It was a joy to meet Abbie Reese in New Mexico a few summers ago when we were both attending A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Retreat. She is a creative, independent thinking and kind artist who brings her audience original stories.
She recently finished Erased from the Landscape: The Hidden Lives of Cloistered Nuns. This beautiful, traveling multi-media gallery exhibition, which will open July 1, 2011, can be partially accessed through videos and photographs online. You can also see some more images and read about Abbie’s additional projects on her website. I hope you will consider supporting this project by donating.
Please read below for more on Abbie’s creative process and her current project.
Can you describe the relationship between your oral history work and your creative non-fiction writing?
The stories that people tell reveal emotional truths, as well as recurrent themes. This tracks with my work. I am interested in subjective memories and how they relate to the narrative construct. I am also interested in internal journeys and the ways in which individuals make sense of their world. All of this can be accessed through oral history.
Having worked as a journalist, I appreciate that the field of oral history recognizes memory as faulty and acknowledges that we, as humans, create stories. This helps shape my intentions and define the parameters of a project.
In my work with the cloistered monastic nuns, their entire subculture and experiences are absent from popular culture; the nuns subjugate their own voices within their culture. Conducting oral history interviews with the nuns supported my intention of placing precedence on their words, to focus on the nuns’ impressions of their experiences.
The oral history interviews laid the groundwork and informed my nonfiction writing, assisting with character development and highlighting such universal themes as belief and sacrifice and community and the effects of a woman’s choices on her own course and her loved ones.
It’s probably worth mentioning that my approach to oral history – as a tool toward writing and creating art – might be different than the approach of those who conduct oral history interviews as an academic exercise for the archives.
Your current project is really fascinating. How did it move from an idea and become an actual project?
I’ve been interested in the concept of religious life since I was a child. I find this type of embodied conviction compelling.
The germ for this project probably began with a magazine article I read in the ‘90s that outlined a trend of young Italian women from high society joining convents. A question gripped me: Why would someone my age make such a drastic countercultural decision for her life?
This question propelled the project into existence, and then the complex revelations and seeming paradoxes kept me interested. I stayed engaged for more than five years because the subjects merited this attention. They were surprising and funny and deliberate.
I was cognizant of the fact that I was a part of a world that they had left for the cloistered realm, which enables them to carry out a mission of serving others and praying for humanity. In a sense, I was on sacred ground that the public generally doesn’t touch. My priority was to respect their cultural mores. Their subculture operates under a very different set of codes and rules than the American popular culture that I exist within, and so I needed to learn their structure and value systems, and then engage to an extent that would limit infringement on their vow of enclosure.
I didn’t realize the significance of this project to the field of oral history until several years into the work when I was a Fellow at Columbia University’s Oral History Research Office Summer Institute; I learned then that an oral history project about cloistered monastic nuns had not been done before.
From the outset, I was protective of the subjects because of the nature of the nuns’ mission – they separate themselves from the world in order to pray for the world – and their value of anonymity. My style of work became very tight in the sense that I discussed it with a few, trusted people I knew to be both intelligent and open-minded, meaning I knew they wouldn’t judge what they didn’t fully know or understand; their input helped me define and strike a balance in approach.
I found it constructive to talk with several individuals that I respect, particularly Steve Rowland, a documentary producer, and Peter Maguire, an oral historian and author. I kept a few other friends and colleagues – all creative and perceptive and empathetic – in the loop throughout the project and they asked practical and insightful questions.
Why did you want to focus on nuns?
In a broad sense, I am interested in subcultures and outsider entities, and individual and cultural identity. Lately, because of an American popular culture trending toward overexposure, I have become fascinated with communities that operate in isolation, with self-selected members hidden from public view by volition.
Cloistered monastic nuns are not only indifferent to outside attention, they make vows that are a rebuttal to exposure. I am not Catholic, which for me meant permission to enter into this carefully guarded realm that much more precious, and I wanted to understand the motivations of individuals who live what they believe.
As I engaged with the religious community, I was influenced by own experiences in an attempt to understand the communal aspect of their lives. I spent a year onboard the world’s largest non-governmental hospital ship, a 522-foot converted cruise liner, as one of the 350 individuals from about 40 countries embracing an extreme lifestyle. Living aboard a floating village lent interest in unraveling a unique dimension of the nuns’ world – community life.
What oral history websites/resources would you recommend to someone who is considering getting involved with the field? Any advice? And what advice would you give to other writers who are relying on oral history as a way to research or gather source material?
The field of oral history endorses a methodology for conducting interviews that differs from other fields; oral history subscribes to “co-authorship” and “shared authority”. In this vein, the individual conducting the interview should respect what a person is ready to share and wants to share, and adapt to this pace. The Oral History Association’s website has a helpful link to a document, “Oral History Principles and Best Practices,” that is a useful reference.
I think it’s important to acknowledge the realities of the field and to accept the constraints. For example, one should not expect oral history interviews to offer what other primary source material supersedes at delivering.
The oral historian Alessandro Portelli pioneered work in the field by analyzing oral histories as a narrative structure, and he has written tomes that dissect collective “failures” of memory, including “The Death of Luigi Trastulli” – an entire town’s incorrect placement of a citizen’s death years from the fact in order to make sense of their history and experiences. I recommend reading his work.
In my experience, an interesting discovery from oral history has been hearing people say things that surprise themselves. I think that when given an opportunity to express their experiences and interpretations of those events verbally in what can be an intense and concentrated manner, they speak truth they may not have processed fully until they hear themselves say it.
With writing, there’s a common adage: Write what you know. If someone is just starting in the field of oral history, I think it would be helpful to take an inventory of one’s interests and areas where one would like to learn more.
I would emphasize, though, that conducting oral history interviews is a huge investment; for every hour of recorded interview, the rule of thumb is that it takes three to four times that to make transcriptions.
As an interdisciplinary artist, Abbie Reese is a writer, photographer and oral historian. She attended a four-week Artist Residency in Photography at the Vermont Studio Center, and her portfolio of the cloistered monastic nuns was selected for Review Santa Fe. Abbie is a member of the Chicago Literary Club and she was a Fellow at Columbia University’s Oral History Research Office Summer Institute, “Oral History, Advocacy and the Law,” in 2008.