Art Works Blog

Turning the Mic on The Kitchen Sisters

The Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva. Photo by Laura Folger

Since the late 1970s, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva---better known as The Kitchen Sisters---have been broadcasting stories from little-known corners of America. The award-winning team of independent radio producers explored the culture of cooking in their series Hidden Kitchens, and used recorded sound to document national life in Lost and Found Sound. Their latest project is The Hidden World of Girls, which received a FY 2011 Arts on Radio and Television grant from the NEA. The series, which broadcasts on NPR?s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, uncovers the rituals, traditions, and personal stories of women and girls from around the world.

The idea for the series was inspired by the obituary of Lula Mae Hardaway, whose hard-knock life, marked by abuse and poverty, took an unexpected turn when her son grew up to become Stevie Wonder. ?We just looked at each other and said, ?If that?s Stevie Wonder?s mother, imagine all these stories of women we don?t know,?? remembered Nelson. ?And we started peering into that world.? I recently put the microphone to Nelson and Silva about The Hidden World of Girls, and heard their views on women in the spotlight, the intimacy of radio, and the power of hair.

NEA: Why do think women and girls are compelled to share their stories, especially those that might be painful or very personal?

NIKKI SILVA: I think it?s such a woman thing, a girl thing, these sort of intimate confidences and sharing of stories. [Storytelling] is a very familial way to pass on life to others and to the next generation. My mother was, for me, the big inspiring storyteller. She would talk about the most simple things, but she would turn them into cliffhangers, full of suspense, and I just wanted to hear more, even if it was just about some aunt or uncle. She had this way of weaving life lessons into things, and I think that?s a very female thing.

DAVIA NELSON: I think also women have traditionally not had the microphone, not had the platform, not had the official means of telling their stories. It?s only more recently that women are having this much access to official storytelling and news and print. So there?s much more of an oral tradition among women. I think those oral traditions are based around work, and time that people have spent in fields, or sewing something, or kitchen work, or factory work---there are those long periods of time where they?re together. Nikki and I have been collecting lullabies for almost 30 years, and even the music that women sing to their babies is telling a story.

SILVA: For so long women weren?t even ever asked about their stories in a public way. I remember the first time that I interviewed my mom years and years ago, and I turned the microphone on and put it in front of her. Her posture changed---she sort of teared up at the idea that someone would think she had a story to tell.

NELSON: I think also the bodies of women are so mysterious, and the rhythms of a woman?s body are so mysterious. Between getting your period, getting pregnant, or not getting pregnant, getting older, getting menopause---all those big, tidal rhythms of a woman?s life. They need a lot of wisdom; they?re seeking information from each other. There?s also that deep, communal, kind of elder wisdom that women tell each other, publicly and secretly. Oral traditions come out of that as well.

NEA: Do you think that radio offers a particularly good medium for this type of personal story as opposed to perhaps a documentary film?

SILVA: I think that they?re different. I think there?s such an intimacy about radio, with the microphone. I think people are very used to telling their stories or talking into a telephone and getting very personal and being themselves, and relaxed. I think a microphone is akin to that in a way. When a camera is on you---unless you?re doing a documentary where you?re with someone for so long that they completely forget about it---there?s always a bit more self-consciousness. I think the act of listening to radio also has an intimacy where you feel as if someone is telling you something very personal in your ear, and just talking to you.

NELSON: We always say the microphone is a stethoscope listening to the complicated heart of the nation. More people are self-conscious while being filmed, and radio has that advantage where you don?t have that camera in their face.

SILVA: There?s so much more imagination involved with just hearing, where you?re using your mind to visualize. Whereas when you?ve got photos or graphics, you?re in a lot of ways led by the visual material. I think that the audio really does ignite your imagination to create the pictures for the story.

A photo from Deborah Luster's "One Big Self" project. Photo by Deborah Luster

NEA: For the series, people can call the Hidden World of Girls hotline and leave phone messages, telling their stories in a voicemail. How do you decide which messages to further pursue and develop into full radio pieces?

NELSON: It?s a combination of things. Because it is a medium of sound, can [the caller] tell a story? Is the way in which they told the story compelling, does it leap off the phone line to you? Is it a story that?s unknown to us? Do we think that there?s probably some other kind of sound or music or archival audio that we can start layering it with? Sometimes we do stories where we just connect one message to another to another to another and bead them together. We?re looking for those messages where you open that door, and that?s just the once upon a time.

Sometimes [the caller is] not the strongest teller, but the story is so beautiful. We?ll transcribe those and put those [messages] on the website. Or maybe even the connection was really bad and the audio is rugged, but we want people to know the story anyway.

NEA: You?ve spoken with women from across the world. Have you noticed any universalities, or at least similarities, amongst the global sisterhood?

SILVA: The couple of things that keep coming up is creativity as a way to make it through and live. I don?t just mean artistic creativity, but creative approaches to life and problems and issues. But also art; art is a huge throughline. So many of the stories that have come to us involve art and ritual---the importance and significance of ritual and how so many rituals are being lost and what those are being replaced with.

NELSON: I think there?s this sort of gorgeous resilience that people have. At City of Joy, [Eve Ensler's center for female survivors of gender violence] for example, you?re looking at women in the Congo and you?re thinking, ?What have these women been through?? [To experience] the levels of war and personal violation and violence, and then to have been able to build this city, and build it with song and music---that?s so symbolic of what so many women have gone through. I?m just back from Cambodia, and I was astounded about the levels of trafficking, the levels of problems and betrayals of women there are in the world. At the same time, there are these glorious leaps forward in literacy and protection from trafficking. The world is so at war, and women...are in the front lines of it. And yet they have to feed their children through all this. The stamina, again the resilience, the abilities women have to solve these problems that are frightening and staggering.

