Thursday, September 15, 2016

Dr. Kim Heikkila - Oral History and the Power of Listening

Dr. Kim Heikkila is an oral historian, educator, and independent scholar. She taught U.S. and women’s history at St. Catherine University for more than 10 years, and is author of Minnesota Book Award finalist, Sisterhood of War: Minnesota Women in Vietnam (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011). In 2006, she won the Oral History Association’s Post-secondary Teaching Award for teaching community college students to conduct interviews with Vietnam Veterans for the Veterans History Project. She is a Minnesota Humanities Center Echoes of War Discussion Leader and will help facilitate community conversations about war, memory, and military experiences this October in the Echoes of War discussion series held at Carleton College.

We live in a world that emphasizes speaking. From the momentary stories captured in a tweet or Facebook post to those gathered for StoryCorps or Humans of New York, from digital podcasts to published memoirs, all around us people are narrating their own lives, speaking their own truths, often to powerful effect. Although sometimes this self-expression becomes mere self-promotion, in its best instances it reflects a desire to connect to others through story – one of the central goals of the humanities. Yet even the most compelling stories need an attentive audience for their true power to take full effect. In my experience as an oral historian whose work has focused on women Vietnam Veterans, I have witnessed the power not just of storytelling, but of story listening.

Oral history is a rigorous research method that seeks to enhance our understanding of the past by recording, preserving, and disseminating firsthand accounts of historical events from those whose perspectives are not typically reflected in the dominant narrative. For my book, Sisterhood of War: Minnesota Women in Vietnam, I interviewed 15 nurses from Minnesota who served in the U.S.-Vietnam War, many of whom had shared very little about their service. They wanted to correct the historical record that had relegated their experiences to a footnote, but sometimes doubted that their stories would interest anyone else.

They needn’t have worried. Book sales exceeded expectations and large crowds flocked to events across the state to hear the nurses speak. Although it was not easy for them to share their war memories, almost all of them told me that they felt empowered for having done so, for having been heard. For the first time, one nurse told me, the people in the small town she’d left to join the Army Nurse Corps knew what she’d done during the war. Another said that the outpouring of love from male Vietnam Veterans who crowded into overstuffed rooms to listen to the nurses made the pain of reliving her war worth it. The benefits of listening also extended to those who heard: other nurse-Veterans who saw their experiences reflected in those of the Minnesota “sisters”; the former Navy corpsman who said reading the nurses’ stories helped him come to terms with his own service; the brother of one of the nurses, who stood up after hearing her speak at the Minnesota History Center and said, with tears in his eyes, that he finally felt as if he knew his own sister.

The power of oral history stems from its ability to bring storytellers and story listeners together. As Vietnam Veteran and author Tim O’Brien reminds us in his book, The Things They Carried, “Stories can save us. …The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.” In helping to give voice and audience to those whose stories have often been neglected, oral history sheds new light on the past, enhances our present, and points the way to a better future.

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