Tag Archives: experience

Interview with a Vampire

These passages about the question of oral evidence, interview and narrative from historian Luise White’s Speaking with Vampires are, I think, pertinent also to journalists who deal with the interview as the primary form of evidence from which we build our stories. White’s book is an analysis of rumor and history in colonial Africa in which she smartly engages nearly 130 interviews to depict the structures of everyday experience for the colonized. White’s endeavor is remarkable in that she takes circulating rumor and stories about vampires and bloodsuckers at face value. She doesn’t try to explain them as true or false or even as misunderstanding by Africans of the foreign technologies and medicine that the colonizers brought with them. Instead, White takes these stories as part of a genre of narrative that domesticated the extraordinary–technology, medicine– into understandable, ordinary, familiar.

This is White on how people tell stories:

People do not speak with truth, with a concept of the accurate description of what they saw, to say what they mean, but they construct and repeat stories that carry the values and meanings that most forcibly get their points across (30).

She goes on to discuss the mediation of different accounts from the same informant:

I am not the first to notice that people often revise the answers they have given in a first interview when they are interviewed for a second time. Nor am I the first to find this unremarkable. Historians routinely mediate between different accounts of the same even; why should this mediation be methodlogically any different when the different accounrts are provided by one person? It is only when a voice is methodologically conceived of as a single, spoken, rendition of experience that condtradictions become extraordinary rather than ordinary. To argue that an informant is mistaken because he or she says different things at different times, or even to argue that one account is wrong, makes linear demands on speech and self: lives and experiences are not such simple, straightforward things that they lend themselves to easy representation; people do not give testimony that fits neatly into chronological or cosmological accounts. Instead, they talk about different things in personal terms; they talk about what happened to them and about what they did about it, but they also use themselves as a context in which to talk about other things as well.

The idea that a voice, however produced, would not change its mind or words serves historians [or journalists], not the speaker’s own complicated interests… (38-39).

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