What is a personal history? Paula Stallings Yost and Pat McNees ask, in the preface to their rich, engaging anthology, My Words Are Gonna Linger. A personal history is a story from real life, they say, related in the real, authentic voice of the storyteller. But more than that, personal history is a "vital link between the past, present, and future—a wisdom-keeper" that represents not just the individual spirit, but the spirit of families and communities.
And so it is in this collection. These stories open a window into the pasts of forty-nine individuals, but also into the cultures that shaped them and the families and communities that gave them life. Whether it's a woman's story about the fruit her father grew in Brooklyn, or a man's story about photographing the beaches of Iwo Jima from a submarine, or the oral history of an itinerant longshoreman who "used to be as mean as a snake in mating time" or a maker of wooden toys who "cain't read," all these stories (some illustrated with personal photographs) celebrate lives lived with purpose, sensitivity, and hope through times and in circumstances that were often dauntingly, dangerously difficult.
But in their selection and arrangement of these individual stories, Yost and McNees have created an even more meaningful whole. The stories are presented in three sections. Part One contains stories that illustrate a variety of reasons why stories are told: to explain our ancestry, to celebrate an event, to memorialize a person, to record what the world was like, to communicate the past to the future. Flavia Fernandes' story about her parents' arranged wedding in India, for instance, illustrates all these reasons.
Part Two contains stories that demonstrate some of the methods of creating personal stories that capture the voices and experiences of the narrators: journal excerpts, interviews, audio recordings, project collections (such as the Veterans History Project for the Library of Congress), videotapes, and in reminiscence writing groups. These stories bear a powerful stamp of authenticity. "You want to know about when I met Daddy? Let me tell you," Meta Bejzer begins. "I used to be kind of a rough dude to handle, you know?" says James Jermany. Real people. Real voices. Strong voices.
Part Three—"The Many Faces of Personal History"—contains my favorite story: "Coffin Couture," Sally Steinberg's tribute to her father, the "King of Donuts," a flamboyant dresser who wanted to be buried in his Pucci jacket, "a velvet number in a bold, busy, colorful print." It's a story to be savored, remembered—along with a murder mystery, a recollection of Pearl Harbor Day, and the tale of a cake that saved a college (Abilene Christian College), complete with a recipe.
My Words Are Gonna Linger was very much a collaborative project, envisioned and nurtured by Jeanne Archer, the president of the Association of Personal Historians. In 2006, Archer convened a group of volunteers to get the project moving. Stories were submitted by members of the APH, and reviewed and selected by Archer and others, then edited by Paula Yost, who also worked with the graphic artist on book design. Pat McNees served as project manager and assisted with editing.
If you're a fan (as I am) of stories rooted in real life, you will very much enjoy this book. It would also make a delightful gift for the storytellers in your family—and might even give them a few valuable ideas (and some important motivation) for telling their own stories. And if you're a teacher of memoir, reminiscence, or personal history, it would make an excellent addition to your classroom teaching or to your students' reading list. Imaginatively conceived, thoughtfully arranged, and professionally edited and presented, My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History will be a source of pleasure, information, and instruction.
Paula Stallings Yost is a journalist, personal historian, and past vice president of the Association of Personal Historians, as well as the founder of LifeSketches, a biography service helping others preserve the real stories of people from all walks of life. She served as a co-editor and contributing author for the SCN anthology, What Wildness is This: Women Write About the Southwest. Visit her website.
Pat McNees is a writer, editor, and personal historian with an emphasis on medical history. Visit her website.
Check out our interviews (here and here) with the editor of My Words Are Gonna Linger.
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