Craft and Conscience by Kavita Das is the first major book for writers to more effectively engage with complex socio-political issues—a critical first step in creating social change. Kavita Das really takes us on an intentional journey with her deep knowledge of social justice work and challenges us to unpack our motivations for writing about an issue and to understand that “writing, irrespective of genre or outlet, is an act of political writing,” regardless of intention.
This episode was recorded live with author Kavita Das before the summer with members of the Writerly Love community on hand to ask questions about Kavita’s book, Craft and Conscience: How to Write About Social Issues.
A BIG takeaway from the book and our chat is that there isn’t really a line between craft and conscience—they are the same. All craft is political. But, that is getting ahead of our conversation here. I invite you to listen and also to pick up a copy of Craft and Conscience if you haven’t yet.
Our next book club book is On Connection by the poet Kae Tempest, which is about combatting alienation through creativity. The Guardian reviewer, Holly Williams, said of the book, I drank On Connection down like a fresh glass of water. So, if you want to get refreshed and then be part of our next book club conversation, which will appear in this stream toward the end of November, pick up a copy, refresh yourself, and join our community book club conversation.
Links and Resources from this Episode:
- Craft and Conscience: How to Write About Social Issues by Kavita Das, published by Beacon Press in 2022 http://www.beacon.org/Craft-and-Conscience-P1859.aspx
- Poignant Song: The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar by Kavita Das https://kavitadas.com/poignant-song/
- Appropriate: A Provocation by Paisley Rekdal
- In | Appropriate: Interviews with Canadian Authors on the Writing Difference edited by Kim Davids Mandar
- Review of Craft and Conscience by Kavita Das at Liber Review https://www.liberreview.com/issue-1-4-the-rising-tide
- Kavita’s course is “Writing About Social Issues”. To be informed of upcoming class offerings, sign up for Kavita’s Craft and Conscience Aerogram https://kavitadas.com/teaching/
- George Orwell’s essay, Why I Write
- George Orwell’s : Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four
- Literary Outlets:
- Marlon James
- The Atlantic Slush Pile
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Episode Transcript #78
- Olwen Wilson
- Kelly Morgan
- Ellen Chang-Richardson
- Rachel Thompson
- Meli Walker
- Kavita Das
Rachel Thompson: 00:01
Welcome luminous writers to the Write, Publish and Shine podcast. I am your host, author and literary magazine editor Rachel Thompson. This podcast explores how to write and share your brilliant writing with the world. In each episode, we delve into specifics on how to polish and prepare your writing for publication, and the journey from emerging writer to published author.
Hi, luminous writers. This episode was recorded live with author Kavita Das before the summer with members of the Writerly Love community on hand to ask questions about Kavita’s book, *Craft and Conscience: How to Write About Social Issues*.
My biggest takeaway from the book and our chat is that there isn’t really a line between Craft and Conscience that they are the same and all craft is political. But, I’m getting ahead of our conversation here and invite you to listen and pick up Craft and Conscience if you haven’t yet.
Craft and Conscience by Kavita Das is touted as the first major book for writers to more effectively engage with complex socio-political issues—a critical first step in creating social change. Kavita Das really takes us on an intentional journey with her deep knowledge of social justice work and challenges us to unpack our motivations for writing about an issue and to understand that “writing, irrespective of genre or outlet, is an act of political writing,” regardless of intention.
As I mentioned, writers were there live to join in. These were our members in the Writerly Love community with more questions and Kavita Das was generous to answer all my questions, and then our member’s questions as well. So, here is our conversation.
Welcome to this live recording for the podcast. With us today is Kavita Das. I’ll be doing a proper introduction in just a moment. But just to let you know that we’ll start with an interview, I’ll be asking questions, and then there’ll be a Q&A at the end. So, I just want to turn and say,
Welcome to Kavita Das. Thank you for coming to discuss your book that we love, Craft and Conscience: How to Write About Social Issues.
Kavita Das: 02:12
Hi, everyone. Nice to meet you here.
Rachel Thompson: 02:14
So, I’ve just been struck by how the book really has everything from luminous essays, which definitely was an attractor at the beginning to you to go, oh, Alexander Chee is in. Okay, great! We got to read this book! So, it has luminous essays from contemporary and historic writers. But it also has tools for writing with conscience and thoughtful prompts to help us better engage with issues in our work.
