Kavita Das: I’d love to ask you both the first questions I ask students in my Writing About Social Issues class: Do you think all writing is political? Do you think of your own writing as political? Why or why not?
Das: I agree with you both. I tell my students that all writing is political, irrespective of the intent of the writer, because once writing is out in the world, it is subject to the interpretation and perspective of its readers. And writers make decisions, passively or actively, about what and who shows up and doesn’t show up in their writing. Those are craft decisions as well as decisions of conscience.
I begin by emphasizing the importance of understanding our motivations for writing about a social issue. I’d love it if you could talk about the social issue(s) you’re most passionate about and what motivates you to write about it/them.
Das:I dedicate two chapters in to exploring the relationship between the reader, the writer, and the subject—and the tension between providing context and creating a narrative. When you are writing, do you think about the tension of satisfying your reader with narrative elements versus doing justice to the social issue featured in your work? Is this something you think about from the outset or during the writing or editing phase?
Bellot:My writing, as I said, is inherently political at a variety of levels, and what I’m thinking about most of all as I put together a piece is what holds it together. Sometimes, I search for hours, days, or weeks to find the key to a piece, the image that unifies one section and another; I usually find it when I’m not looking for it or thinking about writing at all. Each piece is unique, to me, and while I favor braided narrative structures that hop from story to critique and back again, I never know what any piece will look like until I start writing into the void.
Das: It seems like both of you embrace the fact that your writing serves an issue and you are dedicated to finding the narrative elements that serve that story. I use the notion of a tension between context and narrative as a way to help my students make choices about how to tell the story, how to serve the issue, and how to find ways that allow them to do both.
Gaiutra, you’re a researcher, and Gabrielle, you’re an editor. What guides your decisions about which information to keep and what information to edit out from a piece?
Bahadur: The advice from editors and teachers is usually to pare your prose down to strictly what advances the narrative. That’s usually good advice, but I have not always followed it.
In my book Coolie Woman, for instance, details from the archives about individual indentured women took on moral meaning for me. Each time I found a story about them, I felt compelled to include it in the book. And if that led to excess or density, I didn’t mind. These were figures whose lives and experiences had been neglected or erased in history. For me, the details became a matter of ethics. In a sense, telling every story I could was a form of narrative reparations, not only for the ways indentured women had been exploited on and off plantations but also for the fact that their stories had been dismissed, hidden, repressed, and forgotten.
My aim was to dramatize the gaps and silences in the history of indentured women. I suppose, then, that the details are not extra if they serve that goal. The excess has a valid literary purpose: the expression of affect.
Bellot: I try to see what a piece is aiming at—or, at least, appears to be aiming at—and then make edits that attempt to bring this vision more clearly to the surface. A great deal of the time, this involves structure.
Beyond that, I also want a writer’s voice to shine though, rather than my own, since voice is one of the most important things to me as a writer, so I do my best to try to bring this to the surface, unless it’s something a writer needs help with.
But, most importantly, I try to put myself in the shoes of many possible readers. How is this sentence likely to come across, not just to me, but to someone with a radically different set of experiences from me?
I think looking at your sentences from the perspective of someone unfamiliar with your subject matter—defamiliarization—is a grand way to create work that is less narrow and insular in scope and that might, instead, speak to a wider audience.
Das: Thanks for these rich insights. I share twelve of my own essays in Craft and Conscience, and I give some background about my motivation and approach to writing them and the craft choices I made. I think getting under the hood of our own writing and analyzing the choices we made can be so helpful to writers and can be a way to get beyond just the ideologies or theories of craft.
As I note in Craft and Conscience, research suggests that it’s hard to change people’s minds about fraught social issues. As a writer, is that ever a goal for your work? As a reader, has a piece of writing ever changed your mind or pushed you to think a bit differently about an issue?
Bahadur:I had to think hard about this question, which might reveal the power of confirmation bias, at least in my case. Yes, of course, my hope is that my work would help readers to see a topic in a new and revelatory way, even to the point of changing their minds.
