From a very young age, senior Erin Daugherty remembers asking her grandfather for stories. Now, she is collecting them as part of a multimedia Honors project that explores both his life and her own role as a storyteller in a tradition of oral history.
The Knox Student: Tell me about your Honors project.
Erin Daugherty: My paternal grandfather relocated from Pennington Gap, Va., which is Appalachian Virginia, in 1952. When he was 12, the mines were on their year-and-a-half-long strike. There was no work … and so his dad was told that Caterpillar in Peoria was hiring. And this move has defined him. He’s this infusion of northern and southern dialects and mannerisms and thought processes and values.
He’s also very much a storyteller. … It interested me, this idea of a storyteller and how to capture this life of a storyteller. So what I’m doing is exploring this duality — this life of both southern and northern entities — through photography, audio and writing. I took pictures in Pennington Gap, I’ve taken pictures in Peoria, I’ve taken pictures of him. At the same time, I’m recording all of our conversations … and then also writing … and then putting all of these pieces into an eBook where you’re interacting seamlessly with the writing, the photography and the audio.
TKS: What’s it been like telling the stories of a storyteller?
ED: Telling the story of a storyteller of course makes me a storyteller. … It’s learning about myself as a storyteller, what things I want to keep intact. His voice, that’s something. I don’t want to take that away from him. I’m obviously part of that artistic product, that process of going through the audio and isolating and in that way changing what’s being said to fit into other parts of the project, but at the same time wanting to keep that authenticity — a storyteller interested in the truth, and that’s something that I’m learning about myself through this project.
TKS: How do your grandfather’s stories fit into the broader historical events that were happening at the time?
ED: A lot of the things that I’m trying to understand aren’t just about him or even about Pennington Gap, but about this migration of southern workers to the northern factories in the 1950s. … I think that’s something that I’m trying to understand; not just him or him from a mining town, but him as a southerner, him as a northerner, what it means to relocate, what it means to have uprooted your entire life just to put food on the table and to get to that new place and be told to get off the f-cking bus because you’re a hillbilly. I think that’s something that he’s still trying to identify in himself. … And I think those themes are universal for anyone who’s ever relocated.
TKS: Since you’ve been interested in your grandfather’s stories since you were a little girl, has the idea for this project been in your head for a while?
ED: I think it was very much triggered from being abroad. All of a sudden I didn’t know the customs, I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know the right things to say. … I could not figure out who I was in this new context, and by the end of the year I’d figured that out, but it’s such a long process, and I was just beginning to scrape the surface. If I were actually going to relocate and live in Argentina or Spain for the rest of my life, this would be a serious commitment, and it would be something that would take the rest of my life. And all of a sudden, it occurred to me that this was what everyone on my dad’s side of the family did. … I think that’s when I started working on it.
TKS: What’s been the most challenging part of doing Honors?
ED: It’s not just sitting down with a cup of coffee and a notebook and a journal and saying, ‘What do I want to write today?’ There’s serious stuff going on, and it’s emotionally taxing to stay motivated in this arc that is so much longer than anything you’ve done before. The truth is that once you’re out in the real world … there is no arc that’s 10 weeks. You don’t write a book in 10 weeks. I think that’s been the hardest part: sustaining that creative energy and caring about it every day.
TKS: What’s next for you after graduation?
ED: In the long term, I’d like to get into an MFA program and try to use that as a springboard into academia. I know everyone is saying … there’s no hiring room in academia, but I’d still like to give it a go and teach. If I had to choose between passing this stuff on to someone else and being a part of someone else going, “Oh my gosh, this is the coolest thing in the world” vs. publishing a bunch of books. I’d rather be passing it on.