past but also in its ability to foster long-lasting and meaningful relationships in the present.

An extremely insightful panel session on ‘Interview Dynamics: gender, sexuality and matrilineal relationships’ saw several oral history scholars thoughtfully reflect on their own oral history practice. Historian’s Carla Pascoe Leahy and Sarah Rood’s joint presentation discussed the lessons that can be learnt when roles are reversed, and the interviewer becomes the interviewee. In an exercise of “professional development”, Pascoe Leahy asked Rood to interview her using the same set of questions that Leahy uses to interview women about mothering in Australia. Pascoe Leahy suggested that taking part in this role reversal, gave her valuable insight into what it is like to be in the position of the interviewee. While Rood argued that interviewing a fellow oral historian made her pay careful attention to her interview technique and reflect more critically on her role as interviewer. What was perhaps most interesting about this discussion between Pascoe Leahy and Rood was how they both agreed that their personal relationship as both friends and colleagues enhanced the oral history interview rather than detracting from it.

In the same panel, historian Shirleene Robinson discussed how personally knowing an interviewee can shape the oral history given. In the immediate aftermath of the 2017 Australian same-sex marriage plebiscite, Shirleene conducted oral history interviews with members of the LGBTIQ community for the co-authored book Yes, Yes, Yes, Australia’s Journey to Marriage Equality. Shirleene reflected on how her personal relationships with many of the interviewees and her personal involvement in the yes campaign for marriage equality resulted in her being more “inside” than “outside” of the interview. Using interview excerpts Shirleene showed how interviewees would actively involve her in the interview by asking her questions about her own experiences during the marriage equality campaign. Shirleene’s personal relationships with interviewees may have resulted in her being more ‘inside’ than ‘outside’ of the oral histories being given. However, it is clear the relationships between Shirleene and her interviewees is what facilitated the production of oral histories that were emotive, complex and nuanced.

During the session ‘Women’s History and Family Lives’ on day two of the conference PhD student Nicolette Snowden discussed the interviews she has conducted with country women from the La Trobe Valley in Melbourne. She argued that why young women decide to stay or leave a country town for the “bright lights of the city” is shaped by a range of factors and is a much more complex decision than it may first appear. The oral history interviews she has conducted suggest that country women’s lives are complex and each woman’s decision to leave or remain in the country must be carefully contextualised.

In the same session, Alistair Thomson discussed preliminary findings from his project on Australian fatherhood in the 1970s-1990s. Using oral history interviews collected as part of the Australian Generations Oral History Project, Thomson argued that many of the men interviewed who were fathers during this period wanted to be more than just “absent breadwinners” instead aspiring to be “active fathers”. However, Thomson suggests that many of these men over-emphasised their roles as fathers with many continuing to be the ‘breadwinner’ in their families and very few taking on the role of primary carer for their children. Thomson’s preliminary findings remind us that we should be ‘cautious’ when using memory sources like oral histories and should interrogate the reasons why people in the present may be over-emphasising their roles in the past.

‘Remembering Catastrophes: Oral Histories of Floods and Bushfires’ brought together historians Scott McKinnon and Margaret Cook to discuss the complexities of experience, memory and commemoration in the wake of natural disasters. McKinnon discussed how the 2003 January bushfires in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) which killed four people were commemorated in the three-years after the event. Examining oral histories done with those who experienced the bushfires, McKinnon suggests that residents of the ACT had conflicting feelings towards commemoration. In the wake of the bushfires, public commemoration of the disaster emphasised the resilience of the community. However, many survivors wanted to “move on” and focus on how practical reforms could improve bushfire preparedness and responses in the future. McKinnon argues that it is important that in the aftermath of disasters, commemoration does not obscure or overshadow the lived experiences of survivors and how they wish to commemorate the event.

Following on from McKinnon, Margaret Cook examined the aftermath of the January 2011 floods in Brisbane and used oral history to record the experiences of “the flooded versus the not flooded”. For Brisbane residents whose homes and possessions were destroyed in the flood, the disaster would irrevocably change their lives. In the aftermath of the flood, many Brisbane residents who were not affected came together to form the “mud army” and travelled to flooded areas to help those affected. However, for those whose homes had been flooded, the influx of strangers into their neighbourhoods and their homes as part of a volunteer clean-up effort that was often ad-hoc and chaotic added to the trauma they had already experienced. Cook suggests that we must learn from past disaster recovery efforts and improve our responses. These improvements may include better training for volunteers and better coordination of recovery efforts just to name a few. Both McKinnon’s and Cook’s papers reveal how oral history interviews about past natural disasters can be used to practically inform the present.  

The 2019 Biennial Conference of Oral History Australia showcased the interesting and diverse ways that oral history is being used both nationally and internationally by historians and those working in the GLAM sector. I think, however, one of the most important takeaways from the conference was that it demonstrated the unique capacity of oral history to both produce intimate stories about the past while fostering intimate relationships in the present.

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