On April 15, 2020, Tor.com published the final installment of History and SFF, the column I have written for them since October last year. The column had two more planned installments to go, but Tor.com were forced to end it without those two posts being published because of cutbacks caused by the economic downturn in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. I am currently looking for a home for at least one of the two remaining posts. So watch this space for updates!
In the meantime, please enjoy this post on how Charlie Jane Anders uses oral history and the intangible cultural heritage to tell the story of her amazing novel, The City in the Middle of the Night.
History and SFF: Oral History and Charlie Jane Anders’s THE CITY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT
Traditionally, history is the study of the human condition through written texts. But over the last half-century, historians have focused more and more attention on what is known as oral history, part of what UNESCO calls humanity’s “intangible cultural heritage.”
Protected by a UN resolution adopted in 2003, this intangible cultural heritage is considered more vulnerable than the cultural heritage consisting of monuments, locations, and buildings because the carriers of this heritage are human beings, and, as we know all too well, human beings are mortal. Oral history is part of this type of cultural heritage because if a people or culture dies out before their history has been recorded, vital information about the past will be irretrievably lost.
Thus, oral history is history before it is written down—as such, there are two ways of talking about the dissemination of oral history. On the one hand, oral history is the stories about the past of a group or people that are recounted, shared, and passed down the generations by word of mouth rather than being written down and distributed as texts. It is through a highly sophisticated use of oral history that the Aborigines of Australia have successfully maintained a cohesive civilization that is tens of thousands of years old.
On the other hand, oral history is the recording of the stories of others done by professional scholars, most often anthropologists. The purpose here is to capture the life stories of individuals whose unique experiences otherwise wouldn’t have been recorded. Here we find the various interview projects with Holocaust survivors and war veterans, for examples.
Both of these aspects of oral history can be found in Charlie Jane Anders’s novel The City in the Middle of the Night.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.