Foluke: I’m interested in and work in black feminisms because I see the ground as one of entanglement and interconnectedness, and I would say we’re always dealing with a pluri-versal, anachronistic entanglement, that is everything-all-at-once. So our task is not to delineate things, or even join them, but to simply be with them... be with it all.
Sarah: The mixing up of time – of not trying to work out whether something is in the past, present or future, but rather accepting that it could somehow be in all three simultaneously – is part of what I loved about your book, How the Hiding Seek.1 I read it on a train journey from London to Manchester, in one sitting, as I found it so compelling. Could you tell me about how you came to write it?
Foluke: I guess creative writing has always been a technology of being for me, before I even realised that’s what it was. I have journaled for many years. When I started in 1992, I was pregnant with my first daughter, and it was a way of having a conversation with – I thought – myself. Now I would expand that and say when I was doing so, I was also having a conversation with my ancestors, with the environment, with others; there were lots of other conversations going on, including when I wrote stories.
I didn’t really think about my stories as conversations at the time. I liked stories, and sometimes they just appeared, but I didn’t think about this very much. Many years later, I started a master’s in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes at Metanoia. I enrolled on that course because I knew I was using my writing therapeutically and wanted to think more about that. The chapters of How the Hiding Seek emerged from that early journaling. When I did the master’s, I was able to focus on bringing things out of my journal, rewriting them and thinking about them differently. I saw it as research; I didn’t think of it as producing a book, and I didn’t intend to publish any of it. I saw the process rather as a coming-to-terms-with, to do with lots of things about my life, and how it had been lived: things that had happened, things that hadn’t happened, things that I wish had happened. And it was a way of playing with form and formlessness. (My colleague Fiona Hamilton would say that formlessness is a kind of form.) It was also a way of playing with the notion of a point of view: if some things were very tender, or very hard to write about in the first person, I would look at switching the point of view, switching the time frame, or moving into fiction and giving characters other names. It was all therapeutic work that I was doing.
I’m in a writers’ group and we meet once a month. I was workshopping some of this material there, and someone said, ‘Maybe you could publish this.’ And I thought, ‘Let me have a go.’ So I self-published and it felt nice.
I didn’t have to pitch to anyone. I didn’t have to do a proposal. I didn’t have to fit in with the way the publishing industry works, which is to put you into a category so that they can market you. They want to decide what genre you are, and I don’t know what genre that book is – kind of a memoir, kind of fiction, kind of poetry... I don’t know.
There was a lot of freedom in the way I published that first book. I got my son to design the cover. We celebrated. It just felt like a cute project, and then, to be honest, I sort of forgot about it and carried on with life. So it’s interesting to me that when I did my talk, ‘Challenging “Diversity” in Psychoanalysis’, at the Guild of Psychotherapists, (which was the event you came to and which prompted you to get in touch with me), they referred to How The Hiding Seek in their introduction to me, and I was really taken aback. I don’t know if it came across at the time, but I was so surprised that this book was even mentioned in that context.
And now here I am revisiting it with you – thinking, ‘What was that all about?’ I think now that the book speaks to something we were talking about earlier: the what-is-not-yet-but-is-becoming. Back then, I didn’t have a particular direction or aim, but I recognise now that the writing was part of a path that has since opened other things. Whatever I thought I was doing is not actually all that I was doing, and it has become more obvious to me what else may have been going on.
Sarah: That makes me think about the Jungian Robert Romanyshyn’s writing on research;2 he wants to reframe psychotherapeutic research so that it’s just as much about something that finds you, so that you can talk about it, as it is about you deciding that you want to research something and setting off to work on that. He is with James Hillman, who critiques the paradigm that says, ‘Last night, I had a dream,’ without also being able to say, ‘Last night, a dream had me’. So we might say that if anyone writes a book, it’s because the book found them to get written. That’s part of the central thread of the book that won the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year: The Book of Form and Emptiness,3 by Ruth Ozeki. In it, the book itself is one of the narrators; sometimes chiding, sometimes encouraging the other characters, and asserting its need to be brought into existence. Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist, and she describes writing it as a process where she just kept trying to get out of the book’s way, and let it come through her.
Foluke: I recognise that feeling. I echo that.
Sarah: I really like what you say about not fitting into a genre. I wrote a book about working with male survivors of sexual abuse, but it wasn’t only about that specific issue; it was really about therapy, and what can go on in the therapeutic space. I wanted to call it, ‘Thoughtful Love – Tales from the Therapy Room’, but the publisher said, ‘You can’t call it that, because people won’t know which section of the bookshop to put the book in.
