My Interview: How did it go? And, what I never expected to happen…

I write this from the perspective of someone whose interview sessions have already passed, and as someone who has done previous oral histories with others. Having done several interviews prior, I was anxious at the prospect of considering an “academic” setting for completing the task at hand. I wanted to get it “right,” but at the same time, allow the relationship to develop smoothly and naturally. My subject, from what I surmised, was confident in herself and her own story, but meeting her proved something different.

Perhaps most importantly, my experience interviewing for this project proved that interviewers and interviewees are often not too different. Ultimately, we each approach the project with expectations and worries; hopes and anxieties. In my case, my subject genuinely felt her life to be uninteresting, despite my having misread her attitude of
having “not been the best student,” as a whimsical self-depricating tactic to lighten the mood. From her perspective, there are, and have been, infinitely more interesting people worth interviewing. Yet, as the interview began, and I approached her with a series of questions (she likewise had her own questions and answers scripted, so we were in this together), I came to the profound realisation that a question is absolutely useless without first understanding the backbone of the story.

My subject spoke about her life – her relationship with her mother, and about having lost her mother at an early age. Without conducting myself like a psychiatrist, I tried very hard to uncover if her mother’s death at an early age attributed to her study of medicine. She, however, never considered this. I was surprised at how shy she could be, but relieved at her feeling comfortable enough to speak openly to me. I came to the conclusion that she trusted me. Prior to our time together, however, I had never anticipated something like this to happen. For me, oral histories had always been about people with preconceived notions of themselves, and stories that attributed to their lives and experiences. It had never occurred to me that my time spent with her would actually be helping her to develop a new story about herself.

As we sat over a cup of tea, I realised that she was not one much for talking about herself. I have the impression that my interviewee prefers speaking about others – or perhaps some of this is attributed to being the product of a particular generation. Occasionally, I probed to uncover a veil of modesty, but found only that one did not exist. What I uncovered from my oral history sessions with this person was that her view of herself was a plain one, and that she had likely never thought much about her own life in a cerebral sense. She spoke more about her children and grandchildren – she prefers to live in the present. For me, I think we were able to uncover this truth about her, not because I bombarded her with questions (as I’ve had a tendency to do in the past), or expect any particular story from her – instead, I considered the story her own form of performance, with her own intonation, pauses, and the ambiance of the comfort of her home. Allowing her to be comfortable, and reflect on her life as she saw fit, I uncovered the most honest and truthful story that existed for my interviewee – point with which she agrees.

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