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A Literary Buff’s Odyssey

Dec/17/2023 / by melanie-fourie

Bijal Shah uses books as a form of therapy

Smiling South Asian Woman in a striped tshirt with books on her lap and coffee mug in her hands
Photo courtesy: Bijal Shah

Bijal Shah, a Kenyan-born mother of two now based in London, is more your average book enthusiast. She’s a book curator, bibliotherapist, writer, and poet. She’s also the founder of Book Therapy, a literary advice and book prescription service. Shah’s career includes a diploma in psychodynamic counseling, membership in prestigious library organizations, and dishing out book recommendations for major media outlets.

But her impact goes beyond that—she’s conducted workshops on bibliotherapy for the United Nations, hosted a podcast, and authored the well-received book “The Happiness Mindset.” She’s also set to release another book in February 2024, titled “Bibliotherapy: The Healing Power of Reading,” available for pre-ordering.

Explore her journey as she discusses the interplay of literature, psychology, entrepreneurship, and more in her interview with SEEMA.

Can you share some details about your birthplace and the immigration journey that brought you to London? How have your cultural roots and any transitions impacted your approach to book curation and bibliotherapy?

I grew up as a third-generation Kenyan-Indian in Nairobi, as part of a tight-knit Hindu and Jain community. It was wonderful to have this communal experience and a real sense of belonging and community. My great-grandparents moved to East Africa during pre-colonial times in search of a better life for their families pursuing opportunities that the British government offered at the time.

I moved to London with my family when I was 16 and missed this beautiful sense of community. While it was quite a religious and traditional community, I wasn’t really a practicing Jain. However, the Jain values and traditions of peace, compassion, kindness, and helping others still continue to influence me both personally and professionally. These most definitely inspired my desire to help others, being a source of support during challenging times or when life felt like nothing but suffering (‘dukka’ in Sanskrit). I could do this through the power of therapeutic stories and literature, essentially bibliotherapy. I now carry this into all aspects of my work, whether that’s curating literature, offering bibliotherapy sessions, providing bibliotherapy training, or in my writing. It is a joy to see the benefits that bibliotherapy brings to others, and it’s something I do with dedication and passion.

Reflecting on your childhood, are there specific experiences or influences that sparked your passion for literature and ultimately led you towards a fulfilling career in book curation and bibliotherapy?

Most of the magic and this love and passion for literature and helping others happened at the community library attached to the temple at the time, as well as in a bookstore prominently located at the main retail mall in Nairobi. [I found] joy in discovering books and spending endless time reading at the library (there was not much TV and video games like they are now, which probably helped!). And of course, having role models—parents, grandparents, and childhood friends who loved to read—helped.

I think what really drew me to books was that I was able to express and experience parts of myself through literature that might have been suppressed. For example, themes such as puberty, sensuality, navigating teenage hood, and especially mental health were considered taboo subjects that were barely talked about, let alone understood, at the time.

Authors like Judy Blume, George Eliot, and Louisa May Alcott with “Little Women”, Lucy Maud Montgomery with “Anne of Green Gables”, the Nancy Drew series, and even George Eliot had a part to play. [They all depicted] quiet girl power in a world that was quite misogynistic in the nineties. These allowed me to explore all these taboo aspects of being a teen.

How do you go about understanding the needs of your clients to curate personalized book prescriptions?

I often require clients to complete a questionnaire in advance to determine their current life circumstances, what they are looking to explore, the genres they currently enjoy, the books and authors they have enjoyed in the past, their reading habits, and the reading mediums (paperback vs. Kindle vs. audio) that they prefer.

The book choices are all dependent on how much I feel the clients will connect and identify with the books, characters, and writing, and how helpful these will be for them.

This will then inform my book selection as part of their book prescription. Some clients will then go further and enrol in some bibliotherapy sessions with me, where we discuss the books, their reflections, and their insights, combining bibliotherapy with talk therapy.

Your non-fiction book “The Happiness Mindset” has received acclaim. Can you share the inspiration behind writing this book, and how has your background in psychodynamic counseling influenced its content?

I always found happiness to be more of a mindset than an emotion or feeling. In order to cultivate a happy mindset, I wanted to offer 12 strategies that would help do just this. These included working out and living our values on a daily basis, practicing forgiveness and gratitude, focusing on body language (which is 70% of communication) and other communication skills, as well as developing our own inner power.

Your book recommendations have been featured in prominent media outlets like “The Guardian”, “Marie Claire”, BBC, NBC News, and more. How has this recognition impacted your approach to book curation, and what do you believe is the role of literature in mental well-being?

