A South Asian woman in a dark green blazer and brown top, against an orange-brown background.

Sahaj Kaur Kohli asks the ever-important question: ‘But What Will People Say?’

The Brown Girl Therapy founder and author gets personal in her new book, a blend of memoir and self-help

Sahaj Kaur Kohli.

Beowulf Sheehan

Words by Nimarta Narang

My recent Zoom meeting with author and therapist Sahaj Kaur Kohli was punctuated by a laughable quantity of distractions—the landlord’s cat following Kohli around, my Zoom running out of time, and even me chewing on chocolate moments before she showed up on the second Zoom link. But despite—or maybe because of—everything going on, I found the conversation to be refreshing, honest, and just so (I cringe ever so slightly writing this) authentic.

Kohli is perhaps best known as the founder of Brown Girl Therapy, an online mental health community “for all children of immigrants,” and her recently released book But What Will People Say? feels similarly authentic. Through her writing, Kohli is able to bring together her personal experiences of growing up Indian American in the United States, the research that exists about experiences of immigrants and marginalized communities, and the therapeutic tools and knowledge she has as a mental health professional. She refers to these three branches as braids, which made me think of the braids that my Sikh mom would plait for me growing up, and how it brought my thick, long hair together into a contained, beautiful emblem of my Sikhi faith—much like Kohli’s book is a wholly intentional culmination of her life journey and work.

The book cover of "But What Will People Say?" by Sahaj Kaur Kohli.

The cover of Sahaj Kaur Kohli's book.

“I think I have a unique perspective that I’m able to write [from],” Kohli says. “There are so many great memoirs for our community [of Asian Americans, immigrants, communities of color]. But I’ve never seen a book combine [personal stories and self-help]—I wanted to use my personal story as an inroads to talk about some of these precise experiences that I could also, as a therapist, offer tools and tips for. I wanted to have a conversation from both sides.”

To Kohli's credit, she does accomplish this bigger goal. Her words never feel too didactic or dense, and her personal stories provide the book with the anchor that it needs to elevate it to more than just a self-help/memoir hybrid. The specificity of her family dynamics, for example, showcase how western therapy often doesn't take cultural aspects into consideration, excluding many marginalized folks' experiences and showcasing the need for therapy as a whole to be more inclusive and broadened—a task that Kohli sets herself up for and is able to successfully fulfill. At the start of my conversation with Kohli, I confessed to her that while I felt extremely lucky to be able to read an advanced copy of her work in the early months of 2024 it was difficult for me to get through the book because it brought up the need for me to confront so many things personally. Her writing, so personable and piercingly honest, had me taking a second look at my own experiences and stories with a critical and compassionate eye—never an easy task. It also made me wonder how she managed to commit her own truth—which includes some truly difficult experiences—to the page.

“It was hard for me to share my story. I don’t think people realize how honest I get in the book and how much I share,” Kohli says. “It was very difficult for me to talk openly about dropping out of college, my failure, or my assault.”

Yet the intention with which she shares her personal stories make the tools and skills she shares seem applicable and doable, particularly for children of immigrants, the demographic which she had in mind.

“Part of it was very healing because so many of us feel shame and shy away from these conversations,” she says. “I always knew the book was going to be personal. I just didn’t realize it was going to be as personal as it is. And that was my choice. There came a point where I thought, ‘I either share this stuff or I don’t.’ I kept needing to reevaluate the ‘why’ of what went into the book. What’s the purpose of this being in this book? What is this adding to the narrative of mental health that a lot of us struggle with?”

That ongoing struggle of what to include and what to leave out ended up taking Kohli three years and five drafts to get right, as she navigated seeing her first therapy clients, newly married life, two major moves, and cancer diagnoses for some close family members. The process gave her new appreciation for her time spent as an editor and writer at HuffPost, where she worked when she began grad school to pursue her interests in therapy. The two disciplines both center Kohli’s natural curiosity and inclination towards stories. In fact, it was Kohli’s work as an editor that guided her towards a career as a narrative therapist, which her professors told her was more humanistic in theory, more creative, and less structured.

“My work as a narrative therapist is to help you interrogate the stories you have been telling yourself about yourself, and where these stories come from,” she says. “Sometimes these stories come from our childhood or family dynamics. Sometimes we have been told within the culture we exist in how we should show up because of our intersectional identities. Sometimes we grow up and we live in a different environment, a dominant society, that might be telling us who we should be as a marginalized person. There are so many ways others expect us to be, or the boxes we expect to fit in, or paths we are expected to take, and that’s how the stories come about. Oftentimes, in all of our stories, they impact the beliefs we have about ourselves, who we are as people. My work is really to challenge my clients in these stories.”

That love of storytelling shows up in But What Will People Say?, especially as Kohli reflects on her own experiences and how she worked towards becoming a therapist to continue her path in connecting with people. One professor in graduate school actually questioned her ability to carry on her work online via Brown Girl Therapy with her training as a mental health professional, and now this book places even more of a light on Kohli’s personal life. Did it make her nervous at all?

“My whole life is an act of resistance about what is expected of me or what people tell me I’m supposed to do, and I say, ‘Nope, I’m going to do this differently.’ I like that about myself, that I don’t shy away from carving a new path. But internally it feels uncomfortable and scary.”

“It was top of mind for a lot of [the] writing. I took a break from seeing clients for a year after graduating to focus on the book, which was good because I don’t think I could have been seeing clients at that time,” she says. “I don’t know how to answer the question, because I’m still scared about it. I think my whole life is an act of resistance about what is expected of me or what people tell me I’m supposed to do, and I say, ‘Nope, I’m going to do this differently.’ I like that about myself, that I don’t shy away from carving a new path. But internally it feels uncomfortable and scary.”

Whilst writing the book, Kohli would continually check in with her husband and “therapy friends,” asking whether this book would make her clients not want to work with her if they read it. They would assure her that it could change someone’s life, and even bring in new clients. “Some people are going to judge me. There will be seasoned therapists who will disagree with me for being so honest. If at the end of the day I lose work as a clinician because I wrote this book, I am okay with that, because I am helping people in other ways,” she says.

In the age of digital media and the Internet, it’s very difficult to be a blank slate and to show up with no preconceived notions attached to oneself, even if you don’t have an online platform. Kohli’s act of writing this book and placing herself within the narrative challenges all the assumptions one may have of therapists not having their own stories worth processing.

“I’m hoping the impact of my work is meaningful,” she says. “I think I would be doing myself a disservice to pretend that I don’t feel the pull to share my stories. Storytelling is so valuable, especially in communities that are marginalized and whose stories are not being told and are silenced. Ultimately, I think it’s an act of resistance.”

Published on May 21, 2024

Words by Nimarta Narang

Nimarta Narang is a writer and journalist from Bangkok, Thailand. Currently based in New York, she is a graduate of Tufts University, the University of Oxford, and has received her master's from New York University. She has lived in Bangkok, London, Oxford, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and New York. She is part of the Autumn Incubator, the inaugural Gold House Journalism Accelerator, and a member of Gold House Book Club.