By Sandy Mui
Published: April 18th, 2018
“Everyone has a story.”
That is a motto the Brooklyn College Listening Project (BCLP) has always lived by. On March 28, four of BCLP’s stories were told in the State Lounge of Brooklyn College’s Student Center.
That week, Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-American writer and 2017-18 Hess Scholar-in-Residence, visited Brooklyn College for a series of events hosted by The Wolfe Institute. “Narrating Our Lives: Brunch with Faculty and Students from the Listening Project” was one event on March 28, held between 11 a.m. and 12:15 p.m.
“Knowing somebody’s journey by talking to them in conversation is always something I’ve tried to do in my work,” Danticat said on oral histories.
During the brunch, four students presented their work to an audience that included Danticat and Brooklyn College students and faculty affiliated with BCLP.
Radhika Viswanathan interviewed Preeti Vasudevan, an Indian dancer. “I feel totally myself when I’m on stage,” Vasudevan said in the interview. “It’s my home.”
On why she decided to interview Vasudevan, Viswanathan said, “I’ve been dancing for as long as I can remember… specifically Indian classical dance. It’s still the story of the people from their ancestors and what they value. I liked growing up as a dancer because it made me closer to my grandparents and appreciate what they valued.”
Another student, Dominick Braswell, began his presentation by explaining the importance of oral histories. “They give us a telling of past events and moments through the voices of those who are directly or indirectly affected by those… moments,” he said.
Braswell interviewed Mark Torres, who spoke about his mother’s experience coming to the US from the Dominican Republic in the 1950s during the Rafael Trujillo dictatorship. “The dictatorship really divided families,” Torres said in the interview.
Zoey Wolfe interviewed Justine Carta Hess, a transgender woman from the Philippines who struggled with her identity before coming to the United States. Eventually, Hess came across role models in New York City.
“I found what was striking that their self-concepts had been built from the ashes… many of their friends had died from AIDS in the 80’s and 90’s,” Hess said in the interview. “Or they had also lost people who had killed themselves or been murdered because they were gay.”
Hess’ experiences generated reactions from many people in the audience. “These are people that should use their platform for people who don’t have that support,” one student remarked. “I just want these people [with a platform] to assist those people in their darkness.”
Jasmine Toledo’s interview with a female undocumented immigrant also struck a chord with listeners. For her oral history, Toledo wanted to answer the question, “What is it like to work in the United States as an undocumented immigrant? She felt that history books are not enough, since she “wasn’t able to get a sense of [undocumented immigrants] telling their own stories” through them.
“The fact that I’m with other kids that are not mine… I do feel guilty, believe me,” the woman, a nanny, said during the interview.
Despite her interviewee’s undocumented immigrant status, Toledo believed everyone can still relate to the woman. “There’s so many commonalities that I share with her and that many of you share with her… she feels a part of their family,” Toledo said.
In her closing remarks, Danticat encouraged students “to turn to these stories in your own life. Sometimes, we can underestimate the stories of our parents’ own struggles.”
“What you need are truth-tellers, people who are trying to be vulnerable.”