Peggy Sax interviewed Poh Lin Lee on Zoom in March 2022 and then again in June 2o22. While the video offers highlights from our second conversation, the following introduces Poh through excerpts from our first conversation.
Practice in the In-between
1Can I begin by asking about your name? Poh is a name I do not yet know.
Poh means precious and Lin means lotus flower. In Australia, whenever I would say my name, it was always followed up with “How do you spell that?”, or “Can you say that again?”. I used to always find that really difficult until a very dear friend shared with me “Give people a name that’s hard to get your mouth around, hard to pronounce or hard to spell” – that brings a complexity of identity. I’m very fond of that idea now.
Poh Lin is my first name. It’s a Chinese name, chosen by my Ah Kong (grandfather) although I’m under good instruction from my family that they changed the Lin, so that it was more understood in the Australian context. When I grew up, it was Poh, not Poh Lin, which I didn’t particularly like. As I’ve got older, I’ve become quite fond of it. I guess it keeps me in connection to places and family members when I’m living in different places.
Poh means precious and Lin means lotus flower. In Australia, whenever I would say my name, it was always followed up with “How do you spell that?”, or “Can you say that again?”. I used to find that really difficult until a very dear friend and colleague shared with me a quote by *Warsan Shire that connected me with the idea of what it means to give daughters a name that’s hard to get your mouth around, hard to pronounce or hard to spell – that it brings a complexity of identity. I’m very fond of that idea now.
*“give your daughters difficult names. give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. my name makes you want to tell me the truth. my name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.” Warsan Shire
2You certainly seem full of complexity and experience and identities. Recently, you moved to Quebec City. You've been many places in the world.
From Western Australia, I have the experience of grappling with what it means to be born on stolen land. And in my lineages, there’s been forced displacement as well. So I guess moving to different places has not been in the search of home or belonging, but more a sense of moving towards places where I can be a part of conversations or communities for a certain period of time in intentional ways. I feel like a perpetual visitor to places. And I guess home for me lies in the relational exchange, the relationships that are precious is where my sense of home lives.
3You carry with you some precious relationships through your partner and your children, and also through the people that you know around the world?
Yes, I have three children. My partner is an anthropologist amongst other things, we share a curious traveling spirit. We’ve just been living in France with the intention for our children to get to know the French side of the family, the language, the culture, before coming here. Through my partner’s heart connection with Quebec we have the chance to be here now.
4We first met because I had written something in our newsletter requesting anyone who may be available to counsel with people who are deeply impacted by the war in Ukraine. You wrote to say you have a lot of experience with trauma and working with children and adults.. However you don't speak Russian or Ukrainian.
I was in Kiev in 2014, the end of 2014. I was working with a group of people made up of lawyers, social workers, therapists, who were responding to people who were internally displaced in Ukraine at the time.
And now with the state sanctioned violence in Ukraine, I wanted to find a way to offer anything that I have from the co-produced knowledges through conversation with people and communities. But displacement for me goes back quite some way. In fact, it intersects with how I got to know about narrative therapy, because when I was studying social work in Australia, I started to work at women’s shelters around family and domestic violence.
5How did learning about Narrative Therapy influence your work?
At that time I was also part of therapeutic groups with men, predominantly men in the Australian context, who were using violence in the family home. The organization was offering a psychoeducational model in a long term group with 10 guys, two facilitators. I remember thinking, “I’m not going to last, I’m not actually going to be of much help here.” What the men were expressing was not a matter of noticing a behavior and then putting in a strategy. They wanted different kinds of conversations. Narrative practice started to open up that space for those sorts of conversations. We started to have thoughtful conversations, deconstructing people’s experience and position in the culture of male violence in Australia.
6Were there other experiences that contributed to a shift in your approach to working with family and domestic violence?
Around that time, I also had the chance to work in Mongolia in the area of family and domestic violence. There were political concerns at the time. And in one situation there was state inflicted violence affecting a group of young people who came to the local Mongolian organization I was working at. if you translate it into English, it is literally “the center against violence.” And so these young people were like, “All right, help us now.” And so their request continued to shape my practice and I got very interested in the link between those different forms of violence, whether in the wider public space down into the intimacy of family and home and how they are interrelated.
7How did displacement become an important theme in your work?
Displacement has become a significant word for me when I think about responding to trauma. All these different types of displacement that can occur for people such as from particular members of our body, identity, relationships, land, home and status. I’ve been very interested in co-researching with people counter practices to the effects of displacement. And what is our individual and collective participation in practices that contribute to displacement or alternatively contributing to connection and ‘staying with’.
8Can you tell us about your work on Christmas Island and how that relates to the theme of displacement?
I was working on Christmas Island with people who were arriving by boat in order to seek asylum. According to Australian policy, they’re placed in mandatory detention. I was part of a small service on the island providing torture and trauma counselling. While the number of arrivals was increasing, immigration policy became very intense and strict and the direction taking can be seen within a very specific history of white Australian policy influencing how we understand our borders. At the time there was a lot of global conflict happening that was causing rising numbers of people experiencing displacement. The people that I was working with in detention had gone from having their process for refugee status going quite smoothly – maybe three to six months, and then being able to be resettled in Australia – to literally, almost overnight, indefinite detention as a way of deterring people from arriving, but obviously with catastrophic consequences for people living that reality day by day. Together we were attempting to shape practices that could attend to the effects of multiple, ongoing trauma and indefinite liminal experience. It was in this context that I brought sandplay and narrative therapy together as a response to people’s experience.
9What led you to create the film about Christmas island in collaboration with your friend?