Alexander Chee’s memoiristic essay “Mr. and Mrs. B,” about his time working as a waiter for William F. Buckley and his wife, made me see the couple in a new, vulnerable light. Chee got me there through an intimate, empathetic approach open to human complexity and human frailty. Joe McGinniss’s epilogue to his book Fatal Vision—which was an answer to Janet Malcolm’s classic indictment of him, The Journalist and the Murderer—made me doubt her analysis of the relationship between journalist and subject as one fundamentally about seduction and betrayal.
Bellot: In this polarized era, where vast swaths of people are on one side or the other of nearly all issues, and where it’s become suspect to even entertain the idea of trying to understand how someone “on the other side” came to their beliefs—a very toxic, painful era, in my view—it seems harder than ever to change someone’s mind. But I still believe deeply in trying to understand how others think and feel. We don’t change minds, in general, by shouting at others or making them feel ashamed—the dominant modes of discourse on Twitter, unfortunately. Instead, you’re more likely to succeed in changing someone’s mind by allowing them, first, to feel seen and heard, by allowing them, in other words, not to feel dehumanized. From there, if they extend the same to you, you might just be able to have a transformative conversation. It’s not easy, and some people’s transformations take time.
I still believe deeply in trying to understand how others think and feel.
Das: Cultural appropriation is a perpetually charged topic in the literary realm, with accusations of cultural appropriation met with accusations of censorship. As a writer, I believe this is an important issue that the writing and publishing realm needs to address, particularly due to its longstanding lack of equity. But as a writing teacher, I believe most writers want to be culturally sensitive, and we risk losing writers of conscience with the sometimes-antagonistic tone of these conversations. What are your own thoughts on cultural appropriation, and how do you approach this as a writer, reader, editor, and teacher?
Bahadur:I’m from a small place, and as someone shaped and misshaped by its colonial history, it hasn’t really been an option for me to ignore it in my work. Guyana is inside me. I’m in its grip. And so it does get my back up when someone who isn’t from here, whose chances and psyche haven’t been determined by it, seeks to write its history or represent it in fiction and journalism. They don’t bear the wounds of being from there—so have they earned the right to tell the story?
I temper my visceral emotional response against outsiders in my backyard by considering a crucial caveat: Who has the cultural capital and institutional access to tell the story? If the people who have lived it have that capital and access to an equal degree, then it doesn’t matter who elsetells it. They might do it well or badly, and I might also do it well or badly, and that’s fine—as long as both of us and many, many others can get their versions published.
Bellot: It’s complicated. On the one hand, I believe in the value of criticizing thoughtless cultural appropriation, which, [and I say this] as someone from a formerly colonized country, can often feel disquietingly like colonialism, like exoticism for the sake thereof. At best, it feels like a sad lack of curiosity about the diversity of humanity across time and space, like when remarkable cultural traditions become reduced to props or backdrops that their users or owners can tell you nothing about; at worst, it becomes dehumanizing, a way for someone to show that they believe another human to be more of a costume than a person.
On the other hand, I’m no fan of telling people what they can or cannot do in some larger sense, and trying to place yourself in the shoes of another can be tremendously powerful, both as an artist and as a human more broadly. I want people to want to learn about the complexities of the world. If someone is open to learning and is aware of the complicated power dynamics at play, I’m open to just about anyone writing or creating anything.
I worry, too, that there is a tendency for some critics who tell people to stay in their lanes to ironically reduce people to stereotypical versions of their cultural or ethnic identity, which they are assumed to both be experts on and to possess certain views about solely because of their identities.
Das: I appreciate your honest and nuanced perspectives. As I note in my own piece on cultural appropriation in the realm of biography in Craft and Conscience, I believe most anyone can write about most anything; however, I also want to prioritize the voices that are closest to that issue or community or experience, which often are left out. In Craft and Conscience, I sought to discuss cultural sensitivity in a way that went beyond the fraught binary accusations of cultural appropriation and censorship.
