Saturday, October 1, 2011

THE CRAFT OF HISTORY: CHRISTA ORTH ON THE WORK LIVES OF PORTLAND QUEER PEOPLE



It's 1973, and Steve Harmon, the first male phone operator in Portland, Oregon is taking directory assistance calls. His story is told -- with poignant and period details like the blush that steals over his cheeks when he comes out at work, or the "finger-condoms" the operators use -- by Christa Orth in the video above. She's reading from her chapter in the Lambda Literary Award-winning anthology "Portland Queer: Tales from the Rose City." 

Steve (who also survived being institutionalized as a teenager in the 1960s) is just one of a number of real-life characters in a book of creative nonfiction stories Christa is writing about the everyday work lives of Pacific Northwest queer people. Other characters, diverse in race and gender and class, include a nurse during the AIDS crisis, a labor activist who lived through the Rajneesh movement, a member of the letter carriers union and founder of Portland's first women's music festival, and Christa herself, who explores her own history through that of her queer elders in the present day. 

If the others stories are as quietly absorbing as Steve's, they'll be able to stand on their own; Orth also aims to have the narratives add up to a broader and more revealing picture of queer history after Stonewall.

The stories are based on oral histories Christa conducted, and I'm delighted to see this creative adaptation of the form. Oral history is a craft from start to finish: in the relationship you build with interviewees, your demeanor during an interview, the questions you ask, how you follow up. It is possible to extend the craft beyond the interview itself. If a writer is faithful to the source material (which is to say, the interviewees) in crafting stories, the results may be better -- retaining the colloquial, fluid quality of oral history, while attaining additional structure.  

Christa is well-prepared for this very task, having worked with StoryCorps and the ACT UP Oral History Project. (I hope you'll check out my posts about those two organizations here and here, respectively. And my other blog posts and podcast episodes about oral history are here.)

For updates on Christa's book and other projects, follow her on Twitter!

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