Lecture sheds gentle on Montreal Life Tales undertaking

Stéphane Martelly, affiliate assistant professor of theatre at Concordia University Montreal, gave a talk titled “What Does Sharing Authority Mean? Learning From the Life Stories Montreal Project” as part of the Engaged Humanities Speaker Series on Wednesday.

According to Joseph Plaster, the event organizer and the curator in public humanities for the Sheridan Libraries and University Museums, Martelly’s work with the Montreal Life Stories project made her an excellent choice to demonstrate how academics can best interact with the communities whose stories they tell.

The Montreal Life Stories project is a seven-year project to record the oral histories of Montrealers who suffered mass violence, trauma or displacement. Plaster explained that the creativity of the project highly impressed him.

“[The Montreal Life Stories project] is a seven-year long oral history project that was collaborative from the very inception of the project and not only recorded oral histories, but also disseminated them and represented them through performance, through exhibitions, through radio documentary, through walking tours,” Plaster said. “I’m really not aware of a project of that scope existing anywhere else.”

Martelly stressed the equality she worked to achieve between the interviewer and interviewee, who she refers to as the narrator.

Many of the interviewers were involved in academia, whereas the narrators were not. However, Martelly states that the Montreal Life Stories project made a strong effort to make the narrator the author of her own work.

The narrators even controlled the rights to their own interviews, which is highly unusual in the world of community-academia interactions. For Martelly, though, this was crucial to the project.

“For us, what it was was mainly a feeling of possibility and empowerment created by this space and ourselves,” Martelly said. “Various marginalized populations found the space to be, finally, inside academia. A space where they could talk and produce knowledge about themselves in such a way that a few things happened.”

The project sought to remove as many barriers to expression and ownership of work in order to increase output and respect the thoughts of narrators. According to Martelly, some narrators from marginalized groups became more open about their traumatic experiences when shown such respect.

Martelly spoke at length about the importance of labeling each narrator as a Montrealer first and a native of their original country second. This removed more barriers to communication, thus allowing for more empowerment of the narrators.

“For example, by decisively recognizing all narrators as ‘Montrealers’ instead of using, for example, ‘native Quebecois,’ ‘immigrants,’ ‘exilers,’ the Montreal Life Stories Project attempted to level the playing field, to put them in the same category and therefore redesign what could be considered the content and nature of the center,” Martelly said.

However, she herself harbored doubts about whether these steps did enough. The difficulties of her original working group, which tried to center the narratives of Haitian immigrants, with finding willing narrators raised this concern of hers.

“Is such a performative act with clear political implications sufficient to smooth out all tensions and disparities?” Martelly said. “And did the initial difficulty of obtaining interviews with Haitians indicate otherwise?”

Ultimately, Martelly concluded that the source of this problem likely arose from the difficulties that subjects must contend with following trauma.

Martelly explained that space as a concept was important to consider when talking to individuals who fled trauma. By being moved away from their original homes, she said, the narrators needed to find a new home: their own voices and stories.

“It was as if with the absence of the physical location of origin, voice itself became an impossible place but a place nevertheless where stories or words were laid, where they rearranged themselves in the hopes of understanding, resisting, listening or resonating.” Martelly said. “The interview itself is a fleeting place of strangeness and belonging, of permeable subjectivities, where a difficult negotiation is nevertheless possible.”

Martelly brought up several examples from her own work to illustrate this negotiation of subjectivities and place of origin. She pointed out that the narrator before and after her traumatic experience is different in many ways — perhaps in so many ways that she cannot be the same narrator as she was before the event.

Her evidence of this sort of response to catastrophe comes from several sources. The Montreal Life Stories project had several working groups that all focused on giving the survivors of different catastrophes control over their own oral histories.

“The implicit negotiation existed in fact within the subjects themselves…. If, as a survivor of the Shoah tellingly puts it, ‘the life that I was supposed to live was gone, who is this new narrator?’” Martelly said. “If, as one of the narrators of the Haitian group told us, it is not just the person who displaced, but there is also movement situated within.“

These oral histories were, she said, more evocative of certain emotions in part due to the multitude of outlets of expression that the narrators were provided.

Shawntay Stocks, assistant director for engaged scholarship at the Center for Social Concern, felt that there are many practical applications of what she learned from the Montreal Life Stories project.

“I’m not sure exactly who her other interviewees were, whether they were colleagues or students, but that would be an interesting skill, training students to deal impactfully and powerfully and very culturally competently with their stories,” Stocks said. “There’s so much power in, there’s so much vulnerability in sharing your story.”

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