I do want to talk about primarily, I guess, the tools today. One of the things you suggest is for writers beginning the journey of writing for social change, that they begin that journey by questioning their motivation, perspective, opinion and ethics. So, I wanted to turn to you and say, can you tell us about how you answered those questions when you embarked on writing Craft and Conscience?
Kavita Das: 02:59
Sure. Well, hello, everyone. I can just tell you also a little bit about the origins of the book. So, I came to writing full-time after working in social change and social justice for close to 15 years, and when I came to writing full-time, it was partly with the motivation for writing my first book, Poignant Song: The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar, it’s somewhere in that shelf up there. It’s a biography of a Hindustani musician, who was part of the movement that brought Indian music to the west. I had no idea what I was doing. I had been working passionately on the issues I cared about, and I wanted to write this book, I didn’t know how to go about writing the biography, research scared me, publishing scared me even more.
So, I was really trying to figure out my way. While writing the book, which I thankfully didn’t know, was going to take seven years, I started writing, and I wrote about the things that I didn’t know about, that I was passionate about. It was a way to continue my work that I had been doing off the page, but now focusing on the page. So, focusing on racial justice issues, issues of gender, and others, the racial justice issues. I had just been working in racial justice before I came to writing full-time. So, my motivation was to continue the work, and to be very blunt, when I came to writing full-time, which was 10 years ago, the lack of diversity and equity in the writing and publishing field staggered me. I was just staggered by it. I was like, how are we not all talking about this? How is this not something that… And it was being whispered about in corners, but not really the publishing world when they have their surveys, internal surveys, it showed that it was between 80% and 90% white.
Gender wise, it was more female. But still, it was highly inequitable, and it’s a nice romantic thought that through educating ourselves, the publishing world will just become more equitable in terms of how it treats authors. But it just doesn’t work that way. We have to have some stomach change all the way up to the top, because it’s this idea that there is gatekeeping, there is gatekeeping going on. So, it was very important to me to write about this and talk about it and make it a more public discussion.
I will be honest, I mean, some people were very happy with that, and some people like pissed off. I was okay with that, it’s just what it is. To the motivation; my motivation was to continue my work from the social change and social justice perspective. But the reason I started the book with the motivation question is that sometimes we feel so passionately about issues that we want to just race to writing about it without taking a moment and setting and being intentional about why we’re writing what we’re writing.
Rachel Thompson: 05:53
I think that’s so helpful to think about taking that moment, and also to remind us of where the industry has been and really, also today, how far has that really come as well, too? It’s still not that far at all.
Kavita Das: 06:05
No, it’s not that far. I think there were a lot of declarations after George Floyd’s murder, by lodges the publishing industry in all industries. But I think I’m curious to see how far and the needle has actually moved. It really shows you, it’s much easier to declare intentions, it’s harder to follow through. But I also want to disappoint on the lighter end of the spectrum in this chapter about, the first chapter on motivations. I opened with George Orwell’s essay, Why I Write, when I came across this essay in, I think it was a few years into writing, it spoke to me so much and it also liberated me, because George Orwell’s the author of Nineteen Eighty-four, Animal Farm, one of the best social chroniclers past and present. I thought, okay, his motivations are going to be about moving the needle, provoking social consciousness and awareness. He started out with his first two motivations, being about getting back at people who have pissed him off, including parents and elders, and I thought, oh, I can get with that.
Then the second thing was about the beauty of the language and turn a phrase, and it liberated me to be able to just immerse myself in craft and enjoy it, and not just focus entirely on the message and the content. So, that was very powerful to me that he listed those two first before he talked about being a chronicle and witness to the time and trying to move the needle. That’s why I felt like it was very important to put forth in this, I always call this book part, the craft guide textbook and apart anthology, because the book grew out of my own class that I created several years ago, writing about social issues writing with conscience, and the layout of the book mirrors the class, because I can talk about theories and lessons and reflections. But it really helps to get under the hood of the car and look at essays.
