Stories for Justice

Leyla Vural reflects on Sayantani DasGupta's workshop on narrative humility and medical listening in oral history.  This talk took place on Thursday, October 16, 2014.

Sayantani DasGupta is a medical doctor, professor of narrative medicine and health advocacy, and writer who says of herself that her “interests, teaching, and scholarly work are at the intersection of social justice, stories, and embodiment, or health more broadly.” DasGupta puts her digital pen to activist use. She writes – a lot. When she thinks something is wrong, she calls it out. She’s smart and funny, biting and direct, open-hearted and warm; my idea of a badass. Not your typical tag for a medical doctor or academic, but DasGupta is not typical. If she reads this, I think she’ll recognize the compliment, and be pleased.

In addition to her work on narrative medicine, outsourcing surrogacy, and women’s stories of illness and healing, DasGupta is an outspoken social critic. She writes frequently for Adios Barbie (“the body image site for every body”), Racialicious (“the intersection of race and pop culture), The Feminist Wire, and elsewhere. She doesn’t shy away from tough issues. Whether it’s the Global North trying to “save” the Global South, racist and sexist Halloween costumes, fat shaming, or what women should wear to work, DasGupta has something to say when humanity and equality are at stake. She’s a feminist who brings her daughter into her work, just as her mother brought her. 

DasGupta’s work, while rich and varied, is in an important sense all of a piece: It’s about seeing – and listening to – other people in the fullness of their being – body and soul – and granting them the fundamental respect that each of us wants and deserves as a matter of right. She’s interested in the ways “race, gender, class, labor politics, all of these things, impact the stories we tell, and the stories we’re able to listen to, the stories we make space for in health care.”

In her teaching and writing about narrative medicine, this means teaching doctors and other health professionals to listen. To DasGupta, the act of listening can in itself be an act of social justice. In her October 16 talk on “Narrative Humility: Medical Listening and Oral History”, she discussed the ways she teaches medical listening through oral history. Listening, she says, is a “call to a relationship.” But since relationships always involve power, we can’t understand the stories people tell without understanding power and politics. DasGupta draws on oral historian Alessandro Portelli’s idea that an interview is “an experiment in equality” to bring a social justice orientation to storytelling and listening.

The kind of listening that matters to DasGupta has her interested in moving away from a health care model that’s largely limited to the relationship between patient and doctor. “Always starting with the doctor-patient relationship is problematic,” she says. “Maybe that re-inscribes certain medical powers.” DasGupta envisions a broader, more inclusive citizenship model of health care that challenges the standard power dynamics in the system today. “Health advocacy is really exciting because it totally disrupts that dyadic space,” she says. “I’m really interested in communities of listeners. What does it mean to collectively listen? Dialogic witnessing would be a really interesting avenue of exploration at the interstices of oral history and narrative medicine.” Under a citizenship model, health care providers would examine their own frame of listening. Medicalization and power would themselves be subject to questioning and reflection, and people would have the freedom and space to define for themselves whether or not they are ill. The deaf, DasGupta points out, consider themselves a linguistic community; disability is a frame others impose on them.

For DasGupta, stories require context. “Simply reading any story with a medical student or engaging them in a narrative writing prompt,” she writes in a piece on toxic body culture and fat shaming, “is not the same as actually educating them in structural issues of oppression and inequity.” Her conclusion: “Medical narratives are powerful. Let us use them not to ridicule, alienate, or demonize our fellow human beings, but rather, [to] create a much-needed change to a more socially just health care.”

DasGupta isn’t waiting for a better day; she’s working for it. Paraphrasing comedian Margaret Cho, DasGupta ended a talk in June 2013 with a call to action: “For us to have self-esteem is truly a revolution, and our revolution is long, long overdue.”

But if DasGupta is a revolutionary, she’s one with a poetic heart. She opened her October 16 talk on “Narrative Humility” with Rumi’s Story Water and ended it with his Listening. Stories may be about power, but they’re also about change, and the possibility of justice.


Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts Program and the Program in Narrative Medicine have partnered this year to present a workshop series open to the public on the intersections of oral history, health, and medicine. Join us next time.

Photo by Sergey Zolkin, (Free, do whatever you want, high-resolution stock photos)