Oral history & the historical document: making sense of the past

11351050_910703225653353_843257108_nWhen I visited my extended family in China for the first time in over a decade two years ago, I was gifted a small, black journal. Bound by thick, yellowed twine are pages and pages of journal entries, written neatly by my great-grandfather during his time as a labourer in Canada.

As our class readings and discussions have suggested, historic documents tend to be privileged by power structures, often given primacy over other mediums of representing history. Being able to write about history and document lived experiences then, is a privilege in and of itself.

To me, the existence of this journal is puzzling, because it goes against what I assumed about my ancestors: poor, and therefore uneducated. It’s amazing then, to have written documentation of my great-grandfather’s experiences in Canada during the early 20th century, a difficult period for someone who was Chinese.

The problem is, everything in the journal is written in Chinese, and my reading ability only goes so far. I can pick out a couple of phrases here and there, but the rest is indecipherable to me. Though my great-grandfather’s journal can be thought of as what Thomson refers to as “history from below” (lived experiences of those in the periphery), this journal is inaccessible to me.
fullsizerender-1 Fast forward a little bit to when my parents went back to China (also for the first time in over a decade) last fall, among some of the things they were gifted with were a five and ten dollar Hong Kong bill printed during the 1940’s. As my dad pulled out these gifts out with excitement their first night back, he traced the stories behind the banknotes and shared its significance for each generation of our family, starting from my great-grandfather’s generation. And it seems to me that with each generation these stories have been passed down has been the interpretation and reinterpretation of history.

This is why I think oral history can play an incredibly important role in helping us make sense of our past. On its own, the historical document might not be accessible or have much personal significance. But it is through the retelling of history and memory can the document be contextualized and enable individuals such as myself to derive meaning from the lived experiences and emotion.

So what will happen to great-grandpa’s journal? With the help of my dad, my hope is to incorporate oral history and digital storytelling approaches to interpret and make sense of my family’s roots. Hopefully, when these stories are passed down to future generations, new meanings and ways of relating to the past will also emerge.

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