Sunday, June 16, 2024

Sahaj Kaur Kohli, aithor of “But What Will People Say?” (Photo: Beowulf Sheehan)

Sahaj Kaur Kohli is a practicing therapist, writer and public speaker who founded the first and now largest mental health community for children of immigrants, Brown Girl Therapy. Kohli spent the first six years of her career in journalism and continues to write a weekly advice column for The Washington Post. As a therapist, Kohli works with immigrant families and adult children of immigrants, and she is passionate about democratizing mental health and infusing culture into our mental health conversations. In 2019, she founded Brown Girl Therapy, an online community of more than 200,000 that aims to destigmatize mental health and encourage bicultural identity exploration. Her work with Brown Girl Therapy inspired her first book, “But What Will People Say?,” about navigating mental health, identity, love and family between cultures. “But What Will People Say?” came out May 7, and Kohli will speak at Narrative on Tuesday as part of the new Davis Square bookstore’s first week of events. We interviewed Kohli last week; her words have been edited for length and clarity.


Growing up straddling two cultures, at what point did you realize the tensions between the two?

It’s kind of been omnipresent my whole life. I grew up in an Indian household where the values, norms and expectations were diametrically opposed to the values, norms and expectations in the American environment I was being socialized in. I’m the first in my family to be born in the West, so I was navigating a lot of bicultural identity straddling in ways that were new to my family. For me, it just showed up everywhere: in friendships, in dating, in my own self-development. I always navigated this “not enough” feeling in different environments, but it wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I started to really think about it.

I had already been in therapy for a while, and I was working in media as a senior editor, editing other people’s personal essays. I started to build language around my own experiences and how much internal tension I felt, and I wanted to go back to school to be a therapist. Everything came to a head when I hit 30: I was changing careers and I was the first in my family to marry outside my race, religion and culture. I started to have my own identity crises around the choices I was making, like whether I was rejecting my culture or my family for choosing the partner I chose. All of these things led me to start Brown Girl Therapy, and through building that, and through being in grad school, where I was taught from a very Eurocentric lens, I started to understand what was missing. So I can’t say it was one experience or one age, but as everything I had felt throughout my life built upon itself, I started to interrogate it.

How has your work building the Brown Girl Therapy community inspired and informed “But What Will People Say?”?

The book is an expansion. Everything I’ve done in the last several years has kind of fed itself: When I was in school, I was really frustrated by the lack of representation in the training I was getting, which fueled my passion with Brown Girl Therapy and creating community, space and conversations around mental health. That fueled the work I wanted to do as a therapist, which then fueled these conversations and workshops, my advice column and all the content I was creating. Eventually this all led to the realization that a book needed to exist. Building Brown Girl Therapy and getting the reception that I have gotten was proof of how much we were all craving this kind of space and community, and I just continued to want to build off of it.

What kinds of feelings came up while writing? 

The experience was very liberating and very healing for me, because I was forced to interrogate my own stories, revisit experiences and challenge and question where my beliefs come from. That whole process was really painful and difficult, and it led to a lot of hard conversations with myself, and with my family and my parents. It was important for me to be open and honest about my own story in the book, because when I’ve read self-help content in the past, sometimes I’ve found the tone to read a bit holier-than-thou, and I didn’t want my book to come off that way. My intention in building this community, writing this book and doing the work I do is to highlight that I’m a part of this community first, and I’m learning and building expertise second. I wanted to show people that I have been there, that I have struggled, that I have learned lessons the hard way, that I have tried and erred just like you. Yes, I want to share what I have learned and what has worked for me because my hope is that it also might work for you, but I am still learning too. I hope people who read it can take what they need to build better relationships in their own lives; I often tell people at my book events that even though I obviously want people to read the book, if no one does, I will have still gotten what I needed out of writing it.

If you had a book like this when you were younger, how do you think it would’ve affected you?

It would have been life changing. It would have helped me not be so narrow-minded in how I thought about myself and how I thought about who I needed to be to be well. There are not many books or resources out there for immigrant-origin kids, immigrants, refugees, third-gens. If I had this growing up, I would have felt a lot less shame about who I was, the choices I made, the mistakes I made and how I existed.

But I don’t think this book is just for the immigrant population, and I really want everyone to read it. People might look at the synopsis and say this book isn’t for me, but everyone likely knows someone who straddles cultures. And even if you don’t, everyone has an intersection of identities that impacts the way they live their lives. So if you’re looking to understand your loved ones better, or to challenge the ways we think about wellness and challenge the idea that there is only one way to be well, this book is for you. There’s a macro-conversation to be had and an invitation here to do so that I hope people will take.

What’s your biggest piece of advice for immigrant parents and children of immigrants? 

Last week I did an event in my home city, and a lot of my parents’ generation came out to support me. I was really worried at first about it having so many aunties and uncles there, and I almost set myself up to be defensive and protective of my work. But they came in so open-minded, curious, inquisitive and earnest, and I was really blown away by how easy it can be for us to put the people we love into boxes, assuming they’ll never change or grow, be willing to learn or listen. When I think about immigrant parents reading this book, I really encourage that kind of open-mindedness. I also encourage people to read slowly and to sit with what comes up for them. I think some people might feel defensive or might feel activated reading this, and I really encourage people who feel that way to sit with that discomfort. Why does it feel activating for you? What is it bringing up for you? How does it relate or resonate in your own life and the ways that you’ve behaved, or you were parented or you parent? That’s the point of the book: to leave people with more questions than answers, so they can explore these questions on their own. And the same goes for children of immigrants. This book isn’t going to tell people how to live their lives. It’s offering new perspectives, guidance and skills that you may or may not want. I want this book to be a resource that you can return to and take whatever will serve you and empower you to claim the agency you have in your own life to be able to make different choices, if that’s what you want to do.

Sahaj Kaur Kohli reads from “But What Will People Say?” in conversation with psychotherapist Divya Kumar at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Narrative, 387 Highland Ave., Davis Square, Somerville. Free. Information is here.