Alessandro Portelli

Alessandro Portelli is a professor of Anglo-American literature at the University of Rome La Sapienza, oral historian, and musicologist. In 1972, Portelli founded the Cicolo Gianni Bosio, an activist collective focusing on oral history, folklore, and culture; he chaired the group until 1992. He is also a member of the Board of IRSIFAR (Roman Institute for the History of Italy from Fascism to the Resistance). Portelli served as the Mayor of Rome’s advisor for historical memory from 2002 to 2008 and as a city councillor in Rome from 2006 to 2007. His book The Death of Luigi Trastulli (1991) is widely regarded as a seminal work in oral history, shifting the focus from factual and historical accuracy in memory-based history to the meaning and nature of memories.


For more information please see Portelli’s blog


Alessandro Portelli, interview by Allison Penner, New York, NY, USA, 14 June 2012, Oral History Centre Online,

Allison Penner interviews Alessandro Portelli 14/6/2012


TOH PORTELLI Alessandro 20120614

PROJECT TITLE: The Oral Historians
NARRATOR: Alessandro Portelli
INTERVIEWER: Allison Penner
PLACE OF RECORDING: Columbia University, New York, New York, USA
SESSION: 1 of 1
LENGTH OF SESSION: 58 minutes 38 seconds (website version: 30 minutes 6 seconds)
TOTAL INTERVIEW LENGTH: 58 minutes 38 seconds (website version: 30 minutes 6 seconds)
FILE NAME: TOH PORTELLI Alessandro 20120614 Transcript – final website version.docx
TRANSCRIBER: Allison Penner

