Our Yugoslavias: Daily Life in the SFRY

Why Digital and Oral History?

I chose digital and oral history as methods for this project because it was important to me:

(1) to provide people who lived in Yugoslavia a platform to share their stories about their lives and to use ethical community-centered oral history and digital collection methods to foreground their voices and experiences in my dissertation on Yugoslav identity.

(2) to hold space for community, so that people who once lived in Yugoslavia can reflect on their shared pasts and reenter a common space where they can interact with one another.

(3) to ethically preserve narrators’ stories through a digital collection and oral history archive that can be expanded on in the future and accessed by narrators, community members, and scholars.

(4) to create an interactive exhibition which (a) recognizes the numerous and conflicting experiences people had in Yugoslavia, (b) articulates a nuanced understanding of Yugoslav identity/identities, and (c) recognizes the inevitable silences this project creates. 

This limited selection of photos is an example of the kinds of images that I anticipate contributors will submit to this project. Because this project focuses on everyday life, no object or photograph is too ordinary or extraordinary to be included. The story you submit with it will explain why it is important to your experience living in socialist Yugoslavia. 

I first use digital history methods in this project to collect images and stories from contributors. This will help to identify potential narrators for oral history interviews and also forms the basis of a digital collection.


Because the people who lived in Yugoslavia form a nationally and linguistically diverse and far-reaching diaspora both in and out of the region, digital methods help to reach this sprawling community and create space for their (re)connections with one another. This site will be made available in the primary languages spoken in socialist Yugoslavia: Albanian, Macedonian, Slovenian, Hungarian, and BCS (Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian). Contributors can submit their stories and associated images in their language of choice, and as funding for this project grows, I will hire translators to ensure their inclusion and interpretation in the digital collection and exhibition. To include images and stories submitted through this site in the digital collection and exhibition, contributors will be asked to agree to permissions and terms of use. This is a Creative Commons license that ensures that contributor’s retain ownership over the materials they submit. Contributors may also amend or revoke their submitted images and stories at any time. 


Digital history is critical to project dissemination and interpretation. The online collection and exhibition created from this project will be accessible to all narrators, community members, educators, and researchers online. Through non-linear navigation paths the online exhibition will allow for the exploration of important themes which illuminate a nuanced understanding of Yugoslav identity. It will be designed in such a way as to recognize, highlight, and interpret the silences it contributes to.

My Oral History method prioritizes ethical community practice using Voice of Witness’ Say if Forward: A Guide to Social Justice Story Telling as a leading framework. I enter into the relationship that occurs between narrator and interviewer, not as an expert, but as an individual there to learn about a person and experience I might not have known otherwise. I call Oral History interviewees narrators in this project, because they are storytellers narrating their own experiences and understandings of their pasts, not just people providing answers to my questions. In that vein, I employ long-form life-story interviews that can be anywhere from one to two hours long and can occur more than once. While I will have a set of questions prepared to facilitate conversation and draw out themes, allowing narrators to guide the telling of their stories is central to their feeling open, comfortable, and secure in sharing their experiences.

 

Because the loss of one’s country/identity can be a traumatic event, preventing re-traumatization is central to my practice. My trauma-informed approach hinges on : confidentiality and anonymity for narrators who require it; ensuring ample time is allotted for the interview (planning out breaks and no rushing), mutual sharing when deemed appropriate, offering recording options , establishing topic boundaries, and not challenging those boundaries no matter how compelling the story may be, expressing gratitude to narrators for their vulnerability and generosity, reminding narrators that it’s okay to become emotional and stop the interview at any point, and determining an emergency contact in the event of re-traumatization. While I do not foresee trauma responses as a major concern for this project, understanding and looking for signs of trauma, prioritizing the emotional well-being of narrators, and preventing re-traumatization are crucial to my ethical practice in this project.

 

Oral histories will be recorded via audio. I will review all paperwork and project parameters with narrators before I ask them to sign anything and before conducting interviews. I provide narrators the opportunity to add in any restrictions or redactions that they choose after the interview. I will also inform them of the repository I choose to preserve their interviews and will provide them the contact information of the institution in the event that their terms of use change, they have questions, or would like to obtain copies of their interviews or transcripts. After I process their interviews, I will ask narrators to review them  before they are made available online (with permission). I will also provide narrators with finalized copies of their interviews and transcripts.

My goal is to collect, transcribe, and make digitally available at least twenty-five oral history interviews. I am willing to interview as many people as possible, but only with adequate time and funding to ensure ethical practice.

Constantly rethinking what I know and how I understand the former Yugoslav region is central to who I am as a scholar and as a Serbian-American woman who refuses to be personally, professionally, or intellectually bound by real and imagined national borders.

 

Recognizing my position as a Serbian-American woman who grew up in a community of predominantly ethnic Serbian refugees and as a historian working within the structures of academia, I openly acknowledge power, privilege, and difference between myself and narrators and am willing to answer any of their questions. I emphasize that narrators are under no obligation to participate in this project. You maintain control over how your interview is used or represented, and retain your right to limit, restrict, or revoke access to those materials at any point during or after the project as outlined in the release and/or deed of gift agreement you will be asked to sign. 

As a doctoral student, I’ve devoted the last several years to familiarizing myself with the scholarship on Yugoslavia and researching in archives in the region. I’ve learned and unlearned elements of Yugoslav History I grew up with. My deep respect for the peoples of this region and our vibrant and difficult histories continues to grow, and is reflected in my historical practice. My central aim is to use history as a catalyst for understanding and improving the present. I believe that as a mutual point of experience, both good and bad, reflecting on Yugoslavia and telling its stories, has the ability to connect the people who once lived there. Recalling and thinking through that past might help us to envision a better, more equitable future, for all.

I have found that I learn about and understand Yugoslavia best by listening to ordinary people who experienced and shaped life there. You are the best suited to tell you stories and help us all understand Yugoslavia better. I know that these memories are precious, delicate, and difficult, and that I don’t really have the right to ask you to share them. Our Yugoslavias is my attempt to recognize this past in all its shades of grey; to help you preserve and share your stories with our community and the larger world with the hope that it influences new public and scholarly understandings of the former Yugoslavia, while also making space for personal connections old and new. It is also my promise to treat you and your stories with the utmost respect and care.


This project is intended to be as collaborative and community lead as possible. I expect to be both challenged and surprised and welcome any and all experiences and feedback.

Several existing oral history collections (like the ones here from the United State Holocaust Memorial Museum) offer insights into how Holocaust victims rebuilt their lives and experienced life in Yugoslavia after 1945. I include these testimonies in my overall dissertation analysis and also use them to inform my approach to oral history interviewing in Our Yugoslavias. 

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