Finding resolution and healing through storytelling: An interview with Eli Anderson

Speaking to Jerome Brooks in 1994 (‘The Art of Fiction’ published in The Paris Review) the late Nigerian literary colossus, Chinua Achebe, quoted this African proverb: Until the lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.


As we celebrate Black History Month in the UK in 2022, the adage is apt in describing narratives about Africa and its scattered diasporas in response to centuries of colonialism and subjugation. The narratives of economically powerful communities and nations act as a potent fulcrum and determine how characters in these stories can be demeaned and devalued in the process.

How our stories are told remains a burning issue today, despite the end of slavery in the 19th Century and ‘political’ independence of former colonised countries in the Caribbean and Africa in the decades of the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

Scaling down to the level of the individual, Eli Anderson is the Director of StoryAID. He applies techniques in storytelling, poetry and narrative coaching to enhance the dignity, equality and diversity of various groups of people who are currently working or studying in the UK health and education sectors.

Eli’s work with StoryAid is aimed to “ensure that people feel empowered, gain confidence to tell their story, reduce their social isolation and reconnect and rediscover a balanced life”. He is a published author, poet and musician, who has also written for theatre and film.

Black History Month caught up with Eli for a wide-ranging interview cutting across many areas of his work including his concept of destorialisation.

Black History Month: What were your motivations for entering the field of narrative coaching and storytelling?

Eli Anderson: This is an interesting question. For storytelling, it was my journey to Ghana. This experience changed my entire understanding of life and purpose, as opposed to work. I reconnected with my purpose, and saw that my life was simply an extension of thousands of storytellers, whose responsibilities were to ensure that communities or dynasties and their respective heritages, continued to live and breathe; by sculpting sound, words, emotions and lives into the stories that defined their existences.

My understanding revealed that I needed to align my activities with those talents that I had been gifted, namely, writing, poetry, and storytelling. It was through those gifts, that I had a role; a role that inspired, enabled, and supported the emergence of hidden stories. Those stories enabled people to heal and to come to terms with challenging and truly difficult times in their lives. It enabled people to reconnect and rediscover the inner stories that strengthened and revitalised them. With regard to narrative coaching, I met Dr David Drake over 15 years ago, who is now the foremost proponent of this type of coaching.

In our early conversations, we grew to understand that this type of coaching really connected with the humanity of an individual. It truly listened to the heart-beat of a person who requires dignity, respect, belonging, value and the person’s beliefs to be held as sacrosanct. In a direct and beautiful way, it attempted to “listen” and believe in the story of the person. Not attempt to change it, but believe that their story formed the bedrock of their incredible future. To answer your question, becoming a storyteller, proved to be a path to using a story to coach, hence narrative coaching.

BHM: How do our individual stories and the way we tell them affect the way we relate to each other across ethnic and racial divides?

EA: Our stories, define us in multiple ways. They create interconnectedness, between time, language, behaviours, culture and ancestral ecosystems. However, stories can hold traumas, behaviours and damage. We have learnt to suppress them, in an attempt to reduce, minimise or forget. To be human, we need to support our physical, emotional and spiritual foundations. We are not simple mechanical beings. In effect, if you traumatise the physical, it will have a profound affect on the other two.

Damage experienced by the brutality of physical torture will become a story we tell ourselves; the palette upon which many of us create the image of ourselves. Tortured communities created behaviours to protect, defend, avoid or encourage specific activities. All unsustainable and toxic relationships were permitted by the plantation manager during slavery. Our situated traumas led to the formation of complex behaviours, that are generally to attain status, power, respect, and self-esteem. Can we change this? Of course. How can we change this? This is a more challenging question.

During a period of enslavement, this was done using a range of complex activities. Storytelling and the creation of new languages (e.g. Patois in Jamaica) and customs (e.g. Kweh Kweh in Guyana) have been important. These stories and activities taught thinking, intellectual rigour, how to negotiate life-threatening situations and relationships, etc. This also helped form cultural bridges that reconnected to Africa, in all but geography.

How we story (what we tell ourselves) our relationships is expressed in our behaviours. Extreme tortures resulted in an uncomfortable fear of intimacy, of trust, lack of commitment to relationships, etc. The relationship can become a source competition, rather than an exploration of self, where this commitment defines our responsibility to the community, partner and family. Those that live in our communities should not be required to reflect “superheroes” fitting the Nietzsche superman, or the Plato-like “ideal type”. However, there are a growing number of groups that are reintroducing rituals that begin a life-long journey of acceptance of who we are, other human relationships, and our ancestral history. These rituals exist to teach us value, respect, dignity in time, create new memories, so our behaviours and beliefs change our traumatic stories.