As you said, Rachel, it includes essays from past authors, but a lot of contemporary authors. I really wanted to include lots of different issues, lots of different identities, and lots of different approaches and styles, so that each reader could find the ones that speak to them. So, that was really important to me to include in this book. I wrestled with, including my own work. I included my own work throughout the anthology, because I can take apart other folks as essays on a surface level, but I can’t speak to what their intentions more. Whereas with mine, I can tell you, I can be honest with the reader about this is what I set out to do, and this is what ended up happening and this is why, this is what I hoped for. This is what ended up the reactions I got, and I can speak to that in a very transparent way.
Rachel Thompson: 08:57
I love that. Thank you for taking us behind the thoughts that you had around the essays as well too. That first essay by George Orwell, I had read years ago, and it was a delight to read again, and be reminded, like you said, of here, someone who had a big political impact, and we use that in a prompt. We had a meeting, a member meeting earlier this months ago, how do you balance the aesthetic and the political in your work and thinking about those two motivations? And like you said, the beauty of writing the language of writing as well too? That wasn’t the question. I guess that was just a statement.
Kavita Das: 09:32
That is a constant question for me. That is a constant question. I think if you are writing about social issues, I think it has to be a constant question. It is one that the answer will vary. Essentially, the first couple of chapters in the book are to say that that’s the question that you ask yourself when you sit down to write each piece, because it’s going to vary a little bit, depending on the audience, depending on what your intentions are for that work. That’s why many of you might have noticed that there are some times two pieces about the same issue by the same writer. That’s very intentional. I wanted to show that the same person can have two different approaches to writing about the same topic. One could be very personal, and immersive. The other could be a bit more journalistic. I’m a bit removed.
Rachel Thompson: 10:24
One of the things I really loved was the practical advice you gave about balancing context and narrative, because of the temptation to over explain issues that we feel passionate about in our writing, and I relate it to that a lot. I’m wondering if you could talk about in your own writing, how do you find that balance. Like you were talking about asking this question each time you sit down to about balancing aesthetic and political but then also the explaining versus illustrating? I guess? Do you have any, maybe even examples where you were tempted in a first draft, and then in revision, you brought it more into balance?
Kavita Das: 10:56
Oh, I have so many examples. But essentially, this was a big ‘aha!’ moment for me, this was a big evolutionary milestone for me coming from where I did in the social change and social justice space to writing. I felt initially very compelled, the kind of writing I did in my previous life before becoming a writer was very explanatory, a lot of policy papers, briefs. So, my goal was for people to understand everything, comprehensively, with no dots on dotted, no ease on crossed, and that’s what felt like good writing to me, that writing, no offence to my peers in that space, is not about being compelling. It’s not about winning hearts and minds, it is about making sure that you’re comprehensive and have covered all your bases. That is not something that where you’re thinking about the narrative elements, you’re not thinking about plot, and scenes, and you’re not trying to be compelling, you’re trying to be thorough and complete. That’s important in that space.
Initially, when I started writing, I would write these things and that part of me would feel satisfied, and yet, I was getting rejections. Then I had to be honest, I was like, do you like this Kavita Das? Would you read this? Is this what you put on your bedside table? And it wasn’t. That was the truth, I had to acknowledge to myself. So, I thought about this, and I literally thought, and graphed it out, as I do in the book, and thought about, okay, no, I have to find that space, where I’m speaking to the issue, and doing justice to it. But I’m acknowledging who I am as a reader and consumer of literature and what do I love? I love dramatic scenes, I love character development. These are things that I love. So, how can I bring those even intrigued? Instead of answering all the questions, perhaps I start by asking a question. The reader says, I had that same question. I was wondering, how do they do that? Or what is going to happen about this? Whatever happened to that person?
So, starting with a question, and maybe even ending with a question, or leaving with some resolved, but now the difference is at the end, the person is invested, they’re invested in the issue. They’re curious about it, and you’ve piqued their interest and awareness. So, your goal was not to answer all of their questions, but to bring them in to the tent of that issue. That’s just fundamentally different.
So, that’s what every time I’m writing a piece, I have to think about is this a piece that’s going to focus more on the context and giving as much background about the issue, about the context, about the history, about the science behind it, which for certain venues and platforms is going to be more important, whether it’s a technical journal or journal that gives you more space? Or is this space that I don’t have a lot of words to work with and they are actually more focused on being very compelling, and where I have to focus on that. So, it’s different set of muscles.
