BY Negar Azimi in Opinion | 16 OCT 16
Featured in
Issue 183

Voices Carry

In praise of oral history

BY Negar Azimi in Opinion | 16 OCT 16

‘Edie was coming down this long staircase. I think she had ermine wrapped around her; her hair was white and her eyebrows black […] She had these two […] big white Afghan hounds on a black leash with diamond collars, but that could be fantasy.’ – Patti Smith in Edie: American Girl (1982).

Whether Patti Smith actually laid eyes on a pair of diamond-collared Afghans making their way down that staircase or, in fact, hallucinated them, this image – and so many other phantasmagoric recollections of Edie Sedgwick, the Boston Brahmin who became a Warhol superstar – is seared into my mind. For many years, George Plimpton and Jean Stein’s Edie lay on my shelf unloved, untouched. From its cover, which I propped up like an ornament, Edie’s raccoony, amphetamine-laced, half-moon eyes stared back at me. I’m not sure what it was that inspired me to finally pick it up – boredom? – but, once I did, there was no turning back. Edie, all 600-plus pages of it, was unputdownable.

Edie – muse, mascot, heroine – was famous. Famous in the way that people in Life magazine used to be famous. It was said she was the inspiration for Bob Dylan’s ‘Just Like a Woman’ (1966). Robert Rauschenberg called her ‘art itself’. It’s apt, then, that Plimpton and Stein’s portrait of a lady is anything but conventional. The pair dispensed with sober third-person narration and enlisted scores of interested parties to conjure memories of the gamine beauty, from members of her estranged WASP family to lovers to hangers-on and the occasional bystander. At its best, you felt like you were there, watching Edie light up a room or a cigarette, shoot up or pass out. The polyphony – operatic, pyrotechnic – was an unparalleled portrait of a time (the 1960s) and a place (Manhattan). Along the way, the book offers up vivid encounters with the Vietnam War, art, literature and politics.

When Edie first came out, not everyone was hip to its oddly fangled style. Writing in The New York Review of Books, James Wolcott observed that it was rich in ‘idle chat – wow, fabulous, fantastic – and slim on critical insight’. Others, including Greil Marcus, pointed out that the book’s narrators were ‘unreliable’. But, of course they were! This sort of history works precisely because every last (unlettered) talking head is equally unreliable. Besides, isn’t a large portion of history a form of gossip by another name? Oral history – that strange, hard-to-categorize thing – offers up its own truth.

To reduce Edie – or oral history in general – to a case of inspired eavesdropping would be short-sighted. Edie was the product of more than 250 interviews (Norman Mailer, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Warhol, et al.): whittling it down and separating the wheat from the chaff was nothing short of heroic. Plimpton and Stein concocted rare magic, re-animating the dead and engaging the barely alive. No one dares question fiction as an imaginative feat but, in cobbling together these collage-histories, the task of the editor is equally imaginative: the art is in the bricolage. Other groundbreaking oral histories spring to mind: Works Progress Administration interviews with former slaves; Studs Terkel’s histories of working people; Jonathon Green’s loving portrait of the British underground.

Oral history’s art received a boost last year when the Nobel committee bestowed its highest literary honour on the Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich. The announcement turned heads, not least because she was the first person in the prize’s history to, in the words of journalist Masha Gessen, ‘write about living people’. It also disquieted those traditionalists who police the apartheid wall between writing (sacred) and journalism (lowly). To read Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (1997) – everybody should – is to be in the room alongside a woman gazing at her lover’s chemically ravaged body, torn between making love to him one last time or pouring vodka down his feeding tube.

It’s hard to imagine that we live in as compelling times as those Alexievich chronicled – or Sedgwick’s, for that matter. But we do. How to memorialize the end of a scene, the passing of a life or the uprooting of a population? There are literally as many tales as there are Syrian refugees who have left their war-ravaged country. What was the weather like the day the first Black Lives Matter protest took place? What could be said of New York’s SoHo neighbourhood before all the schlubby poets and artists got priced out by Chanel and YSL? Herein is a call to press record, people: capture the momentous and memorialize the minor. Announcing Alexievich’s award, the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy credited her with inventing a new literary genre: ‘a history of emotions – a history of the soul’. I can’t imagine a higher art than that.

Negar Azimi is a writer and editor-in-chief of Bidoun.