Finding Fathers: A Cautionary Tale for Oral Historians

October 3, 2019

How do people turn their lived experiences into life stories?

Ron Grele suggests that the key to analyzing the structure of consciousness that governs oral history interviews lies precisely in the imagination of the narrator and how they use that imagination to construct a history. “Although many oral historians have discussed the necessity of undertaking such an analysis,” he wrote, “few have tried.”

In December 2016, Emma Courtland decided to take a stab at it. What she discovered formed the basis for her master’s thesis, Finding Fathers: Navigating Uncertainty in the Interview EncounterUsing innovative dialogic interviews with narrators who had sought missing fathers, Emma made the imaginative leaps and creative processes through which we turn our lives into stories explicit, and therefore available for analysis.

Part theory, part experiment, part memoir, Finding Fathers is, primarily, an indisputable caution: Without a more concerted effort to distinguish between forces that make up our accumulated subjectivity—between our life experience, the culture that surrounds us, mythology and conjecture—it may be impossible for us to know exactly what it is we’re analyzing.

Through storytelling and analysis (and probably some word games), Emma will demonstrate the limitations of conventional oral history interview methodologies, exposing, most significantly, the tremendous force of conjecture on life history construction.

Emma Courtland (OHMA ’16) is the senior producer of content at Wondery, the largest independent podcast company in the country. She is an ongoing contributor to KCRW’s Trump Diaries podcast and is currently in production on a podcast for the National Parks Service, with her creative soul mate and fellow OHMA ’16 alum, Robin Miniter.

 Before shifting her career focus to audio, Emma spent seven years as a film programmer at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and writer/editor at the LA Weekly.

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