Foluke: Isn’t that interesting. And what is it called?
Sarah: Helping Male Survivors of Sexual Violation to Recover, an integrative approach.4
Foluke: Now, if I came across a book with that title, it’s not sending me a signal that says, ‘This is for you.’ But if I came across a book called ‘Thoughtful Love – Tales from the Therapy Room’, then I’m on it! The problem with publishing is that it’s designed for, aimed at, a particular audience. And I suspect that audience is not me and not people like me, as it doesn’t value my ways of knowing and my ways of being. And then we miss each other.
Sarah: Things get lost in the cracks.
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Foluke: They do. Another reason, I suppose, is that when my next book came through, it was very much about: what about those of us in the cracks? And what about those of us who are listening in the cracks because that’s where we know we will find things we need? There are whole networks, transnationally, that are attempting to signal to each other, ‘Here we are. Here’s something you’re going to need. This way of being is here. This therapy is here.’
Sarah: So, how did your next book come about?
Foluke: I was just carrying on with my writing. I have always said, ‘I will never do a proposal. I am never going to pitch to someone.’ It just doesn’t align with what I do. It doesn’t make sense to me. I find some of that process offensive – having to reply to questions about who your competition would be, and what makes you stand out from that competition, and in what ways your book would be better! I’m just not doing that.
So, last summer, I was writing away, and happy with the idea of self-publishing and workshopping and blogging, when an editor from Norton got in touch to say, ‘I’ve read your blog and I wondered if you’re at all interested in writing anything for us?’ I replied, ‘Well, as it happens, I’ve written a new book. But only the first 30 pages are edited, out of about 70,000 words. Do you want to have a look?’ She said, ‘Yes, send it to me.’ When she got back to me, she said, ‘We absolutely want it. I’ll help you craft the proposal and take it to the board.’
None of this was what I’d been thinking about! And I must say they have been very respectful of me: whenever I have said ‘no’ about something, they’ve just said, ‘OK’. For instance, because it was published in New York, it needed to be published in American English, in terms of the spellings. But at first, they also wanted to change lots of expressions into American phrases. And when I got the proofs, I had to tell them, ‘This doesn’t make sense, because we don’t say that here.’ I don’t mind providing foot notes, but maybe American readers will just have to do a little bit of work and realise that there are places outside America where people talk and think a bit differently, and who say things like ‘tenancies’ rather than ‘leases,’ and who live on estates, rather than in projects!
Sarah: What’s the title of the book that Norton are going to bring out?
Foluke: Unruly Therapeutic: black feminist writings and practices in living room.5 It’s not a ‘how to...’ book at all, in terms of therapy. When you look at the curricula on therapy trainings, you get a lot of books that are directly about therapy. Nowadays, you might also see something like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye,6 or another book that is not directly about therapy. And what you will learn from reading and thinking about those texts is such crucial, essential therapeutic information. But most books on reading lists for our trainings are ones that are obviously about therapy, and that fit in with that discipline. Unfortunately, those lists tend to exile knowledge from worlds which that taxonomy doesn’t cover. And for that, I think you must read fiction and poetry.
If they included more fiction and poetry, then therapy training reading lists would be more mixed up, And that’s what Unruly Therapeutic really is. It’s basically a mix of many black feminist quotes from various writers and scholars and practitioners, where I’ve taken certain sentences from each passage, and written into that phrase or sentence, to talk about my life, my work, my training as a therapist, my work in the room with people. It’s a real mix of everything. And there’s a part of me that’s... what’s the word? I’m not afraid, it’s just... I’m interested to see how it will be received. People may say, ‘Does this really fit in with our kind of therapy?’ or ‘Which module on the training does this belong to? Where would we put it?’ Or ‘Is this really for everyone, or is it aimed at the black and brown students?’ I can see that a lot of questions might be generated about this text, and how it fits or doesn’t fit into the curricula that exist and the ones which are being created.
Sarah: It sounds so rich. I’m really looking forward to reading it. What you said earlier about needing to read more widely than just about therapy reminds me of that famous passage from Jung, in Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, where he urges people who are interested in becoming therapists to broaden their horizons: ‘Anyone who wants to know the human psyche will learn next to nothing from experimental psychology. He would be better advised to put away his scholar’s gown, bid farewell to his study, and wander with human heart through the world… through love and hate, through the experience of passion in every form in his body, he would reap richer stores of knowledge than textbooks a foot thick could give him, and he will know how to doctor the sick with real knowledge of the human soul.’7
Your new book sounds like a real gift to the profession. It’s just so good to have anything out there that contributes to people being interested in, and getting a deeper understanding of, other people’s stories. I think if you’re interested in someone’s story, then you’re interested in what makes each of us human, and that makes you a better therapist.