BHM: What is destorialisation and how did you come up with it as a concept?

EA: Destorialisation has been a lifelong concept and inner discussion. What has happened to our stories? What is happening to us? What happened to us? The shaping of this concept included an understanding of ecology, quantum physics, anthropology, medical anthropology, neuroscience, psycholinguistics and epigenetics. I began to examine through storytelling, the differences between stories from different areas of the globe. What made European stories fundamentally different to African, or North American, or Australian?

A reality begun to emerge. There was a deliberate destruction and erasure of stories, affecting the ecology of that heritage. David Crystal spoke about this when he referred to “language death”. It became a quest. What happened when the narrative died?  What were the consequences? How were they visible or invisible? Then it became clearer, without language, stories begin to die. Whole communities cease to exist. Stories that hold so much of the heritage, wisdom, ways in which we relate to each other and those in the world as humans, fade.

As noted Martiniquan psychiatrist, Frantz Fanon, noted (and I paraphrase), we live as a vacuum, absorbing anything: because human beings are predisposed to creating, and engaging in story creation. The way stories are created, disseminated, expressed in language, evolve behaviour, defining relationships with ourselves, our world, and our universe, is holistic. It relies upon our understanding of being human, and the triadic (Physical, Emotional and Spiritual).

When this ancient and holistic process is compromised, and deliberately eviscerated from our existence, we are destorialised. The longer this process occupies our lives, the longer and more intergenerationally profound the damage. I have found that this process still exists across the world.

BHM: How do you counter the argument that excavating the painful history of ethnicities affected by traumas such as slavery, genocide and colonialism creates unnecessary anger and polarisation and should be avoided altogether?

EA: It rather depends upon the word “excavation”. There is a professional approach used in healthcare (largely developed in North America) called the Trauma Informed Approach (TIA). This states that there is a recognition that many groups don’t attend healthcare centres. Why? Because their experience of these places is traumatising. One does not have to look very far to see this replicated in other places – The Tuskegee Experiment, the lobotomising of hundreds of African-American children in this century, the use of Caesarean sections for women and mass sterilisation, are all examples of this traumatising relationship.

Resmaa Menaken talks about the need to deal with trauma, and describe what he terms “clean” pain and “dirty” pain. “Clean” pain according to Menaken, “…is pain that mends and can build you capacity for growth” and pain which “hurts like hell” whereas “Dirty pain” “is the pain of avoidance, blame, and denial….people respond from their most wounded parts, become cruel or violent, or physically run away, the experience dirty pain. They also create more of it for themselves and others.”

It is really important to quote at length from his book, because it helps to respond in a more exact manner to your question. So, in short, the avoidance of intergenerational trauma, is worse. However, dealing with the the “excavating” must be done using specialised tools, which must include looking at roles and responsibility, an ability to “excavate” the damage. I have delivered programs looking at Eldership (Understanding Eldership), Adult rites of passage (Nkyinkyim program), and Destorialisation.

In effect, to understand the impact of colonialism (Trans-Saharan & Trans-Atlantic), its genocidal activities and the process of enslavement, in order to be cognisant of intergenerational trauma, much “excavation” must take place. This is a worldwide phenomenon. Unfortunately, anger and polarisation are necessary for healing. True, this will not take place overnight, and may take decades of work. Why? Because this happened to Africans, First Nation peoples, etc, over many centuries.

BHM: How can narrative coaching alleviate or prevent the high levels of mental illness within Black communities in the UK?

EA: Narrative coaching can definitely offer something substantial in this regard. Mental health is a critical and little-discussed subject in the Black community generally. It should be the number one issue, given the manner in which the healthcare services have responded to our community. For me, this type of coaching is designed to reveal and support the emergence of stories.

It will celebrate our story in ways that are created and self-regulated, with the support of experienced coaching. However, there is a proviso. The delivery of this coaching, must be done by coaches who have “done the work”.

