Emotionally Attuned History : The Case of Velma Chan

by Eric Wright


Recently, I have been writing an essay for Access Gallery on the history of Chinese Canadian women’s working lives in the Vancouver area for an upcoming exhibition opening on June 27/2014 entitled Eight Ounces Half a Pound: Guadalupe Martinez, Katherine Soucie, Tommy Ting. I have spent hours listening to and transcribing recordings of first and second-generation Chinese-Canadian women’s life stories. The more I have listened to the recordings, the more I have become attuned to their emotional content, and the way in which the perception of this content opens up new possibilities for historical interpretation.

Historians often make use of oral sources by transcribing them into written text for publication as evidence in articles and books. There is an assumption that in the act of transcribing an oral source, no significant content is lost, or at least no content of any value is lost. Symbolic of this mentality is the fact that audio or video recordings are sometimes destroyed after being transcribed. Listening to Chinese Canadian Women’s oral histories has reminded me that the human voice contains much additional information outside of its literal meaning, which is lost when transformed into the written word. As the theorist of oral history Alessandro Portelli writes, “The tone, volume range and rhythm of popular speech carry implicit meaning and social connotations which are not reproducible in writing.”[1]

The orality of oral history as a medium offers historians the possibility to interpret the emotional content of voice in addition to the literal content it conveys. Registering and interpreting the emotional content of the human voice can qualify, modify or entirely contradict, yet never discount in any degree the literal meanings participants express in an oral history interview. If done thoughtfully and carefully, emotional interpretations can complicate and greatly enrich our understanding of the lives of people in the past.

How to Interpret Emotions in History

In order to hear the emotional content of an oral history participant’s voice the historian must develop their emotional listening skills, defined as the ability to sense other’s emotions intuitively through registering a range of unstated visual and verbal cues. These include pace of speech, pauses, tone of voice, and rhythm of conversation. In video recordings, facial expressions, eye contact, hand gestures, posture, etc. are all emotional cues that convey meaning in addition to the spoken word.

One of the easiest ways to develop emotional listening skills is to spend long amounts of time listening to oral sources. Working under time pressure to construct arguments, historians sometimes treat sources, both written and oral, as resources that can be “mined” for data relevant to the project at hand, instead of media that when listened to in its entirety, can reveal novel truths about the past.  Listening to an oral recording in its entirety allows the historian to get to know the participant in such a way that they begin to pick up on the subtle inflections, changes of tone, etc. in voice that might indicate additional meanings.  The process of spending time with the source is similar to spending time with a friend: the more time we spend interacting with a friend, the greater our ability to sense their emotional state beyond their words.

Although the ability to hear the emotions in people’s voices can be developed through spending long amounts of time listening to oral sources, the ability to make emotional interpretations is inherently a process of intuition and sensing that cannot be reduced to a concrete set of directives and logic. It requires emotional receptiveness on the part of the historian, which is a skill that can be developed in other facets of life.

The Problem of Misrepresentation

The greatest pitfall in making emotional historical interpretations is that the historian might be totally wrong, which could be hurtful to a participant.  It is important to avoid discounting the literal voice of interview participants.   At the same time, the potential for emotional interpretations to enrich our understanding of the past outweighs this potential problem of misrepresentation, which can be minimized by ensuring the following: a) any emotional interpretation should be qualified with conjoining words like “hints”, “suggests” or “possibly.” The inclusion of these qualifiers clarifies the historian’s central role in creating an emotional interpretation of the source, and leaves open the possibility that their interpretation might be entirely wrong; b) Emotional interpretations should never be construed as more fundamental realities, as the real ‘truth’ behind the subject’s stated truth. Rather, they should be framed as additional interpretations that complicate, productively contradict or possibly enrich the literal meanings of participants’ voices. Emotional interpretations therefore ‘thicken’ historical interpretation, rather than offering a new tool to get at some more primary truth about the subject; c) Finally, one should simply use good judgement when considering whether to include emotional interpretations in their published works. One must consider the potential impact of the interpretation on the participant’s reputation, family, etc. If the subject is still alive, it is probably best to avoid making emotional interpretations.