It’s cool sometimes when you have a piece where you can toggle between the two. That’s why I think we’re seeing more hybridity, where you’re seeing these books and pieces that toggle between an expert perspective and a personal perspective. I think it is very satisfying as a writer, and I think it’s very satisfying to some readers between the left brain and the right brain. It is a question, and that’s why I like the motivations. Doing that for every piece and thinking about every piece intentionally is important.
Rachel Thompson: 14:36
I’ve loved what you say about bringing them into the tent and not answering all of their questions like thinking about that intention, like you said, the motivation of writing this piece, because you want it to show up on the bed nightstand, and maybe it feels less accessible, and it’s just like, here’s the hard truth about this issue. Right?
Kavita Das: 14:52
If your goal is to show up on the bed nightstand, or have it in their queue of things that they want to read, and you go with context, and that’s not what these readers are looking for. Some readers want that context. Some people who are already in the tent, what they want to do is go deeper. So, that’s your chance to go deeper on the issue and get into the nitty gritty and show off what you know about the research. But if your goal is to bring more people into the tent, that’s when you want to maybe really focus on the compelling arguments about the issue. So, the question is, if, if people don’t read this, then what have you accomplished? So, that’s what I had to ask myself. I had to figure out where that line was, for me. One of the things I tell my students is, one of the ways you can sink a piece is by trying to do everything with it. Because you feel like this is my chance, this is my one chance to write about this issue, so I’m going to put everything I know about it, or everything I think everyone should know. It’s that you want everyone to know everything that you do. But does everybody need to be the same kind of expert as you? So, that’s one of the things I had to ask myself is, do they need to know as much as me in order to take action or be curious or start beyond their own journey?
So, that’s the other thing I think about is that everybody’s on their own journey. So, you have to meet them where they are. You don’t want to talk down to them. You want them to be curious and intrigued by what you’re talking about, and feel some sense of the passion that you feel, even if it’s not at the same level, but they understand maybe you’re talking about an inequity, and they’re like, yeah, I’ve never thought about that. But that isn’t right. What can I do about it? That’s where you want to leave them thinking about that.
Rachel Thompson: 16:48
Having released this book in the world, I’m just thinking about that audience as well to know and like the reception of it. I can imagine you’ve had many great connections, but maybe also still some misconceptions about writing about social change. Can you tell us about some of the responses you’ve had in terms of ones that hit and then ones that maybe missed the mark a bit, too?
Kavita Das: 17:09
So, two things that come to mind are, so there is a review of the book, and the review was actually a great nuanced review of it, and it was in this feminist magazine, I don’t know if I’m saying it correctly, Laber or Liber, it’s relatively new, but excellent stuff. So, I was very pleasantly surprised. I’m one of those people, for the most part, any review is a good review. I really appreciated the depth and nuance of this review. But what I appreciated especially was the way that the review opened, it confirmed how you have a feeling about things, and I felt this, and this is a bit upsetting to me. But at the same time, when you get something confirmed, even when it’s upsetting, you’re like, I thought so. I knew it, and you want validation for your theory or your hypothesis.
One of the things that’s been concerning to me, and it continues to be concerning, but at least I know, it’s not in my head, I knew that it was a thing. There have been many instances of this. I’m taking a long time to wind up the ball to say this. But essentially, when I’ve been in literary spaces, there is a bit of condescension and a negative view by many of the gatekeepers towards writing that focuses on social issues. I have felt it in this very gas lighting backhanded way through conversations. Then I’ve had very direct conversations where our editor basically said, you want to be careful that you don’t veer into propaganda. It was in a very strange context, because I was not writing a pamphlet on abortion rights or something. So, I was kind of surprised by the comment. So, I felt this way. And that there’s this cadre that is like, we must resist this temptation to be about present day or, like, it’s as if it’s somehow less than anything that’s not guided entirely by aesthetics is somehow, and I have felt it.
