Family history can be so much more than a list of names and dates. Dedicated genealogists with an interest in the background story of their families often find themselves doing complex historical research. In Australia this usually means exploring the history of immigration.
The Library has many resources to help you discover how, when and why your ancestors might have come to Australia. One of my favourite books on post-war immigration is Harry Martin’s Angels and Arrogant Gods: migration officers and migrants reminisce 1945-85. It brings to life Australian immigration policy, and the impact it had on ‘real people’ in a series of short oral accounts.
While many books contain first hand accounts, they are not the first hand accounts of your relatives. To capture those, there’s no replacement for oral history. It doesn’t have to be a formal process – people often tell you more about their lives when they are just having a chat over coffee, tea or something stronger! However, it helps to be a good listener and to be organized.
Have a list of what you’d like to know. Record the conversation (if your relative is comfortable with that) or write up your notes while the interview is fresh in your mind. Show people the notes you’ve made so they can add to, or correct what they’ve said. Make sure they are happy for others to see what they’ve told you.
Here are some questions to think about when talking to your relatives about their immigration experiences:
• What made them decide to leave their birth country?
• Did they have a choice about when to leave or where to go?
• Why did they choose Australia?
• How did they get here and what was the journey like?
• What were their first impressions of the new country?
• What sort of work did they find and what was it like?
• What was it like raising children in a new country?
• What do they think now about the decision to immigrate?
These seem very obvious questions, but I know myself that I regret not asking my grandparents more questions when they were alive. Shape the questions to suit your relatives and yourself – we all have our own way of telling a story. You might also want to ask questions based on your own special interests. For example, if your grandmother gave you your life-long love of knitting, ask her who taught her or whether there were patterns handed down.
It can be exciting to discover these stories, but it‘s important to be respectful and sensitive. Not everyone wants to share their most private thoughts and feelings, and memories might remain painful after fifty or sixty years. Older relatives may also have forgotten some of the story. People can become upset if they feel pressured to tell you something they are unwilling to share or unable to remember.
There’s a helpful book in the Helen Macpherson Genealogy Centre about gathering and using oral history. It’s The Oral History Workshop: collect and celebrate the life stories of your family and friends. Another useful resource is the website of the Oral History Association of Australia.
You might also be interested in learning about an exciting Australian project to gather interviews from people born between 1920 and 1990. The Australian Generations Oral History Project aims to discover how important shared or varied generational experiences (including immigration) are in creating layers of shared Australian memory and identity.
Author Bryce Courtenay once referred to people who listen to storytellers as listeners to ‘tales of wonder, love and daring’. Once you’ve gathered the stories, you might need to check some facts, but your family history and the journeys involved will have come to life!
Heather Evans (guest blogger, librarian and historian)