In March of 2018 when Prathama (Mental Health & Disability Support professional) and I were asked to conduct a daylong workshop on gender and sexuality using narrative method as a precursor to planning for Photo Kathmandu 2018, we were thrilled. The theme for this edition was Power, Patriarchy, Sexuality, Gender and Identity. We had just come back from the first block of Mental Health Training Program at Ummeed, Mumbai. Those 5 days of the first block felt very transformative for us. Through out 2018 we conducted a few more workshops introducing Narrative Approach and contextualizing it to mental health work in Nepal while going to Mumbai for the three blocks that happened every two months. I soon realized that partnership in doing these workshops, the process was the highlight for me because it captured the essence of Loitering as we call it in Narratives. What follows is my telling of how the process unfolded.

Friendship Partnership—the gift of Narrative

When I was introduced to Narrative ideas and the emphasis it put on language and its power I felt a resonance I hadn’t felt before. To feel that resonance together in the same room and taking it back with us to Kathmandu felt wonderful for me.  As we sat down to prepare, Prathama would write down the activities while I with my index cards would right down the lay out of the workshop down to the minute. Then on another note card I would write the key ideas that I hoped would unfurl in conversations. Putting all of this together calmed my anxious self.

However, since being part of the MHTP my focus was shifting from rushing and covering everything I intended to move towards intentional loitering. Loitering, as we all know takes a lot of preparation.  It wasn’t easy to start to practice loitering, as it doesn’t just happen!

Before any workshop I would go to Prathama’s apartment or we would spend a day together at cafes and through dinners or other meals we would discuss what is it that we hoped for in these workshops. Initially the anxiety to finish preparation would get the better of me—I wanted to arrive at what we would want to do and finish the preparation. But Prathama guided me towards loitering. What do you think if we…? How do you feel about…? These were the questions we began to ask each other in person, on the phone or via text through out preparation. The tentativeness of these questions created a lot of space for us to move ideas around and the pressure to arrive at a conclusion was no longer the end goal.

Talking about Power

One of the themes that resonated with me was Power. Discussions about power I felt were very limited or non-existent in circles where folks hold considerable privilege i.e. Photographers covering a marginalized community, a cis gender able bodied therapist working with their clients, teachers in classrooms with youth etc. How do we talk about our privileges without feeling the need to defend ourselves? How do we have those difficult conversations without the need to attack or without feeling attacked?

I felt that using the language of narratives through the lens of intersectionality made sense. Putting together of these concepts gave us the idea to talk about what Vicky Reynolds calls “imperfect allies.” As allies we have the responsibility to constantly educate ourselves and equip ourselves with knowledge without burdening the group we are allying with. Discussions about doubts, our personal biases, judgments then can happen in ally circles without traumatizing or doing harm to the groups we intend to help. For the first time I felt that I could talk about my own biases. More importantly I could come face to face with dominant discourses in me and explore where they come from and what I can do about it so that I am aware of it.

Narrative approach gave me the idea of dominant discourses that color our world without our even realizing and intersectionality assisted me in seeing how those discourses do less or more harm depending on where we as individuals or groups stand in the hierarchy of how things are in the world. Instead of feeling daunted by these realization I felt a sense of loosening up in the group from the tightness that comes with feeling always being afraid of doing harm. Instead being able to see dominant discourses around us, in us, it started feeling like we could be kinder to ourselves in settings like these while discussing our biases and afford that kindness to our peers as well. With more group conversations like these I feel that we can move towards becoming better albeit still imperfect allies reducing harm to the groups, communities and folks we work with aka “clients” as we engage with them.

Spaces of becoming

As part of Photo Kathmandu Third Edition programming, Prathama and I put together a daylong workshop with the intention of introducing some ideas of Narrative Approach. We decided to include the Lightning Testimonies, a work on display at the festival as part of the day. We specifically reached out to individuals related to mental health, like teachers, current students, psychosocial counselors, and folks living with diagnosis, primary care givers of individuals living with diagnosis. My intention in this was also to build a network in Kathmandu in the long run looking for support and resonance in the day-to-day work and lives of folks engaging in mental health be it as therapists or caregivers and bring out the alternative stories getting buried in the daily hustle.

The title of our workshop was: “Is there more to the Story?”

We decided to have 20 participants for a four-hour workshop.  We started out with

Watching “The Danger of a single Story” a TED talk by Chimamande Adichi, which sets wonderfully the ideas of the perils of Dominant Discourses. The idea that Stereotypes may not always be untrue but it is also not the only story of the individual and the community its about. Single stories or these stereotypes are thus very limiting hence dangerous. Then we did introductions.