Allison Penner: My name is Allison Penner; I’m at Columbia University in New York, New York with Dr. Alessandro Portelli. The date is June 14th 2012. Alright, I have such a list of questions here; I’m not quite sure where to begin. What got you interested in oral history? How did you become an oral historian?
Alessandro Portelli: Well, I’m not sure I have become one yet, because basically I’m still getting paid to teach American – to teach literature. So I’m sort of an amateur historian. What got me interested was I was working as an activist collecting folk songs, labour movement protest songs in Italy, in the Italian folk revival. And folk music was always perceived as a historical source, as a source for the history of the working class. So it just came natural to also – for the singers – to also tell the stories from which the songs came. And one of – my only training in fieldwork came from my mentor, Gianni Bosio, when he first delivered my first Uher recorder, and he said that to me, he said: “Only thing: never turn it off.” And so I kept it on. I would keep it going even when they weren’t singing.
And after a while I realized two things. One was I am not a musician; I can’t do anything with music except give the songs to musicians or put them on records, whereas I was training myself in literature, in narrative, and I could do more with the stories. And number two, the stories were interesting partly because the big story which is in this book, The Death of Luigi Trastulli, was wrong. And because I came from literature, the way I always say it – we always repeat ourselves – “In literature, you don’t throw away a good story just because it isn’t true.” So the question was “Why are they all making the same kind of errors? What does this story mean?”
And this was the late ‘70s – actually 1970, ’71, ’72, but I didn’t start thinking about it until a few years later. And this was a time when the whole paradigm of oral history was being revised, in terms of retaining all the focus on reliability, fact-checking, and everything. But also looking at the narrative itself, in terms of Luisa Passerini, subjectivity, with all her psychological background. One influence that was very important to me was Dennis Tedlock, in terms of aesthetics. And of course, I was also working on narrative analysis. So I became interested in trying to figure out what went unsaid in the stories, where the subjectivity of the narrator and of the social group was implicit in the stories, and what the meaning of the story was. I didn’t know much about it; maybe that helped. [Allison Penner laughs] I wasn’t in a rut.
Allison Penner: Right. What was the very first oral history interview that you ever conducted and how did it go?
Alessandro Portelli: I think my first oral history interview – I’m still looking for the tape – I didn’t know it was an oral history interview. This must have been 1969. I went to this place. Earlier today I was talking about these towns that vie for the title of Little Moscow. So I went to another Little Moscow looking for songs, and I didn’t find any, so I ended up interviewing the mayor. I didn’t know what I could do with that, so in fact I don’t know what happened to the tape.
But before that I was doing social work out back in the slums in Rome. This was a rite of passage for a number of people in Rome; you developed a social consciousness by going to the slums, helping some kids with their homework, and then graduated into organizing. And as part of what I was doing there, I started interviewing people – this was around the same time; ’69, ’70. And again, I didn’t do anything with the interviews, because the only outlet that I thought of at the time was records. And in fact, I did produce – I paid out of my own pocket – an LP on the homeless movement in Rome, which included a lot of spoken word through a lot of interviews.
But I wasn’t thinking – I began to think in terms of “oral history” much later, after those interviews in the Roman hills, and the question again that was from the very start the form, the orality. One of the things that we did, I and a couple of other comrades, we did with the first interviews in the Roman Hills was to analyze when they spoke dialect, when they didn’t speak dialect, the linguistic shifts, the speed – when they changed the speed of the speech. So we immediately went for the form.
And the earlier interview, still around ’69, I came to New York to find out about the black movement, and I did a couple of interviews with black activists here in New York. And again I didn’t do anything with it. At that time our tool was the LP. And on LP records you can’t use the spoken word for long.
Allison Penner: You’ve made some reference to things that you’ve done where people will actually be able to hear the voices, not just read about them in a book – I’m talking about your recent work on Harlan County. Why do you use audio instead of video now that that’s become more available?
Alessandro Portelli: Number one, because I never learned how to use video. [Allison Penner laughs] And that’s one thing. Number two, I always had this thought – and Doug Boyd made it very clear: if you do video, you have to do good quality video. And a lot of colleagues think that just placing the camera in front of a talking head is – And I still think it’s a little bit more intrusive. Because in order to do good video, you have to have lights, you have to have – you have to have a whole set of preparations. And it detracts I think, in most cases, from the dialogic context. I always say, number one: you should have the interviewer on camera. You should show that it’s a dialogue. And also, a good video project ought to include its own history. And the third reason is: I don’t know what to do with body language. We don’t have a grammar to analyze the visual in an oral history video, whereas I know what to do with words. So I’ll stick to words, which I know how to do. But I’m not opposed or anything – Only thing is, if we’re going to use video it should be good quality. Not just good quality in terms of image resolution, but good quality in terms of video language – actually using the visual. And you don’t see that very often.
Allison Penner: Can you talk a little bit about what you see happening between an interviewer and an interviewee during an oral history interview?
Alessandro Portelli: Well, those situations change; all sorts of things happen. But my favourite metaphor is – I mean, I can’t dance – but it’s like dancing, where your moves and your partner’s moves influence each other. So it becomes sort of a partnership. And it’s actually co-authoring something, working together to produce. And the other thing is, in most cases there’s some kind of social distance and difference, and in order for the interview to be successful you need some kind of equality. And if it doesn’t exist socially – you know, you’re interviewing some marginalized person – you have to create it during the interview. And you do not create it by pretending that there’s no difference, but by making the difference the implicit theme of the conversation. So that a good interview is always, between the lines or below – in the lower frequencies, about the relationship; the social and personal relationship between them. And it’s sort of an experiment in which you talk to each other as if you were equals. So it’s sort of a utopian moment where you think of a world in which a worker and an intellectual, a man and a woman, a black man and a white person can talk to each other. When it happens it’s very creative.
