#59 Storytellers I Admire: Q&A with Natasha Singh

A New Interview Series From Adventures in Storytelling!

So I’m doing things a little different this week and I hope you’ll enjoy. As you may have picked up, I tend to fan girl people who I think are great story tellers and I’m lucky enough to have worked with or been exposed to some really amazing ones over the years. I want to share some of them with you.

I sat down with Natasha Singh earlier this summer to talk about her experiences as a storyteller. The 20-minute interview reinforced my belief that storytellers work across mediums and produce magic in the process of sharing their stories and the stories of others. I would describe Natasha as a producer, experiential marketer, vibes curator, community creator, and storyteller. She is someone I’ve been lucky enough to work with and been even luckier to attend one of her experiences. It was perspective shifting and made me a better storyteller for having been a part of it. I hope reading about her and her views on storytelling will do a bit of the same for you.

The interview has been edited and condensed for brevity, but I tried to leave as much with you as possible. It’s long so I’d encourage you to grab a cuppa when you have a bit of time and dive into the world of one storyteller for a bit. Enjoy and let me know what you think, I have more of these planned.

Chantaie: What’s your story?

Natasha: (BIG laugh) Where do I want to start? My story is small-town girl form Brantford Ontario, parents immigrated [to Canada] in the 70s. Grew up in a really big intergenerational family—grandparents, aunts, sisters, cousins, everybody. Then I moved to the big city—Toronto—for fashion design. I got into the fashion world and eventually moved to another big-ish city, Montreal, and continued down the fashion road. I eventually came back to Toronto and at that point I knew I was on a new path of self-discovery, trying to figure out what the next phase in my career would be. But, I still had to do the fashion thing while I was figuring that out and in those exploratory years, I started getting closer to the things I really loved and was passionate about.

I was fortunate enough to take a gap year when I was 25, so I travelled and learned a lot that year. I was really influenced by the countries I went to. In those years of being 25-30 a lot came out for me. I really didn’t know what I was doing to be honest, I was gravitating to things that made me happy, brought me joy and a lot of it was DIY—fixing things up, creating environments. I went from random projects while working a full-time fashion job to then staging condos and doing pop-ups and eventually helping small businesses create experiences. I became a Retail Fairy in Toronto. In those experiences I realized a lot of what I was doing was community building—bringing people together. That really brought me joy, bringing people that I know slash don’t know into one environment and creating an experience around that.

I didn’t know I was doing experiential marketing with these creative popups; I didn’t know I was storytelling; I didn’t know I was community building. I just did things because they made sense and felt right, and it was for the community I was in which was very creative and very diverse folks. I knew I wanted to keep creating for those people, who were my peers and like-minded individuals who live in the city. It wasn’t until my early 30s that I started understanding what community building was. Then I started a full-time job [doing it] and that really was what the job was. Bringing people into a space, creating, and building awareness. Again, it’s not that I had expertise in this I just knew how to curate a panel with diverse people who had really interesting stories to share and knew it would be compelling.

So how do you define a story? Or what makes a good story in your world?

I think what makes a good story in my mind is talking to people who are opposite to you. So having a diverse perspective always. I love learning about people’s stories, I love learning about their background, their history, cultural influences, lived experiences. Just the more they have the juicer it is and the more compelling the story can be.

Yah. And it sounds like for you, storytelling is also about sharing. The exchange of stories.

Yah, no, that’s actually a great point. The medium I’ve commonly been able to tell stories in has evolved over the years but was a panel discussion to start. It’s a two-way conversation or three-way or four-way and people get inspired by an amazing point. Just those moments of vulnerability, someone opening up and sharing something that’s deeply important to them and then someone saying thank you for sharing that now I’m inspired to share something that resonates with me. That domino effect of vulnerability.

I love vulnerability. Okay. Tell me about the work you do that brings you joy. You’ve shared a few things you’ve done over your career. But what’s the activity that truly brings you joy?

I love creating experiences. I really love throwing parties (laughs) and love bringing people together. I like these experiences to have a little bit of culture, art, liveliness, there can be entertainment. What I really gravitate toward is building ideas around what will make people feel like they’re at home. Not just home, but that they feel comfortable, they feel safe. In that there’s community, there’s experience, there’s all of this (gestures around us—a magical rooftop space she created in the city).

What do you think it is about the creating of spaces that makes it something that brings you joy? That makes it so interesting for you? Makes it something you want to go back to and do again and again?

It’s not easy because it’s stressful (laughs). Before an event is very stressful and I ask why am I doing this. There are just so many logistics and coordination. Over the years I’ve gotten much better at those things but early days it was very very difficult. Which left me second guessing why I was doing it. But it’s the during and then the post. During you feel so fulfilled. You work so hard to create something that might only last five hours or five days. It’s temporary, but you just feel so fulfilled once it’s launched and out to the world. Then the post you have those memories. I think the experiences I create are very memorable and I think I try to make sure they’re memorable. So people take something away from it.

When did you realize you were a storyteller?

Honestly? I really think it was in my mid-thirties.

Was there a moment for you?

There was an event I did in 2016 and it was everything I mentioned. It was art, culture, entertainment, storytelling entrepreneurship. Everything you could possibly imagine in one event. Just being able to bring all those elements together. Every moment in there was a story unfolding, shared or being told.

What was the experience?

