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  • Writer's pictureThe Blue and White Magazine

The Gaps in the Record

Who gets to tell their story, and what do they get to say? 

By Muni Suleiman



From griots to gossip and Homer to hearsay, you come from a long line of stories that contour your perceptions now. As a field of study, oral history has often acted as a critical intervention, recording and valuing the lives of peoples ignored by traditional historians. From individual and diverse perspectives, oral historians take these threads of life to recall and reinterpret our broader social fabric.


Illustration by Ben Fu

Record-keeping and memory-making were never stable art forms. Hoping to diversify modes of historical documentation and protect existing written records threatened by new technologies, history professor Allan Nevins founded the Columbia Oral History Research Office in 1948.


As the first institutional home for oral history in the world, Nevins’ Oral History Research Office eventually flowered into the Columbia Center for Oral History Research, the Oral History archives in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and the Master of Arts in Oral History, the only program of its kind in the nation. CCOHR boasts “over 20,000 hours of recorded and transcribed interviews,” which include Black entertainers narrating the Apollo Theater’s legacy, a memory archive about the Covid pandemic from 200 New Yorkers, and an oral history of Nevins himself.


While oral history as a practice relies on technology—the emergence of consumer tape recorders facilitated much early oral history—new developments in artificial intelligence, such as the potential for chatbots to replace human interviewers, threaten the very humanity that motivates the field. Through a public programming series titled “Experiments in Oral History Methodology,” OHMA attempts to answer these questions about oral history’s maintenance and innovation. Some of the program’s recent alumni and other esteemed oral historians are introducing AI to categorize oral histories, or exploring how oral history can chart rapid, climate crisis-induced changes in Indigenous lands. 


As an observer and occasional experiment participant, I was recently compelled by the inclusion of the Brodsky award–winning work of Rebecca Kiil, GSAS ’23, in developing “fantasy oral history.” Per OHMA, this “genre of speculative oral history that focuses on the past” imagines and reconciles questions from the past that can never be “factually” answered.


Kiil’s work addresses the narrative silences within her family’s experiences during World War II. Kiil’s great-uncle and great-grandfather were disappeared during the first Soviet occupation of Estonia. Then, during the second Soviet occupation of Estonia in September 1944, the women on Kiil’s maternal side of the family were separated from her maternal grandfather, Harald Tuul, as they fled the country. 


Realizing that he would not be able to catch up with his family, Tuul, an army physician, discarded his identity papers and fled to Finland, where he was forced into Soviet custody and sent to a Siberian labor camp. Tuul wrote everything down in his diary until he was taken into Soviet custody, the reason that this part of the story remains. Yet it is necessarily incomplete after disappearances and generations of stories withheld. 


Over seven years, Kiil’s grandmother, in her 90s, uncovered these family histories. Conducting 11 formal and numerous informal interviews with her grandmother and other relatives, Kiil eventually developed her fantasy oral history. With her ‘grandmother’, ‘Tuul,’ and other absent relatives played by current members of her family, the fantasy oral history took the form of a staged, family conversation “set” in Estonia to bridge the gaps in the family story and give voice to Kiil’s family across generations. 


Kiil was once “angry as a proxy for her grandmother’s pain”—she now had a space for forgiveness where she could offload the many questions and stories that she once held alone. She also fulfilled her “one hope … through this whole project … to be able to hear [her] grandfather’s voice.”


After Kiil’s family read excerpts from the oral history, Kiil asked viewers to interrogate the silences within their family narratives; many of the silences shared were also instigated by grief and sociopolitical violence. It is mind-shifting to consider gaps in family histories as silences instead of impenetrable mysteries. One participant even recognized that their great-grandparents’ experiences during Japanese-American internment remained a family mystery even after they were released, haunting the way they envision incarceration today.


Kiil admitted that her archival work, family interviews, diary readings, photo albums, and memories “flowed” through her as she wrote Tuul’s answers to her family’s questions. “When I asked my last question and put down the pen that night, I felt as though Harald himself had connected all the dots for me and for us,” Kiil explained. “Logically in my brain, I knew that I had answered the questions. But my body couldn’t tell the difference, and my body felt at peace when I was finished.” 


As much as it is necessary to remember the truth of past events, the ways in which people interpret the past through oral history are just as, if not more, meaningful. It is important that memory is understood as a way of reconceiving and reconciling the past, impacted by their personal and external contexts. This is especially the case when the oral historian is an active character within said histories. Their own experiences and positionality inevitably color their methodology, too. Simply put, oral history is both what happened to someone in the past and how they make sense of it in the present. 


Oral history as a field wields a tremendous power to bring presence to absence, platforming the voices most intertwined with their subject of analysis. As reflected in Kiil’s “fantasy oral history,” it is also necessary to grapple with deliberate silencing and resistant vocalization, especially in the realm of sociopolitical violence. With temporal or geographical distance from those voices, the challenge grows in understanding the stories, why they are told, and what is and isn’t being said. Yet, perhaps through creative oral history practices and emerging technologies, temporal and geographic distance as hindrances to understanding and sharing stories seems to be closing.


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