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A Guide to Liberatory Storytelling

A reflection from our Archival Creators Fellow
By Dhanya Addanki |
JANUARY 24, 2020

Archival Creators Fellow Dhanya Addanki ruminates on the lessons she's learned in her journey to collect and uphold Dalit history. Her project centers the liberation of the Dalit community and the work being done by community members. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

There really is no template for preserving Dalit history. Stories were handed down in Dalit communities like heirlooms and kept in the communities. Dalit communities have been telling and preserving their stories for centuries through word of mouth, through music, and other practices.

But most of the time, our communities were not listened to. Rather, outsiders thought to be “experts”, and academics, journalists, and the likes defined and narrated who Dalit people were. It is this erasure and blatant violence that makes projects (like this one) led by Dalit people and for Dalit people crucial to preserving accurate history.

There’s a certain reverence that comes with this kind of storytelling, especially if you are the beholder of a story. In this process of collecting stories for the archives, I’ve learned not only to bear witness to the intricacies and unfolding of other people’s lives, but to dig deeper within my own history and witness myself. This can be a bit unnerving at times but it’s a necessary discomfort that yields a lot of good.

As I thought through the project, I realized that the most significant thing that I can do is create a project based in liberation through story. This means collecting oral histories of activists, artists, organizers, and other Dalit people who are working towards dismantling the caste system and laying the foundations for a world where Dalit people are not subjugated to the everyday violence that is so common in South Asia and brought over to many parts of the world including the U.S.

But I’m also working towards collecting oral histories, digitizing important artifacts, and taking portraits of people who are not branded as “activists” that do the everyday work of waking up and going about their daily lives, knowing that their existence is a resistance to casteist, fascist, and violent ideologies.

There is and always has been wisdom, intelligence, power, and depth in the oral histories of Dalit communities. This has not changed with the stories that I’ve been collecting. There are deep pains but also joy in these stories, consistently upending stereotypes of what Dalit people or communities should or should not be.

As a first time archivist, I’m understanding how different oral storytelling interviews are from journalism interviews – something that I am used to. In the spirit of transparency, for folks interested in familiarizing themselves with this process a bit more, here are a few things I’ve learned about community based storytelling while doing the work.

1. Let the community’s stories lead the vision: Journalism interviews are usually streamlined, with a specific topic for a specific story that journalists base their interviews on. Because oral history interviews are about a person’s life and their story more than a topic, they are much broader. While there is an outline of questions that I have in mind, the interview itself can take a very different direction that I imagined while still being about the person’s life. And I think this is a good thing. When a project is community based, it is less about my individual vision and more about what the interviewees think are important about their life and their lived experiences.

2. Pay attention to your curiosity: Chances are, if you’re curious about something, the people listening to the interview will be too. In the past, there have been times when I’ve invalidated or disregarded a question or curiosity I have during an interview because of the fear of sounding unintelligent. In this project, paying attention to my curiosities has led to rich discussion where I not only find out more about a person’s life, but their opinions, worldviews, and the ways in which they operate in society – all rich aspects of their personalities that are important to capture in any interview.

3. Don’t be afraid to share a few details about your life: An interview is a conversation. Speaking a bit about your personal experiences (at the proper times) creates a level of safety and builds trust between both parties. As the interviewer, it is our job to create an environment where people feel comfortable enough to speak about the deepest pain and their deepest joy while speaking about their lives. There’s a vulnerability that exists with each interview, and it is my job (especially as someone from the community) to set that tone so others know they can speak without being judged and know their voice will be respected. Sharing a bit about yourself can also break the ice and lead to deeper conversations that are able to resonate with a lot more folks from the community.

4. Don’t concentrate only on the hardships: Outsiders, usually the only people who told stories on behalf on Dalit people, tell stories only of hardship, poverty, pain, and paint a one-dimensional image of an oppressed community. My job here is not to invoke feelings of pity or any level of outside savior complex. As a liberatory project, my job is to build solidarity and capture the dignity and grace within Dalit people and communities. Because of this, I am hypervigilant about painting a full picture of Dalit people and communities, talking about the similarities in many Dalit-American upbringings, the pain, the pride, and the differences, too. Although hardships in the community are plenty, I (and others interested in oral history and liberatory work) have to look at people and their stories through the lens of fullness instead of the lens of only trauma. This requires quite a bit of unlearning because of the things we’ve internalized and things we have learned about ourselves and other oppressed communities, but it is crucial to do.

In this process, I’ve interviewed Dalit people from all parts of the U.S. and have traveled to a few cities to collect portraits. I’ve found ways in which we are unified and hope to learn more about the people who came before me, people who are here today, and leave accurate history for the ones who will come after.

Dhanya is an editor, writer, and photographer, working mainly in advocacy, human rights, and justice oriented spaces. She was born in South India and raised in South Texas.