Faculty Spotlight

"Narrative Practice as Tapestry" An Interview with Hugo Kamya

The following interview between Professor Hugo Kamya from the School of Social Work at Simmons University and Taylor Eubanks, graduate student of Gender and Cultural Studies, discusses Professor Kamya's work on narrative practice and how our stories get told.

What is your project for the Hazel Dick Leonard fellowship?

Hugo Kamya: My project is called "Narrative Practice as Tapestry: Building Community Through Community Stories" and it is a book proposal project that I have been working on for Norton Press. The book is going to build on the work that I am so deeply excited about, which is how story gets told.

The stories that shape who I am, the stories that shape where I am, the fact that I am story, and my story has been woven together by threads of other stories is how I come to the idea that I am a tapestry of stories. My story has been woven by threads of other stories, by chance encounters, by stories of home, stories of identity, and stories that people have trusted me to hold. With threads woven together across person, place, and time, I look at it as an indescribable tapestry.

When did story become a subject that you wanted to explore further?

Hugo Kamya: Thank you for that question. It is interesting because someone asked me at some point, "When did you get interested in narrative?" and I have flipped that question around. Because narrative got me before I got narrative.

I come from a place where stories are tradition as part of people's lives, part of people's culture. Right from the day we are born there are stories that surround us as a people—stories of birth, stories of family, stories of tradition. So in some ways I have been part of these cultural, historical, and religious stories, and in some ways these stories caught me before I actually found myself catching them or being taken in by them. In other words, narrative and narrative practice caught me first.

When I think about my life I think about the many stories that I inhabit and the stories that inhabit me. These are stories that remind me of childhood and the challenges that my humble beginnings speak to. They remind me of things my mother told me. They remind me of the scents and the air we breathed growing up, the bushes we run into as the wind blew. They remind me of the poverty we endured and the daily questions we had whether there would be enough to eat. They are all my stories and in some deep moving manner I hear them calling me to embrace who I am. They remind of the vestiges of colonialism and how as a people we were subjugated by the powers beyond us. They make me ask questions about what stories are mine

and what stories are not. What stories I have created and what stories I have imbibed, because they have been created for me.

How does narrative practice work?

Hugo Kamya: I see myself as a narrative practitioner, in that I am constantly listening to people's stories. People come to tell me stories of their own experience, whether those are stories of illness, shame, pride, trauma. Their stories tell me who they are, how they define their social identities, their concerns about life, fears, and their own connection to their sense of purpose and meaning.

Because I am constantly listening to these stories in my narrative practice and the work I do with my clients, I have come to believe that stories are ways people define who they are, and people are more than a single story they bring to any one experience.

"My story has been woven by threads of other stories, by chance encounters, by stories of home, stories of identity, and stories that people have trusted me to hold"

I mention the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who talks about the danger of a single story. People are more than what we might see. Even when people come into a session and express the fact that they are depressed or anxious, I like to think about the stories that also inhabit their lives… that are not stories of depression or anxiety. People are mapping influences on those stories that name or define their lives, but they are separate from the problems they bring with them into my practice and clinical work. They are more than those single stories. There are indeed many stories in people's lives. Adichie says: "Stories are defined by how they are told, who tells them, when they are told, how many stories are told and are all dependent on power."

Adichie's theory on the danger of a single story seems to fit really well with your narrative practice work, and I wonder how that can be applied more broadly, as you discuss in part of your book proposal.

Hugo Kamya: One thing I have found really helpful is to look at the stories told about someone else. The story of women has been told by men. The story of Black, Indigenous, and people of color has been told by white people. The story of Indigenous people has been told by colonizers. The story of the deer has been told by deer hunters, and until the deer speaks, the story of the hunt will glorify the hunter.

The way some of these stories are told by those in power—by the systems of oppression—create narratives that do not honor the person who lives the story themselves. People are complex. And I think today when we look at the politicization of identity, or the politics of identity, one might want to ask themselves, "Who tells those stories and how do those stories get told? Who has the power and privilege in telling the stories about someone else?"

In one section of the book proposal you include correspondence with your daughter. In an email she writes, "What we can do together as a collective is empathize, unify, collaborate, understand, and strive for better." How does that work in the practice of honoring stories that have been sidelined or oppressed?

Hugo Kamya: For many populations or groups that have often been marginalized, their stories have not been listened to. When they go untold, which then allows for not listening, then there is a failure to actually know those stories, elevate those stories, and notice what is being said—and what is not being said—in those stories.

In the listening and the telling of those stories, there is a way of opening up an audience so that others can hear you and others can sit with us. A seat of witness is a way of collaborating and understanding, in hearing and bearing witness to this story that is being told.

Why is this project important?

Hugo Kamya: It is important because people's lives are full of stories. There are many stories in people's lives, and some of these stories get told, some do not. I have been teaching narrative practice in therapeutic conversations. As I have taught the course I have marveled about the importance of people's stories. How people make sense of these stories, the questions they ask themselves. How their stories participate in larger community stories and how various systems influence the telling of these stories.

"Who tells those stories and how do those stories get told? Who has the power and privilege in telling the stories about someone else?"

I think it's so important to really listen to people's stories, and to give an ear to people's stories because there is so much that can only be known by the stories someone tells. Those personal stories tap into the larger community stories. And unless we find a way to shake hands with the stories that name us, that hold us and inhabit us, we are giving up on some very important part of who we are. We need to honor these stories because they have value, and in some ways they forecast and show who we are and who we are becoming.

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