Summer Institute Reflection Series | From Video to Transcript: an Interview Transforms

The author

The author

By Chanakya Vyas, Summer Institute 2017 Alumni

As I write this, I am struggling to select the most interesting sections of transcript from my grandmother’s interview, conducted four years ago while she was still alive. She had a sharp memory and could recall most of the events surrounding the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964, when the Afro-Shirazi Party, led by Abid Karume, came to power and took over power from the British government. This snowballed into the exodus of many Indian immigrants who held British passports as they had no other option but to return home via the sea route. I kept revisiting the video recordings to choose the most interesting parts but it was only when I transcribed that I began to realize the finer details of the interview and various possibilities for shaping this project further. One of the reasons for the delay on transcribing and analyzing the transcript was also due to a certain lack of clarity on my end, as to what I intended to do with this project. Thankfully, I have crossed that stage, and I am now working towards writing a book that will use oral testimonies to trace the meaning of revolution across three major timelines that connect the Indian diaspora in East Africa.

The boon or bane with oral history is that it requires the immediate suspension of disbelief. Like in the theatre, where one submits to the world the actors create on stage, something similar happens in an oral history interview, where we work with the presumption that what is being spoken is true. But then are we looking for truth or a personal account of the truth? These questions haunt you as you wear the interpreter’s hat, surrounded by academic jargon.  And that is when you realize the underlying conflicts between what is spoken and what is understood – how do you choose what to keep and what to omit? What is information and what is story? What is personal and what is political? And this problem compounds further when one is dealing with interviews of family members, like in my case, where the interviews have to move beyond documentation to connect with the larger ideas that will act as the historical backdrop for the book.

In June of this past year, I was fortunate enough to have been selected as one of the fellows for the Summer Institute at the Columbia Center for Oral History Research (CCOHR). In one session, Linda Shopes, co-general editor of the Palgrave-Macmillan Studies in Oral History series, spoke about the problem of bias in interpretation. She brought up the question of how often do we let our interviews speak for themselves versus forcing them to adhere to a pre-defined theme in our heads? I realized that I had presupposed certain words and categories that were preventing me from listening to my narrators. The point was not to show how they escaped but what they felt about it and to hear the unsaid from the said. The next time I sat down to read the transcripts of several interviewees for my project, I felt a different story emerging, a story that is reflective and personal rather than celebratory, as the following excerpt from my grandmother Pushpa Vyas illustrates:

Before the revolution, it was really nice. It was so good. We got lovely fruits there. We could walk fearlessly even at two in the night. We would roam freely. We were never troubled. But the moment the revolution started, it got worse. It was started by people from outside, not Zanzibar. We couldn’t even step out of the house. You wouldn’t see women anywhere on the streets. (Interview of Pushpa Vyas, my grandmother)

 Most of my narrators, I felt, reminisce about an idea of Africa as a land of opportunities for them, where they did not feel like outsiders, a place they never thought they would have to leave one day and in such a manner. It was this idea which also gave them a certain advantage over the locals when it came to running businesses and understanding the dynamics of trade with the Arabs and British.

Based on my new understanding of these interviews, I am confronted with many questions moving forward. What kind of interpretations or assumptions will influence me as I refine my interview questions for the next research phase for this project? And in the writing process, whose voice should I write in? Is it my voice, as someone who is trying to collect these personal stories? Or is it the voice of my grandmother, as she narrates those events which led to the exodus of the Indian diaspora? Will I fill the missing pieces from her interview with the voices of other narrators?

Over 50 years have passed since the Zanzibar revolution, and there has been a drastic change in the relationship between the Indian diaspora and the locals. Today, the diaspora owns major businesses and also employ the locals in various capacities. But has the advent of globalization dissolved the idea of a revolution - a revolution rooted in 1964? My thesis is that despite the many opportunities that globalization has opened up for locals and outsiders, it has simultaneously deepened the local-outsider conflict, resulting in a different form of aggression as the ways and means of revolting have changed drastically. It is in this context that I now embark upon a longer research phase, which will look at the changing forms of aggression across three timelines - 1964 (revolution, exodus), 1980s (return) and the Present (in between). In doing so, I hope to uncover some new facts using primary and secondary sources, while continuing to listen as I let my narrators speak for themselves.