By Eileene J. Lee

Through Oral History, Students Listen to the Silences

“Memory changes because life experience has changed, but so does the language and ideas available for someone through which to understand that experience,” says Professor Katie Holmes. “Meaning is always individual and cultural, therefore, it is historically located.”
By Ciana J. King and Senai I. Robinson

When Kashish Bastola ’26 started college, he says he didn’t fit the mold of a stereotypical Asian American Harvard student.

“A lot of stereotypes about my community tell me that I’m supposed to be wealthy, supposed to be smart, supposed to be educated, right? But that’s just not the truth that I grew up in,” he says. Instead, Bastola — who is Nepali American — found that “there are more dining hall workers from my background than there are students.”

To highlight his community’s unique experiences, Bastola began compiling an oral history of Nepali American narratives. Through this interest, he discovered Harvard History professor Katie Holmes’s course History 1975: Oral History: Theory and Practice.

Holmes, a visiting professor of Australian studies, has spent the last decades using oral history to research gender and the environment. In her course, students study the methodological and ethical considerations of historical analysis and go into the field themselves to preserve oral histories.

Holmes intends to bridge the gap between the origins of oral history and its current practice.

She says one of the early motivations behind oral history was “to capture the voices of those who had been left out of the traditional historical narrative.”

“The archives are generated by people who were literate. They were typically white. They were typically male,” Holmes says. “So how do we capture [underrepresented] voices and experiences? Well, one clear way is actually to talk to people.”

Though Holmes says some people “don’t tend to rely on oral history as a good foundation of what we might traditionally call facts or truth,” she believes oral history has a unique capacity to communicate meaning.

Holmes asserts that it is both a historian’s involvement and memory’s susceptibility to change that makes the historical methodology unique — the active creation of a source as well as an archive.

“Memory changes because life experience has changed, but so does the language and ideas available for someone through which to understand that experience,” Holmes says. “Meaning is always individual and cultural.”

For Holmes, the ability to critically analyze oral histories and the context in which interviews are conducted is a gap she identifies within her research of the environmental history of the Mallee Country.

“One of the things we talk about in oral history is the time of the event and the time of the telling, and the difference between those things,” she says. “One of the things that I’ve wanted to add to that is the place of the telling and the place of listening.”

Researching the inland history of Australia, Holmes identified resilience and endurance in oral history narratives, but noticed consistent exclusions of its Indigenous history.

“There’s lots of silences in stories as well, so one of the things as an oral historian you need to listen to is for those silences,” she says. Through her course, Holmes empowers students to question Harvard as a place of listening and silences.

By working with Holmes, Bastola says he has found fulfillment through highlighting and contextualizing his community’s stories. In tandem with the course, he is working with the South Asian American Digital Archive to record the experiences of Nepali Americans at Harvard.

Looking forward, Bastola considers future Nepali Americans who “may have lost their language” and may be “looking back at their roots.”

He hopes that “when they’re trying to find more answers about the people that they come from, and how their families even got here, they can find solace in these archives and in these oral histories.”

— Associate Magazine Editor Ciana J. King can be reached at

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