Why Tell stories?

As Jean Paul Sartre the 20th Century French Philosopher put it, ‘All human beings are tellers of stories. We tell stories to survive; to make sense of the terrifying confusion that is our existence.’

Storytelling is a fundamental part of being human. Stories let us share information in a way that creates an emotional connection, and with that we can gain a deeper understanding of other people’s experiences. That not only helps us to understand their lives but allows us to take the lessons they have learned and apply it to our own.

This March we are focused on training, upskilling and understanding the role of Oral History Interviewing in the Telling Our Stories Finding Our Roots Project.

Ilfracombe Museum where we held our oral History Interview training

What is Oral History?

Oral History is the practice of conducting interviews with people who participated in or observed past events and whose memories and perceptions we wish to hear, understand and preserve as an aural record for future generations. Oral history strives to obtain information from different perspectives that may not be found in written sources.

Historian Valerie Raleigh Yow understands history to be, ‘What the people who lived it make of it,’ and that Oral History ‘is crucial to understanding the meaning we give our past and present… of lived experience, and the full complexity of the world of another.

Why are we using Oral History on this project?

Through building an archive of contemporary oral history interviews the Telling Our Stories multicultural history project aims to preserve, share and celebrate the variety of voices, stories, experiences, and memories of the wide range of people who live in Devon today.

Ana and Peace practising their interviewing skills

We do this so that the voices we listen to and the stories we remember today and into the future are more diverse, representative and inclusive than the ones we’ve heard before. This is key to the project aims and ambition to encourage community cohesion, promote unity and understanding, while challenging misconceptions and prejudices.

We’ll start interviews with our volunteers who themselves have a story to share. Through these initial interviews we will build up our experience and confidence for interviewing, capturing the lived experience of our fellow volunteers before going out into our communities to widen the net of stories we are recording.

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world” author Philip Pullman

The Oral History Interviews will help us deliver our key project aims above

A reason to share stories

New to our team of volunteers is Mary, a retired genealogist who lives here in Honiton. Mary has Irish ancestry and when I asked Mary why she felt it was important that she tell her story through this project she said because ‘for decades we didn’t even know we were Irish.’  She went on to say:

“One of the things that strikes me is that humankind has always been multinational, in and out of each other’s countries, with varying degrees of success and acceptance. So much is in the news in the present day, almost every day. Racism is nothing new.

My grandfather pretended for most of his life, if not all his life, to be ‘English’. He encountered huge amounts of prejudice in his early life. Up north where I come from, they were ” the dirty Irish”. Despite this he used to say, ” Be proud of who you are, you are a Hyland”. With knowledge about their ancestry Mary’s family can now be proud of that heritage and share their story with others.

Mary and Anne listen back to their first interviews

A Fascination with Identity, History and Community

Fellow Telling Our Stories Coordinator Abi Obene is leading the team of volunteers on the Ilfracombe project. Together we delivered the oral history training which focused on presenting the importance of ethical, well organised and sympathetic interviewing techniques. Abi was one of our self-volunteered guinea pigs when it came to practising and trialling interviews. A natural storyteller, Abi’s response to how they had come to this role quickly turned into our first unofficial project interview. Abi has shared something of their reflective response to this question below.

“I think that’s where my fascination with identity, history and community originally came from, as a teenager. From these musings around my own identity and personhood that, due to my differences, had always been pointed out and laid bare by others around me. Even when it wasn’t in a bad way. That peculiar sensation of being engaged in awkward but well meaning conversation or being “taught” about my own discrimination by someone who may not have experienced discrimination in the same way themselves. And then being expected to speak for an entire… massive group of people, none of whom I could ever speak for even if we shared a skin tone.

“I would sit and think silently about this, and then wonder who else sat and thought these things silently too. I wondered about the many people throughout history who themselves had thoughts kept silently locked inside their heads, that because of this so much of our human individuality is hidden and unknown. I wanted to unearth those silent thoughts. To determine the true reality of what was actually being said and thought and…mused on.

“I found myself drawn to studying how humans reacted in the very worst or most identity-shattering of circumstances. Later I found myself drawn to the concept of boundaries, both physical, metaphorical, conceptual and otherwise. Today through my work I continue to recognise the importance of culture, belonging, community and social spaces so that community and identity might still live on.”

“Our project interviews will likely include both individual and shared experiences, they will touch on our sense of place, what is home, what and with whom we identify. There will be stories about home, food, friendships and family. We hope to explore the diversity of cultures, faiths, and languages that exist in our community. Regrettably we will hear about those experiences of discrimination, of racism, and of prejudice. We know that for some this will go hand in hand with tales of human resilience, and determination, of building new friendships, and making plans for the future.

A story’s most important function is to remind us that we are not alone in the world.”


So be a part of the story for a more inclusive future, help share the stories we unearth. Together we can reach a wider audience, create a larger ripple in the changing narrative and amplify the voice of those whose stories are being told.

If you have a story to tell that connects you to Devon’s past and present multicultural heritage please don’t hesitate to contact us.

For links to Honiton contact Jess Huffman jesstosfor@gmail.com For links to Ilfracombe contact Abi Obene abitosfor@gmail.com

To keep up to date with project stories, news, events and opportunities visit  our Telling Our Stories Project website or our FaceBook Group TellingOurStoriesDevon