The Story of Velma Chan from the Nicola Valley

In my recent research, there have been several instances where the possibility of making a careful emotional interpretation of a source has been evident. One story in particular is that of Velma Chan, a second-generation Chinese-Canadian woman who grew up in the picturesque Nicola Valley of British Columbia in the early 20th century.  Listening to Velma narrate her life story, and appreciating the somewhat archaic and quaint cadence of her voice, I slowly came to feel that there were additional emotional truths to be understood about her experiences, which if brought to light could enrich and complicate our understanding of her life and others with experiences similar to hers.  You can listen to Velma narrating her life story in its entirety here.  Many other life stories of Chinese-Canadian women are available on the Multicultural History Society of Ontario’s website.

The Nicola River Valley between Spences Bridge and Merritt, B.C.

The Nicola River Valley between Spences Bridge and Merritt, B.C.

One moment that struck me as important was Velma’s narration of her experiences of feeling socially isolated in the community of Merritt, B.C. due to racial discrimination and her mother’s prevention of her seeking social contacts outside of the family.  A short excerpt of Velma recounting these experiences can be accessed here.

* * *

The way in which Velma ends her description of being discriminated against by the other school kids with the somewhat blasé and fatalistic: “so that’s how it is,” gives the impression that she was not too perturbed by their actions. When questioned about whether she felt frustrated at her overall situation as a young woman in Merritt, she recalled that she “didn’t know enough to be frustrated.” The literal meaning of Velma’s words could lead us to conclude that Velma was neither hurt nor frustrated by the actions of the school kids or her mother.

Yet, the emotional content of Velma’s voice, her cadence of speech, her stress on particular words, and an empathic imagining of what one would feel like if faced with her situation, suggest that Velma did feel hurt and frustrated. Note the way in which Velma sharply and abruptly ends her narration of the story in which the other school kids excluded her from their parties with “I’d just keep away.” This clipped fashion of speaking suggests the suppression of painful memories. Her unprompted reference to her mother’s role in restricting her social life hints at frustration. From this complex emotional and literal reading of Velma’s oral history, it is clear that Velma was probably frustrated and hurt and entirely not frustrated and hurt at her situation growing up in the Nicola Valley in the early 20th century.

The contradiction that emerges out of listening to Velma’s literal and emotional voices is a productive one. An emotional reading of Velma’s voice suggests that she felt frustrated and hurt due to racial discrimination and social isolation. At the same time, she chose not to feel frustrated or hurt at her situation, as a strategy to get by in her life. In choosing not to feel frustrated at racial discrimination and social isolation, in the act of getting on with her life, Velma actualized this in the world as a reality, in a no less truthful way than the emotions of frustration and hurt she felt. By listening to the emotional content of Velma’s voice, we understand a coping strategy dynamic in her life that is not at all evident when we simply listen to the literal content of her voice—which would suggest that nothing ever got to her.

The Value of Making Emotional Interpretations

The broader point to be taken from my interpretation of Velma’s story is that if historians choose to ignore the emotional content of history, they risk giving a one-dimensional and simplistic portrait of peoples’ lives in the past. In the example of Velma, and for others like her who experienced discrimination or hard times of some sort, a solely literal reading of oral histories risks portraying people as emotionally tougher than they really were. An emotionally attuned historical interpretation of Velma’s life story suggests that in response to discrimination and feelings of isolation, she was both incredibly strong and incredibly vulnerable.  The way in which the emotional content of people’s voices can enrich our understanding of how people experienced the past should give historians cause to hesitate before simply transcribing oral sources into written sources. There exist many possibilities for novel and important historical interpretation in the gap between the literal and emotional meanings of the human voice.


[1] Alessandro Portelli, “What Makes Oral History Different,”in The Oral History Reader, (London: Routledge, 2006), 34.


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