Immigrants are like anyone else: they want to tell their stories. Yet, as Carol McKirdy points out in this new volume of Left Coast Press's Practicing Oral History series, working with immigrants not only provides unique rewards to the oral historian; it also poses considerable challenges. In this guide, intended for both experienced oral historians and professionals in other fields who wish to integrate oral history into their work, McKirdy discusses the theoretical and practical aspects of interviewing immigrant narrators and provides guidance about how to design a successful oral history project focused on an immigrant community.
McKirdy knows both her topics well. An experienced oral historian from New South Wales, Australia, she has worked with immigrant communities as an adult educator for over a quarter century. As editor Nancy MacKay points out in the forward to McKirdy's book, 47 percent of Australia's population was either born overseas or has a parent born overseas, and in McKirdy's home state alone residents come from 225 different birth countries. This has given McKirdy the opportunity to work with an amazingly diverse pool of immigrants, providing many compelling examples that she uses to great effect here.
Practicing Oral History with Immigrant Narrators is divided into nine chapters. The first two introduce the reader to oral history and the basic process of working with immigrant communities. They are followed by five chapters that deal in detail with specific topics (trauma, cultural awareness, language) and techniques (such as using interpreters and images) that require special attention when working with immigrant narrators. The final two chapters present a step-by-step guide to constructing an oral history project and a case study of Savan Hin, an immigrant from Cambodia that McKirdy interviewed. There is a glossary, and appendices provide sample release forms, logs, and interview questions, as well as contact information for support services and other relevant organizations. [End Page 429]
McKirdy's book draws heavily on the work of Australian oral historians, as reflected in her case studies of projects on Sudanese people in the Sutherland Shire and on Hazara refugees from Afghanistan, as well as In Their Own Image, an elaborate multi-phase project that explores the lives and cultural influence of Greek-Australians. She intends her book to be relevant, however, to people in any country with significant immigrant communities, and to this end she also provides examples of two projects in the United States—the first exploring Romanians in Minnesota and the second working with Asians in Oakland, California.
All of these projects are fascinating, and through them McKirdy effectively supports her points that collaboration with the immigrant community and, as much as possible, allowing immigrants to take the lead in designing such work are vital to constructing successful projects. Yet a reader with little experience in doing oral history may be rather intimidated by the ambitious projects McKirdy has chosen to highlight. Although they convey the great range of possibilities for doing oral history with immigrants, they also give the impression that immigrant oral history projects require full-time practitioners with access to considerable resources. While these conditions are, of course, ideal, some recognition that these projects are unusually extensive and that practitioners who have less time and fewer resources can still do excellent oral history work would perhaps have been helpful. I also found myself wishing that McKirdy had addressed, however briefly, a project that involves immigrants who lack a community of their own counterparts, something that is increasingly common, at least in the United States.
In contrast, McKirdy's middle chapters, particularly those that describe detailed strategies for dealing with narrator trauma, cultural difference, and issues of language, make such projects feel more accessible, and it is here that McKirdy makes her most significant contribution to those engaged in immigrant oral history work. While none of the information she conveys is completely new, her clear explanations (with helpful real-life examples) of difficulties interviewers and narrators may experience in their relationship provide the reader with important theoretical knowledge along with the practical...