The work I refer to is not simply anti-racist, unconscious bias, it is challenging their deepest fears, and realising that systems of education rarely account for the decolonisation of the curriculum. There are few courses that have begun to address the issue of re-examining and restructuring taught curriculum.  In a very uncomfortable way, all institutions of learning, especially, education, and healthcare training institutions, must review and unravel decades of miseducation.

However, there are healthcare professionals who have started on the road of this challenging journey, and I have been excited to have been directly involved in the redevelopment of this using storytelling.

In reference to Resmaa Menaken, we are in desperate need to excavate “Dirty pain”. It will be difficult, but if we want to look with a critical eye at what we are really teaching professionals, then this is a necessary course of action.

BHM: Given the increasing economic difficulties facing the UK and disproportionate impact of the inflationary and recessionary pressures on ethnic minority communities, how can narrative coaching techniques offer solutions?

EA: To be, or not to be, isn’t a question, it is the starting point of a profound answer.

Within this Western culture, finance is akin to a type of religious activity. I apologise if this has offended anyone, but certainly in many countries, money means the ability to live. From buying food, to travelling, to surviving, or merely existing.  However, ethnic minorities in relation to the UK, or global communities whose cultures are ancient and powerfully diverse, need very different energies to heal, and grow and holistically function. These tools are not part of the long list of laudable training packages offered by reputable and powerful training institutions.

Economic difficulties and disproportionate financial realities will always affect those who have less power, a deliberately suppressed voice, and are not permitted to engage in systems that negotiate and create knowledge. It isn’t a “quick fix”, and to be fair, nothing in this world ever is. But as an approach, it can come close. We, as humans, inhabit a quantum-like existence.
Living in the past, present and future simultaneously; three distinct but interconnected chrono-ecologies. There is a belief,clearly expressed by many world powers, that we can damage people, and it will not affect us. Unfortunately, everything in Earth’s natural cycles, and the known Universe is intricately connected. We are part of the universe and the Universe exists within us.

We are connected to everything, and whether we want to believe this, it is a fact. The minerals that exist within us are the building blocks of all other celestial bodies. However, if we provide spaces and opportunities for stories to be articulated and realised, we have narratively created a delicate human lily-pad, from which people can hop to a future, in which they play a significant part.

It is not a difficult thing to conceptualise. When we create space (using narrative coaching and storytelling) for love, life and story, we create a place for love, life and story. Our humanity is not an option: it is a right that is a prerequisite of our being.

BHM: Over the past two decades or so, in the new media age, we find ourselves constantly inundated and bombarded by social media messaging and a heavy dependence on digital devices of one kind or another. How can storytelling and narrative coaching help us to manage this onslaught?

EA: Fundamentally, storytelling is positioned to give us access to communities, our heritage, to enable us to critically think about how we live, and interrogate the meaning of life. As our groups become bigger, the delivery of the stories become less personal. In fact, in order to communicate to many people, Djeli or Griots in Africa were simultaneously musicians, orators, and keepers of their communities’ and nations’ family histories. There was a sense of authenticity and truthfulness. The stories held reality and vast amounts of relevant information. People in general relied upon these stories.

In some cases, the life of the individual or communities depended upon them. Today, stories have to engage with millions, billions of people. In the last 30 years, as in the last 6,000 years, agendas of truthfulness, authenticity, and reliability are unravelling.

In teaching storytelling, participants are amazed at the discipline and become increasingly aware throughout the courses of the degree to which social media “stories” can be manipulated. They realise that stories are precious and are time-dependent and heritage-transparent. They bypass the neuro-structures and biological defences, and “sit” easily in the primitive synapses. We are physically dependent upon stories, and as a result, we can be physically affected.

We need to be taught (at an early age) about the precious nature of stories, so we understand their impact and can then, like storytellers before us, distil truth, to protect our physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. The same is true of Narrative Coaching. This discipline creates a co-created safe space and enables the person to “visualise” their story and determine a future that is inspiring and uplifting.  In short, we are creatures that anthropologically live better within communities.

John Stevenson

It is this recognition that makes storytelling more potent and powerful in communities. As regards, narrative coaching, it is that ability to “visualise” and distil your story, from the social media noise, that is most valuable.

(John Stevenson is a writer, broadcaster and communications professional working in higher education. Born on the island of Saint Vincent in the Caribbean and educated in Nigeria, Barbados and the UK, he has published articles in numerous outlets including, The Guardian, The Independent, The Times, Caribbean Intelligence, and London Jazz News.)