Do We Create New Identities Every Time We Listen To Stories?

Posted by Shreyosee Sen in Society, Staff Picks
March 26, 2017

The significance of ‘testimonies’ to oral history has emerged in the context of the cultural, historical and post-modern approaches to the issue. This has given rise to a host of new ideas in narrative interpretations of oral history.

The current perspectives on oral history research initiatives focus on the cultural forces that impart meanings to the lives of ‘historically-constructed actors’. This helps to gather data on the social and collective experience of individuals in the past.

To delve further into the dynamics of oral history, it is pertinent to note that oral history tries to cultivate meanings within the lives of the tellers, more than an actual event can. This is also why oral history greatly reflects the ‘art of listening’.

In this essay, I wish to draw attention to the performative aspects of narratives that define the act of ‘listening to stories’. For this purpose, I shall use the narratives of the Namasudras, which I collected during my research on caste politics during the Partition.

Narratives of refugee politics can be termed as ’emancipatory’, since they unravel the power dynamics of the ‘non-bhadralok (non-gentleman)’ refugee subjects in their own worlds. Their ‘local’ stories are not simply ‘about’ the Namasudra migrants, but are also ‘for’ the Namasudra migrants.

I deliberately use the word ’emancipatory’ or ‘liberating’ here. The use of these words highlights the avenues through which the narrative itself becomes the text that validates the experiences of the Namasudras and allows them (the Namasudra refugees) to relive their own worlds.

So, two factors like knowledge (a refugee’s individual experience gaining authority over the narrative skill) and consciousness (different forces influencing the experience, memory, ideas, images) simply imply that the refugees are not only ‘talked to’, but that they also speak ‘for themselves’. The responses of the participant (the refugee) allows the other participants (in the same social setting) to reflect on what ‘has been told’, and also to analyse the same historical event as it means in the current scenario.

These responses often act as ‘memory sparkers’, that help the other participants in the interviews to contribute to the research. Using a model of ‘participatory action research’ allows the informant to equally share a common social platform with the participant. This equality is due to the establishment of a kind of inter-personal relationship, that results in the integration of shared experience and knowledge.

But, in dealing with migration communities, a common observation that comes to my mind is the ‘uproar’ pertaining to the history of the loss of homeland, the suffering and displacement in these narratives. This is pertinent even in the case of Namasudra refugees.

In “Narrative Methods for Human Sciences” (2008), Catherine Kohler Riessman analyses narrative researches from three broad standpoints. The standpoints centre around the stories told through the eyes of the research participant, having accounts narrated by the investigator and the reader’s insights on particular forms of reading. For Kohler, these three levels corresponds to levels of fieldwork, analysis and write-up. At the outset, my work primarily takes into account only the first of these levels, and to some extent, the second stage.

A critical engagement with the stories collected in narrative formats would emphasise the utility of the ‘oral history’ methodology when applied to works dealing with migration. By developing insights beyond what is simply being ‘said’ in a narrative, greater attention is paid to the ‘composition’ of a speech in order to understand the structure of a genre, its story-line or linguistic interpretations. By viewing narratives and memory as powerful ‘social agencies’, they seek to produce dialogical performative outputs that portray stories as social and cultural artifacts. These stories, therefore, merge the ‘social’ with the ‘individual’.

This link between the ‘act’ of storytelling and the ‘art’ of listening requires the contextualization of the story’s characters in space and time. This can only be accomplished through ‘bodily means’, such as gestures, postures, facial expressions, and gaze – all in close synchronicity and co-ordination with the way the speech is delivered.

The art of listening, when defined along the lines of narration as a ‘speech-activity’ that makes claims on ‘identity’, requires the ordering of characters in space and time. Memory triggers the past (which is now a space for the ‘imagined’) culminating in self-referential and relevant acts of storytelling.

This is the basic principle based on which narratives emerge as a privileged discourse of ‘identity analysis and formation’, thus opening new areas of research in migration studies.

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