Stacey Zembrzycki grew up around storytellers and storytelling, which influenced the way she came to approach the past in her formal training as a Canadian historian. Her book According to Baba: A Collaborative Oral History of Sudbury’s Ukrainian Community, released this spring by UBC Press to accolades from oral historians across the globe, pays heed to both her Baba and the stories she told Zembrzycki as a child. In it, she also traces the evolution of Sudbury’s Ukrainian community from the moment of collective immigration in the early twentieth century through its evolution into a powerful minority group in the region. Zembrzycki draws from the stories her Baba, Olga Zembrzycki, shared with her, buttressed and some times contested by archival and journalistic records, along with interviews she and Baba conducted in 2004-5 with her contemporaries.The book is ultimately an account of the community’s experience of migration and settlement, providing an overview of the lives of miners and their families in the mid-twentieth century, and the difficulties of community-building in multi-generational contexts. Zembrzycki takes the reader through the first world war, the roaring twenties, and the short-lived economic depression of the thirties, providing a new glimpse into Canadian life from a multicultural perspective.
However, it is also Zembrzycki’s personal account of the pitfalls and rewards of working with friends, family and community members on a collective project that she thoughtfully explores as a broader commentary on the methodological challenges posed by oral history. Her personal challenge was to capture the flavour of each story, along with a broader context for its impetus and reception – a challenge when the interviewee is as invested in the outcome of storytelling as the interviewer/author. She was careful to share authority with her interview subjects – an approach to methodology made popular by Michael Frisch, and employed by Steven High and the Concordia-based Montreal Life Stories project. Sharing authority, according to Zembrzycki, “[emphasizes] the collaborative nature of the discipline, [and] forces us to think about making oral history a more democratic cultural practice”. She points out in her lively introduction that while for some historians although ‘sharing authority’ is the intention, it is often difficult to put into practice, because ‘authority’ is itself a shifting terrain and the limitations of scholarly practice puts into place unavoidable limits on how research is conducted and disseminated. Zembrzycki did not have that luxury – her first attempts at drawing in interview subjects yielded 1 reply, and she eventually turned to her Baba for help. This resulted in an interview partner for most of her 82 interviews, and a running commentary before and after each meeting.
Rather than introducing a model, Zembrzycki set out to write a transparent and honest account of how she learned to share authority with her Baba, the main inspiration for the project, and its most intimate critic and supporter. Where at the beginning of the project Zembrzycki tried to see Baba’s familiar stories “intellectually rather than emotionally”, it became clear, as the project evolved, that the dichotomy between emotion and event was an artificial one. Instead, the author has put together a thoughtful and fascinating account of community life that privileges the varied experiences and recollections of its members.
Zembrzycki plans to put her methodological finessing into place with her next, much larger project. She has just been awarded a SSHRC Insight Development Grant for her project entitled "Mining Immigrant Bodies: A Multi-Ethnic Oral History of Industry, Environment, and Health in the Sudbury Region." This oral history project will focus on Sudbury’s three largest postwar ethnic communities—Italian, Ukrainian, and Finnish—and will involve interviewing immigrant miners, who composed a majority of the workforce between 1950 and 1990, and who lived in areas with high levels of contaminants, as well as their family members, to understand the visible and invisible tolls that heavy industry has taken on their bodies. She is currently an affiliate assistant professor in the department of history and a core member of the Centre of Oral History and Digital Storytelling.