As we head into the next stage of the Oral History course, we have been looking at some of the challenges that oral historians (and interviewees) may face in interviews. My biggest hope for my own interview is that I can gain an insight into the experience of migration abroad and of life in London from the 60’s onwards. I want to learn about how the political troubles and IRA terror campaign may have affected life here and their interaction with people around them. I also hope to learn about the experience of long-term emigration on family relationships and self-identity. I do have concerns that the political situation might not have affected the person’s everyday life as much as I have imagined. Considering this possibility in advance has helped to alleviate my worries: I hope that I can let the person tell their story, allowing for significant topics or aspects of life here that I might have not thought about to come to the fore.
My other biggest concern relates to questioning. Will I ask the right questions? I worry that I might not phrase them in the best way, closing off particular avenues that might have been very insightful. Lastly, I want to enable an atmosphere and create a rapport that allows us both to really enjoy the process. I hope that I will be able to get over any concerns or nerves and allow the interview to flow easily, picking up on cues and areas of interest that the interviewee would like to speak further about, rather than sticking rigidly to my own set of pre-designed questions.
I kept thinking how I can put my interview into some kind of context. I am still struggling with this problem; however I realized that the topic of immigration is the most prominent one.
I am going to interview a man who is working here in London as a doctor. He was born in Syria and at some point he came to Greece. Interestingly enough, he is an Orthodox Christian, as most Greeks are; essentially the topic of religion ties up perfectly with immigration in this case. And because of his faith he found himself into some kind of church’s boarding house back in Athens; my godmother works there voluntarily and that is how I came to know him. However, I do not know anything more about him.
Andreas speaks Greek fluently so I am going to interview him in Greek. Since we both are immigrants in London, which is a huge metropolitan city, it would be interesting to speak about life in London. I want to know how he copes with the fact that he cannot go back to Syria because of the ongoing war and how his nationality influences his whole life here in London. Actually I would like to know how he approaches the whole subject of this mixture of religions and conflicting identities (Syrian, Greek and British alike). I think that we will have a very interesting discussion about racism as well.
Everything will be set under the vast umbrella-term of ‘immigration’. But most importantly, my interview will be a life story of a man who is not ‘old’ –actually he just married a woman from Egypt– but has already a very interesting background and surely some rich experiences and memories.
I’m growing increasingly anxious about conducting my first ever Oral History interview. In fact, my feelings are best described as apprehension and fear. There is so much to prepare, consider and remember.
I’m concerned that language might be a problem. My interviewee has warned me that his grasp of English is basic and that he might have some trouble communicating with me. It’s something that is constantly in the back of mind as I prepare my questions. I have been doing some reading about the importance of language to identity and I’m hoping the barrier won’t mark me out as too much of an ‘outsider’. I’m also aware that I am being invited into someone’s home, someone who lives by different cultural norms, and I need to respect those throughout. I do not want to cause offense unwittingly.
From a practical point of view, I’m worried about not being able to use the equipment properly and messing up the recording. I’m not going to dwell on that point. As Henry Ford once said: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”
Isla’s post also reminds me that I now need to prepare for the interview I’ve agreed to undertake. Some of that will have to be about method. It must be more than a decade since I undertook an oral history interview with a translator (it’ll be Sylvia this time). There is not much literature in this area. Luckily, however Bogusia Temple has just published a relevant article in Oral History (Autumn 2013, 14,2; 100-9). This article is much more than a ‘how to’; it raises key questions about how language produces identity, and shapes our worldviews. Bogusia also suggests ‘casting a wider net’ and considering other disciplinary insights into cross language work and translation.
I will also need to get up to speed with the history of Roma. Briefings by the Support Group help here. There are some excellent materials produced by the group, including from an earlier project with the Museum of London ( sadly the Museum no longer does this work). However, I will still need to identify other reading. I’ll begin by searching Google Scholar…
Tucked half way up Barking Road in Newham is the office of the Roma Support Group. Surrounded by a cultural and religious mish-mash of mosques, Christian Churches and Caribbean fruit sellers, this is where the Roma of East London come for help making sense of their new lives in the UK. It’s also the location for my first meeting with Sylvia and Tania, the two ladies who are responsible for keeping the advice centre going.
As we chat over a cup of tea, Sylvia tells me about what she calls the ‘carrier bag’ problems the Roma bring to them. She describes how many will arrive with a plastic bag full of letters and junk mail, ignorant of their contents but hopeful that someone will read and explain them. It’s a reminder of how difficult it is to function in a society when you don’t understand the language and struggle with literacy.
My tutor Graham then reminds me of the Roma’s strong oral tradition, passing their stories from generation to generation through speech, music and song. In many ways, this was the first type of ‘oral history’ and one that has enabled Roma culture and their past to survive.
It appears to have instilled a sense of identity and belonging in a group that isn’t a homogenous nation and doesn’t have a state of its own. Both are areas I would like to explore further in my interview. Another is how, or if, the barrage of bad press the Roma receive from certain sections of the UK media is undermining that identity.
Tania and Sylvia tell me they notice the development of an inter-generational tension within Roma families in the UK. They say the younger generation can be reluctant to describe themselves as Roma because they believe it carries a stigma and is a barrier to their progress. Cultural traditions and past-times are also a battleground as a new generation increasingly adopts the values and lifestyle of the country they’ve grown up in.
It’s clear from our conversations that the interview itself will present a number of challenges. Language and trust are top of the list. After much discussion, Tania says she will try to arrange for me to speak to Dudek, a musician, in his 40s, originally from Poland. He came to the UK ten years ago as an asylum seeker. However, she warns me to keep my questions short and simple, as his English is competent but patchy.
I’m relieved that I don’t have to conduct my first interview through an interpreter but I have roped Graham into a little extra work. The hierarchy of the Roma community is such that Sylvia thinks the group’s President Rosa should be interviewed first. That interview must be conducted through an interpreter. Graham kindly offers to take on the task.
This week the Home Secretary promised yet again to “get tough” on immigration. Theresa May’s Bill is designed to reassure a public who are warned daily, by the press, of an impending ‘invasion’ of Roma migrants to the UK. It’s a well-rehearsed dialogue that has been at the forefront of political debate since the E.U. opened its internal borders in the late 1990s. More than 15 years on, the script remains the same. We hear from the press. We hear from Government ministers. Occasionally, a few members of the British public are asked to give their thoughts. But, where are the Roma? Their’s is the ‘hidden voice’ in this debate and that is why I’ve chosen to interview a member of the Roma community in the UK for my Oral History task.
I hope it will give me a glimpse beneath the stereotypical image. Why have they chosen to come to the UK? How did they travel here? And, how long did they intend to stay? Many of the older generation experienced life under Communism and persecution after it. Their stories have not been told because their countries denied them citizenship and forced them to move on. Where is home for them now?
I would like to explore the question of identity, including its public denial by some Roma. Also, how, and if, that sense of identity survives attempts to assimilate and integrate them into a new host country.
The average Roma lives to just 50 years of age so it is important to capture their memories now before the voice of the late Twentieth Century Roma is lost forever.