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  • Remembering Mass Violence: Oral History, New Media, and Performance ed. by Steven High, Edward Little, and Thi Ry Duong
  • Alexander Freund
Steven High, Edward Little, and Thi Ry Duong, eds. Remembering Mass Violence: Oral History, New Media, and Performance. University of Toronto Press. ix, 364. $80.00

Much research is based on people’s stories. In traditional research practice, scientists with academic credentials make people’s stories into data, which they then analyse, interpret, and represent. Remembering Mass Violence proposes an alternative research model based on the idea of “sharing authority” between researchers and “the researched.” Much of this participatory research is informed by oral history—the practice of recording and archiving extensive life-history interviews. Nine of the seventeen essays, all of which were presented at a conference in 2009, emerged from the innovative oral history project Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by War, Genocide, and other Human Rights Violations (2007–12) at Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling. Together, the essays stimulate debates on the practice, ethics, and epistemology of oral history-based research that will be of interest to a wide range of practitioners within and outside of academia. The volume will also be of value to an international audience studying war, genocide, trauma, and forced migration.

In Part One, Henry Greenspan and Lorne Shirinian explore the impossibility, and yet necessity, of narrating and thus representing genocide and trauma. Greenspan argues that no matter how intense and enduring a conversation and how skilled the interviewer, the Holocaust cannot be evoked as a personal experience or told as a story, thus calling into question the notion of testimony. All we can do as interviewers—which nevertheless teaches us a lot—is to join the survivor in asking questions. Shirinian, writing as “a second-generation witness to the Armenian genocide,” asks about the mechanisms that select and represent some memories and silence others. He argues that remembering is indispensable in the face of genocide denial.

Part Two presents performative approaches to oral history that may offer answers to the difficulties of narrating mass violence. The four essays explore how survivors’ accounts can be performed by retelling testimonies onstage, infusing new voices into existing plays, isolating the aesthetic and dramatic aspects of body language, and engaging and implicating the audience in the performance. In creating his play Lamentations, Sandeep Bhagwati used only gestures captured in videotaped interviews with genocide survivors, leaving out spoken words. This original method will help attune oral historians to the visual elements of their research. The essays on performance seem to view oral history as “raw” material that is performed only later on, while oral historians have come to view interviews as a performative genre. Thus, the focus is on collaboration among [End Page 364] directors, playwrights, actors, and audiences, while the original narrators are largely absent.

Part Three sets out to present the use of digital media to tell people’s stories. Yet a different concern is at the heart of these essays: the inclusion of a wide range of participants in the process of research, production, and dissemination. The first essay in Part Four can be added to these reports on participatory research: Robin Jarvis Brownlie and Roewan Crowe reflect on the limits of collaboration in a project with young indigenous women in Winnipeg’s North End. The other three essays in Part Four present “traditional” oral history projects that report on African-American residents of New Orleans dispersed and dispossessed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; political activists in Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Jewish Moroccans in Montreal.

Part Five centres on Rwanda. The first two essays on the Rwandan genocide of 1994 present testimony from a survivor and an analysis of mass rape. The final essay, on documenting LGBTI lives in Rwanda, discusses the importance of building archives of testimonies and life stories of marginalized people so that they can learn their own history and use it in their political struggles for recognition.

Historians use oral history and other sources to document past events and experiences, including those of genocide and war. This is no easy task, as this collection convincingly demonstrates, because survivors’ and scholars’ narratives...


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pp. 364-365
Launched on MUSE
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