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Bringing history up to date

A new interdisciplinary anthology explores Montrealers’ experiences of mass violence
January 8, 2014
By Julie Gedeon

Montreal Life Stories
Montreal Life Stories played out hard-to-imagine episodes on stage. | Photo courtesy of University of Toronto Press

History is a strange thing. There are accepted ways of recording events — memoir, film, textbook — but it’s often when the chronicler veers away from convention that a more personal narrative emerges.

That’s where Montreal Life Stories comes in. In this five-year project, a team of researchers sought out new ways to explore Montrealers’ encounters with mass violence and displacement. There were bus tours with stops to commemorate those lost in genocides, theatre nights that saw actors interpret the survivors ordeals and other creative activities that encouraged some 500 residents of the city to tell their stories. What emerged were moving accounts of some of the most difficult experiences imaginable.

A new anthology, Remembering Mass Violence: Oral History, New Media and Performance (University of Toronto Press, 2013), documents this innovative and interdisciplinary approach to history. It was co-edited by Steven High, a history professor and Canada Research Chair in Public History at Concordia; his colleague Edward Little, a professor in the Department of Theatre; and the Montreal Life Stories Cambodian Working Group coordinator Thi Ry Duong.

We spoke to High ahead of the book’s January 9 launch.

Why is Remembering Mass Violence: Oral History, New Media and Performance important?

Steven High: The book reflects the productive tension between private and public memory, the dialogue and negotiation between autobiography and biography, and the need to break silences for social transformation while still respecting personal experience. It reflects an innovative model of community-university collaboration across a wide range of disciplines.

We hope it will prompt others to reflect upon important questions such as: Why are we collecting these stories? Are we appropriating people’s experiences? Is it a form of voyeurism to listen in on other people’s anguish? I also think it’s essential to show academics that this kind of community-university research can produce top-of-the-line scholarship by widening the circle of knowledge and insight.

How are the stories you collected connected to the Concordia community?

SH: The book contains the experience of people from around the world, including 22 contributors affiliated with Concordia. Most chapters are collaboratively written and reflect diverse opinions. Other voices are included, too — for instance, we have a high school teacher and student writing about their class project, each from different perspectives.

What is your primary hope for the book?

SH: To inspire, and to challenge assumptions! For example, I was skeptical when Sandeep Bhagwati — an associate professor of music at Concordia and Canada Research Chair in Inter-X Art Practice and Theory — and his team planned to watch recorded interviews without the sound to learn people’s gestural repertoire.

As an oral historian, I couldn’t imagine learning people’s stories without their words, but it quickly became apparent that when people talk about 1930s Poland, for instance, their body language shifts back to that cultural and historical context. It’s not conscious — it’s just there, imprinted.

Learn more about Montreal Life Stories.

Remembering Mass Violence: Oral History, New Media and Performance will be launched at the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (Room LB-1042, J.W. McConnell Building, 1400 De Maisonneuve Blvd. W.) on Thursday, January 9 at 5 p.m. The event will include screenings of two short films produced for the Montreal Life Stories project. For more information, and to RSVP, visit the centre's site.

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