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The Power of Voice

I’ve spent thirty years now gathering people’s life stories on tape: migrants balancing the old world and the new, miners bonding like shock troops in the underground blackness, urban mothers on welfare struggling to keep their kids whole, bruised war veterans and battered wives, visionaries and philosophers, refugees, rebels and survivors of all kinds.

My projects were intended to have multiple creative outcomes – a book, a radio series, maybe also a television documentary or even a stage play. If you spent two or three years researching some ridiculously ambitious topic like what Australian women did in the Vietnam war (one of my themes), you had to recycle those interviews as many ways as you could. So I’d log the interviews for radio editing, and transcribe them, word for word, for a book. That’s when I began to get frustrated, when the characters who were so full-blooded and passionate on the tape translated as cold and uninspiring on the page, their words leached of emotion in print.

Take Jan Graham, an Australian woman who reported the Vietnam War for ten years, mostly filing for wire agencies. She witnessed amazing and appalling sights – a tiger in a rubber plantation at dawn, an old man ploughing with his water buffalo, heedless of bombs going off around him, a mother locating her son’s corpse among a heap of massacred young men. She had not spoken of these things since her return from Vietnam, but seeing my plea for informants, had finally decided to exhume the past.

When I met her, a small blonde chain-smoking ball of fire with a beautifully modulated voice, I felt a mixture of dread and anticipation. We banished her husband to the cellar, where he spent the time playing with his ham radio, which somehow planted an insistent buzz on the tape, inaudible at the time. Or maybe I just didn’t hear it, so focused was I on Jan’s stories. Someone called it ‘aerobic listening’, that ears-on-stalks concentration we give our interviewees during a long and fraught oral history interview. She cried recounting the torture of a suspected Viet Cong girl and flayed herself for her lack of intervention on the grounds of journalistic ‘objectivity’, which in retrospect she counted as complicity. She laughed as she described assisting the birth of a baby in a field, miraculous amidst the carnage. She wept again as she told of finding the mutilated body of her lover, a Green Beret on surveillance with the US army. I offered to stop the tape, but she wanted to be purged of all the memories, and the worst was yet to come.

It was about a GI whose group she’d been on patrol with – a sort of early embedding – and with whom she’d spent the previous night ‘getting plastered’, as he was on his way home to the US next day. On the way to the airport, the GI jumps out of the jeep to check something suspicious in a paddy field and detonates a mine. Jan instinctively runs in after him and finds him blown in two – only a torso and head remaining. He is bleeding to death and there is nothing she can do, except cuddle him. But then the story takes a ghastly twist. In shock, he thinks Jan is the wife he was on his way home to see, and starts murmuring words of love and loyalty. She feels compelled to play the role, and tells him how glad they are to have him back, and what they and the kids will do on Sunday… it takes him fifteen minutes to die. Jan is gutted by the incident – not just the tragedy of his death, but the awful shame at having unwittingly usurped the intimacy meant for his wife. She discovers where his wife lives and goes to see her, telling her the last words her husband said. For the wife this brings catharsis, but Jan remains mired in self-loathing, unable to get over the trauma. After Vietnam she never worked as a journalist again.

Have a listen to the three minutes of tape here. It’s barely been edited, apart from where I shortened some of the pauses, as her grief was just unbearable.

Listen to “Jan Graham”

When this excerpt was played on ABC radio, as part of a six-part series on Australian women in Vietnam called Minefields and Miniskirts, people were greatly moved. One listener said he was driving and had to pull over, as he could not focus on the road. As audio, it engulfs us. But when I wrote up the interview for a book, the flatness of the words on the page haunted me. I wrote it journalistically, with minimal intervention. Here’s how it read:

Minefields and Miniskirts image
Interview with Jan as it appeared in Minefields and Miniskirts

If you read the pages with Jan’s voice in your head, you pick up an echo of the emotion – a passable result. But most readers of the book would not have heard Jan, so this is their only account. And how pathetic its impact is compared to the audio.

When another edition of Minefields and Miniskirts came out, I was desperate to find a more authentic print version of Jan’s interview. Poetry provided a clue. Adopting the spacing and line format of a poem seemed to capture more of the rhythm and emotion of her flagellating account. You be the judge – see below.

Image of poem
Interview with Jan as a poem in the newer edition of Minefields and Miniskirts

But even if it’s better (and I think it’s got about 60% of the voice, as opposed to the 30% the first print version had), it will never compare with the stricken anguish of the real thing. That’s the power of the human voice – and it’s why I love to make radio, and to listen to it.

Siobhan McHugh

About
Siobhan McHugh

Siobhan McHugh contracted the Irish passion for storytelling. She does it through print (has written six books) audio (has broadcast some 50 long-form radio features) and TV, in work that has won many accolades, most recently a gold medal at the 2010 New York Festival of Radio. She’s infinitely curious about people, especially the invisible ones. Like filmmaker Danny Boyle, she believes in ‘the politics of connection’. After many precarious years of freelancing, she has a Respectable Job lecturing in journalism at University of Wollongong, Australia. More at www.mchugh.org.

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  • john cashman

    4.26.11

    Reply

    Siobhan has such a clear insight into the ‘power of voice’ and she demonstrates why public radio is the ideal medium for oral history.
    Her most recent radio feature ‘Marrying Out’ combines voice, music and dramatic recreations to great effect.

  • John Jacobs

    4.26.11

    Reply

    Thanks for sharing this powerful story in it’s three different versions with us Siobhan. What an incredibly moving example of the many layers of complexity that can be conveyed by the human voice alone.

    As media workers we often go to great lengths to tell a story but as you so eloquently demonstrate here, sometimes the best approach is to simply lay out the first person aurality of the spoken.

    Radio is perhaps the most poetic of mediums.

  • Aviva Sheb’a

    8.17.11

    Reply

    I’m stunned. I knew Jan in Da Nang, Vietnam, 1970. Siobhan sent me the tape of the interview years ago. I’ve kicked myself for not being able to bring myself to listen to it. Having listened to the excerpt, perhaps I can listen to the tape; not now, not yet. Right now, my body’s sitting at the computer typing this, but my mind is being pulled through my belly, connected with Jan, connected with Siobhan, connected with the Viet Cong who pointed the machine gun up my nose the night I turned 18, connected with everybody who’s ever been in war. Yes, oral history is powerful and necessary. Thank you, Siobhan, for your marvellous body of work. Minefields and Miniskirts brought me out of the woodwork, 25 years after I stopped talking about having been there.

  • Elisabeth Pozzi-Thanner

    9.01.11

    Reply

    Transforming a word by word transcript into poetry:
    After trauma, we remember through our senses, and we also start healing when we activate our senses in creative ways. Artists like you, Siobhan, can show us the way.
    Thank you, Siobhan, for demonstrating so beautifully one way how this can be done.
    Elisabeth

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