Because writers face so much pressure to publish, much of the focus of writing instruction is about craft and the how-tos of getting published. Yet we talk much less about the implications, positive and negative, of our work being out in the world. This is especially important if a writer is exploring controversial social issues out in the world or in their own lives. What have been the implications, positive and negative, of your writing on social issues, and how have you navigated these implications?
Bahadur:I’ve been doing this long enough to see some of my work have concrete implications. Some of those implications have been positive, some negative, and some a little bit of both. The hard ones, the ones that call for some navigating and some soul-searching, are the stories that both shed light and cause harm. I’ll offer one example.
In 2005, when I was an immigration beat reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer, I wrote a story about a grocery store owner, an Iraqi immigrant, who had become a high-profile, high-decibel advocate for the war in Iraq. He had presented himself as a spokesman for a broad group of Iraqis in the United States. My piece revealed that he was mostly only speaking for himself, that the Iraqis for whom he claimed to speak disavowed him, and that a conviction that made him deportable may have been the reason he was a megaphone for the war. After my story ran, he lost the national platform he had had, as a regular guest on CNN and elsewhere. The US government also deported him on the basis of that old conviction, sending him back to a country where there was a price on his head because of his outspoken support of the war. It was devastating.
As a journalist, how do you balance the call to seek truth and report it against the imperative to minimize harm? It’s very difficult. My intention was to illuminate why my subject may have advocated for the war. It was not to put him in mortal danger. It’s too simplistic for writers to claim that our subjects are masters of their own will and that we bear no responsibility because we’ve merely documented their choices and actions. Clearly, I intervened in this man’s fate, however unwittingly, by bringing a kind of counter-publicity to him. Ethical writers try their best to anticipate the potential outcomes and weigh them against the stakes. Does the public need to know the story? Why are we telling it? Is the cause great enough? What good does publication do?
Bellot: This is such a great question, Kavita! Being lucky enough to have some pieces of mine out in the world has been both positive and negative for my mental health. On the one hand, I’ve felt grateful to have a chance to connect with other people through my work, particularly to other queer people who have told me—and I am always quietly amazed to hear this—that something I wrote helped them.
But having my work out there has also made me a target at times, and social media has often been the place where it gets the most stressful for me. I have anxiety and, at times, depression; add to that people filling your page with slurs, and, even once your skin has thickened, it’s quite an experience. I’ve been hounded by transphobes on social media and even through my website; one person tried to convert me over email to the ways of Jesus in a whirlwind of bad grammar and evangelism. I’ve been attacked by conservative trolls and racists online. And I’ve also been attacked, at times, for no explicable reason.
I mention this because social media has been a wonderful way to reach and learn from others, but it has also been something so toxic, at times, that I decided I couldn’t take the anxiety and stress anymore. I don’t regret putting myself out there, but I think there’s value in stepping back, too, if it gets to be too much.
Das: Thank you so much for sharing these experiences. We don’t talk nearly enough about the implications of writing about social issues, and, when we do, we tend to focus only on the positive. While I’m not seeking to scare or dissuade writers from writing about social issues, I think it’s crucial that they think through possible implications to their subjects or themselves before their work is out in the world.
Kavita Das writes about culture, race, gender, and their intersections. Nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Kavita’s work has been published in WIRED, CNN, Teen Vogue, Catapult, Fast Company, Tin House, Longreads, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, Kenyon Review, NBC News Asian America, Guernica, Electric Literature, Colorlines, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Kavita’s second book Craft and Conscience: How to Write About Social Issues (Beacon Press, October 2022) is inspired by the Writing About Social Issues class she created and teaches. Her first book, Poignant Song: The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar, was published by Harper Collins India in 2019. She lives in New York with her husband, toddler, and hound. Find her on Twitter: @kavitamix and Instagram: @kavitadas.