I felt it in feedback and just in the moments and the review, opened with an anecdote by the reviewer, who after the pandemic was meeting up with people from their MFA program and one of whom, who happened to be a white male is now the editor at a literary magazine. So, she asked him, how’s that going? He says, yeah, good during the pandemic after George Floyd’s murder, we were just getting a lot of stuff about that, but hopefully, we’ll start getting less political pieces. So, there it was staring me in and I’m like, wow, it’s pervasive. So, I asked, think about the people who submitted pieces about something that was so gravely speaking to them, engaging with them, and you have an editor sitting at the top, deciding, oh, let me just bypass all of this, and look at the good stuff. So, that was a perfect example of this.
Similarly, I ended the book, and I’m trying to, in the book walk the balance between being inspiring, and providing examples, but also being honest and realistic. So, whether it’s the chapter on op-eds, opinion, editorials are a very important place that we debate and connect with others and talk about issues that we are facing. Yet at this moment, in this time, it is very fraught. There’s a way in which that dialogue and debate has disappeared, because people are entrenched in their own views. So, it’s a hard time to change people’s opinions, because we’re all consuming media or what have you that is already speaking to what we already think.
I wanted to be realistic about, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t write offence, it just means that you can manage your own expectations. This was very important for me, because after Trump was elected, after working in racial justice, I felt, I mean, besides disappointment, but it demoralization. Then I felt even more compelled, like this piece that I’m going to write is going to change things, is going to change. That was a lot to put on myself. I’ve seen others do the same. I felt like it was important for me to write it to the extent that it spoke to others, to the extent that it may be helped provide an additional perspective to those who might be undecided. That was a more realistic gauge than trying to change somebody who was perhaps on the far right and already decided. I think another important thing is it relatedly is this idea of the implications of our work out in the world.
This idea of like, people will talk about writing for change, or that you’ll write something and then the clouds will part and things will change. It’s because the way our history is told, whether it’s about the civil rights, whether it’s about LGBTQ+ rights, whatever it is, we like to focus on a class. We like to focus on the moment things change, as opposed to the hundreds of years struggle, decades long struggle, all the losses in between, all the setbacks, because that is seemed somehow a demotivating. But it’s a very false narrative that we put out into the world that allows us to believe, and it’s, I think, a much more attractive narrative for us to think about a realistic narrative for us to think about each one of us as part of a sea change, and think of our work as part of that.
That was something that I was trying to put into perspective. So, I want to inspire people, and at the same time, I don’t want them to feel crestfallen, if they feel like things didn’t change as they had hoped.
Rachel Thompson: 23:00
I really appreciated how you managed expectations in that section for sure.
Kavita Das: 23:04
Rachel Thompson: 23:05
And just the idea that yeah, like things are so kind of extreme right now, who are you talking to? Okay, maybe I’m talking to the people who aren’t quite sure. They just need to know a little bit about this and aren’t so entrenched in their views, or even just saying, resistance saying I’m here and we don’t agree with what you’re doing, even though we know you’re not going to agree with us, but I’m going to resist you by writing this. So, thanks for that.
I’m interrupting this book club conversation that we held live with Kavita Das and writers in our community to let you know about an upcoming series of workshops we are hosting in our community that are all about craft and conscience.
In particular, our session with Cicely Belle Blain called Writing About Oppression is one that I’d like to call out to you.
Cicely is a poet, activist and equity consultant who will help you turn your experience of oppression into powerful and inspiring content. Cicely write as a Black/mixed, neurodivergent queer femme, Cicely demonstrates how to harness the intersectionality of your marginalization as a powerful tool for inspiration. They’ll guide you through embracing the vulnerability of talking about your trauma, how to write about oppression for audiences who might not understand your experiences, and staying true to yourself while reaching a wider audience. This workshop provides poignant reflections on writing from BIPOC authors and tangible strategies for enhancing your own work.
That session is up next Wednesday very quickly and it’s offered, as all of our workshops are, Pay What You Can. You can learn more and register—again, Pay What You Can—for this live online workshop. It’s one and a half hour practical, grounded lessons from a brilliant instructor at rachelthompson.co/workshops.
