“Sit up straight. Comb your hair. Knees together, don’t cross your legs, you’re not a market woman. Don’t shout. Don’t run. Walk, but don’t sway your hips. Iron your shirt. Pull down your skirt. Use proper English. Don’t let them see your face – don’t let them see you react.” : Nyssa Chow - Still.Life. An Immersive Narrative.
The wisdoms of the past echo their way into the ears and bodies of another generation of Trinidadian women where the advice of grandmothers still have some resonance. Today some of us may laugh at the advice saying “times change you know”. But, as much as women’s roles are evolving, wisdoms passed down from generation to generation, as Nyssa Chow intimates, become important to their lived histories.
Intersecting Histories: The Story of Her Skin, on which the exhibition last weekend at CHI Studio, Woodbook, was based, is an oral history of women born in colonial Trinidad in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Chow’s intention she states is “to present history, less as things that happened, and more as something experienced, lived…We encounter their lived histories through the wisdoms that have been passed down through the generations, and by tracing the changing relevance of that intergenerational knowledge.”
Nyssa continues on Page 26A
A graduate of Columbia University’s Masters of Fine Arts in Screenwriting/Directing/Filmmaking as well as Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ Masters of Arts Oral History, Chow brings to us in her work the possibilities of the various media of film, photography, sound and text to provide a telling of oral history that engages the senses of her audience.
Intersecting Histories, which was the subject of her MA thesis, won the Jeffrey H Brodsky Oral History Award 2017. Among Chow’s other awards are the NBC Short Cuts Film Festival’s best writing award, a Hollywood Foreign Press Association Fellowship, The Academy Foundation Grant and the New York Women in Film Fellowship.
And so it was that stories set our interview into motion. We meandered off into a very energetic discussion on tradition that led us straight into the question of oral history as a medium of storytelling.
“Probably…I just like listening to people talk about their lives…In one way or the other, that’s always been the foundation of my work. I’m not someone who wants to write about myself at all. I am much more interested in other people…The truth is I just love that experience. I love that encounter. I love the contract of trust that happens when you are with somebody and you are three hours in and listening and they are telling you things that maybe they haven’t even told, their children. And I love the challenge of being worthy of that trust…The simplicity of that moment I think everything starts there. And so that actually goes right to the work…I am trying to evoke that level of listening in the reader, in the audience. I’m trying to create a space where they have permission to hear deeply, another person share. Why oral history in a bigger way? Well, they have been the objects of study for so long but we don’t have those individual stories. How do they understand their own lives?”
While Chow is not interested in seeing herself in the story, it is inevitable, for the project began with her quest for self. At the core of her work to have these women seen, is a quest to restore dignity, to claim it as well, in the telling of these individual histories. Chow’s own story begins with bad hair.
She writes in the first chapter of Intersecting Histories, “My hair was not at all like my mother’s good hair. My grandmother had married a Chinese man, and brought into this world eight light-skinned, good-haired babies. And they went on to have good-haired babies. And then there was me…
“I told your mother not to marry a black man,” she said once. I’d never met this black man, he’d run off early. I’ve often thought this hair might be the only thing I’d gotten from him. My grandmother’s black father had run off early too. Two banished children of Eve, good brown, but bad hair.
I didn’t know it then,” she continues, “but these moments with my grandmother had a history. And like all histories, it is a nested story…nested in the larger story of an island colony, all within the global story of empire, and the history of race itself. As I listened, I realised that I was hearing a history of what it might have been like to live in a body that looked like mine in a particular time and place - Trinidad in the 1930s. Their histories were my history. Their history is also, the history of my skin.” (Intersecting Histories: The Story of Her Skin, https://www.tellinghistories.com/nyssachow)
“I didn’t get to talk to my grandmother about her story but she raised me,” Chow continued in our chat.
“I grew up with my grandmother, grandfather and mom. I think I always felt like I grew up in a different time because I grew up…in the same house my mom grew up in, on the same land that they were all playing on. And because we grew cocoa and coffee they had the cocoa house in the back and the women would come and would be cracking the nutmeg. So I… grew up with those rhythms and…I felt that there was a way of life that was not being documented, not just a history…I wanted to document that way of being in the world, because it was different. And then once I started thinking about that I realised well why was it different, what was that way of being responding to? How did the history make them as well and that’s when I started thinking in terms of the wisdoms…What were they trying to address? And of course the answer was, ‘the times’ and the way that the times saw them and the world saw them, the powers saw them. That’s what they were pushing back against. ‘Sit up straight…’ You have to assert your dignity because it’s not a given. I am trying to find a way to preserve through story and narrative…that way of being and why it was there.”
She says the exhibition that ran last weekend “is just experimenting with ways to create those spaces where people can listen to and experience history through someone else.”
Her use of various media, attempted to “take people through movements”, employing light, sound, visual and taste, the latter captured in the bite-sized dishes of past that were served as part of the exhibition.
Nyssa Chow’s capture of these oral histories are on one hand a record of history, a way of giving voice to once silent stories, but it is also as she beautifully expresses it, about “the architecture of staying upright”. This is after all, a part of every individual’s quest, that movement towards claiming our own dignity by whatever means that we know. To this end, her work resonates, not only within a local audience but, worldwide.
The chapter, Story of Her Skin and others can be found on https://www.tellinghistories.com/nyssachow