Interview with Jehuda Tjahjadi on “Stories Worth Telling” Video Project

archiving oral history / community-based oral history / gay history / oral history / public humanities / Uncategorized
Opening Intro to Video Project

Earlier this year, Jehuda Tjahjadi’s video project for Professor Elspeth Brown’s LGBQT2+ Oral History course at the University of Toronto-Mississauga was published on The Collab’s website. The video project focuses on 1999 BIPOC Pride which can be found here.

Last week, I conducted a brief interview on Jehuda’s experience with Professor Brown’s class, any shortcomings while making the project, and his thoughts on queer oral history! Thank you Jehuda for agreeing to have a chat with me!~ andy

Let us start with your name, pronouns and a fun fact about you.
Hello hello! I’m Jehuda Tjahjadi—Jehuda is pronounced however you want, and Tjahjadi is pronounced as Chah-YA-di. You can refer to me using he/him pronouns. A fun fact about me: I think this has happened twice now, where in the middle of me talking to someone, a small bubble has come out of my mouth and floated gently to the ground. 

Screengrab from “Stories Worth Telling” by Jehuda Tjahjadi

For the HIS395 video project, you had the choice between the Bathhouse Raids in 1981, the Brunswick Incident in 1874, and the 1999 BIPOC Pride Event. What drew you to choosing the BIPOC Pride Event for your video project?
As far as I can tell, I was interested in the actions of the World Majority Lesbians in Pride Toronto 1999 because it seemed that it would help me the most with the kinds of questions I was interested in. As someone majoring in both history and anthropology, coming into the course, I had been experiencing some unease towards certain Western-normative, popular queer discourses I was finding online. It sometimes felt like in the necessary process of amplifying and normalizing gay and trans experiences, we did not remember that we were only doing so for certain experiences—specifically, mostly those of English speakers in Western countries. And so, I noticed how certain understandings of what it is to be gay, lesbian, trans, or queer became hegemonic and normative—often at the expense of racialized, non-Western experiences which may not look like, feel like, or fit these labels.
Furthermore, of course, I think that the memes and posts ascribing modern LGBTQ+ identities to historical figures can be cute, funny, and useful towards resisting a hegemonic hetero- and cis-normativity when thinking about human pasts. But still, I was wary of how these kinds of moves were part of a larger phenomena of local and past queer identities being overwritten with mainstream, Western understandings of being queer—as if all queer experiences could be rounded up into the monolithic essential identities of “gay” and “trans,” or contained in a singular “LGBTQ+ history.”

As such, I was drawn to how the World Majority Lesbians case study which allowed me to better see a differentiated landscape of queer identities—a history of struggle from the margins of the margins. I felt that if I wanted to take the struggle for diversity, equity, and justice seriously, I had to educate myself about how queer women of colour have warned against certain mainstream narratives which foregrounded whiteness, flattened out queer identities, and serve to marginalize queer people of colour. I wanted to pay attention to and learn from histories revealing intersecting and overlapping dynamics of marginalization—lest the movement for LGBTQ+ equality remain a force for the inequality of some.
Another minor reason I chose this topic was because of its apparent lack of online presence. When I was deciding, cursory googling showed me full Wikipedia pages for both the Brunswick Four and the Toronto Bathhouse Raids, whereas any mentions of the history of queer BIPOC communities on Wikipedia are relegated to one section of the larger Pride Toronto page. For some reason for me, the more obscure the history, the likelier I am to be drawn to it. That could just be me trying to be edgy, but I really do think following less-trodden paths can be important, especially if we want to be shown things that we did not already think we knew.

What is a surprising/interesting/favourite fact that you learned while working on the video?
I don’t think you could call this a fact per se, but my most valued takeaway from this video project was how it imbued the way that I think of LGBTQ+ communities with a sense of history. “Of course, that’s the whole point of a queer oral history course,” you might rightly say. But what I mean is that, growing up, the kinds of representations of queer identities that I was exposed to were from my co-religionists (as a demonic plot), from my peer group (when they identified as such), and from representation in various media. Generally speaking, these representations were all generally detached from any meaningful grounding in actual LGBTQ+ history, key theoretical developments in gender and queer studies, or even any particular LGBTQ+ communities with a traceable past of political and material struggle.

In contrast, listening to LeZlie’s oral history—wherein she names specific gay bars in Toronto, mentions the Lesbian Organization of Toronto, and graphically describes a personal encounter with the Toronto police—helped it sink in for me that we are dealing with transnational histories, with racial histories, with criss-crossing histories—all of which were specific and particular to the city I lived beside. Moreover, what I make of LeZlie’s oral history is that it is quite unlike the depoliticized arc of secrecy, coming out, self-actualization, and romance we may come to expect from queer life stories. There is instead much more about organization, about crises, about moments when solidarity within LGBTQ+ communities break down. So, it’s not this predetermined, unilinear narrative moving tirelessly towards an endpoint of inclusion, it’s an actual history of change.

I don’t mean to make it sound like this historical amnesia about LGBTQ+ history is anything other than my own experience and ignorance. Still, I hoped to emphasize these kinds of themes in the video, perhaps for anyone else like me who grew up with a similarly flattened, ahistorical view of LGBTQ+ history.

