By Emma Gibson
There’s something remarkable in the capacity of audio to transport us to different places and to the past. Just like smell can conjure up memories, a piece of music can keep taking us back to a particular moment in life, and I think any audio recording can do the same. I have a habit of taking audio recordings when travelling—listening to a snatch of music from street buskers in Sardinia I see the steep cobbled streets and taste the tangy lemon gelato I was eating, as though I am still there, rather than looking back on it. Oral histories have a power in not only capturing a moment, but replaying it.
At the NAIDOC week collection talk presented by Ryan Stoker, it was easy to close my eyes and imagine the interviews and conversations were taking place in that very room. Although at times, the language used, the subject matter, or even the quality of the audio recording made us aware that we were hearing a moment in time now past.
I was particularly interested in the approach taken by oral historian Hazel De Berg, who makes up a large part of the NLA collection. She was so focused on the interview subject—usually artists or others considered to be eminent Australians—that she edited out her questions, removing herself completely from the narrative so the speaker seems to be relating a monologue.
Oral history captures nuances that would be lost written down. From reading these words, you would miss the laconic tone of Joe McGinness, telling interviewer Lloyd Hollingsworth about meeting Prime Minister Menzies in 1963, as leader of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Straight Islanders. McGinness instructs Hollingsworth to “dig up the photos of the archive of the bloomin’ whatsit”—by which he means the Canberra Times.
“How did you find Menzies?” Hollingsworth asks.
“He was alright,” McGinness replies after a pause, and then jokes about how Menzies had offered the Aboriginal delegation drinks, risking jail, because at the time it was an offence to offer alcohol to Aboriginal people.
I also enjoyed hearing segments of Sue Gordon’s interviews with Noah Riseman as part of a series on ex-service men and women and her wry description of early training. Gordon became the first Aboriginal person to head up a government department.
Harold Cole, interviewed by Rob Willis, shared his thoughts on the loss of language and spoke some Wiradjuri, which reinforced the theme of this year’s NAIDOC Week: Our languages matter.
It makes me hope that through audio recordings, languages can be preserved. It makes sense too, that oral history, the oldest form of sharing knowledge, was the focus of this event in a week about celebrating Indigenous language.
It was an engaging, touching and at times, funny celebration of the wealth of the NLA’s oral history collection and a reminder of the rich depths of the culture that has been handed down over thousands of years by the First Nations in Australia.
Emma Gibson is a writer and performance maker from Canberra, Australia. She writes plays and writes about place. Her previous plays include Johnny Castellano is Mine (Canberra Youth Theatre/Street Theatre), The Pyjama Girl (HotHouse Theatre), Widowbird (The Street Theatre).
Emma’s work has been performed internationally and includes War Stories (24:7 Festival; Re:Play; Greater Manchester Fringe; Buxton Fringe), Bloodletting (Bread and Roses Theatre, London), and collaborations at the Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre and The Lowry.
Emma has undertaken artist residencies and participated in festivals internationally. Turning recently to prose, Emma has had short pieces published in the Skagastrond Review, Seizure, Iceview, and an anthology written in the sands of the Sahara Desert. She’s previously contributed to Broadway Baby, BMA and Lip Mag. Emma has created a site-specific poetry installation in Spain, helped run an artist residency in remote Iceland, reviewed 100 shows at Edinburgh Fringe, and made an audio walking tour around Garema Place for Canberra’s You Are Here Festival. She is currently studying a Masters of Creative Writing (Place Writing) with Manchester Metropolitan University.
NAIDOC Collection Talk: Our Voice
6 July 2017, National Library of Australia
Emma is participating in the 2017 ACT Lit-Bloggers of the Future program, which is an initiative of the ACT Writers Centre in collaboration with the National Library of Australia. Participants are mentored by Sue Terry of Whispering Gums.
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When I was 10 I got a little tape recorder for Christmas. That day we called my grandmother on the phone. This was about 1959 or 60. I recorded the call on the extension phone. Now almost 60 years I have a copy of that phone call on a cd. All of my aunts and nan can be heard for about 6 minutes talking. They have all passed now and when I listen to it I walk through my childhood again. Aural histories are very precious to those who go ahead while leaving the others to slip away.