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  • Oral History at the Crossroads: Sharing Life Stories of Survival and Displacement by Steven High
  • Leyla Neyzi
Steven High. Oral History at the Crossroads: Sharing Life Stories of Survival and Displacement. University of British Columbia Press. xi, 444. $34.95

In Oral History at the Crossroads, Steven High, a professor and Canada Research Chair in Oral History at the Department of History at Concordia University, tells the story of the Montreal Life Stories project, which was created by the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia with the goal of recording the life stories of people displaced by war, genocide, and other human rights violations. For seven years (2005–12), this highly innovative and inspiring project sought to bring participants from the university and the community together to use new media technologies, the arts, and collaboration with young people to create new ways of reaching the public through personal stories.

Following the introduction, the book is divided into two parts. In Part One, High focuses on the activities of the different working groups. The first chapter is a state-of-the-art discussion of interviewing in oral history. Chapter two describes the activities of the Rwandan working group. Chapter three recounts the work of the education working group, which interviewed Holocaust survivors (including child survivors) whose role in educating the public about the Holocaust is insufficiently known. Chapter four discusses intergenerational relations insofar as the project became a conversation between generations, with young people often taking the lead in interviewing elders, including their parents. Chapter five discusses the work of the Haitian working group. Chapter six opens with an interview transcript, going on to discuss the ways visual products such as graphic novels can contribute to educating the public about an event such as the Rwandan genocide.

In Part Two, High moves the discussion from interviewing to the curating process. In chapter seven he argues compellingly that oral historians must go beyond interviewing and archiving to experiment with what they can do with the stories at hand. This exciting chapter unveils [End Page 453] all manner of new ways of being an oral historian. High discusses in detail the potential of collaborative work and of using digital media and arts-based practices. He says, “What happens after the interview is now central to the work we do as oral historians … People now expect their heritage and history to be interactive, affective, and participatory.” In chapter eight High gives an illustration by describing an audio walk in the city created by young refugees to share their experiences of Montreal. In chapter nine High describes the creative products that emerged from the project’s performance group and affiliated artists, including verbatim theatre, gestural theatre, playback theatre, radio work, community theatre, and sound theatre. In this groundbreaking chapter, High argues that oral historians have been overly focused on words and that attention to the body and to performance can be enriching. In chapter ten High discusses the ethical challenges participants faced and the strategies they developed to cope with them. In the conclusion High outlines the project’s policy recommendations, stating that this project brought the academic and the activist in him together. In this beautifully written, path-breaking book, High demonstrates the potential of oral history, which made it possible for Montrealers—including Rwandans, Haitians, Jews, Armenians, Palestinians, Congolese, Iranians, and others—to share their individual experiences of displacement by war, genocide, and other human rights abuses.

Leyla Neyzi
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Sabanci University


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pp. 453-454
Launched on MUSE
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