Screengrab from “Stories Worth Telling” by Jehuda Tjahjadi, clip of LeZlie held at The Arquives

Did you have any challenges while working on the project?
Honestly, working on this project has just massively, massively increased the amount of respect I have for those working in voice acting and its relations.
To begin with, mouths are just unavoidably meaty and wet—and unconsciously so. As such, during the recording process, it was really hectic to have to be so aware of avoiding ill-timed mouth sounds and loud breathing on top of everything else going on. Beyond that, during the writing process for the script, I increasingly felt that if I wanted to properly translate the heart of LeZlie’s multi-hour oral history—where she recalls moments of real loss—the video would have to lead up a climactic moment of emotion. I have been more of a writer than a performer—I’m used to putting the words down and then letting the reader do whatever they want with it. So, I was pretty anxious about ruining what was by itself a decent prose if I couldn’t manage the right effect for the vocal performance. There were many, many deleted takes where my vocal delivery of the climactic moment felt hammy and overstated.

History course assignments typically consist of essays, book reviews or other written assignments. Did this video project surprise you? What are your thoughts on having more unconventional projects in other history courses?
I wouldn’t say I was surprised, per se. But I may just be very privileged to have had fantastic history teachers from the tenth grade onwards who encouraged us to make podcasts, short films, historical fiction, and the like. Even as an undergrad, I’ve been fortunate to be allowed to choose to write cookbooks and philosophical dialogues for final course projects.

With that being said, I think the experience of working on this unconventional digital story project was particularly successful for certain necessary reasons. For one, history course assignments are usually a major stressor because asides from feedback on an initial proposal and a rough draft, the research and writing process can be atomizing and overwhelming. I don’t fault any instructors or TAs here, I’m certain that it’s just the nature of the beast with large undergraduate classes. In contrast, this project really worked because multiple weeks of the course were structured entirely around group workshop sessions—meaning that even people with zero prior experience received more-than-sufficient support and help.

Moreover, and perhaps a little ironically, I think the fact that we produced a conventional, albeit short, research essay on the same topic before beginning the video project helped greatly—forcing our narrativization of the events in the digital story to have some prior foundation in scholarly conversation and some depth of analysis already prefigured. Without these kinds of aids, I could see being assigned such an unconventional project becoming a major stressor in an already stressful year.

Still, I would love to see more of these kinds of projects—though I understand that I am fortunate and privileged to have had a skillset lending itself well to this kind of storytelling. I think these projects helpfully discourage the potentially dangerous delusion of experiencing historical studies as if we were mere observers of the past—and rather remind and encourage us to see ourselves as creating and contributing to how we remember our histories.

Now that you’ve done a bit of work with oral history, do you see yourself doing more oral histories in the future?
Honestly, I really hope so. As it currently stands, I intend to pursue graduate studies in anthropology—which most likely means a great deal of ethnography in my future. Now, undergrad studies in anthropology has only given me some light ethnographic training so far, but I sense that oral history—with its emphasis on memory and memorialization—should be really useful as a supplemental methodology thereto, as oral history will raise certain questions that ethnography will not necessarily bring in. So hopefully I will keep learning from oral historians and bring that insight into my future studies in anthropology.

On a more personal note, I think this introduction to oral history opened my eyes to the adage that the personal is the political. The very thesis of my video project is that even the quiet, unsettled, and confused stories of our personal lives might be stories worth telling, and even stories providing profound insight into our historical moment—and I want to learn to take that to heart. I do hope to be able to sit down with a few family and friends and record short oral histories someday soon. Ha, I could rope them into it by selling it as an easy way to make history in less than an hour—and sincerely mean it.

Screengrab from “Stories Worth Telling” by Jehuda Tjahjadi

What were your initial thoughts on queer oral history going into the course? Has the course changed your views on queer oral history?
So originally, I thought of queer oral history as something you’d have to do out there—in the city, or at the least, not in suburban Mississauga, not here. Maybe part of it is the suburban malaise that nothing happens here. However, this course provided us the basic training to produce a short piece of queer oral history ourselves—and we did! I was fortunate to co-produce an interview with one of my closest friends about being an asexual, panromantic, genderfluid, polyamorous human being in the Peel region and in a conservative Christian college—in short, the most seemingly unexpected of places for queer oral history to come from. It’s become easier for me to see queer oral history as an electric field of possibility buzzing within and ready to charge any space we inhabit—potentially it’s even helpful to say that there’s nowhere and no work that queer oral history isn’t ready to animate.

Why do you think queer oral history is an important area of research?
I imagine that primary sources for queer history—let’s say, news articles, interviews in the news, photographs, and the like—are often going to emerge around flashpoint moments like the Toronto bathhouse raids and the consequent mass protests. And to narrativize something like the bathhouse raids from these sources, you’re likely going to focus on key character groupings: the police, the gay men, and the allies of these gay men. Everyone gets flattened out, and queer history simply becomes a series of “great events” one after another.

But if you work from oral histories of the same moment, another kind of space opens up: the particular texture of each person’s lived experience, the weight the bathhouse raids are assigned in the larger context of their lives, how experiences during the raids may affect seemingly unrelated experiences many years after, and so on.

For example, take the interview I co-produced with my friend studying at a Christian college. Yes, they did discuss their gender and sexual identities during the interview, but what clearly holds much more weight for them at this point in their life was their neuroatypicality and their strained relationship to their father. I think it’s tempting to want to work with certain kinds of historical actors and subjects whose identities are related to their motivations in straightforward ways. But we must let people speak and explain for themselves what it is like to be them—otherwise, we end up seeing queer history as occurring between predefined categories of “police” and “gay” whose meanings we already think we know, and end up with overly reductive ideas of queer identity and lived experience.

Moreover, I think that oral history reminds you that there is always a crucial bodily dimension of comportment, gesture, tone, and emotion occurring with lived experience, something which is inevitably lost in written materials—which is so unfortunate given how bodily queer histories can often be!

Interview Conducted by Andy Huynh
Video Project by Jehuda Tjahjadi
All clips of LezLie Lee Kam and the 1999 BIPOC Pride event are held by The ArQuives