Therapeutic Fiction on Prescription — A Haitian Bibliotherapy Collection on Love, Loss and Grief

Posted by Bijal Shah on

Growing up in Kenya, East Africa in the 1980s, was like growing up in a caged paradise — beautiful outdoor landscapes and nature visits — in a backdrop of staggering crime levels and targeted attacks on the Asian community, which meant that there wasn’t always lots to do for budding teenagers. I often spent hours on end at the community library totally absorbed in fiction — and I’d often use literature as the antidote to teenage angst. I lived in an Orthodox Jain community and mental health and well-being were unheard of. We didn’t talk about many of the issues that young children and teenagers face every day, such as learning how our bodies work, bullying, navigating teenage friendships. Instead, books became the surrogate anchors for me. From Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, to Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High to more classical literature such as George Elliot’s Mill on the Floss and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, these books helped me understand life and more importantly, they understood me — mirrored my feelings, my pain when relationships or friendships didn’t go to plan, or when I was bullied at school or when I struggled with shame. These were my saviours and unconsciously, literature became a go-to resource whenever I felt low, confused or craved reassurance.

Despite literature being my first love, I went on to study Mathematics at the University of Warwick and landed in Investment Banking at the turn of the millennium. It was only in 2017, post-completion of a part-time diploma in Counselling and Psychotherapy (while working full-time in banking) that I truly began to leverage literature in my own therapy (which was mandatory when you’re training) and that was the turning point. I found that in the weeks in between sessions, when I needed emotional support, literary journaling (the practice of using literature as a prompt for journaling and self-reflection) became something I started to do daily and this helped me work through issues during my weekly session with my therapist.

On observing this, I knew there was something here that needed to be leveraged and that people could benefit from. Upon researched the practice of literature as a therapeutic tool, I was stunned by the information and resources out there — particularly its use in the World Wars and even earlier by the Ancient Greeks plus all the academic research conducted across the globe. I pulled together a framework, that supported the use of literature as a therapeutic medium and launched my own bibliotherapy practice, where I now prescribe book prescriptions and offer bibliotherapy sessions, alongside bibliotherapy training.

As a bibliotherapist and book curator, I have the privilege of delving into the psyche of my clients, from their paralysing worries to their deepest desires. This privilege comes with the responsibility of ensuring that the books I prescribe are meaningful for my clients. I want the client to connect with the author and the narrative — that the story will resonate and bring a sense of self-awareness, enabling them to work through their own feelings — through literary journaling or simply reflecting on and observing what the literature has brought up for them.

Recently, a student on my online Bibliotherapy, Literature and Mental Health course asked, what’s the most therapeutic book that you’ve read that you’re prescribing to others? And while I tend to prescribe books for specific issues (e.g., anxiety, divorce, depression, family problems, grief) there’s been one book that seems to nail all these themes — a short story collection, by the internationally hailed Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat called

Everything Inside”.

Everything Inside” by Edwidge Danticat

Danticat is best known for her memoir Brother, I’m Dying. However, with a string of prizes behind this more recent title, including the winner of the US National Book Critics Circle Award, The Story Prize and the 2020 Vilcek Prize in Literature, Everything Inside, is fast-becoming becoming her ‘new’ magnum opus, mesmerising readers with a stunning collection of fiction in the form of eight colourful stories contemplating community, family, and love.

A master of the affairs of the heart, each of Danticat’s stories in the collection invite us to meditate on life and the relationships we hold dear. In love, we also find pain and learn to open our arms to the bittersweetness of life. A marriage that was meant to end well brings with it permanent ramifications. An unexpected romance. A woman fighting to survive upholds her dream and ambition. A reunion after a traumatic tragedy. The power of a newborn baby to stir up emotions between younger and older generations; and the story of a man who watches his death before his eyes in what feels like a lifetime of seconds as flashes of memory present themselves.

Having lost my almost-nonagenerian grandma to Covid-19 two months ago, the story that tugged at my heart and moved me the most was Sunrise, Sunset. A stirring tale about, immigration, dementia, depression and raising children - about a grandmother, Carole, and her daughter, Jeanne, whose life experiences, ways of coping, resilience and worldviews are so different that they turn the definition of motherhood on their head. This is further exacerbated by the fact the Jeanne struggles with postpartum depression and Carole, dementia. It made me ponder on my own relationship with my grandma, the nostalgia I felt for our relationship and times past and how she came from a generation who valued family relationships far more than my own generation does and whose concept of motherhood felts so radically different to mine as I raise my own children. It perfectly captured how motherhood itself has evolved through the generations.

You are always saying hello to them while preparing them to say goodbye to you. You are always dreading the separations, while cheering them on, to get bigger, smarter, to crawl, babble, walk, speak, to have birthdays that you hope you’ll live to see, that you pray they’ll live to see.”

It would be unfair to say that the other stories were not as relatable either — the threads of immigrant life present in almost each of the stories, mirrored my own experience of moving to the UK from Kenya, her narrative reminding me that we are never alone in our immigrant experience — afterall as humans, nomadism has always been a part of our collective histories.

Perhaps a case of Danticat’s own bibliotherapy, she contemplates her own sense of belonging and identity as an immigrant to the U.S. whose emotional ties to Haiti remain profound. She brings this narrative to her stories and immerses us in Haitian culture, which surprisingly feels universal, serving up the context for her eight tales of lovers, community and belonging.

Photo by Heather Suggitt on Unsplash

A masterpiece fit for the soul, the stories push all of our emotional buttons. We see ourselves in the characters. The narrative brings alive realities that we all experience at some stage of our own lives from love, loss, grief, trauma and heartbreak opening the gateway to cathartic relief and leaving us feeling heard, understood and validated. If that’s not therapeutic, then what is? Plus, the stories take you on a soulful, literary journey from Miami to Port-au-Prince to the Caribbean, making for the perfect escapist antidote to this pandemic.

A big hello and thank you for reading! Passionate about literature, psychology, and life I launched Book Therapy as an alternative form of therapy using the power of literature. You might find our online course on Bibliotherapy, Literature and Mental Health helpful. I also create reading lists/personalised book prescriptions based on your individual needs, this is my signature personalised reading service. You can also check out Book Therapy’s other free reading lists and A- Z of book prescriptions (covering both fiction and non-fiction). These suggest books based on your existing life situation (e.g. anxiety, job change, relationship heartache) as well as interests (e.g memoir, historical fiction, non-fiction, crime etc). There’s also a Children’s A — Z of Book Prescriptions. Feel free to check out the blog for more literary gems. There’s also a post on my personal story of how I entered the world of bibliotherapy and book curation. And if you’d like to connect, email me at bijal@booktherapy.io or www.booktherapy.io.


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