California Forum

Asking questions, listening to answers help transform memories to stories

I stumbled on a box of cassette tapes from an oral history project completed decades ago. I had recorded interviews of my Japanese American farming neighbors.

Mostly Nisei, second-generation Japanese in America, they shared personal stories about growing up in immigrant families, working the Central Valley’s fields, internment during World War II, and growing families and a community.

Listening to their voices, I stepped back into a past, recognizing their individual intonations and speaking rhythms. Most were not natural storytellers. Japanese Americans tended to be quiet, reserved with their emotions. Perhaps because I grew up around these families and was now farming along side of them, they were candid and open.

One farmer shared a story about the brutally hard work in the fields; a wife told me about her husband who treated their farm like it was his baby; another lamented about all the farm kids who had left for college and never returned.

Listening to these voices today, I grew sad, missing my neighbors. I also grew nostalgic, recalling the comfort of knowing that if my old truck ever broke down along our country roads, I could walk to any number of farmhouses dotting the countryside.

Then I realized we still had stories. I had captured these voices in one of my earliest books called “Country Voices,” a tribute to these people and the everyday, agrarian working-class roots of our Valley. I recall as a young author, I didn’t completely trust my voice. But these neighbors provided an honest and authentic tone that has influenced all my subsequent writing.

I discovered that listening is love. The simple act of pausing and asking a few questions created an eternal bond. Everyday details mattered, the quiet daily emotions of work defined these people, relationships that could be explained by a simple word in an unique way. For example, one farm wife who labored for decades in fields of tomatoes, daikon and cucumbers said their work made them feel like real “vegetarians,” even though they enjoyed meat. We would be forever connected by such a story.

I enjoyed the delicate discretion of live storytelling, listening to the pauses and deeply emotional silences. These moments of impact separated the personal from the popular, private from overexposed.

My initial oral histories were done 40 years ago. They were branded as old-fashioned, something for academicians and old folk in historical societies. But that’s different today; new storytelling can be cool and trendy. Sharing stories has evolved into highly choreographed performances. Snap Judgment. The Moth. Story Corps. These platforms have blossomed as radio stories and podcasts reach a broader and more diverse audience.

The best storytellers do perform. Hand gestures, a subtle smile, a blinking of eyes all contribute to the magic of a live performance. If I’m lucky, there’s a connection between interviewer and subject. Sometimes the recording device provides a license to open a line of inquiry. At other times, a physical object – a photo, an heirloom, the taste of a family recipe, a hand tool – can trigger thoughts and reflections.

I’ve watched an old farmer stroke the handle of a favorite shovel, the smooth grain of the worn wood becoming part of the story. With time, perhaps just spending a few extra minutes, a comfort level may be achieved, allowing for revealing emotions that strangers could never achieve.

Two elements are required for these exchanges: asking and listening. We’ve lost the art of listening and the skill of asking questions. The most successful stories touch all the senses, like the visceral responses to a weather event that changed a harvest or details of a farm accident that altered a family history forever. Unfortunately, modern online communication breeds speeches and monologues, soliloquies we foolishly mask as true exchanges. People do have stories to share, yet I fear fewer people are listening and we have stopped asking.

I want to keep stories alive and not simply transfer memories from one generation to another. Stories can transform us. We have the opportunity to revisit the past through personal memories. That’s why we must ask and listen, collect and preserve. For ourselves, for our families and perhaps for a community and nation.

David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and author of several books including “Epitaph for a Peach.” He can be contacted at masmasumoto@gmail.com.

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