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On spatial strategies of narration

Tim Cole’s article “(Re)Placing the Past: Spatial Strategies of Retelling Difficult Stories” in the most recent Oral History Review raises some really intriguing questions about the function of space and distance in oral history interviews. Cole graciously agreed to answer some of our questions over email, which we’ve reproduced here for your enjoyment.

How did you get turned on to the topic of space in oral history?

My graduate training was in geography, so although I teach in a history department, I think like a geographer. Whatever source I am working with, questions of space and place are always in the back of my mind. Originally I worked primarily with textual sources on a series of books and articles on the spatiality of the Holocaust. More recently, I have turned to oral history, as my focus has shifted from those “doctors of space” (following Henri Lefebvre) who reshaped cities and the European continent through so-called “bystanders” or neighbors, to Jews and their own place-making practices. Working on a new book that focused on Jewish experiences, I started to notice what I call “spatial strategies of narration” in the oral histories that I was working with.

In your article, you discuss these “spatial strategies of narration” that narrators use to “literally [replace] the past.” Can you talk about the process of locating and analyzing these spatial changes?

I had been attuned to the idea of changing narratives through earlier work I had done around one family’s disparate endings in diary, memoir, and letter accounts in Traces of the Holocaust (2011), as well as the important work of Mark Roseman, who discusses examples of changed narratives in A Past in Hiding (2000). Looking back, what surprises me now is that I did not make more of the ways that these changes were spatial given my geographical training! As I started to work with a larger number of oral histories, I found that there were some similar patterns of changing narratives that became apparent, and that these—like my own earlier work and Roseman’s—involved literally putting “self” somewhere else. Earl Greif’s reflections in his memoir triggered my thinking here and I revisited his oral history in the light of this. I suppose that once I’d begun to pay more attention to where survivors put themselves and others in the narrative, I started to see some suggestive patterns emerging elsewhere. It is striking that geographers have largely remained absent from the interdisciplinary community that works with oral history. My sense is that there may be work for geographers to do in alerting oral historians to the ways that space and place operate in oral history narration. My hope is that this article might be part of that broader conversation.

A little while ago, Hank Greenspan wrote a piece about examining changes in interviews with Holocaust survivors to glean deeper meanings and complexities. What differences do you see in your approaches or methodologies?

I admire Hank and his work, especially given his emphasis on multiple interviews over a long period of time, rather than a single interview. As he suggests, this allows for more complex and multiple narratives to emerge. That sense of change over time is something that I see in both Earl Greif and Regina Laks Gelb, who are largely featured in my article. I suppose what I would want to add to the historian’s concern regarding change over time is to add a geographer’s concern with place. Hannah Pollin-Galay is doing some interesting work here, thinking about the differences between interviews undertaken with survivors living close to—and distant from—the site of persecution. Like Hank, she uncovers more complex stories of the past in the process.  I’m interested in the stories that people tell in different places, but I’m also interested in the ways in which people place themselves within different places in the story So I want to think about narrative strategies as well as the time and place of the interview.

Retelling is difficult because many stories are not only hard to retell, but also hard to listen to.

In your article, you suggest some of the narrations “reposition themselves and others within them in order to negotiate difficult stories.” Jennifer Helgren recently discussed the fact that many of her interviews told her very little about the past she was investigating, but much more about the present anxieties of her interviewees. Do you find similar changes reflected in the interviews you discuss?

As Jennifer suggests, histories do move between past and present, and—I’d add—between here (the place of retelling) and there (the place of past experience), which in many cases are not the same. However, with Holocaust survivors, I think there is oftentimes a such a chasm between now and then, and here and there. This means that—and this is something Hank has written about—retelling is difficult because many stories are not only hard to retell, but also hard to listen to. That is where spatial strategies emerge, of repositioning self and others to make a story not only easier to retell, but also easier for others to hear in a very different time and place. Spatial strategies enable individuals to navigate their relationships with past participants and present listeners as well as themselves.

Towards the end of your article, you cite Anzac Memories and “strategies of containment.” Since Al has a piece in 42.1 where he revisits Anzac, I wonder if you have any comments on it, particularly as it pertains to your piece and/or your scholarship.

Al’s reflections chime with some of my own work in this article as well as Mark Roseman’s work—who Al footnotes—and Hank’s own reflections on multiple interviews. There is, of course, a place for working with a single interview, which remains a normal practice in oral history, but there is much to be gained from the comparative lens allowed by multiple interviews (as Hank has done) or examining textual sources (as Al, Mark and I have done). Working with these additional sources provides a way of looking at the interview with a new set of questions, while also being attentive to dissonance and its meaning. In his article, Al writes that, “Our opportunity in oral history is to study both the unchanging past and the changing uses and meanings of the past in the present.” One way to access those changing uses and meanings is through adopting an intentionally comparative approach.

Is there anything you couldn’t address in the article that you’d like to share here?

The article feels like very much a beginning of exploration and a work in progress. I would have liked to have drawn in more examples from more interviews, but decided to focus in on a few to enable me to say something about spatial strategies of retelling. I think that there is, as I hope I show, evidence of spatial strategies being adopted, but I don’t want to suggest that is all that is happening! There is so much more going on in oral histories than simply this. I hope the book that I am completing at the moment, Holocaust Landscapes, will show the value of paying attention to how survivors narrate the past in a variety of ways, helping us to better understand—to borrow Al’s words again—“the unchanging past and the changing uses and meanings of the past in the present.”

Image Credit: “Berlin Holocaust Memorial” by Patrick Down. CC BY NC 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Hank Greenspan

    Thanks, Tim, for the comment. I agree. There are, indeed, a relative “zillion” variables that impact how and what survivors (like other people) retell–temporal, proximal, interpersonal, cultural, and other contextual factors such as their own understanding of the project, and interviewers, themselves.

    Of course, also like all of us, most survivors have a repertoire of “default” versions that they have often developed over many years before our interviews ever happen. That is where opening up approaches, and understanding of approaches, can lead to something other than “the usual spiel,” as one survivor-friend called it.

    I would add that “oral history” is itself a “usual spiel.” Meaning, most survivors are only partly, sometimes minimally, concerned with reconstructing past experiences and even more rarely in being documentary “sources.”. If allowed, interviews with them are as much “oral philosophy” (current political or theological implications), oral psychology (impact on them, often much more nuanced that the current trauma/resilience discourse), oral narratology (the process of retelling at all, and especially the logic of their own choices about what to say, and not say), as “oral history.”

    So, to go “spatial” with you, the conventional focus on “testimony” and “memory” is not only the tip of a very large iceberg, but only one of a whole flock of very different icebergs!

    While we have many more survivor accounts now than in earlier years, I believe our engagement with them has become less, rather than more, genuinely informing–for them as well as for us. Time to reverse that trend (wistful prayer!)

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