The counseling skills I learned help to inform ways of raising self-awareness and using this to work out our values that inform our choices and decisions. These skills also help to practice helpful ways of communication, develop our own sense of agency and everyday leadership skills, and to learn to live more joyfully in the present.

I am grateful to these media outlets for enabling me to raise awareness of bibliotherapy and the power of literature to heal us and help us understand ourselves better. It’s still a novel therapy in most parts of the world. The more awareness I can raise, the more value I believe I can bring to the world because books, stories, and literature connect us to others. They help us connect the dots in our own stories and hold mirrors up to us so we can truly see ourselves and be understood.

You’ve conducted bibliotherapy workshops for diverse organizations, including the United Nations. How do you structure these workshops, and what kind of impact have you observed on participants?

These workshops often begin with giving people an introduction to bibliotherapy and the framework that I use at Book Therapy, followed by ways of working with different literary genres (from novels, poetry, essays, memoirs, horror, and graphic novels).

They are then taught a variety of creative bibliotherapy techniques that they can use in their day-to-day lives, including poetry therapy, journaling, and reflective practice. Lastly, we finish with a group bibliotherapy exercise. My new book “Bibliotherapy: The Healing Power of Reading”, also touches on many of these, but also includes client stories and therapy sessions to illustrate what a bibliotherapy session looks like in practice.

Your book on bibliotherapy is set to be published in February 2024. Could you provide a sneak peek into what readers can expect from the book and how it contributes to their understanding of bibliotherapy?

My new book essentially seeks to raise awareness by introducing bibliotherapy and a history of therapeutic reading. This is then followed by stories of clients’ bibliotherapy sessions and the books that changed them, along with the bibliotherapy tools and techniques that helped them.

The stories cover adult individual bibliotherapy, group bibliotherapy, as well as children’s bibliotherapy, so there is a range and hopefully helpful variety. The book is written memoir-style, giving readers interesting anecdotes of bibliotherapy sessions and stories. To finish, the book captures a selection of A-Z reading lists arranged by mental health themes across a range of genres, including fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

Tell us about your podcast with speech and language therapist Sunita Shah on “Raising a Reader and Storyteller”. How did this collaboration come about?

 Yes, that was a wonderful experience, and the collaboration was very fitting given Sunita’s own work with children and language.

One of the authors who wrote a children’s book on Jainism under her platform celebrating Hindu cultural stories “The Jai Jais”, introduced us as he was from the same Jain community as me. We hit it off and thought a podcast on raising a reader and storyteller would be a natural extension of the work that we do. It’s a miniseries of seven episodes, and it’s been wonderful seeing parents benefit from the content and guidance. I’d love to do a similar collaboration on relevant themes in the future.

Being a member of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) and the American Library Association (ALA), how do you see your role in contributing to library associations? What benefits do you derive from these memberships?

The bibliotherapy training I provide to librarians equips them with the skills they need to select and suggest books for readers and the community at large, as well as the group bibliotherapy sessions that they organize for library members. I have trained many members either through tailored workshops or directly through my online bibliotherapy course, which informs their readers’ advisory.

In terms of being part of the IFLA and ALA, access to resources, continued education, helpful ways of working with the community, and advocacy are wonderful benefits of membership. As they are not-for-profits, they tend to have the reading community’s best interests at heart. This includes protecting the freedom of readers, for example, by advocating against the book ban wave that is taking over the U.S.

You offer an online course on bibliotherapy. Can you elaborate on the course content and how it serves as a guide for individuals interested in the practice of bibliotherapy and mental health?

The online bibliotherapy course provides a better understanding of bibliotherapy and the tools and techniques available to both readers and other professionals on using literature for mental wellbeing. Participants could be mental health workers, counselors, life coaches, therapists, social workers, teachers, and other educators. It could also be an everyday reader who wants to get more out of their reading or in their own practice as an adjunct to the work they already do.

You’ve delved into the realms of poetry, contributing confessional and contemporary pieces. Can you share insights into your approach to poetry, the themes that resonate with you, and how your experiences as a poet enrich your work as a bibliotherapist and book curator?

My approach to poetry is aligned with connecting with my own emotions and writing about my everyday struggles and challenges. This results in an authenticity and vulnerability that others resonate with, which in turn is healing and helpful for them as well as myself. I often write about grief, anxiety, anger, sadness, forgiveness, and loss—many of the emotions and experiences we all go through.

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