Looking for Feedback: Oral Histories of Displacement in India

The following post is from Sam Tranum in Kolkata, India:

I’m a journalist using oral history methods. I have no formal oral history training so I’m hoping Groundswell readers might be willing to offer me some advice on something.

I’m working on a book using oral histories and photographs to document the experiences of residents of one of the many Indian villages being razed to make room for “development” projects. In this case, it’s a village in the state of Chhattisgarh being torn down to make room for a coal mine.

Though there’s a fair amount of discussion in the Indian media, activist community, and academia (and Parliament) about development-induced displacement in India, the voices of the displaced are seldom heard directly in these debates. This project is my attempt to allow a few displaced people to participate in these debates by telling their stories in a relatively un-mediated way.

With some colleagues, I went to live for a short while earlier this year in what remains of the village, perched on the edge of a giant coal pit. We interviewed people there, as well as people who had already relocated, and recorded the interviews on digital audio recorders. A translator is now transcribing and translating the 17+ hours of recordings we gathered. My question is about how to present the transcripts in the book.

At first, we tried to conduct structured, one-on-one interviews, but we soon found that didn’t work well. While some subjects were natural speakers and did well in this format, most appeared intimidated and froze up, offering short answers and cutting the interview short.

Eventually, we realized that the interviews worked better when more than one interview subject was present. They appeared more comfortable, prompted each other, and bounced ideas off each other. Conversations flowed. This was, in fact, hard to prevent: there was almost no privacy in the village. In the end, several of our interviews include two or three subjects.

This left us with some great interviews and on-tape discussions about how the arrival of the coal mine, progressive elimination of the village, and ongoing relocation of its residents has affected their lives. It also left us with a dilemma about how to present the resulting transcripts.

In the last anthology of oral histories I edited, “Life at the Edge of the Empire: Oral Histories of Soviet Kyrgyzstan,” the questions were minimal and the subjects basically just told their life stories. I edited the responses into monologues, as that was easier to read. I think it worked well.

In this anthology, I’m not sure how best to present the transcripts in the book: Verbatim, with questions and answers, sort of like the script for a play? Or edited somehow into monologues again? Or in another format? It seems like a question of balancing accuracy/transparency with readability.

Since there are often multiple speakers in these transcripts, it would take some major editing to produce monologues — and I’m wary about making such significant changes. On the other hand, I’ve read through some of these discussion transcripts, and asked some friends to do the same, and they’re tough to get through; what’s the point of publishing them if no one reads them?

Any advice on how to proceed would be much appreciated.