Originally published in The Herald and Tribune
By MARINA WATERS
It’s not unusual for people to flock to Jonesborough to listen as storytellers weave a tale so vivid it feels as if you’ve been transported to another place entirely. But for Harshadha Balasubramanian, a graduate student from the United Kingdom, her trip to Jonesborough was more about listening, learning and considering her own story in the storytelling capital of the world.
Harshadha, or “Harsha” for short, is working on her master’s degree at University College London with a thesis on storytellers’ use of movement. While storytelling was clearly the main reason for her trip, for the UK student, coming to Jonesborough was also about finding adventure in a place not too far outside of her comfort zone.
Harsha said fascination trumped any fears she might have had about coming to America for the first time. Most of her interest, she said, focused on how she’d fit in a small Southern town.
“I was perplexed as to how people would react to me because I’m not someone you can box up easily in the sense that I look Asian and I am Asian. I was born in South India and that’s where most of my family hail from,” she said. “But I’ve got a British accent. And there’s also the fact that I’m visually impaired.
“I don’t fit the stereotypes — at least I don’t think I fit the stereotypes. I was quite keen to make sure that I would be able to make people comfortable in my presence.”
Harsha lost her vision as a child after a tumor had spread to her eyes, forcing doctors to remove them in order to save her life.
“I’ve had most of my life to get used to being blind, which is a real convenience because it means that you don’t have conflicting perceptions of the world that you’ve kind of got to deal with,” Harsha said. “Some of my friends lost their sight much later on in life and so they still know what certain things look like … whereas I only have people’s descriptions in terms of the visual world to try to contend with and try to understand.
“You don’t feel like you’re missing out on anything because you don’t know what you’re missing out on.”
Though some might see it as an obstacle, Harsha sees it as a small part of who she is. She laughs when she retells the story of causing a small ruckus in downtown Jonesborough prompting a driver to get out and help.
“One of the drivers got out, came up to me and was like, ‘I’ll help you.’ And she was telling off the other driver for not getting out of his car to come and get me. She was like, ‘Some people just don’t want to help!’,” Harsha recalled, laughing at the woman’s reply. “I was like, ‘I’m sorry I’ve been the instigator of an argument.’”
The way others have perceived her has at times been misconstrued in the past; when an article was published about Harsha’s acceptance to Cambridge, it became clear to the British student that the world wasn’t seeing her and her story in its entirety.
“It was like, ‘Blind girl goes to Cambridge’. I was thrilled that I was getting into the institution that I wanted to go to and so was my school, but the way that they put it was literally like the news story there was ‘she’s overcome her disability to go to Cambridge.’ It wasn’t ‘she’s going to Cambridge.’ My most difficult battles in life have nothing to do with being blind. For me, my biggest challenge was overcoming that I was rubbish at English and the fact that I had a problem with time management and self discipline. I think (focusing on a disability) is very one dimensional and it does leave out all these other things.”
It seems that Harsha has been accepted in her entirety during her stay in Jonesborough; she also took up with Jonesborough locals such as innkeeper Dona Lewis and her husband Chuck who hosted Harsha during her stay. Others such as local artist Deb Burger, who taught Harsha to knit, and Deborah Kruse, the owner of the Corner Cup who was fascinated by some of Harsha’s favorite British lingo, made the trip more than she expected.
“They’ve really taken me under their wing here,” she said. “The merchants, the guys at the Corner Cup, the people at the storytelling center, the people I live with, Dona and Chuck, they’ve really taken me under their wing. I feel like I’m part of their family which is really nice.”
During her stay, she also took time to cross items off her bucket list such as hiking part of the Appalachian Trail and trying Moonpies and gravy and biscuits. But Harsha made sure to also feed her fascination with various storytelling events.
Her thesis focuses on how storytellers use movement and the senses to compel listeners and transport them to an imaginary world. For the graduate student, that involves using audio descriptions, which provide detail on stage actions during a performance. And sometimes, studying those movements also takes a hands-on approach.
“What I do is I get storytellers to describe what they’re doing. If they’re like, ‘I use really rigid gestures in my storytelling.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, can you show me how to do that with my hands?’ It’s a really exciting approach because for me what it does is I get their perception of what they think about their technique and what vision is according to them. I use these sort of alternative senses to kind of tap into the visual that I’m missing out on.”
After studying the art form so closely, it’s difficult not to connect storytelling to one’s own life. While Harsha says she is yet to tell her own stories and plans to continue studying storytelling instead, she feels there’s a real value in telling your own narrative and rewriting what others might think of you.
“One thing I have learned about storytelling is not so much the performance aspect of storytelling, but the broader question of how you as a person portray yourself,” Harsha said. “How do you tell your own narrative to the world? And for me, it’s been revealing because I’ve been really quite confused as to how to portray myself. It’s very tempting for people to look at me and think, ‘Right, vision-impaired girl.’ That seems to be the most defining characteristic of my narrative.
“What I feel that does is it kind of smothers and leaves out other things that contribute to my identity. The fact that I’m Indian, the fact that I’m 5’1, the fact that I’m a woman — all those things do kind of get neglected when you’ve got this little cute narrative of ‘blind girl gets great opportunities and overcomes barriers.’”
Following her trip, Harsha plans to continue working on her doctorate at the University College London, keep up with her new American pals from Jonesborough and keep telling her own story, not unlike the way in which the storytellers she studies do on stage.
“I think the reason I’m so interested in storytelling strategies is because I really want to learn how you perceive those narratives when they’re being projected on to you and how you can rewrite them and retell them,” she said. “I think that’s a really important thing for us to learn as a society and also as individuals. We need to learn how to rewrite our own stories and have the liberty and the right to tell our own stories.”