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Archiving Queer Memories Together


Zooming, Caring, and Making Oral Histories During the Pandemic
By Efadul Huq |
NOVEMBER 19, 2021
Poster for the Moving Memories public event hosted by Efadul and SAADA
Moving Memories, an archiving project, started with the motivation to gather narratives of queer migration and home-making, and to record oral histories of Bangladeshi migrants residing in the U.S. It is rare to find Bangladeshi queer migrants represented in mainstream narratives of South Asian migration to the U.S, and so for this project, I included documented, undocumented, asylees, and other immigrants—all queers with direct or related experiences of migration between Bangladesh and the U.S. The year-long collaboration, in partnership with a community-based archive called the Queer Archives of the Bengal Delta, allowed me to develop ten oral histories that speak to the memories of loss, nostalgia, belonging, questioning identities, and making homes out of refuge and temporariness. Four out of these ten oral histories uncover the complexities of migration to the U.S. under the shadow of the 2016 murders of LGBT+ activists in Bangladesh. The other six, while at times touching on the traumatic event of 2016, share memories of moving to the U.S. for education or through family migration. Together, these experiences offer a crucial perspective for understanding the present political and social moment in Bangladesh and the U.S., as well as local and transnational queer organizing that has deeper histories and ties to other social movements in both regions.

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.
The tools Efad used to collect interviews.
Preparing these oral histories also required all of us involved to grapple with traumas. In a way, participants were putting their lives together for themselves as they shared their stories. My goal was to create a shared space, an uninterrupted, safe, and supportive environment. Sometimes, I would ask quick follow-up questions and watch the memory slowly take shape in the response. I realized that it is almost impossible to fade into the background while doing community-based archiving work with people you identify with. There were moments where we had to end sessions abruptly and get back to them on a later day when the recounted events triggered particularly disturbing emotions. The important practice was that we spoke openly about these moments of reliving trauma with each other—before, after, or even during the recording. We talked about how we would take care of ourselves while making these oral histories. Through careful listening and honest communication, oral history work also turned into community caring work towards each other.

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.