Commentary  The conversationalist: The art of falling far from the tree

The Banyan tree is known for its fantastic appearance: a dense forest of connected branches that prove to be, in fact, a single tree. 

“The tree’s branches spread themselves wide, drop perpendicular branches, and form new roots wherever these branches land, although where they land is often quite far from their origin,” says Cécile Rousseau, a transcultural psychiatrist at McGill. Specializing in child refugees and war trauma, she sees “the Banyan tree as a perfect metaphor for the migrant child.”  

Like the Banyan tree, whose anomalous root structure makes it more biologically sound, the migrant child who has successfully grown new roots is often stronger and more resilient than a child who has not faced such hardships. Suffering can be positive and transformative, according to Rousseau, if psychological supports are in place.

Fittingly, Banyan is also the name of the group of psychiatrists who help young refugees deal with the psychological traumas of war or displacement, using art as an avenue for expression. Rousseau explains that the group works with preschoolers, elementary school students, and adolescents, using the notion that retelling a traumatic event is therapeutic.

The preschool students use sand-play to tell their story. They are given a sand tray with colourful figurines that they use to represent the world: people, cars, animals, trees, buildings, as well as several religious signifiers, such as Hindu gods, Buddha, and Islamic and Christian symbols. The children then use these symbols to give meaning to the world. The sand game allows them to create a world of their own, and to tell a story in this world, which they then perform for their peers.

The same technique applies to the elementary school students; however, the older kids use more traditional forms of representation such as drawing and writing.

Finally, the adolescents concentrate on experimental political theatre as a means of expression – a concept that is based on the techniques of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. According to Boal, interactive theatre creates dialogue, standing in opposition to the monologue, which exists as the origin of oppression.  

“[The technique] is about collective voices and action,” Rousseau says.

All three programs contain a verbal and a non-verbal component – visual, musical, tactile.

“Western psychology has placed a lot of emphasis on verbal expression, but no emphasis on bodily or non-verbal expression. In cases of trauma not everything can be easily said or even concretized. Words can be too difficult, and so it is sometimes more useful to deal in the abstract, in representation.”

Rousseau sees many of the world’s conflicts as stemming in part from people’s inability to recognize the possibility of the coexistence of multiple truths.

“The absolute is dangerous. The fact that a community or a group of people would say ‘we have the truth’ – that is dangerous.” Artistic expression, however, in its non-verbal incarnation, allows for a multiplicity of meaning, thus fostering moral complexity.

And that’s why it’s especially upsetting when, in a single summer, a government can cut $44.5-million and over a dozen programs geared to directly funding and supporting the arts. Compared to the threat of war, religious persecution, oppression based on gender or sexual orientation, fanatic totalitarian leaders, and an array of natural disasters, the arts may seem a luxury, as they did to Stephen Harper not so long ago.

“When ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV, and see all sorts of people at a rich gala all subsidized by the taxpayer, claiming their subsidies aren’t high enough when they know they have actually gone up, I’m not sure that’s something that resonates with ordinary people. Ordinary people understand we have to live within a budget,” Harper rationalizes.

But let us not fall into the “tendency that we have,” according to Rousseau, “to consider that our society is essentially benevolent.” If artistic expression has the transformative psychological power that Rousseau and her colleagues have observed, then cutting funding to the arts is not the act of a benevolent leader, nor is it even benign. In fact, it could pose a serious threat, in and of itself.

Rosie’s column appears every other Thursday. Send her that funk, that sweet, that artsy, that gushy stuff to theconversationalist@mcgilldailycom.