It was the Hanging Pictures on My Wall event. It was an OPEN series I created during All Star Weekend. We worked with an artist who collected [a lot of] hip hop memorabilia and he had a vision to recreate his childhood bedroom. So we re-created his childhood bedroom with all these hip hop posters. He had archives of magazines from the 90s these black and white photos that were press photos that no one had seen before of really famous hip hop artists that he’s collected over the years. He told me this idea many years before and I thought it would be really interesting to bring to life. It had nothing to do with basketball but just being able to connect culture to an experience and tapping into the city at the time and then tying that into streetwear and bringing entrepreneurs to the stage telling their story and how they’ve been influenced by hip hop. The whole through line was hip hop and culture and how it’s influenced what they’ve created. For example we had a panel called “Take Care” which is a Drake song but also tied back to how they were taking care of their mental health while being entrepreneurs.

Who would you say is your audience or who do you create for?

It’s evolved and shifted over the years. At one point it was the fashion industry then it pivoted into creatives in Toronto. And that pivoted to entrepreneurs and the creatives who were creative entrepreneurs. Now I think most of the stories I tell revolve around entrepreneurship because of the job I have. It’s also evolved into women’s stories—women of colour specifically with ATM. I gravitate to stories that aren’t being told. Even with work, I’m here to tell entrepreneurial stories, but how can I tell the untold ones? So being able to find the underrepresented folks who aren’t able to have the opportunities and give them the opportunities. Before it became trendy and a thing, but also glad it’s a thing.

You said something that stood out for me, that idea of people being awakened to something within themselves that I think is really interesting. I’m going to keep playing with that. Thank you.  So I’m hoping you can share with me a storyteller you admire?

This one’s hard.

What I like to do is think about experiences I’ve had or things I’ve read or seen that just, like, really hit me for whatever reason. Let’s circle back to it. What’s a story you’ve created and/or shared that you’re especially proud of?

Hanging Pictures on My Wall was a really special moment. But there have been so many other ones. There have even been some conversations with only 30 people in the room. All lot of the ATM experiences that we created where we talked about pleasure and shame for women and unpacking that. There were maybe 20 people in the room, but the more intimate the better sometimes. You feel safe. I think the intimate ones are really memorable.

Is there a story you’re looking forward to telling that you haven’t shared yet?

That’s a good one. That’s also a hard one. There are so many. I think the one that will be interesting and fun to do is being able to tell stories of women, mostly women of colour through their journey with money and finances. There may be an entrepreneurial angle as well. But being able to talk about what abundance means for them. I just don’t think there’s enough conversations where women talk about just money in general and specifically this demographic of people. No one talks about it. Every time I sit with someone and hear them talk about money I learn so much so I just think it’ll be really interesting to unfold more conversations about money, abundance, how to gain capital. Just real talk around those things.

What are some of the important stories you think are being told right now?

I think conversations around social justice are really important. We’re definitely in a moment but the more of these stories that are being told is helpful and impactful and helps people understand other people’s lived experiences. I think we’re on a wave of more underrepresented storytelling but how can more of that happen? I think we just need more stories; Not the same old stories about Black people; Not the same old stories about brown South Asian people; not the same old stories that have been done already. But how can we get [new] storytelling about people I would relate to and connect to and want to learn from?

I love that. So circling back, who is a storyteller you admire?

Storytellers who inspire me and I admire. 

I'm a visual person who loves creating experiences. I love how artists are able to tell stories through their art from paintings, drawings, textiles, sounds, fashion, sculptures to performance art. Here are some artist and curators that I admire and inspire me: 

Ragini Perera - Explores issues of hybridity, futurity, ancestorship, immigration identity/culture, monsters and dreams worlds. 

Nep Sidu - An interdisciplinary artist, his primary reference points are sound, language, architecture, and adornment. 

Tau Lewis - A self-taught artist, her practice is rooted in healing personal, collective, and historical traumas through labour. 

Ellen Gallagher - "Through processes of accretion, erasure, and extraction, Ellen Gallagher has invented a densely saturated visual language in which overlapping patterns, motifs, and materials pulse with life. By fusing narrative modes including poetry, film, music, and collage, she recalibrates the tensions between reality and fantasy—unsettling designations of race and nation, art and artifact, and allowing the familiar and the arcane to converge."

Kerry James Marshall - Storytelling through paintings, drawings, video installations rooted in his life experience "unequivocally, emphatically black"

Diedrick Brackens - Contemporary artist who tells stories about idenity and history through ancient traditions of textile work that has historically space for women, queer people and black and brown folks. 

Okay. Thank you for sharing those. That’s almost it. Was there anything that you thought we would talk about or that you think is important to mention about storytelling that hasn’t come up?

There’s something in my head, but I don’t know where it’ll go.

Go. Go for it.

I think with the structure of storytelling—especially the format of speaking and conversation—the moderation of it is so key. The person driving the conversation but not taking up too much space, the curiosity and questions are crucial for people to feel safe and open enough to share. If it’s a group of people in conversation it’s knowing how to share and give space to others. So I’m really thoughtful about who’s speaking, how much space they are taking and if they’re mindful of one another. I think that allows for a good conversation. Otherwise, what’s the point? I think the moderation is really really important for good stories to actually unfold and be shared accurately.

You just created a proof point for me around why I think editors (who are also seen as gate keepers a lot of the time) they can be useful when applied in the right way. Thinking of them as moderators.

Yah, exactly. Yup yup yup. For sure.

Okay. That’s it. Painless?

That was fun.

Thank you so much.

Of course.

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