Telling Memories of Cardamom -- Digital Storytelling

By Marianne Weesner

The faces of Reji KinnThe faces of Reji Kinn

Reji Kinn was found as a baby in a cardamom spice field in India. When she was three years old, an American family adopted her from an orphanage in Kerela. Reji grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, where she was the only person of color.

Brigid McAuliffe, visiting assistant professor of new media, and Bryce Merrill, professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at IU South Bend, told Kinn’s compelling story in the video ethnography Telling Memories of Cardamom. They presented the ethnography at the International Symposium for Symbolic Interaction in Pisa, Italy, the summer of 2010 as part of a panel titled “Innovative Ethnographies: Engaging New Media, New Genres, and New Audiences.” 

McAuliffe, who has been friends with Reji Kinn for quite some time, described Kinn’s story as an “interesting and compelling story of finding one’s identity through this cultural narrative.” She says Kinn, “was more than just a racial outsider: she often felt like a stranger to herself.” The video ethnography conveys the struggle Kinn faces in finding her true identity while also wondering what her parents were like. It also “…aims to convey the beauty and struggle of difference and the tension inherent in living between multiple cultures and identities,” remarked McAuliffe.  The tension from the differences Kinn faces in her life makes it a continuous search to find a place where she feels like she belongs.

Qualitative research plays a role in many disciplines because “it helps us dig through the layers of all the things that are involved in an issue,” Merrill said. Ethnographies have been a popular form of understanding an individual’s culture. Visual digital storytelling as a means to show one’s culture is relatively new. Sociology and new media faculty have worked together to create this dynamic illustration of one woman’s story of finding her niche, self identity, and how she makes sense of the world around her. 
The video helps visualize the struggles faced by Kinn, but also shows others who have dealt with this struggle that they are not alone. This visual narrative only provides a glimpse for those who have never felt as Kinn did, but it is eye opening for those who may know people in a similar situation.  McAuliffe examines the intercultural aspect of communication while using new media to help convey the tension between the various cultures. New media is a way of communicating that allows us to use our resources to get a glimpse of new cultures and allows for so many opportunities beyond sociology.

Excerpts from the video ethnography Telling Memories of Cardamom can be viewed at

Student storytelling projects

Brigid McAuliffe teaches a digital storytelling class at IU South Bend. The purpose of the class is to show students how to use new media devices to create stories from their personal lives that represent their surroundings and history. Brigid McAuliffe mentions that storytelling is an “age-old human activity.” McAuliffe’s class helps students create a new media form for any story they would like to tell that has value to their culture and who they are. The students explore creative avenues in storytelling throughout the class.  

Bethany Hudak, a student in McAuliffe’s class, created a narrative of a Polish Christmas her mother had as a little girl.  “When I asked my mom to tell me a story that told me something about where she came from, she immediately recalled this early memory of one of her few Christmases in Poland,” Hudak says. “Even with details lost in time and translation, the story still manages to capture the culture and whimsy of my mother’s thoughts, and paints a textured picture of a festive childhood memory. Perhaps it is only in Poland that one can find a Christmas covered in red feathers and English lessons. As the memories within this story come from a distant past, my mother comes from a distant state. Ohio. So I used a Skype voicemail service to record her story. The tinny, far-off quality of the phone call pairs well with the story,” Hudak continues. “Added sound effects and music from a great accordion master, helps to bring the story to life. In the way I have documented this memory with modern technology I hope to preserve its essence for many Christmases to come.”

Preston Moore, a student in McAuliffe’s class produced Schizo, an audio file that describes ones man’s story. Moore describes the narrative as, “Schizo is about a man dealing with reality and non-reality battling issues. He is at war with himself and others around him.  I used the term “Schizo” to emphasize his serious battle with schizophrenia,” says Moore. “This story revolves around a brief series of statements about his ongoing battle and how he views the world in which he survives. I say survive because that is exactly what he is doing. He has not taken medication since diagnosed in 1998. Every day is a constant battle and struggle to regain his conscience and find a healthy balance between life and the ‘grey area.’ ”