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The Oral History Interview and its Literary Representations [audio]

by Nirmal Puwar
29 Jul 2009 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [7] | Article

The Oral History Interview & its Literary Representations by Alessandro Portelli (University of Rome) – 28 April 2009

The Methods Lab Annual Lecture – Sociology Department, Goldsmiths, University of London

Allesandro PortelliAlessandro Portelli  teaches American literature at Sapienza University in Rome (where there is an active anomalous wave student movement for education).[1] Portelli has throughout his publications and labour of memory work emphasised remembering as an event, active listening, and has taken seriously creative error, invention, myth, even lies – especially when they are widespread. The complex polysemic nature of oral story telling as a dialogic exchange is felt on the pages of his books.

Portelli has through collaboration made full use of creative methods. Concerts, theatre and media have been used to not only collect and listen but to re-situate the oral conversations within broader cultural dialogues and performances. He has not only placed usually unheard stories within historical records, he even at one time made physical records from oral histories.

Importantly Portelli’s methods are not just creative but they are also located in the cultural activist tradition of oral history, where often the oral histories become an organising tool. They are shaped by and shape politics. For instance, this is the case with the alter-globalisation movement which staged the mass protests in Genoa in 2001 and culminated in the death of a protester. Along with young protesters Portelli carried out oral history projects on the events and produced a number of self-produced audio-CDs that were distributed amongst the movement, and also sold to finance the cost of the legal defence in the court cases that followed the protest.

Speaking of the exchanges, collaborations and dialogic methodologies, Portelli said a few years ago:

…a dialogue reflects on both sides. An interview is primarily a learning situation for the interviewer, especially if the motivation is (broadly) political. It is hard for me to pinpoint ways in which doing oral history and collecting folk songs has changed me: I have been doing this for thirty-five years, and I guess I can say that most of who and what I am is a result of this work.
Perhaps, the most important thing I have learned is the art of listening and respecting the agendas and priorities of other people. I hope I have been able to apply this lesson, to some extent at least, not only in oral history work but also in my own life.

His work has moved from Terni (his home town) to India in understandings of globalisation and labour.

Listen to audio files online – please wait a few moments to play (or download from

Introduction – Nirmal Puwar:

Alessandro Portelli Lecture:

Questions & Answers:

Selected Publications:


1. Portelli delivered the second Annual Methods lab lecture to the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths. The methods lab seeks to be a meeting place for academics and creative practitioners located at the interface of academia and public conversations. Collaboration and creative debate are central to the Methods Lab. [↑]

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Nirmal Puwar, Senior Lecturer in Sociology & Co-Director of Methods Lab, Goldsmiths, University of London.
All posts by: Nirmal Puwar | Email | Website

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