By Suzana Mallard
Throughout many displacements and my work in the area of mental health with migrants, I began to recognize a pattern in the groups of those who are foreigners or who are part of a diaspora group. When I was in college, I was a Cape Verdean student in Curitiba, and I wondered about the group of friends I had formed, about what brought us together. I realized that there were affinities that I did not know how to name and that went beyond a shared language or origin. It was something the experience of “staying a foreigner” could bring about. I use these words as a way of acknowledging that this term cannot be understood solely as a category of being, but rather as something that impacts existence. “Staying a foreigner” represents a contingency. In the group, there were representatives from other countries, other states, and from rural areas within their state. Most came from outside the city.
Academic works that address the issue of groups that organize themselves in diasporas often do so around the issue of identity maintenance, an element of culture that is shared and maintained for this purpose. Working with forced migrants, I recognized that many of the professionals addressing the needs of this group had experienced the condition of “staying a foreigner” themselves. The condition of foreignness concerns those persons who experience some type of psychological suffering. However, foreignness is understood here as an implicit condition of the human constitution that everybody experiences in specific moments. I am referring here to experiences of displacement where a person lacks the cultural context to understand personal observations or the expectations of others.
During my doctoral research, I conducted interviews with twelve therapists addressing the mental health of forced migrants based in major cities in Brazil such as Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Curitiba and Minneapolis and Atlanta in the United States. All participants were working in different institutions and NGOs and were part of what we can call a cross-border clinic. The border clinic we speak of is the one relevant to forced migrants that is on the border between knowledges, cultures, languages and otherness. It’s a frontier territory that implies a psychic and symbolic displacement in a constant renegotiation between the familiar and the foreigner, between the self and the other. Otherness or alterity is a term meaning the "other of two", used to express something outside of tradition or convention (LEVINAS, 1982).
In this research I sought to find out if the personal experiences of the therapists had any impact on the listening offered to the forced migrant population. Listening in the therapeutic process is a dynamic that refers to the possibility of offering a space in which the subject can recover their own voice to tell their own story. It is worth noting that there are filters that permeate all listening, and therapeutic listening presupposes renouncing one's own cultural assumptions to ask the other about him or herself and offer ethical listening. When the account of the facts of a story takes place according to a conjuncture without going through the sieve of ethics, we distance ourselves from a certain neutrality. The ethics I refer to is that of listening to psychoanalysis, the ethics of the subject's desire. It does not respond to institutional demands or to the morals of a society or system, but it is the very foundation of human existence. For this purpose, I asked these therapists about their reasons for choosing this field of work.
Eleven of the professionals stated that they themselves had experienced or were still experiencing the state of being a foreigner. They reported that this experience had a direct impact on their fields of practice. The experience seemed to have an effect on the decision to work with this population and the way in which they listened to their patients also seemed to be affected by their choice.
We are born in and within our culture. The dynamics of groups are maintained by the feeling of belonging, the belief in the idea of being one and in the possibility of unity. According to STITOU (2007), the question of origin is necessary for the construction of a shared imaginary, which is also, in part, the reason for maintaining the social bond. This imaginary construction takes society as one and as a compact entity that responds to a single leader and concentrates on a single identification and a common ancestor. This belief is not supported by human experience itself, which highlights the impossibility of sharing the same place or history.
The perspective, marks, and memories of an experience, even when lived collectively, are individual and unique. This recognition offers the possibility of building a bond with others that is not built on the idea of communion. The experience of “staying a foreigner” offers the possibility of decentralization as well as to abandon the illusion of the universality of our beliefs. In this disenchantment process, it is discovered that the recognition of differences does not threaten an individual's singularity. This is a necessary process in view of the belief that the survival of a culture requires protecting it from any unknown influence as a justification for protecting against acts of intolerance and xenophobia. In a way, it is saying that letting go of this illusion is a way to get along with the other and also recognize yourself.
The experience of foreignness, even if it varies, brings up within the individual the possibility of recognizing a place. This experience always refers to the subject's life story, their color, their gender, their social place in the country in which they find themselves, and their capacity for resilience. “Staying a foreigner”, brings knowledge of an experience that has been lived, that is unique to each individual and cannot be shared. It is a place where you do not know what the other person expects of you. This experience has the potential to awaken the person from the illusion that belonging makes us one. It means that people who have “stayed a foreigner” share with each other an existential experience. It is from the phenomenon of human mobility that brings together cultures which are initially distant that the concept of Pangea is constituted. This term designating a single, but diverse, continent, is used as an analogy for the symbolic formations that operate in the cross-border therapeutic territory.
Writing about a similar phenomenon in 1969 Victor Turner said: “I prefer the Latin term "communitas” to “community”, to distinguish this modality of social relationship from an "area of common living”. (…) It is rather a matter of giving recognition to an essential and generic human bond, without which there could be no society” (TURNER, 1969, p.360).