Gabrielle Brady, the director of the film, is a very dear friend of mine. She came to spend some time with me on Christmas Island. There was never any prior talk of a film until Gabrielle was hearing about my experience and it emerged out of our conversations as we grappled with what could be done in response. I introduced her to some of the people that I was in conversation with and some of the people that I was working with really wanted to take part. Gabrielle, as a young female filmmaker went beyond herself to secure funding and support despite her refusals to make an ‘expected’ type of film about this theme. The majority of funding came from sources outside of Australia. It was incredibly hard to have this project recognized. But still we were able to co-design a process that felt non extractive and brought so many stories together…one and off the screen.
10having had that experience with the film, what stands out to you right now about what you most cherish about the experience, and then want to bring forward into what projects come next?
I think I cherish the most the chance to bring narrative practice ideas outside of the therapy space into an ethic around how we gather stories. For example, in the film the scenes that are therapeutic conversations are like fractions, fragments that came from maybe 30 hours where the person at the center of the conversation got to select which parts they did or didn’t want included. There were people not included at all in the film, because their circumstances changed, or when they projected themselves 10 years ahead, they thought, ” I might have concern 10 years later that I was represented in the film.”
What I hold precious is that therapeutic always came first. And if there was something that was going to be contributed to the film that always came second. And the fact that Gabrielle really, not only honored it, she completely engaged in the process around it, lets me know that it’s possible. The process of the film, to know that people received mutual benefit, is more important for me than what is finally constructed. I guess that just feels like a baseline to me.
11When we forget our ethical priorities, we have friends, colleagues, and people in our circles of support who can remind us. We can remind each other.
Yes. And recognize it, or see it.
12This Reauthoring Teaching work involves a fair amount of editing of both text and recordings, website web work and newsletters. I always miss things. We need each other all the time to notice them, to ask the questions. So that makes sense to me.
13As you set foot on this new soil and a new land around you orienting your family and your children and each other, getting to know the local community: What's becoming clearer to you about the kind of work you want to do?
That’s a really lovely question, and a big question. I’ve noticed that there was an idea present that we do some work and then we move on. But every time I think, “oh, I need to move on and create something new”, it seems to circle back around….I think a new understanding is emerging from your email requesting people to step forward to offer assistance in any way to people impacted by the war in Ukraine. It’s significant for me to know that those ideas and practices co-produced with people I’ve been in conversation with continue to circulate and contribute.
I think when you ask that question, arriving here in Quebec, for me it’s about responding to what is around me. I get curious about where people might be saying, “Hey, hang on, you’ve got some skill or experience in that, let’s have a conversation”. So for me, it emerges through relationships.
14What are you looking forward to as your work evolves?
I don’t have a fixed idea around career, or “This is my passion” I am happy moving fluidly across diverse fields in my practice and continually rethinking and reshaping practice in response to what people are sharing with me. I’m very fortunate that the work could go online during COVID, but I’m starting to miss that magic that happens in groups and gatherings.
What about you Peggy? What are you looking forward to in your Reauthoring Teaching work?
15I'm working actually on two different online projects. And one is a course that we're calling "Em-BODY-ing Conversations: Narrative, Therapy, Trauma, and the Affective Turn". The other series is with David Epston and Kay Ingamells, called "Where the Buses Don't Run Yet". Both directions bring into narrative practice, influences from all over and creating new alchemy, and new possibilities guided by those ethics. that you describe as central to your work.
Attending to our bodies in conversation is a great delight to me.
16What would you like to share with us about your approach to working with the body?
I’ve been shaping a practice, Our Multi-storied body, for a number of years. I come to this practice with many diverse ideas and fields of practice but it centers around a community metaphor that invites us to resist the notions that our body is a single entity. By inviting the different members of the community of our body to meaningfully participate in the conversation we have the chance to make visible and experience polyvocal expressions in circulation through our body moment by moment. This can have us witnessing how members of the body contribute to one another or disagree, debate and take their own unique positions. You asked me what I’m passionate about – here we go!
17I love that. I'd love to be part of the community of people that you can bounce that off of, as you keep growing and creating.
18There are so many traditions now and new discoveries around ways of embodying our work, that fits with what you are describing. As I watched you with the little video I saw this morning, you would say, "Where do you feel that in your body?" And your tone is slowed down, giving a chance to really sit with wherever they are, and to speak from that place.
Yes! Slow narrative practice is a treasure. I do still want to circle back around to my intention, which is if there’s any way that I can contribute to any practitioners or current conversations about responding to present displacement, present multiple ongoing trauma that’s occurring, not only in Ukraine, but also inclusive of our Russian colleagues, inclusive of anyone currently affected.
19 Thank you, Poh! it's so nice to have you in North America, and honoring so much of what you do, and that you can bring to us and to the world. We will keep talking about possibilities. I also hope we can create space for you to sit with thinking about "What would I like to do as I kind of reinvent myself in this new Quebec land that I'm living in?"
Thank you for the welcome.
Poh is a Chinese Malaysian Australian woman who comes to her practice through multiple experiences and relationships as a narrative therapy practitioner, social worker, co-researcher of trauma/displacement, writer, teacher, film protagonist and creative consultant. Since 2004 Poh has been engaged in therapeutic co-research with people and communities responding to themes of experience such as family and state violence, displacement (from rights, land, home, body, identity, relationships), liminality and reclaiming practices of staying with experience and preference. Creative and therapeutic fields intersected for Poh whilst working with people seeking asylum within a film project with director Gabrielle Brady, Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018). Poh is currently a freelancer creating crafted exercises and content to accompany people in their practices/projects/processes on Patreon alongside regularly tutoring, teaching and offering experiential workshops across therapeutic, creative and academic fields.