I stumbled on a box of cassette tapes from an oral history project completed decades ago. I had recorded interviews of my Japanese-American farming neighbors. Mostly Nisei, second generation Japanese in America, they shared personal stories about growing up in immigrant families, working the Valley’s fields, internment during World War II, and growing families and a community.
Listening to their voices, I stepped back into a past, recognizing their individual intonations and speaking rhythms. Most were not natural storytellers. Japanese-Americans tended to be quiet, reserved with their emotions. Perhaps because I grew up around these families and was now farming along side of them, they were candid and open.
One farmer shared a story about the brutally hard work in the fields; another wife told me about her husband who treated their farm like it was his baby. Another lamented about all the farm kids who had left for college and never returned. A few asked that I deliver a eulogy at their funeral.
Listening to these voices today, I grew sad, missing my neighbors and their presence. I grew nostalgic, recalling the comfort of knowing that if my old truck ever broke down along our country roads, I could walk to any number of farm houses dotting the countryside (remember, this was before cell phones and you needed a good neighbor for emergency calls).
Then I realized we still had stories. I had captured these voices in one of my earliest books called Country Voices, a tribute to these people and the everyday, agrarian working class roots of our Valley. I recall as a young author, I didn’t completely trust my voice. But these neighbors provided an honest and authentic tone that has influenced all my subsequent writing.
I discovered that listening is love. The simple act of pausing and asking a few questions created an eternal bond. Everyday details mattered; the quiet daily emotions of work defined these people. Relationships that could be explained by a simple word utilized in an unique way.
For example, one farm wife who labored for decades in fields of tomatoes, daikon, and cucumbers (with lots of strawberries, too) said their work made them feel like real “vegetarians” (even though they enjoyed meat). We would be forever connected by such a story.
In these sessions, the personal moments mattered the most. People guarded their private lives, sharing their emotions when it mattered, willing to be public when experiences were captured and documented in a story rather than gossip.
In today’s new world of social media and apparent transparency, I enjoyed the delicate discretion of live storytelling, listening to the pauses and deeply emotional silences. These moments of impact separated the personal from the popular, private from overexposed.
Later, in other oral histories, I recorded stories of others I normally would not include in my circle of neighbors. Politically, these individuals were very different from my thinking. We ran in opposite circles. But after an exchange and conversation, we felt differently. We could have differences, but there was a newly found tolerance that could one day evolve into acceptance. It was a crucial first step.
My initial oral histories were done 40 years ago. They were branded as old fashioned, something for academicians and old folk in historical societies. But that’s different today. New storytelling can be cool and trendy. Sharing stories has evolved into highly choreographed performances. Snap Judgment. The Moth. Story Corps. These platforms have blossomed as radio stories and podcasts, reaching a broader and more diverse audience.
The best storytellers do perform. Hand gestures, a subtle smile, a blinking of eyes all contribute to the magic of a live performance. If I’m lucky, there’s a connection between interviewer and subject. Sometimes the recording device like a mic provides a license to ask questions and open a line of inquiry.
At other times, a physical object – a photo, an heirloom, the taste of a family recipe, a hand tool – can trigger thoughts and reflections. I’ve watched an old farmer stroke the handle of their favorite shovel, the smooth grain of the worn wood becomes part of the story.
With time, perhaps just spending a few extra minutes, a comfort level may be achieved, allowing for revealing emotions strangers could never achieve. In the frenzy of today’s typical pace, do we “take the time” to pause for a genuine conversation?
Two elements are required for these exchanges: ask and listen. We’ve lost the art of listening and the skill of asking questions. The most successful stories touch all the senses, like the visceral responses to a weather event that changed a harvest or details of a farm accident that altered a family history forever.
Unfortunately, modern online communication breeds speeches and monologues, soliloquies we foolishly mask as true exchanges. People do have stories to share, yet I fear fewer people are listening and move over, we have stopped asking.
I want to keep stories alive and not simply transfer memories from one generation to another. The power of technology allows for new communication: We live in a networked world of social relationships. Before stories were handed down verbally; we can now share them with a much broader audience with new links to the past. History matters and narratives from the past enable us to evolve.
Stories can transform us. We have the opportunity to revisit the past through personal memories. That’s why we must ask and listen, collect and preserve. For ourselves, for our families and perhaps for a community and nation.
David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and author of several books including “Epitaph for a Peach.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.