Stewarding the Gift of Stories
By: JP Catungal, William Flett, Sandy Lambert, Surita Parashar
In My Day owes its existence to the generosity of people and their willingness to share their stories from the first fifteen years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Through these stories, we are invited to bear witness to experiences of joy, pain and pleasure; community, care and activism; isolation, vulnerability and exclusion; and hope, survival and resilience. Rick Waines’ In My Day breathes a different life into these individual stories by bringing them to the stage.
The stories shared through In My Day were collected as part of a multi-year community based research project that seeks to document, through oral history interviews, the first fifteen or so years of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in British Columbia. As members of the research team for this oral history project, we consider the stories shared by our research participants as gifts that they have entrusted to us in the hopes that they contribute to advancing public knowledge about the history of HIV/AIDS caregiving and organizing in the province. With In My Day, Rick harnesses the power of art as historiography: with the play, Rick helps to keep participants’ stories and the history of HIV/AIDS in Vancouver alive.
We have a responsibility to help honour the gift of these stories. We are committed to helping ensure that these stories are told in the right way. We want the historical and political complexity that they, collectively, bring to the surface to be recognized. We regard people’s stories as important knowledge and as lived and living evidence of an important time in history. These oral histories enable people whose narratives are often missing from the official record to intervene through the sharing of their memories. As we get farther in time from the early years of the pandemic, the wisdom embedded in these oral histories has much to offer us as we navigate the shifted, if continuing, challenges posed by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
The work of CARE
The work of curating and assembling these stories into a play is no easy feat. Rightfully and humbly, Rick asked for assistance with this task, recognizing that his perspective is shaped by his own individual positionality and relationship to HIV/AIDS. Originally, Rick asked one of us (JP Catungal) to be a kind of cultural competency consultant for the play. Wary of shouldering this important task alone, JP Catungal suggested that this work be undertaken collaboratively by a team of people who could support each other and bring multiple perspectives and entry points to the work. He also strongly suggested moving away from ‘cultural competency’, a framework that often centers the importance of accurate portrayals of (ethno-racial) cultures, and opting instead for anti-racism and equity as more political frameworks that seek to undo inequalities and power structures in their multiple and intersectional forms.
William Flett, Sandy Lambert and Surita Parashar joined JP Catungal as part of the Committee for Anti-Racism and Equity (CARE). All of us are also part of HIV In My Day oral history research team. We bring to our CARE work our experiences and embodiments as, variously, Indigenous, immigrant, Two-Spirit, queer, woman and racialized people. These positionalities are forms of embodied expertise. They allow us to engage with the script with particular attention to the politics of its representations of HIV/AIDS. Prior to In My Day, in our work with the oral history project, we wanted to ensure that the history of HIV/AIDS is not reduced to the narratives of relatively more privileged members of the communities that were affected by HIV/AIDS, such as white gay men. Thankfully, Rick Waines was also committed to telling complex intersectional stories. Our task as CARE was to help Rick get as close to this goal as possible.
We read through various drafts of the script and offered rephrasing and reframing suggestions. We also identified areas that posed possible equity challenges for production. For example, we flagged a section of the play that features an Indigenous person’s recollections of go-go dancing in traditional regalia for a gathering of Indigenous people. We asked Rick and the creative team to consider carefully how to portray this scene for a primarily non-Indigenous audience. We also wondered about how regalia might be portrayed on stage, noting specifically that it would be inappropriate for a non-Indigenous costume designer to “make up” traditional regalia for this scene. In another section that portrays gay life in Davie Village in the 1970s and 1980s, we asked Rick to go beyond the original celebratory portrayal of sexual liberation in the script, recognizing that this sexual liberation was incomplete and was experienced unevenly across lines of gender, class and race. In addition, in this same time and place, outdoor sex workers were being forced out of the West End by activist gay residents who sought to make the neighbourhood into a space of respectable sexuality. As this aspect of the neighbourhood’s history was absent in the source oral histories, Rick brought in historical research by Dr. Becki Ross and Jamie Lee Hamilton to ensure that the portrayal of the West End at this time was more accurate.
The work of CARE was not always easy. By definition, our task requires bringing up challenging topics. As a team of Indigenous people and people of colour, we are aware that our work exists in the context of societal level white supremacy, a context that has also shaped the theatre world in terms of which stories get told and who has power to make curatorial, casting and programming decisions. We are grateful that our experience, so far, has been good. We have experienced openness and support from most people in the creative and production teams, who have fondly nicknamed us the ‘CARE Bears’. Our comments and suggestions have been heard and implemented. Truly, we feel that equity came to be a shared commitment rather than CARE’s work alone.
Stories make a difference
As members of the oral history research team and as long-time contributors to community action and research on HIV/AIDS, we are committed to ensuring that research is impactful and has broad reach. We believe that sharing the results of our research in an accessible and approachable form is itself a practice of equity. Oral histories are a powerful means for people who are marginalized by social-structural inequity to contribute to the public record about issues that shape their lives; similarly, an endeavour like In My Day is an important way for historically marginalized communities’ narratives to be told and shared to broader audiences.
In our conversations about how we might approach our contributions to this digital catalogue, Sandy offered the phrase “two-eyed seeing” to describe the importance of recognizing multiple ways of knowing. Academic research is generally inaccessible to the broader public, partly because of how it is written and because it is often behind paywalls. Arts-based and community based research challenge the primacy of traditional scholarly writing as the highest and best form of knowledge production. Through Rick Waines’ In My Day, we hope that our research project reaches as many people as possible.
As the CARE Bears and as members of the research team, we have some dreams for the kinds of impact that we want In My Day to have. We hope that the play leads to collective learning and remembering. The history of HIV/AIDS in Vancouver is certainly a story of multiple forms of societal and structural neglect, but it is also a story of community, care and response. We hope that In My Day encourages people to appreciate the difference that community organizing and caregiving have made to people’s lives and continue to make today for people living with HIV/AIDS. We hope that In My Day enables us to appreciate that the history of HIV/AIDS is the history of multiple marginalized communities, whose experiences are shaped by multiple forms and systems of oppression. We hope that In My Day allows us to remember, even for a moment, the people who have shared their stories, along with the loved ones and chosen kin that they honour through their memories.
For the research world and the institutions that govern it, we hope that the example of In My Day encourages greater appreciation of non-traditional approaches to scholarship, including the kind of arts-based outputs and research-creation that In My Day exemplifies. We hope for a decentering of the ivory tower and further recognition of the knowledge that resides in the community and in the marginalized people’s stories of people marginalized by social-structural inequity.
For the theatre world, we hope that CARE-like approaches be built into the very process of theatrical production. Art has a history of leading difficult conversations. We hope that the theatre world continues to look inward to address its history .and to continue to make room for the marginalized people’s creativity, stories and contributions offered by people who have been historically marginalized by social-structural inequity.
We want to thank the research, creative and production teams for enlisting us to help advance our shared commitment to equity. We look forward to continuing this necessary work.