Coffee with Zain Shamoon, Co-founder and Host of the “Narratives of Pain” Storytelling Showcase

By Sara Vos • Photographs by Joni Strickfaden


I was sipping a nitrogen-infused cold brew at Mighty Good Coffee Co. when a purple-splashed flyer caught my eye, “NARRATIVES OF PAIN” boldly emblazoned across the top. At first I thought “Narratives of Pain” was an indie-satirical play on words, or perhaps an improv comedy showcase with a dark twist. But after some online investigation, I learned that Narratives of Pain is “a community storytelling experience aimed at individual and collective healing, as well as quality entertainment.” Someone had chosen to not only dive into, but publicly address and provide a venue for, those human experiences which are sometimes shunned, derided, or otherwise only talked about behind closed doors? I needed to know more!

I attended the winter showcase in 2015 and was moved by the diverse array of talent: poets, storytellers, songstresses, rappers, and other folks hollering, laughing, crying, whispering, and talking through some of the harder aspects of their humanity. What a gift it is to witness someone in their healing process and to feel moved by their courage and creativity to take the mic and share their story. Similar in feel to “The Moth StorySLAM,” what makes Narratives unique is that it is purposefully created and contained to be a healing venue. Their tagline is: “Healing Through the Telling and Witnessing of Stories.”

After the event, I followed up over coffee with Zain Shamoon, the soft-spoken visionary behind Narratives of Pain, to learn more about his personal background and inspiration for creating Narratives, as well as future goals.

Storytelling is practicing resiliency and forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a passive thing. Forgiveness is an active thing; you need to go to the site of the wounding and practice active spiritual forgiveness around that…

Who are you, and how did Narratives of Pain get started?
I am a family therapist and, at the time we started Narratives of Pain, I was also the Creative Director for the Institute of Muslim Mental Health. At our professional conference every year, most of the presentations were academic or professional in nature. But in 2015, my friend Hammad Ali and I decided to make something different together. “I trust myself as an artist, and as a therapist — is there a way to put those worlds together?” And so we put on a storytelling session.

That first Narratives of Pain show was received really well. Approximately 100 people attended, and it was also promoted to the public. People said, “Keep doing this,” “We need this.” From the start, it was my intention to make the storytelling show a separate entity from the conference, so the conference was the unveiling.

It was very important to us to strip down the show and make sure the storytellers didn’t have to be artists. They could make the art for themselves and for their own catharsis — not for the audience, but for themselves. So there is no right or wrong or good or bad, and “no shaming” is our biggest rule. Our Narratives team is personally responsible for making sure that happens.

We went on to produce more shows in other locations, such as Novi, Warren, Ann Arbor, and even at the Detroit Institute of Arts. As of January 2017, we have had eight shows and try to offer them every two or three months. We also continue to produce a show at the Muslim Mental Health Conference each year.

Telling your story to an audience matters…because people deserve to feel that their pain is valid.

How did you know how to do this?
I had done a lot of performance art, including spoken word, hip-hop, and music production, and was inspired by Def Poetry Jam [a former HBO-TV show], The Moth storytelling show, the play “Vagina Monologues,” and even Alcoholics Anonymous— avenues where people can share and also get support. I’ve directed and performed in theatrical showcases. I used to put on a show called “Tunnel of Oppression” at MSU with actors that was more scripted, so I wanted to continue that, but in a new and more personal way.

Sometimes, as artists and activists, we create the very things we wish we would’ve had in our own lives; we fill gaps. If you’re comfortable sharing, why did you create Narratives of Pain, or what motivates you to keep it going?
I have a lot of personal conviction for it. Sharing my own stories of alienation in writing and performance has been a healing outlet for me, so now I’m trying to give back to the community. I need to be part of healing spaces for my own emotional survival. It’s been a journey to find a home with that. Narratives has felt the best so far.

It’s amazing why people gravitate towards the Narratives space. It’s either people who’ve been waiting to tell their stories — and either they’re finally ready to be honest with themselves about it, or to be honest with other people about it — or they’re people who’ve been suffering here and there in different moments in their life, and they need spaces like these. Some wounds in life require looking at.

Storytelling is practicing resiliency and forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a passive thing. Forgiveness is an active thing; you need to go to the site of the wounding and practice active spiritual forgiveness around that, or else it’s just a mental game of “pretend.”

You have to be willing to go through the process. Narratives of Pain can be part of that process for some people.

Why does telling your story to an audience matter? Why not just journal, for example?
Because people deserve to feel that their pain is valid. One of the most exhausting things in the world is experiencing observable, felt pain, and either you tell yourself (or the world tells you) it doesn’t exist — or that it shouldn’t exist, or that you created it. What does it mean THEN to radically say, “Nope, that’s my pain!,” and have other people honor that? It takes courage to take care of yourself like that.

What do the witnesses contribute to the space by being there?
First: Validation — of each other, and the storytellers. Second: The opportunity to gain courage. Audience members can tell their own stories at the end, in the open mic portion, and they are the holders. It’s the witnessing itself that allows the healing to happen for the storyteller.

Do you have a vision for Narratives of Pain? 
Yes — maintaining what we’re doing. In 2016, it became a nonprofit. We want to keep doing it. This thing does not go away. Healing is a journey.

Healing is multifaceted. The show helps to alleviate pain, but it’s also about refreshment. Confronting pain is basic-level healthcare. Wellness is about adding health. It’s about bringing you back into balance. I think people deserve to feel healthy!

The show helps to alleviate pain, but it’s also about refreshment. Confronting pain is basic-level healthcare…It’s about bringing you back into balance.

How can people participate or be involved?
Come witness. Story-tell. If you want to learn how to help people heal through reframing or telling their stories, talk to us. People can also help by being honest about what’s hurting in their own lives.

People who want to be featured storytellers in the first hour of the show can contact me through our Facebook page. Then the second half of the show is like an open mic, where people can sign up onsite to share their own stories after being inspired by the storytellers in the first half.

I believe that people are the gatekeepers to their own experience — nobody else can be. Within that gate, there is pain — and they have to access it, and they have to let it out. I hope we can be a part of that for people who need it. We can create structure, allow stories, and help them find that conviction within themselves.

Zain Shamoon, MA, LLMFT, is a family therapist at Heron Ridge Associates in Ann Arbor and Plymouth, MI. Find the "Narratives of Pain" schedule or contact Zain Shamoon at

Posted on April 28, 2017 .