On a completely other note, hair is the throughline of all of this. Nikki and I are endlessly amazed by how the story of women is the story of hair. If you want to tell the stories of women?s lives in so many directions, almost every ritual has to do with hair. And also you look at how many women are covered. How many women, [in] their cultures, it is either imposed or chosen that a woman can?t show her hair, the power of hair.

NEA: Do you have any notion of why hair is so powerful?

NELSON: It?s such a magnet. Is it a lure to the opposite sex? Is it a siren song? [In some cultures,] girls are allowed to have this hair that?s growing that?s supposed to attract, and then the minute they?re betrothed or spoken for in some way, it has to be cut shorter or covered because it could lure someone else.

SILVA: The graying of hair, the aging, how it reveals every stage of life.

NELSON: And it?s such an artistry. So many women don?t have the means to create, and their hair is the canvas. It?s something passed on, it?s a skill. And sometimes women are carrying something on their heads, so hair is also part of that. Many of our stories also come from beauty salons. Where I go to get my hair cut in San Francisco, I always say it?s an African village. It?s a place with a lot of chairs and a lot of women doing the hairdos, and women coming in. It?s this place where everybody is talking. It goes back to the oral tradition again and storytelling.

The Brave Heart Women's Society. Photo by Nikki Silva

NEA: What has been the most powerful story that you?ve discovered through this project?

NELSON: It?s like having to pick your favorite child. Right off the top, Deborah Luster?s story. Deborah?s mother was murdered. A man crawled in the kitchen window, came down the hall, came into her mother?s bedroom and shot her five times in the head. And ultimately, Deborah, in dealing with the loss and the violence and the tragedy, picked up a camera. Her mother had photographed; her grandmother before her had photographed. Deborah had never been much of a shutterbug, but she wound up picking up a camera and it turned out she had this incredible gift. She went to all these prisons in Louisiana and photographed the faces of people who had committed violent crimes and it became this project called ?One Big Self.? We?re always looking for those stories of hope and redemption and art helping people grapple with the major issues of life: violence, crime, family. That story went to the soul of that.

SILVA: One that really stands out for me is the piece we did about the Brave Heart Women's Society. It?s a Yankton Sioux ceremony that we were invited to. Young girls, when they come of age, have a ceremony on the banks of the Missouri River. They come for four days and go through this whole set of teaching and learning. These girls come from kind of hard lives. Their mothers are supposed to come with them to this ceremony, but many of them aren?t with their moms, so there?s this whole circuit of grandmothers and aunties who take these girls. Over these four days, they teach them how to set up a teepee, how to gather herbs and flowers, and all about the history of these traditions. The girls are not allowed to touch food or feed themselves or drink for four days; they have to be fed and given water by their mother or one of the women at the ceremony. They?re being treated as babies, as young girls, for the last time in their lives. One of the grandmothers comes and makes dresses for all the girls, and the last day of the ceremony, the girls, one at a time, go into the teepee with their mother or their auntie, [who] bathes them and dresses them in the dress, does their hair, and marks them with this sort of red soil on the forehead. They talk to them about what they were like when they were small, how beautiful they are and what beautiful babies they were, and their hopes and promises for the future. Then they?re given a new name and presented to the rest of the community. It was life-changing for these girls. You could see each one of them kind of go through four days of transformation.

NEA: Do you two have your own hidden stories?

SILVA: I don?t know; it?s so hidden!

NELSON: I always feel so fortunate that we get to ask the questions instead of being asked what we ask of every other person. It does astound me that people are as open with us as they are. The times when people turn it around, it is so daunting and it makes me all the more impressed by people being able to hold their own and tell their story and having the faith and trust to entrust us with it.

For me, my mother died when I was a little girl. Her own mother created a whole fabricated story that she was a Finnish Christian scientist instead of a Russian Jewish immigrant. So I had a grandmother who was not living her own story, but a fantasy story in order to make it in America and try and capture the attention of a rich man. That?s what she felt she needed to do in order to survive here. So I think in a lot of ways, that?s why I?m always looking for stories, and trying to unearth them, un-hide them.

NEA: Do you have anything that you?d like to add?

NELSON: I was at a play last night at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. And the head of the theater stood up and was welcoming everybody, and he turned to the audience and said, ?[Ghost Light] wouldn?t have been possible without the support of the National Endowment for the Arts.? The whole room burst into applause. And I knew the same thing was true for The Kitchen Sisters. There would be no possibility for the work that we?ve done over these years were it not for the support of the National Endowment for the Arts. I just hope that people are aware of, even when they don?t know it, when they least expect it, when they least suspect it, the arts are at work in America, and the National Endowment for the Arts has such a place in community life in this country, putting people to work but also enriching the lives of people and bringing them together.

SILVA: [The country] would be so much poorer without the NEA, just supporting all of the beautiful work that?s being done on so many levels, in all communities. The NEA gave us one of our very first grants, one of our very first "go for its," and the confidence and also the blessing which then allows other people to sit up and take notice of what you?re doing. It?s the NEA seal of approval; it?s very important for artists to have that.

For more stories and phone messages, please visit the Hidden World of Girls website, the Kitchen Sisters website, or NPR.org. The Hidden World of Girls can also be heard episodically on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

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