What is interesting about liminal phenomena for our present purpose is the blend of lowliness and sacredness, of homogeneity and comradeship that they offer. We are presented, in such rites, with a "moment in and out of time," and in and out of secular social structure, which reveals, however fleetingly, some recognition (in symbol if not always in language) of a generalized social bond that has ceased to be and has simultaneously yet to be fragmented into a multiplicity of structural ties. These are the ties organized in terms either of caste, class, or rank hierarchies or of segmentary oppositions in the beloved stateless societies of political anthropologists. It is as though there are here two major "models" for human interrelatedness, juxtaposed and alternating. The first is of society as a structured, differentiated, and often hierarchical system of politico-legal-economic positions with many types of evaluation, separating people in terms of "more" or "less". The second, which emerges recognizably in the liminal period, is of society as an unstructured or rudimentarily structured and relatively undifferentiated "communitas," or even communion of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of elders.
This approximation of mental health professionals and migrants may seem forced at first. It is fueled, however, by the commonality of shared experience. Each side brings knowledge about themselves and, at the same time, realizes that it does not know the other or what is expected of them. These conditions offer the possibility of asking and not inferring about the unknown.
When the interviewees speak of an interest, we understand that they are talking about something that affected them in their own experience of strangeness. In the same way, in the diaspora, migrants’ attempts to maintain their culture, language and identity, in short, the experience of ‘foreignness’, suggests the possibility of delimiting a territory. It suggests that it concerns subjects who share the place of an existential experience. If you think of diaspora as the dispersion of peoples, the existential Pangea represents this rapprochement, yet it is now exemplified by a shared existential trait rather than boundaries drawn by man.
I observed that those who have experienced “staying a foreigner” and subsequently returned to their country of origin continue to be affected by this experience of choosing to work with this population. As stated above, a certain type of knowledge about oneself allows you to listen to others. When the therapists I interviewed reported that their proximity to their patients derives from lived experience, I understand that they refer to the profound and transforming experience of having been a foreigner themselves.
However, this experience is not exclusive to those who have moved to foreign lands. For one of the interviewees, it was his relationship with language that linked him to this group. This therapist has a “speech defect” that impacts his hearing, just as someone who speaks a foreign language has an accent that reveals their nonbelonging. This professional recognized his experience with language as a vital element of his interest in working with the migrant population. These professionals reported an experience that seems to reflect knowledge about what it is to inhabit a particular space and recognize a quality of unknowing that impacts radical individuality.
It is a bond with the issue of migration that, for some, comes from lived experience which enables an understanding of this place occupied by the refugee migrant, that of a foreigner. It is an idea of otherness that does not match the national and cultural identity; one could say it is possibly created by the identity productions which are introduced via the notions of existential Pangea.
Throughout the interviews, the theoretical research process, and my own clinical practice, I observed that the professionals had “stayed foreigners”, which allowed them to take the fundamental pedagogical position of listening to the other. It is this idea – that the Lacanian clinic attributes to listening - on which the therapist draws to think about the experience of the other. There is a disposition for ethical listening, which recognizes the relativity of its referential and which is willing to investigate further. It is an ethical code that responds to the subject's desire and not to the institutional demands or to the morals of a society or System.
This willingness to go beyond the frontiers of the known opens up the possibility of encountering the unknown without restricting oneself by outward impressions. It comes with the recognition of the irrefutable responsibility of each subject towards the other, that of renouncing the theoretical framework itself. It also works to create a listening space in which others can show up as who they are to express themselves. In cross-border clinical practice, therapists are called upon to reinvent themselves in the face of the unknown and this intervention needs to include the other to be achieved.
Levinas, Emmanuel. 1982. Éthique et Infini, (dialogues d'Emmanuel Levinas et Philippe Nemo). Paris, Fayard, coll: L'Espace intérieur.
Stitou, Rajaa. 2007. L’étranger et le différent dans l’actualité du lien social. Nantes: Pleins Feux.
Turner, Victor. 1969. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Suzana Duarte Santos Mallard (doctorate in Psychosociology, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, UFRJ/EICOS) is a psychologist and psychoanalyst, and a researcher in migration and diasporic phenomena. She is currently a member of DIASPOTICS/UFRJ, and an Invited Resident Student at the University of Minnesota (Family and Social Science Department), where she is conducting research among therapists who in turn work with forced migrants from 2018/19. Besides her academic activities, she is a full-time therapist who proposes psychoanalysis as a lens for listening to human and cross-cultural circumstances. Her research interests involve mental health, forced migration, decolonization and Afro-feminism praxis, psychoanalysis, and cross-cultural approach. For more on Dr. Mallard's work, including her publications, click here or follow her on Twitter: @Syoscha