Something Durable and Luminous

Long after my family history is finished, after the writing is done, after my book is published (or not), after all my relatives and I myself are gone, our voices will still be audible in digital recordings. Our words will also be legible, provided anyone takes the trouble to dig through my files. I have no idea how posterity might receive this archive. I’m still grappling with the oddity of this situation in the present.

I have hours of recorded interviews with my mother, my uncles, and my late aunt. They are a vital resource—the primary documents I consult to obtain my elders’ memories of the origins of our family. I realize of course that memories are not strictly factual and that the testimonies I record and transcribe are riddled with error. These flaws don’t concern me. I obtain documented facts from other sources where possible and treat my elders’ stories as the best indicators I have of how my family sees itself. In some ways, their stories are similar to mythology. In some ways, my family is similar to all other families.

I conduct most of these interviews by telephone, since I live far from my relatives. A few others I conduct in person. Usually I also take notes in case the recording doesn’t work. When an interview is finished, I transfer the file from my digital recorder to the computer, where it is copied to a local hard drive and the cloud. (I’m a stickler for backup.) Some time after the interview is finished—usually months or years later—I transcribe it.

Transcribing the interviews is essential, but it’s also laborious and time-consuming. I spend many hours at the task, straining to distinguish voice from background noise, typing furiously to keep up with my subjects. The effort is comical, like raking leaves in a gale. It doesn’t help that a fastidious literalism overtakes me, compelling me to capture every ah and um, every like and you know. Like many people, my relatives often speak in a circuitous or elliptical fashion, which further complicates the job of setting down their words. The work is draining. I can only do it for an hour or two at a time.

Once I transcribe an interview, I have it in two media—audio and print. Both are valuable. The audio conveys my relatives’ emotional states, the angst, regret, laughter, and joy brought forth by the act of recall. I grow excited as I transcribe, the story taking form in my mind. Then I mark up the transcripts and use them as source material. I don’t quote my relatives directly; the voice of the writing must be my own. It helps that the transcripts are searchable. My own recall grows faulty as time passes. But then that’s the point of these interviews, the point of all history: to transform memory into something durable and luminous.

© 2014, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.

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