Oral History, Literature, and the June OHC Book Club Selection
When the shelter-in-place order was issued in mid-March by California Governor Gavin Newsom, many thoughts ran through my head. One of the milder ones — the kind that comes from the part of me that tries to find a silver lining in bad situations — was that I might have more time to read. I’ve always been an avid reader, mostly of fiction and narrative non-fiction, and often find myself counting down the hours until I can return to my book.
But in those early days of the global COVID-19 pandemic, I couldn’t concentrate on many things other than the news. My working hours bled into my free time as I tried my best to knock projects off my to-do list and remain productive as the world crumbled around us.
And then one day I found myself staring at my bookshelf, the myriad of colorful spines calling to me. A soft pink cover caught my eye. I pulled Severance, a post-apocalyptic book by Ling Ma, off the shelf and cracked it open. The novel follows Candace Chen as a flu pandemic hits modern-day New York City. As a native New Yorker, It hit close to home, and was strangely cathartic. (It didn’t hurt that the book is beautifully written and Ma’s prose was absorbing.) It allowed me to escape in a way that was right for the limits of my focus at the time.
Next I read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, another post-apocalyptic novel about a global flu pandemic. This one split the timeline between when the pandemic hit Toronto, Canada, and twenty years in the future. In it, the author uses oral history as a device to connect the timelines. Every time I encounter the term “oral history” in literature – be it fiction or non-fiction – my heart quickens, never knowing if it’s being misused.
As I read the fictional oral history interview transcript interspersed throughout the second half of Station Eleven, I was delighted, and deeply impressed, that Mandel seemed to understand that oral history is a type of long-form, recorded interview. This deepened my appreciation for both the writer and the book, discovering that there are people out there who don’t blur the lines between a clearly-defined methodology (about which I’ve mused on this very blog), taking the time to do their due diligence before employing a term they’ve heard about in passing.
Ever since I read World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Apocalypse by Max Brooks, I’ve loved when authors use fictional oral history interviews to tell a story. I find the interviewer and narrator exchange, the chorus of voices, and the details from the past an engaging way to draw the reader in. Many times, I feel like I’m in the room with them.
My colleague, Amanda Tewes agrees. “I like that the familiarity of oral history draws me into a story (almost as if it was real) and allows the author to toy with memory in a way that is difficult when juggling many characters,” she says.
This brings us to our next OHC Oral History Book Club selection, picked by Tewes, which embraces the trend of oral history as a literary device in fiction. We’ll be reading Daisy Jones & the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid, which the New York Times calls “a gripping novel about the whirlwind rise of an iconic 1970s rock group and their beautiful lead singer, revealing the mystery behind their infamous breakup.”
The story unfolds through a series of fictional oral histories. The format is the kind we often find on the pages of Entertainment Weekly or Vanity Fair, inspired by the hallmark oral history book Edie about Edie Sedgewick. The book is a best-seller, a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick, and is the basis for a new mini-series from Witherspoon’s production company.
We’re inviting you to join us for the June installment of our book club. On June 15, we’ll be holding a virtual meeting. We’ll be discussing the book, the use of oral history in literature and pop culture, and more.
RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to join us for our book club via Zoom on Monday, June 15 at 11am PST/2pm EST.
Until then, happy reading and stay safe!
The Oral History Center launched a new book club in 2019, where we read a book that draws on oral history interviews.
Here’s the discussion questions if you’re following along:
- Narrators in this book often point out where their stories diverge from official narratives about Chernobyl. What role do politics play in telling stories about Chernobyl (even after the fall of the Soviet Union)? And how does this compare to other oral history topics?
- Why is it important that Alexievich shared these stories as oral history “transcripts,” rather than as narrative prose that employs quotes from oral histories?
- Alexievich does not always provide names or much information about narrators. Why do you think this is, and how did that impact the way you read the book?
- If this collection of oral histories has a thesis, what do you think it is? What story is Alexievich trying to tell?
- How did you think about the cultural practice of storytelling in these communities represented in Chernobyl, as compared to Western communities?
- Do you consider this to be oral history? Why or why not?
- What impact did this book have on your perspective about the potential of oral history?
- If you have memories of the Chernobyl disaster, how do these stories compare?