And speaking of brilliant instructors, there are a few more workshops coming up that I’ll describe. So, we have:
A Fun Mess: Visual Journaling for Creative Writers with Olwen Wilson. Visual journaling is a creative way to express thoughts and feelings using words and imagery. This interactive session promotes connection and creation, reducing stress and boosting creativity. Oh my goodness, I’m so in need of this session and can’t wait for it. I asked Olwen to tell us more about the workshop, and this is what they said:
Olwen Wilson: 25:21
I’m excited for participants to experience how powerful a simple practice like visual journaling can be. It’s something that can expand their creative confidence so that they’re led by their excitement, not their fear. I think writers are going to be surprised by how much wisdom sneaks out of them and what they’re going to glean from other participants. They’re going to find ways to improve their creative and writing practices so that it works best for them.
Rachel Thompson: 25:51
And there is also Create a Tiny Book of Grief Drawing on Tarot with Meli Walker who asks, Wouldn’t it be nice to hold your grief in a new way? Yes, is my answer! Together, Meli writes, we will draw tarot cards and make a tiny book, helping us condense something big into something material. Here’s what else Meli says will be in store for writers in our time together.
Meli Walker: 26:18
I’m most excited about making a Tiny Book and using Tarot cards and doing something new so that we can make something material out of something that is painful. Hopefully, it’s surprising and exciting for writers that we’re might have a little bit of fun, and maybe enjoy ourselves a little bit and be playful, even though we’re making space for grief. So, looking forward to it.
Rachel Thompson: 26:44
And I’m also delighted that Ellen Chang-Richardson, an award-winning poet who has a NEW book coming out next Spring, Blood/Belies, which I am so excited for—anyway, Ellen **will share lessons on a topic they know much about: Politicking the Poem! Ellen invites you to join and witness, process, comment, and critique and join the long tradition of political poetry. Here’s Ellen on the workshop:
Ellen Chang-Richardson: 27:12
I think I’m most excited about seeing what others bring to the table. What is preoccupying people? Right now, when there’s a lot of bleep going around in the world. How are we as writers turning that around? What sort of receipts are people bringing or people going to bring? And how are we going to turn those into collages, so to speak.
Rachel Thompson: 27:38
Finally, if all of the workshops inspire you to think, hey, I’ve got a workshop idea that I’d like to try out, maybe even pitch to Rachel for future workshop series, hint, hint, Whitney French will be teaching a hands-on style workshop for anyone who’s wanted to run a workshop but doesn’t know where to start. Whitney French knows a thing or two or twenty about teaching writing workshops, as a writer, educator and publisher, editor of the award-winning anthology Black Writers Matter and Griot: Six Writers Sojourn into the Dark.
Then there’s another thing I want to unknot. But of course, I’m using your metaphors, I think you know, where I might be going to, or the metaphor from Paisley Rekdal, that we…
Kavita Das: 28:33
It’s short call, exactly the Gordian knot. I mentioned that in our membership community, we had a meeting to discuss social change, we took your book and ran with it as inspiration for our theme this month. It probably won’t surprise you that a lot of our discussion focused on cultural appropriation. It’s the thing that makes folks anxious. We’ve also read his directorial In | Appropriate. In our book club, we read several of the books that you mentioned in terms of appropriation, but what I really value is, when it comes to appropriation, I feel like we need to just keep at it, that there’s no one way to do it. There’s no perfect path around it. It is about an interrogation, mostly of the cells, and he really underscored that for us, and is a power differentials between groups and the writers, examination of self, untangling that Gordian knot of their own positionality. I guess what I’m trying to do is also link this to that editor to who’s talking about works of being too political, when meanwhile, if you’re not talking about those things, that’s also extremely political to not talk about what’s happening in the world in terms of racial injustice.
Rachel Thompson: 29:39
So, I’m wondering if you can talk a bit more, and this is my most convoluted question, I promise. But about this not untangling and I think I’m asking a little bit for me like instructor-to-instructor to someone who’s untangling her own knot and teaching writers and trying to refocus that concern about cultural appropriation to more like self-reflection and understanding positionality, if that makes sense?
