Archiving Queer Memories Together
Zooming, Caring, and Making Oral Histories During the Pandemic
By Efadul Huq |
NOVEMBER 19, 2021
The process of developing these oral histories has been a journey of growth and learning. It’s clear to me now that sensitive oral histories are built on trust and deep respect. State violence and everyday queerphobia that threaten queer lives, across Bangladesh and the U.S., persistently shaped the archiving process. One participant, after over four hours of recording, decided to withdraw. Her trans friend had been attacked and she was afraid for her safety at the time. Later in the year, she returned. Other participants, currently based in Bangladesh or in the U.S. on temporary visa status, took various precautions such as using pseudonyms and changing audio pitch on recordings.
During the interviews, participants narrated memories using full names of people, places, and institutions, and though I knew that many of these names would later have to be removed, I did not interrupt or request they use different names in order to facilitate their recollection. The editing process for those conversations was lengthy and required meticulous attention to detail, particularly to ensure that there was no leakage of information. For example, special care had to be taken to ensure that names of anyone based in Bangladesh do not show up. For other participants, I had to remove portions that could potentially jeopardize their pending asylum cases and, in one case, I encouraged the participant to consult with their lawyer so that the oral history does not impede their immigration process. All this meant months-long multiple cycles of listening, editing, and reviewing for each oral history. Another important aspect of these oral histories is that many of them are speaking in a mixture of Bangla and English, a particular challenge. In preparing the upcoming exhibit, I decided to stay with the two languages and develop separate Bangla and English translations. Instead of literal translation, the group of translators (including myself) had to think through the context, emotion, and position of the speaker and attempt to capture that in both Bangla and English separately.
Listening to the ten oral histories now, I realize how these rich memories are not always easy to understand. At times, the recordings sound deceptively simple; other times it’s too fragmented to decipher. This resistance to quick interpretation mirrors the everyday reality of the participants as well as the profound importance of this archive. One has to remember that these voices are reaching out to us against the pressures of state violence, queerphobia and transphobia, and cycles of traumas and displacement. One has to really listen over and over and learn to see the context through the participants’ perspectives in order to appreciate their experiences.
Perhaps most importantly, and despite the isolation imposed due to the pandemic, the archival project brought together queer people across Bangladesh and the U.S. As the project developed, we encountered more interest from the Bangladeshi queer community. At the public event in July, there was a significant number of Bangladeshi queer attendees and the panel discussion was received with comments, questions, and further interest. The oral histories are proving to be timely and relevant for Bangladesh’s queer history and organizing as well. After the launch of the archive, one queer person based in Bangladesh said, “We don’t hear these stories often. We think life in the U.S. must be all great and wonderful. These stories show us what life is like for Bangladeshi queer migrants. We need these stories. We need people here [Bangladesh] to understand the complexity of the situation.” At the U.S. end, after viewing the archive, Nancy Haque, one of the project participants, shared, “It’s like a lifetime of isolation feels like it’s slowly melting away.”
Efadul Huq is a poet and urban scholar dedicated to preserving queer community stories, and is the co-founder of Queer Archives of the Bengal Delta, which preserves memories of queer social and political lives connected to the region. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.