International Committee Blog

Oral History Association International Scholarships

Sixteen international scholarship applications were received this year and the decisions on which to fund were very challenging for the committee. In the end, five scholarships were awarded:

Joana Craveiro, Portugal

Marella Hoffman, UK

Meera Anna Oommen, India

Annie Pohlman, Australia

Samantha Prendergast, Australia

Congratulations to you all! Your attendance and presentations at the Annual Meeting will indeed be of great interest to those in attendance.

Between now and the Annual Meeting in October, the abstracts of the awardees papers/presentations will be highlighted in this blog.

This month we feature Annie Pholman and Samantha Prendergast, both from Australia.

Annie Pohlman, Australia

Small boxes of sexual crimes: turning oral histories into evidence for the International People’s Tribunal for 1965

This paper reflects on the process and ethics of turning individual life stories, told through oral history interviews, into evidence of crimes. Specifically, I reflect on my role in preparing evidence of sexual crimes for the International People’s Tribunal for 1965: a tribunal set up in 2015 in the Netherlands to achieve symbolic justice for crimes against humanity committed during the 1965-1966 mass killings in Indonesia. During these killings, an estimated 500,000 men, women and children were massacred, and more than one million others were rounded up and held as political prisoners. In the fifty years since these killings, the Indonesian state has yet to investigate or redress these crimes. The International People’s Tribunal for 1965 brought together survivors, researchers, artists and journalists from across Indonesia and around the world, who charged the Indonesian state with various crimes against humanity, including murder, enslavement and torture.

The Tribunal also charged seven separate sexual crimes as crimes against humanity, including rape, torture, sexual enslavement and forced pregnancy. My role in this Tribunal was to prepare evidence for the Prosecutor for each of these sexual crimes. This evidence was based on the oral testimonies of survivors and eyewitnesses, gathered by Indonesian human rights organisations and researchers, as well as from my own oral history research over the last fifteen years.

This paper critiques the process of turning the life stories of individual survivors and witnesses into evidence for the Tribunal. Complex narratives of trauma and survival, told over hours, weeks or longer, were reduced to individual case files of crimes. Each case file – representing one person’s experience of one or more sexual crimes – contained information about the timing, location and people involved in the crime, and descriptions of the acts of sexual violence. The details were extracted from these personal stories to fill in small blank boxes of information for evidence. I argue that this process was one of intense mediation and obliteration. Evidence for the Tribunal was gained but at the cost of erasing much of the testimonies upon which this evidence was based.

Samantha Prendergast, Australia

They Never Recorded the Interviews: Transcripts from the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System, 1950-51

Between 1949 and 1951, scholars from Harvard University’s Russian Research Centre conducted over 700 interviews with Soviet émigrés and refugees. Rather than record the conversations, which took place in Russian or Ukrainian, interviewers wrote detailed notes throughout the interviews and later audio-recorded their notes in English. The only surviving records are the non-verbatim transcripts of the interviewers’ audio-recordings. For the most part, contemporary Soviet historians use the Harvard Project transcripts as “depositories of fact.” I argue that when we read the transcripts closely and with a mind to their context, we can look beyond what the respondents recalled to examine how Soviet émigrés actively remembered the past. Framed as sources of oral history, the Harvard Project transcripts offer rich and novel insights both into the experiences of post-WWII Soviet émigrés and into how the émigrés made sense of their pasts.

Though the transcripts differ remarkably from contemporary oral history records, they nevertheless originated with aural interactions between interviewers and interviewees. By reconsidering the Harvard Project transcripts as records of oral life histories – and insisting that the life histories are valuable, despite the limitations imposed by the archive – I am proposing that we make space in historical research for documents that do not meet contemporary definitions of what constitutes an oral history record.

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