Kavita Das: 30:01
No, that makes sense. I’ll tell you, this is an issue that I felt very passionately about. But it’s also a very fraught issue. This is something that I’ve had to sit with for a long time as a writer. Then when I started teaching, I was teaching, and I was noticing that there were a lot of questions all the time about it. So, I felt like, okay, I say that I created the class that I wish I had had as a writer. Then I created the book that I wish I’d had as a writer. So, I knew that I was going to really, have a chapter, subsequent chapter focused on this, you might have noticed that this chapter is a bit different than other chapters. In other chapters, I use essays by myself and others, to show principles in action. Whereas here, I said, you know what, this is a complicated subject. That needs a lot of self-reflection and nuance. So, the pieces, one by Lauren Michele Jackson, Alexander Chee, Kaitlyn Greenidge, and myself, each of them speak to different aspects. Then, of course, there’s a lot of citations of Paisley Rekdal, and Matthew Salesses: Craft in the Real World. So, all of this is to say, here are a bunch of resources and thoughts about this issue, because it is a complicated and evolving issue and set of issues. The way I think about it is that it’s a set of issues on top of broader issues. Yet, that’s not how it’s been discussed and that’s not how it’s been approached. What we’ve typically seen is a blow up, and accusations of cultural appropriation or cultural insensitivity.
Then on the other side, we’ve seen concerns over censorship, express, and then back and forth, this kind of seesaw. Again, it’s another example of a place where there is no room for discussion, and debate, and most importantly, learning. So, what happens then, is that there’s this withdrawal by folks who feel like, okay, this means I shouldn’t write, or this means I should write whatever I want, because people are going to be pissed off anyway.
So, these are the two takeaways I see people taking away, and both are problematic. You have people who might be excellent writers of conscience, not writing about something, and that’s a lot to the world and to them, you have others who aren’t thinking about these things that are going to continue, they’re going to use the way that the lack of discussion has been as an excuse to continue to not be reflective. I have to sit as a writer of color, as a woman, writer of color, I’ve talked about like the basis of all of this is actually the lack of equity, the lack of diversity and equity in the writing world. That’s not how this issue is talked about. It’s talked about as censorship and people being pissed off for no reasons. So, I had to sit down myself and think about what do I believe? Am I somebody who’s pro censorship, that’s not who I am. I, as a reader, and as a writer, I want a robust realm of literature. I believe that most anyone can write about most anything.
Having said that, I’m going to be honest and blunt, works like American dirt does not help the situation. That was not an equitable situation, not the way it was marketed. What’s problematic about that is that the easy thing is to focus on the author. But there were so many people involved in that all the way up to Oprah, publishers, editors, marketers, publicists, and that, to me is a very fascinating thing, because it really shows a complicitness all through the system. That’s why one thing that struck me as I was working on that chapter is, and you mentioned this, Rachel, you homed in on it. I tried to underscore it throughout. I picked these voices for the chapter that I mentioned, because they were so compelling to me, and I thought, okay, yeah, they’re really incisive in the way they’re talking about this. But the word that kept coming up in each of these persons works was POWER, who has it, who doesn’t have it, who wields it in the erasing of a story in the telling of a story. That’s really important.
When I had my piece, in my essay, although it focuses on the realm of biography, I feel like it’s a good measures to use for folks to think about who they are in positionality. This issue of who you are, as a person in terms of identity, and your intentions and motivations, in telling the story is really important. I often find that that’s missing, and people will literally point to sources and not think about what those sources are and whether they reinforce the erasure.
To be very blunt, if you are a white person writing about community that is not white, and then all your sources are also white. They might be experts in one sense, but you have continued intentionally or unintentionally, the further erase the voices that most need to be heard from. It’s amazing how that does happen. In my most recent iteration of my class Writing About Social Issues, I was so thrilled that in real time, one of the students who writes for a publication, she wrote to me to say that she was going to ask the platform that she writes for, to see if when she does interviews with people who are from outside of her identity, if they could be listed as co-writers and share the byline, so that the interview would be more balanced. I thought this is exactly the kind of thought process that can really contribute to greater equity. So, yes, I hope that’s helpful in terms of thinking about these issues.
Rachel Thompson: 35:46
Very much. Yeah. That chapter was great. I’ve noticed in the chat, we have people here from the community watching, they corrected me because we had also read another book called In | Appropriate, book that I was referring to with. So, thank you!
