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Q&A with Claire Payton on Haiti, spirituality, and oral history

About a month ago, when we celebrated the release of the Oral History Review Volume 40.2, we mentioned that one of the goals in putting together the issue was to expand the journal’s geographical scope. Towards that end, we were excited to publish Claire Payton’s “Vodou and Protestantism, Faith and Survival: The Contest over Spiritual Meaning of the 2010 Earthquake in Haiti.” Hopefully, by now you have all had a chance to read Payton’s article, in which she discusses the Haiti Memory Project and the spiritual dimension of everyday Haitians’ testimony following the January 2010 earthquake. If not, be sure to have a look before or after you read my follow-up interview with the author.

Caitlin Tyler-Richards: The Haiti Memory Project (HMP) plays a large part in your article, so could you talk a bit more about how you came to the idea?

Claire Payton: The idea for the HMP emerged from conversations I had with friends and colleagues in the weeks following the 2010 earthquake, about the possibilities and limitations of responding to a disaster like that from afar. There was a lot of talk in the media about what Haitians were experiencing and what they needed, but not much of it from Haitians themselves.

Caitlin Tyler-Richards: Of course. And do you — or others — plan to add to it in the future?

Claire Payton: Over the past year, I have been overseeing follow-up interviews with some of the participants, which has provided another dimension to memories of disaster.

Caitlin Tyler-Richards: Excellent! As we see in your article, your work with the HMP has already led to some excellent insights on Haitian spirituality, the fluidity of which you suggest is especially visible in survivors’ testimony. How did you come to this particular topic?

Claire Payton: Honestly, I resisted writing about it for a while. Vodou in particular is often a gateway for essentializing, exotifying narratives about Haiti, so as a scholar I never had much interest in it. But it was hard not to recognize that tensions around spirituality and identity were practically omnipresent across the HMP interviews. They really just stood out to me, and I was being dishonest with myself by pretending otherwise. Then in late 2012 I went to Haiti as part of a research team for a UFL-Duke project called The Vodou Archive, and that basically served as a crash course in Haitian spiritual practices, taught by practitioners themselves. I felt more comfortable engaging with these issues after that.

Haiti Earthquake
Image Credit: “2011 Education for All Global Monitoring Report – Rebuilding schools after the 2010 earthquake, Port au Prince, Haiti”, Photo by E. Abramson, CC by SA 3.0-igo, via Wikimedia Commons.

Caitlin Tyler-Richards: Ah, okay. Somewhat related to that, could you talk a bit about conducting oral history research outside the United States and in a foreign language?

Claire Payton: It was definitely a challenge, but it was also an opportunity. The native language in Haiti is Creole, while the language of government, education, and all things official is French. When I first went to Haiti, I was fluent in French but only spoke a smattering of Haitian Creole. I worked with translator-friends. I actually learned Haitian Creole through the interviewing process, through the hours and hours every day of sitting with people and listening to them very intently and then having their words translated into French.

I didn’t always want to stop the flow of someone’s steam of consciousness because I didn’t understand and needed a translation, so I reminded myself that it was all being documented and that that was the whole point. I could listen to them again later. But going back and listening to my earliest interviews now, I see that this led me to put my foot in my mouth more than a few times and definitely shaped the relationships I established with participants. But not having optimal circumstances shouldn’t be a reason not to do something you believe is important. You make do.

Caitlin Tyler-Richards: Wow, that sounds stressful.

Claire Payton: Another complication is that Creole language transcriptions and translations are definitely harder to get done, and harder to get done right. I couldn’t do them myself. I learned how to speak Creole but I don’t really know how to write it. Like I said, it’s a challenge.

Caitlin Tyler-Richards: Speaking of challenges… Last December, I spoke with our Media Reviews Editor Jennifer Abraham Cramer about oral histories she collected following Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, and the unique position this research put her in. What was it like to collect interviews following the earthquake? Any strategies you took going in, or developed along the way? Do you have any advice for oral historians conducting research in the wake of natural disasters?

Image Credit: “The 22nd MEU has distributed supplied in the area to aid earthquake victims – Leogane, Haiti”, Author: DVIDSHUB, CC by 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Claire Payton: Everything in the interview seems like pretty great advice, especially if you are part of a team or institution that has support for things like psychological training. But what do you do if you are just an individual with little or no funding or institutional support? How can those kinds of projects be responsible and ethical too?

When considering these issues, I take solace in Alessandro Portelli’s suggestion that oral history ethical guidelines are merely the formalization of the deeper spirit of oral history. While training is invaluable, it cannot replace an inner compass that guides many people to oral history in the first place. “Ultimately, in fact ethical and legal guidelines only make sense if they are the outward manifestation of a broader and deeper sense of personal and political commitment to honesty and truth,” (Alessandro Portelli, “Trying to Gather a Little Knowledge,” The Battle of Valle Giulia, 55).

I am by no means suggesting that people shouldn’t educate themselves about best practices and adhere to them as much as possible. But I don’t think people should not get discouraged from taking on difficult projects because they fear they can’t execute them perfectly.

Caitlin Tyler-Richards: I can say as someone who studies African History, that is one mental obstacle I often have to overcome when thinking about field research, so thank you for that. And now, as per Troy’s policy, we like to give the interviewee the last word. So, is there anything you’d like to add regarding the HMP or your article? Plugs for upcoming projects?

Claire Payton: Just that in keeping with my goal of creating new narratives about Haiti, I am developing an oral history project based on the lives of influential Haitian women! I am also developing a dissertation on urban community histories in Port-au-Prince.

Caitlin Tyler-Richards: Exciting. We look forward to seeing the result of both projects. Thanks again for the article, and for chatting with me.

Featured Image Credit: “FMSC MarketPlace – 3 Cords” Photo by Feed My Starving Children (FMSC), CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

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