[There is a removed section here in which Penner asked Portelli for some advice about one of her own projects and then apologizes for bringing her own work into the interview; the next paragraph is a response to that.]
Part of a good approach to the interview is your own input; the interviewer’s own input, so that the interviewee knows why you’re asking certain questions or who you are. I mean, you don’t occupy the space of the interview, but you’re part of a conversation. Because I myself – now, I mean, this is a very professional kind of interview, but if this was a life story interview, I don’t expect people to tell their life story to somebody that won’t tell them anything about themselves. But to remind you that this is a conversation, and if you say something about where you come from and where you’re going, the interviewee understands a lot better what this is all about. So I think this was a good interviewing moment. [Allison Penner laughs] I do it all the time.
Allison Penner: Do you?
Alessandro Portelli: Yeah! Like in Kentucky, just a little bit. But for one thing, people want to know what you know, how much you know. Now, for instance, I know you’ve read my book. But you know, people talked about living in coal camps, and I always pointed out that I grew up in a company village myself. Which was very different; it was not a slum or anything but certain things we had in common. I know what it means to have the time of your life marked by the whistle, by the factory whistle. I know what it means. And I know what it means to be – well, to be in an enclosed space, so they could relate to that. Or interviewing people who grew up in the ‘50s and you’d ask them, “What music were you listening to?” And they’d say something; I’d say, “I also listened to that too!” That kind of thing, which is my dancing metaphor. The interviewee brings up topics based on their perception of who you are. In a way, the interview is always about the interviewer. I mean, especially if it’s an in-depth interview; people will say things based on their perception of who you are.
And I’ve always found – with a couple of exceptions – that being very frank about who you are really helps. I’ve often interviewed fascists. I’ve always made it very clear that I was on the other side, and I got very good interviews. One of the things that make the interviews interesting is when people realize your otherness, which means that they have to explain themselves to a total – to somebody who cannot take for granted anything. So it really brings out a level of self-awareness that is necessary if you’re going to explain yourself to a stranger. So my formula is: what you have in common is what makes the interview possible; what makes you different is what makes the interview interesting. And by and large, I think – especially the deeper you go into the interview – the more it’s about your difference and explaining your difference to each other.
Allison Penner: Then what happens after the interview is over?
Alessandro Portelli: That’s the embarrassing part. I mean, I have no institution to back me. So when I talk about being an amateur, I’ve always done this on my own; in most cases, out of my own pocket. So this means that I haven’t done good follow-up work. I don’t have the energy, the time. And I haven’t done it always; I have done it in a number of cases, but certainly not regularly, not systematically.
And just recently, one of the joys in this work is finding out – is being able to return the recordings, not to the narrators themselves, because I’m just now returning the recordings to the people in the Roman hills, forty years later. So it’s their children and grandchildren, and they’re extremely excited about that. Whereas often the interviewees themselves don’t really care. [Laughs] You know? But their children and grandchildren do. And because we have the catalogue – not the tapes, not the files, but the catalogue – online, I’ve been getting requests from people who say, “I found my great-uncle’s name in your catalogue; what is this? Can I have it? Can I see it?” So in some cases, in all my long-term projects, there’s always been at least one person that became very close also personally. But that’s one of the things that I don’t feel good about my own work; I haven’t continued a lot of relationships.
Allison Penner: A lot of people do see, though, your work as being very foundational in the field of oral history. In particular, I know this book, The Death of Luigi Trastulli – everybody knows this books; everybody uses this book. What do you see as your contributions to the field?
Alessandro Portelli: Well, I think, as I was saying earlier, I’m part of a group of people – Ron Grele, Dennis Tedlock, Luisa Passerini and a few others; Al Thomson later – who were instrumental in changing the paradigm from hard facts to subjectivity. Or not changing the paradigm; expanding the paradigm. Because we’re still looking for the hard facts, partly because if we don’t know the hard facts, then how can we make use of the “wrong” narratives? I mean, I have to know that Luigi Trastulli died in 1949 in order to make sense of the fact that they’re talking about 1953. So rather than a change in paradigm, talking about an expansion of paradigm. In my case it came from linguistics, from literature. In the case of Luisa Passerini it came from psychology; and Dennis Tedlock from anthropology. We also, I think, helped make oral history much more – not interdisciplinary: a-disciplinary or all-disciplinary. All-disciplines. You have a toolbox with a number of tools, and you pick the one you need for the specific case. And I think basically what caught people’s interest in the Luigi Trastulli story was the element of the imagination, the fact that we’re also listening to people’s desires, to people’s efforts to make sense of the past. So that we’re no longer just talking about using the oral history to reconstruct the past, but rather to reconstruct the relationship between the present and the past.
Allison Penner: Have you ever had an interview where it just went really wrong; it just didn’t work at all?
Alessandro Portelli: I was talking about it earlier this morning, this interview with this old black lady who wouldn’t tell me anything. But in that case I don’t think it went wrong; the information I got was how complicated and difficult it was for her, at 92, to talk to a white person and to talk about the reality of what it was like to be in Alabama in the 1910s. So again, it was about the relationship.
Other interviews that went really wrong – I can’t think of any. Because in a way, when people refuse to talk to you, that’s something. [Both laugh] You know? It goes back to what Luisa Passerini says about silences: they’re very important and they’re full of meaning. Or perhaps I’m just in denial and I refuse to admit that some interviews went wrong. [Allison Penner laughs] But I can’t think of any interviews where – It’s not that I’m a good interviewer, but it’s that if your attitude in the interview is accepting the other – or suspending your rejection of the other, if you’re interviewing a fascist – for the time of the interview, you listen. If it’s about accepting the other, than whatever the other person does is interesting.
Allison Penner: What do you think has been your most difficult interview to sit and listen to?
