Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Storytelling in the sciences: An interview with Dr. Gwen Healey

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Storytelling in the sciences: An interview with Dr. Gwen Healey

When I decided that I was going to look into the link between science and storytelling, the first person that I contacted was Dr. Gwen Healey. She’s very connected to her Arctic community, and her community places a high emphasis on storytelling, and she uses all of this in her scientific research.

I’ve known her for a very long time, and I’m very grateful for that. She’s from Baffin Island, close to the farthest North you can get in our northern country, and I only got to meet her because she came to Ontario (which she calls the South) (!) to do her undergrad. We studied physics together. She’s brilliant. She also has an incredible amount of insight into why storytelling matters, even in, especially in, the sciences.

I’ll leave it at that, and include our interview below.

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Please describe yourself.

I am from the Arctic, so I am usually dressed warmly on any given day. For example, today I am wearing a wool coat and scarf - I just looked out the window and there is a pile of snow coming down (it is June 3). I’m a public health researcher. I’m a mother of 2 young girls. I play the 32-string Celtic harp – or I used to, before my kids were born. Now, I have no time. I love to be outdoors, berry-picking, fishing, ski-dooing, hiking, and playing in the puddles or snow with the kids. I like to sew and bead. I make parkas for my children and mitts for my family members out of seal skin, beaver, and fox fur. I love beading on duffel mitts - that is one of the greatest therapeutic activities I can think of!

Please describe your work.

My work is one of my greatest loves. In 2006, I founded a non-profit community health research centre called Qaujigiartiit (which is an Inuktitut word that means ‘looking for knowledge’). We work to answer the questions of our northern communities to help find solutions to our challenges as well as highlight our strengths and innovations. We work on developing an evidence base for interventions that improve the lives of our families and communities. For example, we have worked with amazing, creative youth to develop a school-based game, which is played in the gym, that promotes physical activity, healthy store-bought foods, Inuit traditional foods, and water consumption (vs. sugary drinks), and it’s all in the Inuktitut language. We invited community members and elders to come in and play with the students in the gym. Everyone had fun, ran around, and laughed a lot. The data showed that the game had excellent health outcomes and increased public health message retention among 5-12 year olds.

What do you do every day?

I usually start the day by complaining that my kids wake me up too early. When I get to work, most of time is spent at a computer writing or working with data. I often have meetings with people in the community and travel to conferences and gatherings in the territory, across the country and around the Arctic. Most days, I try to go to the gym before I get the kids from daycare. Is that too much detail?

How do you express creativity in your field or line of work?

We love using arts-based research methods in our work. Photo and video voice, body-mapping, and performance arts. Storytelling is an essential part of life in indigenous communities and stories are rich with meaning, understanding, and life experience. We try to build storytelling components into every project we undertake. We see arts-based methods as another way of telling stories, a way of expressing ideas about health or wellness that are not captured through conventional survey or interview methods. For example, we developed a series of workshops with brilliant Inuit performance artists to engage youth in conversations about sexual health. Through the workshops, youth learned about the sexual nature of some Inuit performance arts and the role of performance arts in Inuit culture and society. They also learned about theatre performance and drama. By the end of the workshops, the youth used their new skills to put on skits for each other, which highlighted critical issues in sexual health faced by themselves and/or their peers. The skits were raw and powerful and shared information that would not be possible to tap into through ‘conventional’ research methods. The arts are powerful, they help us tell meaningful stories, and they help us relate to each other in different ways.

What is your favourite book? Why?

I was just telling some friends and colleagues that I have not had the time to read a not-school-related book in a very long time, because I have been working full-time, finishing school, and raising a family. Mostly, I have been reading academic publications. So, I’m going to have to go with an oldie-but-goodie – the Frozen Fire series by James Houston. It was one of my favourite sets of books when I was growing up because the setting is here on Baffin Island. We didn’t really read that many fictional stories in an Arctic setting when we were kids, so those stories are imprinted on my mind because the landscape of the story was so relatable to me, and the young boys always ended up on some kind of wonderful unexpected adventure. Another book, which I am constantly thumbing through in my personal and professional life now is Uqalurait: An Oral History of Nunavut, edited by Bennett and Rowley. It contains excerpts from Inuit elders on all topics in life and history. It’s a great book to learn from and to take a step back and reflect on the kinds of knowledge that are meaningful in our community.

What do you prefer reading or reading about in your time off?

That’s a tough one… what is time off? Hahaha. Just kidding. I like getting lost in a story, so anything with a rich and compelling story, really. I am told I have to read the Game of Thrones series, but I haven’t actually jumped on that suggestion yet. I used to read a lot of Agatha Christie. Can’t go wrong with a well-thought-out who-dunnit. I went through a period where I was reading mostly biographies… Ghandi, Sidney Poitier, Tina Fey…

Describe your favourite kind of fiction, poetry, play, etc.

Definitely one of my favourite plays of all-time was Agatha Christie’s the Mousetrap. That is a fun one! I don’t know if I have a particular favourite kind of fiction, poetry or play. I like thought-provoking works. I like humour. I like being pulled into a story. I like when all of those things are combined in wonderful writing. The book Me Sexy! by Drew Hayden Taylor, is a great book about the way indigenous peoples and sexuality are portrayed in literature and media. It’s a fantastic series of essays, which are funny and thought-provoking.

Have you been influenced by literature?

Oh probably. I’m sure I’ve been influenced in ways that I don’t even realize. I have always been a big reader. My father jokes that, when I was a child, they never saw me without my nose in a book. I would often read 5 books at the same time, flipping between them, immersed in all the stories.

Have you been influenced by literature in your professional life?

Academic literature dominates my professional life. However, 2 books in particular have definitely given me the confidence in my professional life to pursue ‘unconventional’ research methods, which get to the heart of exploring why the world is the way it is and why we see it the way we do. The 2 books are Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts by Margaret Kovach and Research is Ceremony by Shawn Wilson. I feel that both of these books have carved out a space in the academy for pursuing inquiry from an indigenous perspective – which has historically been marginalized. I found them very inspiring and I feel they have helped us validate what we have been trying to do through our centre.

Have you read a book that captured your profession?

Is there a book about someone who goes on exciting adventure to learn new things, explore ideas, think about health in different ways, and celebrate the community she comes from? If so, that book probably captures it beautifully.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Alexis von Konigslow

Alexis von Konigslow has degrees in mathematics from Queen's and creative writing from Guelph. Her debut novel, The Capacity for Infinite Happiness, was recently called Arcadia for the connected age. She lives in Toronto.

You can contact Alexis throughout the month of September at writer@openbooktoronto.com

Go to Alexis von Konigslow’s Author Page