The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Understanding the Story

One of the pieces of artwork completed as part of the oral history project at Miami Dade College's Center for Literature and Theatre. Photo courtesy of Paola Fernandez Rana

As a civilian, I’ve always felt sincere gratitude and respect towards those who have fought for our country. I’ve studied past wars and stayed in tune with current conflicts, but at times it feels impossible to truly understand what it was like for a veteran. I believe a big step closer towards understanding is listening to veterans' stories. These stories humanize the struggles and hardships our veterans endured, and help us better connect with those who had the courage to fight and defend our freedom.

The Center for Literature and Theatre at Miami Dade College, one of our Big Read communities, recently set out to gain this understanding through an interdisciplinary oral history project. As part of their Big Read campaign for Tim O’Brien’s war novel The Things They Carried, the Center searched for veterans in their community who were willing to share and document their stories. In collaboration with Miami Dade College students, the Center was able to interview and record over ten local veterans' stories.

Recording the interviews was just step one, though. Partnering with the Key Arts and Health Alliance, the Center matched veterans up with visual artists from throughout the South Florida area. Artists listened to a story and created a drawing or painting that represented the veteran. Suddenly the project had a completely new element to it: not only could people hear different veterans' stories, but they could visualize the speaker while they listened.

Speaking with Paola Fernandez Rana, the Center’s Big Read program coordinator, only left me further convinced of the power and significance of the project. Though no civilian can really know the experience of fighting in a war, this initiative helps to create a bridge between the civilian and the solider, creating a deeper connection and understanding to their stories and to their lives. To hear the veterans' stories and learn more about the project, please visit The Center for Literature and Theater's website.

NEA: What inspired the idea to record and collect stories from veterans?

PAOLA FERNANDEZ RANA: NPR does a project called Story Corps. They collect people’s personal stories, broadcast them, and archive them at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. They're usually whittled down to just a minute or two, but they're incredibly moving. In an effort to reach out to the community, we thought it would be really cool to do that with veterans. We have a rather large veteran population here at the college, so it was not difficult to find participants. Many of them had been in Iraq or Afghanistan, but there were others who served in Vietnam, Korea, and the first Gulf War in Kuwait. We wanted to hear about any personal experiences specific to having served in the military.

NEA: Could you talk about the interviewing process?

FERNANDEZ RANA: When doing the interviews, I worked with one of the English classes here on our campus. The students were the ones who came up with the interview questions; I was there simply to guide them. We wanted to make the students a part of what we were doing so they felt invested in the Big Read campaign. By having the kids interview the veterans, it became an enlightening educational experience for them on a whole other level. They were interviewing veterans who are not much older than them who have been to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait. They came out of interviews really pumped up, excited to finish reading The Things They Carried, and wanting to learn more about our country's involvement in conflicts all over the world.

NEA: Were there any stories that particularly stood out to you?

FERNANDEZ RANA: Depending on what branch of the military you were in, your experience was very different. Anyone who was an infantryman, especially the Marines in Afghanistan, seemed to have the roughest time. One of the Marines told us about not being able to shower for a month at a time. Some of the deprivation and hardship he endured was pretty amazing. A few of them had significant interaction with the Afghani people. Those were rather unique stories as well. There were just a lot of very hard experiences.

NEA: Can you talk about some of the artwork being created along with the stories?

FERNANDEZ RANA: The artwork is a component of the campaign that evolved from the audio portion. One of my colleagues saw an exhibit that was traveling around the country involving female service people. Artists were assigned to a service person, interviewed them, and created a portrait, drawing, or painting based on the interview. Since we were already doing an audio project, we thought this was a very easy segueway into including a visual arts component.
The artwork will be exhibited in a gallery space here in Miami on Saturday, April 13. We’ll have two or three listening stations with headphones where people can listen to veterans’ interviews while looking at the artwork. Just like you would go to a museum and listen to an audio description of the work you're looking at, we'll have the artwork displayed and then you'll be able to listen to all the veterans' stories.

NEA: What was your favorite part of this project?

FERNANDEZ RANA: I think my favorite part was doing the oral history interviews. Not having done a project like that before, once I was finished, I wanted to start it all over again. I've learned so much; there are all these things I would do differently and improve upon. I'm hopeful that in a campaign in the future, maybe with another Big Read book, we might be able to do a similar kind of project. Because of the military theme, The Things They Carried really enabled us to do such a unique and engaging project.

NEA: What are some past events the Center has done for this Big Read?

FERNANDEZ RANA: The Miami-Dade Public Library system has been our partner in the Big Read for the eight years we have been grant recipients. They sponsor a lot of book discussions that take place at library branches all over South Florida. In addition to having Tim O'Brien speak, we also had Benjamin Bush come, who is the author of Dust to Dust. Bush is an actor, filmmaker, and a former Marine who did two tours of duty in Iraq. Dust to Dust is a memoir that talks about his time in Iraq. He recently spoke at the Miami Beach Public Library, and showed a clip of one of his films and photographs from Iraq.

NEA: What hopes do you have for the impact this project has on your community?

FERNANDEZ RANA: I hope that people come and see the artwork, and people listen to servicemen and women's stories. I did not come from a military family, so I felt very disconnected from anyone who had been in the military. I'm hoping that this opens up some dialogue and creates a connection between those who feel at arm's length from the military and those who have experienced war.

I also have educational aspirations for the project. A lot of the kids who interviewed the veterans were born in the 1990s, and knew nothing of what had gone on in the Balkans or in the First Gulf War in Kuwait. They were missing huge chunks of recent world events that directly related to servicemen and women. I'm hoping that the project educates this whole generation of young people, not only to read more, but to appreciate and be aware of the sacrifices people are making for them every day.

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