The Best And Worst A Country Has To Offer

Listen to “The Best And Worse A Country Has To Offer”

One of the big takeaways (and surprises) from the workshop was the importance of thinking about the elements you need to tell the story you want to tell, before going out in the field to gather tape. “Imagine what you need, then will it into existence” was advice we received often in class.

The 2007 New Bedford Raid had been widely reported over the years, so to tell the story with a fresh perspective I wanted to find an individual who’d been arrested in the raid, but eventually allowed to stay in the U.S. legally. Based on my understanding of immigration law, I suspected that some among the immigrants arrested had probably qualified for relief from deportation. Moreover, I thought enough time had passed so that this hypothetical individual would be willing to talk openly without fear of a pending immigration case or court hearing. There. That would be the best character to tell this story. Now I just had to find them.

In my search, I spent a lot of time in New Bedford. I dealt with immigration legal aid organizations, an immigrant workers center, a professor who studied and researched immigrant populations in the city, even activists involved in the relief efforts. I collected interviews with people who had been involved in the aftermath of the raid, or worked with immigrant communities, but after days of reporting, I had yet to successfully connect with anyone personally affected by the raid. With deadlines looming, I began to wonder if I could tell the story of the raid, without that “best character.”

I talked with Rob, and to my surprise he said: “That’s okay, we still have some time. Sort of. You’re talking to all the right people. Keep doing that.” But I was frustrated, and beginning to panic. Scripts would be due soon, all I had was hours of tape of background information and context. Useful for a research paper, but insufficient for radio. And Rob wanted me to wait longer? I had already been thinking of alternative story ideas. But a few days later, through one of the community centers I had visited earlier, I met Carolina. It was as if the universe had sent me a gift.

I got radio lucky with Carolina. I interviewed her in Spanish (her native language is a Mayan dialect, Spanish is her second language, and she does not speak much English), and Carolina was full of stories and anecdotes that she readily shared. She had beginnings, middles, and ends. She remembered dialogue. She vividly recounted events, and volunteered moments of reflection. She was quick to laugh, even though we talked about difficult topics. At one point, I had to turn off the recorder, because she didn’t want to speak on the record about parts of her story. When it came time to put the story together, working around material that was “off the record” was a challenge, but it was an exercise in discipline and creativity and I’m really grateful for that.

With the rest of my class, we half-joke that I willed Carolina into existence. Of course, I didn’t. But I understand how that works now. Before Transom I would’ve moved much more quickly to find another story. But now I understand that waiting can be an important part of the process — one that still requires focus, effort, and work. I didn’t “will” Carolina into existence. I merely hoped she was out there, and I stuck with the story long enough so that when it turned out she was out there, well so was I.

Virginia’s Sonic ID

Listen to “Virginia Lora’s Sonic ID”

Emory Johnson was waiting for his bus after taking the ferry from Martha’s Vineyard. He was monosyllabic in answering my opening questions. I was trying to warm him up, but was getting nowhere until we started talking about fishing, which he loves. Since I genuinely know very little about fishing, I had to ask a lot of clarification questions. Emory seemed outright amused at my ignorance and I had to remind myself that this was a good thing. My job during an interview is not to impress my interviewee. Stupid/obvious questions are my friends. “How large is a tuna fish?” can be a very fine question.

Listen to more pieces from this Story Workshop class here.

Virginia Lora

Virginia Lora

Born in Peru and raised in South Florida, Virginia is (now) a bilingual radio producer. A skilled interviewer, writer, and listener at heart, she took a roundabout way into radio: conducting intake interviews with immigrant kids in detention, then living and traveling all over the U.S. with a nontraditional oral history project, and later working as an in-house writer for a homeless shelter. Eventually, a combination of an inquisitive spirit, faith in the role of the media in deepening democracy, and a knack for intense engaged listening, led her to radio, and to Transom. She currently lives, works, and plays in Miami, FL. She is a member of PRX and AIR. You can find more of her work at her website.

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