Alessandro Portelli: Again, it depends on what you mean by difficult. There have been a couple of interviews where I just sat and listened. And one was with a Shoah survivor, and I have a whole side of a tape, 45 minutes, where I don’t say a word. And one was with one of my students who had been – June 2001, there was three big days of demonstrations in Genoa over the G8 meeting. The police went berserk and a young man was killed, and she was there. And again I sat for 45 minutes listening to her. I don’t know if these were difficult or the easiest ones because I didn’t have to do anything. They were difficult in that I was made speechless. They were easy in that the stories kept pouring.
Allison Penner: What do you see as the unique contribution oral history can make to our understanding of history?
Alessandro Portelli: I think it has to do with telling us what the past means to the present, in addition to all the usual things that we always say, which are correct. Like, “We’re now listening to people who haven’t been listened to before;” “We’re not giving them voice; they’re giving us voice.” If people didn’t sing or speak, I couldn’t do anything. [Laughs] So I’m getting voice from the people that I interview. But I’m giving them a listening. And I loved Doug Boyd’s metaphor of the fallen tree. Because if a tree falls and there’s nobody to hear it – well, we’re there to hear it. So the tree makes a sound. And that is very important, but in addition to that, the information – it’s the relationship between the present and the past; what the past means now. It’s not just the memory of history, but it’s also the history of memory: how things are being remembered at different times. What was important for people to remember in the ‘70s and what is important for people to remember in 2010s? I think this is fairly unique.
Allison Penner: Do you think that the stories you’ve been exposed to as you’ve done oral history interviews have shaped you not only professionally but also on a personal level?
Alessandro Portelli: By all means, absolutely. I couldn’t put my finger on what has changed, because I think it’s shaped the whole thing. I’m the result of all the people that I’ve talked to, basically. Because you’re always at stake in the interview; you’re always at stake. And that’s another one of my little formulas: If you don’t come out of the interview changed from the way you walked in, you have been wasting your time. It’s a learning experience, always.
Allison Penner: Most children don’t grow up thinking, “I’m going to be an oral historian one day,” or even, “I’m going to be a professor of literature.” What did you want to do when you were a child?
Alessandro Portelli: I wanted to be a writer. In fact, I spent a year in high school in Los Angeles and I was very good at writing essays. And I remember this teacher who made a comment on one of my essays: “I wish you would become a professor of literature.” Ten years later, there I was. [Allison Penner laughs] I wanted to be a writer. And number one, I couldn’t think of stories. And number two, you have to write about things you know in depth, and because we middle-class intellectuals only know in-depth the very uninteresting world of middle-class intellectuals: am I going to write another college novel? Number three, all the characters would end up speaking like me. So oral history is a perfect answer to this! I get my stories; I get my characters; I get their different styles of speech. And everybody says I built the books like novels.
I don’t know if you know this Italian writer Pier Paolo Pasolini, writer and film maker. Pier Paolo Pasolini was very controversial. He was communist, homosexual; he was a poet, he was a critic of contemporary society. And his first novels were set in the lumpen-proletariat neighbourhoods in Rome. It was a scandal because he used their language, including the cuss words and things. To read now, it’s so mild. But I remember sitting in my little room as a teenager, reading his books and saying, “I can do that! All I need is a tape recorder to go to” – This was 1957, ’58. [Laughs] And I never gave it a thought until thirty years later and said, “Oh my god, here I am in Pasolini’s neighbourhood with a tape recorder!” [Laughs] Because I was in the same neighbourhood. But I didn’t think that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a writer. History and oral history are a very good substitute, because they’re also very good training, so that by the time you get to write your own fiction, you have that background.
Allison Penner: What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out in the field of oral history?
Alessandro Portelli: Do something you like. Do something you’re really interested in; that’s what I would say. Because that will make you a good interviewer. If you just do it as an assignment, it’s flimsy or it’s weaker. I would say find something that you really want to know, that you don’t know about but you know enough about to want to know more. And then go ahead and do it. And if you don’t know how to do an interview, you learn by doing.
I’ll tell you a little story: When he was in the first grade, my son was sent out to do interviews about the neighbourhood. They had this project, in first grade, about their neighbourhood. He came back and he had interviewed this neighbourhood cop. And the interview went like this: “How old are you?” “Thirty-five.” “Very interesting. How long have you been here?” “Ten years.” “Very interesting. Do you like it?” And no question was related to the answer before it. So again, it’s a dancing metaphor. Question one; answer one. You don’t go right into question two; the next question is question A1. You explore that. And when that’s over, maybe the interviewee has gone into question F, or into things that you haven’t even thought about asking. And you keep question B in mind until the right moment to ask it. Which, of course, you may do in the wrong moment anyway, but there’s not guarantee for that. So being – I think it’s the art of being flexible.
When I decided to do the Trastulli book, I wanted to do a project on what happened in Terni between ’49 and ’53. I started interviewing a man who had been fired for political reasons in ’53. And after a while his wife, she grabbed the microphone from him and told me the story of her great-grandfather who, on his wedding day took his bride home. He went out to buy dinner and as he was running out to the store, he ran into Garibaldi and his men who were marching off to liberate Italy, so he went along with them and only came back four years later. And number one: you listen to it, even though it’s not part of your project. Number two: “Do I really want to leave this story out of my book?” So in the end the book was 1831-1985, because you sort of accompany whatever people tell you. Because you have some questions you want to ask, and the other person has some stories they want to tell. And eighty percent, they overlap; but there will be questions that they can’t answer or that you realize are irrelevant, and they will have stories that you didn’t expect and that may be irrelevant, except maybe ten years later you find out, “Oh! That was important” – like the dancing story – or that may be a huge revelation that opened up. So it’s the flexibility which makes it fun. Expect the unexpected. And of course, the difficult part is saying the interview is over.
Allison Penner: I know, right!
Alessandro Portelli: [Laughs]
[Recorder turned off]

Allison Penner and Alessandro Portelli

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