3 to 5 with Emita Hill

3 to 5 Questions for Authors:

In Which A Librarian asks a Talented Author a Small Number of Questions

Author and lifetime Traverse City summer resident, Emita Hill, will be coming to our library (Woodmere branch) to discuss her book, “Bronx Faces and Voices” on August 27 at 6:30 p.m. Hill’s book focuses on oral histories of the Bronx community from the Eighties, voices of real people living real lives during tumultuous times.


Ms. Hill will be talking about the importance of oral histories and sharing her knowledge of the process of preserving memories at this special program, but we got the chance to ask her a few questions ahead of time!:

Q: Your book, Bronx Faces and Voices: Sixteen Stories of Courage and Community,  tells the stories of sixteen different New Yorkers living in the Bronx between the 1970s and 1980s, a time of great upheaval there. What are some of your favorite New York-centric books or films (or websites, such as Humans of New York)?


A: Definitely I’d include Humans of New York.  It’s marvelous.  Books are legion, but it’s hard to beat Robert Caro’s massive biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. For the Bronx, Connie Rosenblum’s Boulevard of Dreams and Jill Jonnes’ We’re Still Here. I love fiction centered in New York and authors like Doctorow and Chabon and Pete Hamill.  That’s just a tiny sampling.  E.B. White’s tribute to New York is a must-read.


Q: What made you interested and what keeps you interested in recording oral history?


A: Oral history for me goes back to Homer and the whole oral tradition of preserving individual memories and also cultural memories.  But the beauty of our technology is that we can now record what was oral and ephemeral.  We have the best of both worlds: the uncensored immediacy of a person talking and the ability to preserve their very words first in audio and later in transcription.
I love stories.  The stories in my book are preserved in a library—the Leonard Lief Library of Lehman College, the Bronx campus of the City University of New York–on tape and with my early transcription, accessible to scholars who have used them over the years–but I’m delighted that sixteen of them are now also available to the general public through this book.  I should add that the descendants of the men and women I interviewed are thrilled to have these stories made public.  One of the men I interviewed, now deceased, expressed his pride during the interview, saying to me, “I’m pleased that I will be a part of history.”
Q: Could you give us an example of someone talking about their history that inspired you?


A: I was aware of Studs Terkel’s work when we first started our program in the Bronx.  I can’t say that any one interview or talk inspired me but I can say that both in my scholarly work and my leisure time reading I have always loved letters, memoirs, and epistolary novels, works written in the first person.


Q:  How can a beginner become involved in preserving oral history?


A: Anyone can purchase an inexpensive digital recorder and start preserving stories in their own family or community.  Libraries across the country are now encouraging this and helping train people to do it and even providing the recorders. Some schools are developing programs to help high school children record their grandparents’ stories and their parents’ stories. Key to being an oral historian is to be a good listener which means being really interested in what you are hearing and interrupting as little as possible.


Q:  If you were a Dewey Decimal number, what number would you be?


A: Which of the hundreds of Dewey Decimal numbers would I be?  Wow.  To go back to my personal scholarly field I should choose 844, literature of the French 18th century. Or following my life and career, perhaps 376, the education of women.  Or 707, education and research in the arts.  But how about 007, not assigned, not being used?  That would be fun and open-ended.


Thanks Emita! We look forward to enjoying your program and your book!
Photo Credit: The featured image shows Hill’s book cover on the left and Georgeen Comerford’s photo of Emita Hill interviewing Alice Kramer in 1982 on the left.

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