Foluke: One of my intentions with the book was to contribute to a form of re-worlding – to help us each move out of the purely professional designation of ‘therapist.’ Because, personally, I don’t think we have time for one-by-one change in the world. I’m not sure that’s going to work out!
Sarah: James Hillman is with you there. In the book he co-wrote with Michael Ventura, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Therapy and the World’s Getting Worse,8 he makes the point that, to begin with, therapy needs to be a mirror for clients who have really lacked mirroring. But ultimately, if therapy is really going to do much good, that mirror must morph into a window, so that the client can turn and face out into the world to be effective out there, not just in here. I think good therapy must help people work out what it’s reasonable for them to take individual responsibility for, and what it’s not reasonable for them to take individual responsibility for; and what stuff could be much better addressed by joining a group or a community, where they can be supported and more effective if they want to act. Hillman argues that every sort of neuroticism can be understood as a tiny manifestation of what troubles our whole world.
Foluke: Absolutely. I’m thinking about this in terms of different ways of making sense. So, for instance, it makes a kind of sense, in a world that has the kind of food industries that we have operating, to have disordered eating in that world. Very often, those of us who are struggling are made to feel that we are the ones not making sense – we’re the nonsensical ones who should get our thinking sorted out; we’re made to feel that our behaviour is nonsense, or even that we are nonsense! And I feel it’s so important to encourage the ‘nonsense’. I want to free people from the tyranny of trying to always be coherent and make sense. Sometimes, people will say, ‘I don’t know if this even makes sense...’ And I say, good! Let’s have it! Let’s have the nonsense. Let’s really allow what is right about this supposed nonsense. Let’s be interested in what work it’s doing, what it’s serving, what it’s bringing our attention to.
Sarah: Maybe that’s part of why I see you as somewhat of a trickster figure.
Foluke: Thank you. I like that.
Sarah: A bit like the fool in King Lear – the only one, apart from Cordelia (who is banished for doing so), who speaks truth to power and tells Lear what’s what. He’s decent and generous to Lear: he sticks with him on that blasted heath. But he also says to him, ‘Look what you’ve done, you silly old fool!’
Foluke: When you said ‘trickster’, I was thinking of the Yoruba tradition, and the trickster in that tradition is Eshu, who’s usually at the crossroads. That’s a place of potential communication between worlds, perhaps between the living and the dead; also a place where people lay down their problems and ask for them to be taken away or make wishes; or where they change direction.
Sarah: The trickster is not always an easy figure to have around, but without it, there is really no eros, no passion, no animating principle. Tricksters are often disruptive and inconvenient, because they interfere with ‘business as usual’ and that’s so important to do. So I think you’re doing something very important when you and your works embody that energy. Your new book is potentially a gift to people whom you might not think of as your normal audience
Foluke: Well, that would be a surprise. I guess I know where Unruly Therapeutic will be well received, where it will be welcome. And my life experiences may have made me a little pessimistic about what other sorts of responses to it there are going to be. So I’m not sure I have much hope for a kind of crossing over at the crossroads. But who knows?
Sarah: Well, I would never want to argue anyone out of their pessimism, as that is never a good idea! But I think your writing is so good that it deserves to be better known. That was part of why I got in touch and asked if you would like to do this interview, so that I could craft a piece out of our conversation, which would help more people be aware of it. I’m really holding the hope that your book is read widely, because I think it will feed people’s souls and expand their horizons
Foluke: I appreciated your invitation to talk. I recognise that we’re both lovers of stories, in all shapes and forms. And I think what connects us all, what forms our basic human entanglements, is contained in stories.
Sarah: Yes. I do hope many people will read your words.
Foluke: Thank you. I hope so too.
1 Taylor F. How the hiding seek. Independently published: 2018
2 Romanyshyn R. The wounded researcher: research with soul in mind. London: Routledge; 2013.
3 Ozeki R. The book of form and emptiness. Edinburgh: Canongate Books; 2021.
4 Van Gogh S. Helping male survivors of sexual violation to recover: an integrative approach. London: Jessica Kingsley; 2018.
5 Taylor F. Unruly therapeutic: black feminist writings and practices in living room. London: WW Norton; 2023.
6 Morrison T. The bluest eye. London: Chatto & Windus; 1979.
7 Jung CG. Two essays on analytical psychology. Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Fine Books; 1928.
8 Hillman J, Ventura M. We’ve had a hundred years of psychotherapy and the world’s getting worse. London: Harper Collins; 1992.