Jessica AlpertCandide is a story composed of other stories, as the hero spends much of his world travels listening to others. Few stories are as long and involved as the old woman's in chapters 11 and 12, and she even spurs other characters to tell their stories of misfortune and tragedy at the end of her tale: "I advise you to divert yourself, and prevail upon each passenger to tell his story."
Jessica Alpert works as an Assistant Producer at Radio Boston, a program based at WBUR, a Boston NPR affiliate. Before turning to radio, Jessica worked in the area of oral history; she traveled to El Salvador on a Fulbright scholarship to compile stories from the 60-family Jewish community. She and Alice Boone, curator of NYPL's Candide at 250: Scandal and Success exhibition, discussed how readers can think about the old woman's imploring words. Alpert brought her experience talking to people about traumatic events—her radio piece about a violent attack on a community of elderly nuns in Waterville, Maine aired nationwide on NPR and garnered awards and citations from the Dart Center for the Study of Journalism and Trauma and the Religion Newswriters Association—to bear on the old woman's tale.
How do readers of oral history, memoirs, interviews, and other forms of storytelling these features and craft them into narratives?
What strikes me as most interesting is the depth of the Old Woman's story. Humility and modesty are thrown out the window. She gives it to us raw. The end of Chapter 12 is a call to listeners everywhere: each person you meet, whether poor or privileged, has a story. The challenge might be getting them to tell it.
Most individuals wrestle with the fear of losing their audience. Why explain a difficult memory when the person across the table isn't really listening? This is the challenge I often face as a story listener. Sometimes people don't have a problem getting it out, but they do find it challenging to organize the narrative. Obviously our Old Lady does not suffer in this regard. Even if the content is riveting: organization and pacing are the nuts and bolts of re-telling a good story.
I love that the Old Lady's narrative starts with memories of childhood which also happens to be the same place I like to start with my subjects. When conducting oral histories with the Jewish community of El Salvador, I started with the oldest members of the community. I did this both because I thought it was a prudent and culturally correct decision but also because I "wanted to get the Holocaust taken care of." The duty of recording and documenting Holocaust testimonies is a heavy one...and I so wanted to do it well. I also wanted to get it right on the first try. Since this would likely be the most sensitive part of the interview, I started with the most basic of questions: "What is your first memory....ever?" Some responses were playful, others dark. This set the stage for the rest of the interview; it told me what kind of storyteller I was sitting in front of. As a listener, you can control the flow of detail through the art of effective questioning—and listening. There is nothing like silence to encourage people to go deeper.
The great thing about these oral histories is that I present them with little performance. The reader studies a transcript that was never edited for radio or for print; the progression of the interview (and the resulting intimacy) is visible through the line of questioning—and sometimes the push-back. It feels raw and untouched.
The Old Woman has a limited amount of time for her oral history but one thing is for sure: she never loses her audience. She was in a moment of performance: sentimentality, exaggeration. These were integral elements of her success. And while its fantastical nature can inspire doubt, this testimony is truly her oral history. These voluptuous details do not detract from the fact that she feels the need to include them in this telling. Oral histories give us a narrative but sometimes more importantly, they tell us about the way people choose to remember and narrate their lives.
What details strike you about the old woman's narration of her story in chapters 11 and 12 if you were thinking of it as an oral history about events that are traumatic--and at the same time representative of acts of violence against women in general, as most women in this story will tell stories like this one?
The shared trauma by all of the women and the idea of speaking for the whole group is something that I find quite a bit of in the Salvadoran Jewish testimonies. In the case of the Salvadoran Jewish women, many provided the same skeleton of a story: "I left my family behind, I never recovered from that loss, but I continued and tried to make a home here. My children had a new life and I hoped they would never experience the hell I did." Obviously I'm providing a grossly oversimplified account but this is the essence of it. They all presented these "skeletons" the first time we met. Yet after I established a sense of intimacy and a good rapport, many more details came out. Painful accounts such as the idea of non-acceptance by other Jewish women, the threat of losing their husband's attention, the insecurity of being an "Eastern European minority vs. a Western European Jew," the fact that they suffered unique challenges during the war (in hiding or fighting in the Resistance or being abroad without contact). I was amazed by these details...and the fact that they had never been shared with the wider community (remember: I was talking to members of a community of 60 families).
