At work I’ve been transcribing interviews recorded on audio cassette in the early 2000s. These recordings are conversations between the university archive’s scholar-in-residence and area LGBTQ+ people. As oral histories go, these are an archivist’s dream: timely, relevant, pretty sexy.
Because physical media is dead, I use an old Sony Walkman, an aux cable, and some free recording software to convert the audio to a digital format. This way, in the near future, anyone who wishes to hear what life was like for coastal Maine’s LGBTQ+ population in the early 21st century can do so easily via the university web site.
Once I have the newly digitized audio file, I play it through at half-speed so I can transcribe the interviews without having to pause after every spoken sentence, which means that everything sounds to me like conversations between two robots with low batteries, having simultaneous strokes, sinking into quicksand.
This week I’ve been transcribing an interview of a man whose devout Christianity clashed with his gay identity. The most interesting part of the interview is him describing his attempt to find an accepting, inclusive spiritual environment so that he could be both openly: a Christian and a gay man. I can’t go into much more detail because we at the archives are not sure whether he signed a release to have his interview public, but I can talk about the basic skeleton of his narrative, though I wish only to point out one thing he said:
In describing his arrival in Portland, Maine, he said, “It was an incredible time and an awful time—like an Orwellian novel.”
I paused the recording and rewound—“like an Orwellian novel.” Surely the dude didn’t mean that his life was an allegory for fascism or totalitarianism, an experience of terminal boredom shared by all high school students past and present.
I played it for my supervisor, the head archive librarian. “Do you think he means it was a ‘Catch-22,’ in this case a Hellerian novel?” I asked.
“No I think he meant Dickensian novel, like, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.'”
“Nah, I disagree,” I said. The way he said it—Orwellian novel—made me believe that he knew the allusion but he didn’t know how to wield it. Once in college, in a nonfiction workshop setting, a classmate of mine pronounced posthumous as “post-hyoo-mass” and nobody corrected him, because we knew what he was saying. I told that to my supervisor.
“Well, we can’t correct a sixteen-year-old cassette recording,” she said.
Rostam’s “Don’t Let It Get To You” is part of my annual best-of dishwashing playlist. [More on that here.] Stay tuned for a full year-in-review, with each song receiving anecdotal, irrelevant consideration.