The Power of “No”

October 18, 2011

Emerson Odango
University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa

As a graduate student, I frequently wonder whether I’m doing the “right” thing – am I asking relevant research questions, making insightful observations, somehow contributing in a meaningful way to the academic discourse?  In the field, the questions are different but the concerns about “the right thing” remain the same – am I respecting the collaborators’ immediate goals and responsibilities, reimbursing their time in culturally-appropriate ways, learning how to listen carefully before asking questions?  One thing in particular that I grappled with on a recent fieldwork visit to Micronesia was trying to explain the nuances of a consent form to the community members with whom I worked.  During May and June 2011, I continued my long-term fieldwork on Mortlockese as spoken on Pakin Atoll in Pohnpei State, Federated States of Micronesia, graciously funded by an Arts and Sciences Student Research Award from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.  I have been working with the Pakin community for several years now, first as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 2006 to 2009, and now as a researcher in linguistics.  For me, though, I see the community not as a collection of native speakers of a minority outer island language in the FSM, but rather as friends and family with whom I continue to forge interpersonal relationships.  I still go back and live with my Peace Corps host family during my summer fieldtrips.  My former students – my first real teachers of conversational Mortlockese – never cease to share their jokes, stories, and songs with me.  I felt privileged that the handful of adults on Pakin who are known as the best storytellers on the island invited me on several occasions to be an audience to their tittilap ‘stories’.  The term “community” for me primarily refers to “people”, and then “language”.  I clearly remember some of the first pieces of advice the Peace Corps staff gave us early on in our training: rather than jump headfirst into project implementation, take the time to form interpersonal relationships with your host family, counterparts, students, and the wider community.  I feel that the length of time that I spent with the community has allowed me to gain their trust, and them mine.  This gives me the confidence to ask questions in meaningful ways, questions which I feel they would be more willing to answer candidly and honestly as compared to responding to questions posed by an academic “passerby” to their islands.

The task of asking the “right questions” could not be more relevant than in regards to consent forms.  As required by the University’s Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects, I provided copies of consent forms to the contributors.  The forms were approved in English, but I gave the contributors Mortlockese-translated versions.  Despite the attempt at making the content of this form accessible to them in their native language (which is itself a novel idea, since “official” forms are always either in English or Pohnpeian), I still couldn’t help but feel a little uncomfortable about it all.  Mwéúmwéútáán ‘permission’ in their community is given verbally, expressed through real action, enforced by social consequences…it’s not expressed in writing or by checking off boxes and signing names on lines.  How could I talk about this unwieldy document in a way that would be relatable for them?  Some concepts were a little easier to talk about than others.  For example, the idea of a public digital archive isn’t so foreign when compared to a leenian iseis pwuuk ‘library’, which they have in the form of an elementary school library on Pakin, as well as libraries on Pohnpei.  Others, though, are rather nuanced, such as engaging in conversations with the consultants regarding the reasons why their recordings would be placed in such an archive, or why others outside of their community would be interested in their stories.  In the end, I realized that it just came down to asking questions and explaining the reasons for asking them.  I felt that one question, though, was one of the most important questions I needed to ask: “Can I archive everything that we’ve recorded?”  I wanted to clarify with the contributor if there was anything from the recordings which he/she did not want to be archived.  This is a fundamental aspect of asserting the agency of the contributor during fieldwork.  I wanted to make it clear to everyone who helped me with my fieldwork that he/she has the right to indicate what will or won’t be made public to others.  I would affirm with them by saying, esapw áái angaang, ngé aash ‘it’s not my work, but ours (inclusive)’.  In almost all cases, the contributors had no reservations about allowing the entirety of their recordings to be archived.  I’m certain that many of them felt a certain measure of pride that their words would be heard by others far away.  But in one particular case, I was so happy to hear someone say, “No”.

Lucila Linge (left) recollecting personal narratives with Emerson Odango on Pakin Atoll (June 2, 2011).

This summer I had the opportunity to record narratives with Lucila Linge, one of the eldest residents of Pakin.  I was very excited to work with her because she is a member of the last generation of Micronesians who were alive during the Japanese occupation of the islands during WWII.  Nohno Lucila (Mother Lucila) was only a child during that time, but she vividly remembers experiences on Pohnpei such as airborne firefights and running away from dust clouds of debris!  Nohno shared a variety of narrative accounts with me, including some that pertained specifically to her parents and family.  It was truly a privilege to hear her stories; it never ceases to amaze me the kind of connections we can make to the past – especially to events with such global significance – all through memories and words.  As I brought out the consent form at the end of our recording session, I explained to her the idea of placing her recordings in a digital archive so that they would be available to other Mortlockese, Micronesians, and re wóón ‘foreigners’ who may be interested in her stories and language.  When I asked Nohno if there was anything she would like me to exclude, I remember her stating this so clearly, so gently: the only narrative that is to be publicly archived is a specific account of visitors to Pakin during the Japanese occupation; everything else that pertains to her family will not be archived.  It could not have been clearer than that; I didn’t need to ask why.  Sensitive information pertaining to her family will remain private, as simple as that.  How exciting it was to hear someone say “No”!  This was agency in action, such a clear example of someone deciding what will and will not be made available to public ears.  I couldn’t help but feel a little proud of myself, since I was able to explain in Mortlockese to someone whom I hold in great esteem that she has the right to control the access to her recordings.  She understood what I was trying to explain…which was quite an accomplishment, since I’m fairly certain that I was stumbling through my attempts at translating things like “open-access” and “anonymity”!  That experience remains with me as something truly emboldening for future work.  Even though the questions we need to ask may be difficult to explain, or awkwardly translated (both in language and in culture), that shouldn’t be a reason not to make every earnest attempt to ask.  We should have faith that our consultants – shienash ‘our friends’, really, if we are privileged to have such a relationship – will trust us and reply honestly.  In the spirit of collaborative fieldwork, I’d like to consider the word “no” as being just as empowering as the word “yes”, for both the researcher and the contributor.


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