With their permission, I took the sharing to a new level.
After gathering these stories, I provided quick summaries of the testimonies in a blog format. The community read each other's testimonies online and were completely shocked by each other's stories. The women had never shared these details with each other. "I didn't know she was in the Resistance." It turns out that these women never asked each other to share their experiences. It took an outsider, an oral historian, to walk in and encourage them to remember and coerce them to share and listen to each other. The skeleton was the safe story—and it was embedded in everyone's minds because the women felt safe adopting that narrative as their own. It was the details and stories of detachment from each other that trickled out as afterthoughts. The raw testimonies would differentiate the women from each other, and that was far too risky.
There are two (or more) versions of the old woman's story if one considers the version in the Bernstein operetta, "I Am Easily Assimilated," which highlights some dramatic features of the story by turning it into a mixture of tango/Jewish folk dance. Here's a great performance by Patti LuPone from a 2005 evening of Live on Broadway with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Bernstein famously marked the tempo as "moderato hassidicamente" in the score and incorporated his father's immigration story into the lyrics.
Click image to go to YouTube clip
This theatrical version of the old woman's story casts a different light on the story, perhaps, in that it highlights how such storytelling is a performance. It's obviously a performance when Patti LuPone is singing it--is it also a performance when she's telling it in the book, with Candide and Cunegonde as her audience? I noticed some self-consciously dramatized features of her story from the beginning of her tale and the ritual performance of the stripping: "It appeared to me a very strange kind of ceremony; but thus one judges of things when one has not seen the world."
These violent parts of the story are less present in the Old Woman's story as it's rendered in the operetta, where the focus is on the origin story. So it's fascinating that there are different parts of the story that can be performed in storytelling as a transcript or as theatrical performance. I'm interested that you mention that stories end up in unexpected places and that readers may have reactions based on form. In what ways does the adaptation in song reveal something new about her method of storytelling?
The operetta version is so fabulous. I think I watched Patti Lupone's performance almost ten times. The song, witty and entertaining, also mirrors the experience of so many Salvadoran Jews:
"I never learned a human language
My father spoke a High Middle Polish
In one half-hour I'm talking in Spanish: Por favor! Toreador!
I am easily assimilated.
I am so easily assimilated."
There is honesty here. Yes, we laugh, but let's be clear, this assimilation was the only way to survive. I remember my own grandmother telling me about her first few days in El Salvador. She and my grandfather were living in Chinameca where he was working as a traveling salesman. Chinameca was then a rural village with no running water, no electricity—quite the change from Amsterdam and Berlin! On a visit to the capital, she encountered some Salvadorans who, upon learning of her German background, exclaimed, "Oh we love Germany! We just love Germany!" This was 1938. She was taken aback and responded, "Germany may have been my home....but my home doesn't want me." The raw emotion of exile. Assimilation was the only way to reclaim one's own identity. She could no longer be German and while she would never be considered "fully" Salvadoran, she had to at least try. She was fluent in Spanish in less than a year. I think she would've chuckled at Lupone's performance, but I think she would have nodded her head at the same time. It's a funny performance—but it's reality.
Lupone gives quite a sexualized performance. She explains her situation and her background, sauntering around the attending men, shaking her hips and establishing her sexual prowess. While it may seem somewhat counterintuitive, I feel the Old Lady gives a similarly sexualized account of her past life. She describes her throat, her virginal body, her innocence, her innocence taken.... In order for her audience of Cunegonde and Candide to be effectively lured, she has to connect with them through trauma they can understand. The rape and abuse speaks to Cunegonde's own violation; the powerlessness of being imprisoned and mistreated appeals to Candide's nearly fatal situation in Portugal.
Oral histories are certainly affected by the listener. I imagine some of my subjects subconsciously appealed to my own understanding and experience—or adversely, in order to keep me at a distance (also very common, specifically when re-living trauma), they pushed me away by denying details and refusing to answer certain questions.
We as narrators of our own lives will forever respond to our audience for it is impossible tell stories in a vacuum.