Call for chapter proposals
Surprise and Creativity in Oral History
Editors: Miriam Hermeto and Ricardo Santhiago
What is to be done with oral history interviews that go “wrong”? Thought-provoking answers to this question have already been offered by scholars in the field. One of them was given by the historian Janaína Amado in her 1995 essay “The Great Liar: Tradition, Veracity and Imagination in Oral History,” which became a kind of landmark in Brazilian oral history scholarship, since it explores from an unusual perspective the fanciful account of a narrator about a revolt in the interior of the state of Goiás.
In the essay, published in an English translation in 1998 in the Luso-Brazilian Review under the title “The Brazilian Quijote: Truth and Fabrication in Oral History,” Amado reflects on the relationships between the narrator’s narrative and his individual literary repertoire; on her own relationship with other subjects in the group she was studying; and on how that particular interview situation led her to reconsider both the design of her research and, more broadly, her view of oral history itself.
Would discarding an interview (as Janaína Amado did at first, after realizing that her narrator had acted as a “great liar”) be the best solution for dealing with an unusual narrative? For us, the answer is a resounding no – and this is the guiding idea of the dossier of reflections to be gathered in the present volume “Unexpected Interviews: Surprise and Creativity in Oral History” [tentative title], to be published by the Brazilian publisher Letra e Voz.
The purpose of the book is to promote a collective reflection on oral history practice based on interviews that, at first sight, “went wrong”: encounters that produced unexpected results and data that, in principle, seem to be useless. We aim to analyze how this sort of experience not only can drive one to refocusing the particular research project, but also can reconfigure the researcher’s very ethos, making him/her question initial certainties and hypotheses.
We are inviting short chapters in which the authors discuss experiences of this kind, in the light of memory and narrative studies and the scholarship on themes such as truth, reliability, and invention.
Among further possibilities, we welcome proposals in which oral historians reflect on how to deal with narratives provided by narrators:
- who do not talk about the themes proposed to them, not only managing the conversation (as many interviewees do) but consistently fleeing from the interviewer’s questions;
- who offer thematic accounts, often through dry answers, when they are asked to provide a broader, comprehensive life story, or vice versa;
- who construct personal identities, in their narratives, that clearly differ from their known past histories, reputations, and identities that are externally attributed to them;
- who deny what they themselves have previously said, intentionally producing distortions or lacunae for the researcher’s study;
- who purposefully silence or misrepresent their own lives or their narratives on the past, offering reports in clear disagreement with general knowledge or with other (written or oral) documentation;
- who narrate recollections that are partially or totally invented, or based on memories of other individuals, reference groups and/or on what comes to them through readings or popular media
among other situations that researchers consider “unforeseen,” given their expectations or their theoretical framework.
What to do with such interviews? How to assess what is and is not “useful” in them? Beyond assuming that each and every narrative is valid, how should a researcher deal with interviews that clearly mismatch suppositions and findings? How can we understand them in the light of other sources of knowledge? Should we eliminate them from our research and from our archives when they don’t provide what we hope for? To what extent can or should a researcher refocus his/her entire quest after coming across an unexpected interview, one that does not fit in the current project?
Such unforeseen research experiences tend to put stress on a corpus of knowledge – in theoretical, methodological and documentary terms – that may initially have seemed to be stable in a given research area or discipline. Thus, we anticipate that the chapters will not consist of mere descriptions of unusual situations, but rather of theoretical-methodological problematizations about dialogue, narrative truth, the production of oral history sources, and our understanding of established narratives.
Researchers are invited to submit to the editors a brief summary of their proposals (no more than 500 words, in English) and a biographical note, sent to both editors no later than February 10, 2020. Queries are welcome.
Full chapters are to be submitted by April 30, 2020, in English only. Translations will be provided by the Brazilian publisher. The chapter must be approximately 3,000 words long and should be prepared in a clear language, avoiding footnotes and long quotes. Please use Chicago style in-text citations with a works-cited page. We urge authors to adhere to the word count (recognizing that it is shorter than usual), since the book aims to provide a lively conversation between authors and invited commentators to whom the chapter will be circulated. Queries are welcome.
Ricardo Santhiago (Federal University of São Paulo, Brazil)
Miriam Hermeto (Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil)