Earlier this fall, as I was sitting down to begin the transcription project for Ajax, I wasn’t exactly excited to begin the process of painstakingly turning a two-hour interview into text. The act of transcription requires a specific level of attention that can be mentally exhausting. To really capture the interview as it happens you must play, rewind, correct and backtrack to be confidant that you have noted every word, pause and inflection as the speaker meant it. It can be an incredibly tedious process that requires hours of work. But as I began working on Karin’s interview with a veteran of the war on terror I became enraptured. Karin’s interviewee, M, is a master storyteller. His skill as a narrator as well as his rye, almost black humor, made the hours go by quickly. I was hanging on his every word and not just so I could make sure I got what he said exactly right. Instead I was absorbed into the day to day life of combat, the minutiae of breakfast and paperwork broken up by moments of panic and confusion. The narrator’s performative streak made every scene and character come alive so I felt as if I could see everything he described. It was an immersive experience, the attention I had to pay to each word made every moment more vivid and real as I was seeing things as he described them. But then, of course I wasn’t. It was a strange experience to feel simultaneously empathetic to and isolated from his experience. I’ve never experienced that level of fear or that closeness that comes from living and working so closely with a group in cultural isolation. Those are completely foreign to me, what struck me most was how he would pull me into his life and then I would be reminded by some small detail how little I really knew about what he had experienced. This brought me up short and caused me to question the assumptions that I had made going into this process. I assumed that his stories would be depressing, or isolating or that I would have trouble empathizing- but instead I was laughing at moments of almost absurd humor or touched by relationships and friendships as they developed in his recounting. And then I would be snapped back by a gruesome or dark detail mentioned casually, almost in passing. This back and forth captures some of the audience conflict when reading or watching Ajax. As an audience member you’re given snapshots into Ajax’s state of mind through his direct address and monologues, but you are also isolated from him. He acts rashly and incomprehensibly, he rages at his wife and his friends, unable to ask for help or accept any kindness. This back and forth makes an audience feel pity for Ajax but also estranged from him as a character. We can’t understand his state of mind, his choices or fundamentally how he thinks but we get glimpses into his experience. While Karin’s interviewee was an incredible storyteller, warm and inviting, and different from Ajax’s rigid worldview I was reminded of that same disconnect.
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