We wanted folks to share various aspects of their identity, as they felt comfortable to share with the group. We gave prompts such as race (skin colour), ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, education, geography etc. This idea of bringing to the front our various identities came to us after many hours of loitering during preparation for the workshop. With the first group, when introduction extended to over an hour, I started to panic. We were running out of time! Prathama seeing I was concerned whispered, “this is the way of narratives, we will be okay!” I felt a sense of calm.

We did not ask folks to stop talking or make their intros short and immediately what became clear to us was that the conversation on identities without the usual rush one feels in workshop setting really created that safe and soft space for hard conversations. We realized when we are able to really talk about our multiple selves there is an opening that then makes it possible for us to see the multiple identities of others—those that are in the room as well as of those that aren’t. It was evident that if we haven’t been allowed by forces around us to realize, see and be ourselves fully, then we also do not know how to afford that space to others around us.

From here on, transitioning into recognizing dominant discourse activity felt like a wonderful way of continuing to loiter.

Recognizing Dominant Discourses activity was one of the first ones we were introduced to during our MHTP at Ummeed. It goes as follows:

We mention a person with their identity, for example,

A teenager who is questioning their gender,
who has stopped going to school and is
brought to the a therapist by their parent…

With this information, the group consisting of 3-4 participants were asked to discuss what dominant discourses are prevalent about the said group; as a result of such dominant discourse how does society (their parents, friends, siblings etc at a micro level to the school, community at large) treat them. Thirdly how does the treatment affect their behavior i.e. how do they act as a result of being treated this way. Additionally if they transgress or do not agree to act in ways that society things they should what happens to them as a result. The participants were asked to list those actions and the consequences.

This activity is wonderful in bringing out our internal biases without us feeling judged or defensive. We felt that participants were comfortable with one another and often there would be pauses after which someone would say “I never knew I thought about this group in this way…”

After lunch we watched The Lightning Testimonies and discuss the idea of Absent but Implicit a narrative map at the heart of which is the idea that people are always responding in any given situation. And this response is resistance to power. For instance if someone is angry, that anger is a response to the violation of some value, vision in life that they hold dear. And asking a question like “What is that anger a testimony to?” makes all the difference. The question might not yield a succinct quick answer because these aren’t the ways we are encouraged to use language in general but they sow a seed in the mind and turn us towards landscape of possibilities, away from the constant noise of problem stories.

In the context of The Lightning Testimonies, we asked what resonated with you when you were listening and watching the installation? One of the most common response was that it shifted how sexual violence was seen, it did not put the “victims” in the boxes of single stories.

In the course of a month and half we conducted three different sessions with 56 individuals in total all of whom were related to the field of mental health as therapists, educators, students, doctors, caregivers, living with diagnosis etc. We were surprised by the resonance participants said they felt in the room. I felt lucky to be witness to the words as well as the moments of silence. The latter being the most difficult. What I am most thankful for is the creative alliance that Prathama and I were able to work towards. Workshops are best ways to co-research and create resonance and I feel that finding your tribe and working together is one of the best ways to go about it. Dominant Discourses are daunting and working together has been healing and empowering. We would like to thank the Ummeed MHTP team whose work-shaping style inspired me and Prathama to form a team in Kathmandu.

About the Author –

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Raji Manjari Pokhrel is a mental health worker living and working in Kathmandu, Nepal. Her background lies in community organizing and mental health and her passion is to integrate the two at the intersection of gender. She was part of Ummeed Narrative  Approaches  MHTP 2018. Raji loves to do collaborative work using narrative approach and somatic awareness to envision alternative ways of practicing psychosocial therapy. Working with Adhikaar and the Nepali-speaking immigrant community in Queens in 2006 sparked Raji’s passion for community organizing in the immigrant community. She went back to work with Adhikaar as a social worker from 2012-2015. She is forever grateful for her education and know-how of the world to the Nepali speaking domestic and elder care workers’ community in Queens, New York, who taught her to see emotional labour otherwise rendered invisible in everyday life. Upon returning to her home town in 2015 she has worked with the LGBTQI community on mental health issues. She provides therapy online and in person. She is cis gender and identifies as Queer. She completed her Masters in Social Work from Columbia University School of Social Work, 2013.

You can get in touch with her at manjariraji@gmail.com.

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