By Sandy Mui
“Everyone has a story has a story to tell.”
That is a motto the Brooklyn College Listening Project has lived by in its three years of existance. On March 28, four BC students presented their interviewees’ stories to Edwidge Danticat, the Haitian-American writer, in the State Lounge of Brooklyn College’s Student Center.
Danticat, the 2018 Robert L. Hess Scholar-in-Residence, is the author of 18 novels, memoirs, non-fiction, and children’s books. She grew up in Flatbush after coming to the U.S. from Haiti at 12 and was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2007 and won the National Book Critics Award in 2008 for her memoir “Brother, I’m Dying.” She won a McArthur Foundation Genius Award.
“Narrating Our Lives: Brunch with Faculty and Students from the Listening Project” was a chance for BCLP students to present their work to her.
Dominick Braswell interviewed political activist Mark Torres, who spoke about his mother’s experience coming to America from the Dominican Republic in the 1950s during the Rafael Trujillo dictatorship. “The dictatorship really divided families,” Torres said in the interview.
Zoey Wolfe interviewed Justine Carta Hess, a transgender woman from the Philippines who struggled with her identity before coming to the United States. Eventually, Hess met role models in New York City.
“I found what was striking was that their self-concepts had been built from the ashes… many of their friends had died from AIDS in the 80’s and 90’s,” Hess said in the interview. “Or they had also lost people who had killed themselves or been murdered because they were gay.”
Hess’s experiences generated reactions from many people in the audience. “These are people that should use their platform for people who don’t have that support,” one student remarked. “I just want these people [with a platform] to assist those people in their darkness.”
Jasmine Toledo’s interview with a female undocumented immigrant also struck a chord with listeners. For her oral history, Toledo wanted to answer the question, What is it like to live and work in the United States as an undocumented immigrant? Toledo was motivated to do her oral histories (she has done 10 interviews with undocumented immigrants for her history department thesis) because “I wasn’t able to get a sense of [undocumented immigrants] telling their own stories through the history books I’ve read.”
Her interviewee, who works as a nanny, told her that taking care of other people’s children makes her think of her own children. “The fact that I’m with other kids that are not mine… I do feel guilty, believe me,” she said.
Toledo feels that oral history interviews open up people’s lives to others. “There’s so many commonalities that I share with her and that many of you share with her,” she said.
In her closing remarks, Danticat encouraged students “to turn to these stories in your own life. Sometimes, we can underestimate the stories of our parents’ own struggles.”
“What you need are truth-tellers, people who are trying to be vulnerable.”