I think what I want to talk to you most of all, probably, is this idea of building a code of ethics as a writer, you did that focused on the personal essay, we’re circling this idea as well as the community and thinking about how would we build such a thing individually, and feeling a bit daunted by that task, too. So, I’m wondering if you have this answer, and if you don’t, that’s fine, too. But just sort of like, where to start in a way that would work as first steps, what have you seen work as first steps in terms of writers building their code of ethics, either in community or as individuals as well?
Kavita Das: 36:35
I think it’s important to have both, it’s great to be a part of a community where you feel like conscience is given as much value as craft, and then it’s not seen as separate. So, when you’re doing workshopping, you’re going to talk about form and structure and all of that stuff, and talk about issues of conscience as part of it. That’s a very actionable, tangible that goes beyond statements and just thinking about it, the times that I’ve sometimes brought up, and I sometimes would sit on my hands, when I was like, the only non-white person in a workshop, and I was like, I don’t want to be the person bringing this up, I don’t want to be the person bringing that up, I don’t want to bring up the fact that this indigenous person has been given a Western eyes name, just to make it easier for everybody, or that the most beautiful person in the world is a woman who has no identity, things that were glaring to me, but like, half an hour into the workshop, nobody was commenting upon it. Then I would, of course, because I’m who I am, and then people would look at me, and like I was bringing up something that has nothing to do with you know, and that was like, that is not a well-developed character, that is not an embodied character. It’s funny in other literature, whoever the identity of a writer, we’ve all seen characters that they’re there as plot devices.
I think characters, particularly outside of the mainstream identity, when they’re used as plot devices, it becomes obvious. I’m trying to concretize and saying, this is not a separate, it’s not like we are going to have a workshop and say, now that we’re done with the craft workshop, now we’re going to focus on issues of identity. That’s like the worst thing. It should actually be entirely part of the whole process. So, I think that’s important. But I think this issue of collective thinking about what does that look like, and then as an individual, we have our own individual set of ethics based on what we are trying to do, what we’re trying to write, what we’re trying to put into the world. And asking ourselves, and I think this is what’s most helpful is usually there’s such a focus on publication in this field. There’s such a desperation in it, such a focus on publication, and then there’s no discussion of the work out in the world and what it’s doing.
So, I think we’re literally imagining the work, thinking about the motivations, why do I want to do this? Then thinking about the implications of it, imagining it, taking a moment to project what could be the positive aspects of it out in the world? What would be the negative implications of it out in the world? Being very intentional again, about that? Is there harm that can come out of this being, and who is that harm too? Is it to ourselves, perhaps we’re doing deeply personal writing? I’m very concerned, when writers put things out into the world, and they have not thought about the implications to themselves, especially if they already, they’re marginalized. So, they could be further marginalized by those close to them or those farther from them.
As we were saying, these are fraught times. So, people feel free to say anything and everything online and direct that at people, especially if they don’t agree with your identity, your right to exist, not to mention opinions. So, I think that’s really important to think of, and then it’s very important to think about the implications to others, especially those who might be outside of your identity and what you can do to address those things by preparing them or preparing yourselves. I like a lot of what Anne Lamott says. But I fundamentally disagree with that idea that a lot of people, I’ve heard this said over and over again in memoir workshops, and I understand that we often self-censor ourselves so it’s hard to get things on the page. But people often use their quote, and I’m not getting it exactly right. But it’s something to the effect of, if people didn’t want to be included my writing, they should have acted better, essentially, they would have acted better.
I think that there’s often many sides to a story. I’m not saying that you should write about others, I just think that there are going to be ramifications. So, pretending that there isn’t going to be, is not a good idea. But I also think that what’s great for getting things on the page is thinking about writing. Then there’s a separate process where you actually think about putting it in the world and publishing.
I think for writing, you want to give yourself a lot of latitude. Somewhere between the writing and the publishing, it’s a good time to put it through the pressure tests, thinking about cultural sensitivity, appropriation, whether you’ve been fair, what are the ramifications, implications to you and others. That’s the part where I feel doesn’t get focused on in workshops enough and I think is important, not just in terms of Writing About Social Issues, just in terms of putting writing out into the world.
Rachel Thompson: 41:30
Thank you from saying my bandwidth is low, and I think that’s a metaphor, perhaps. Not true, because I’m feeling very energized by this conversation. I just was grateful for that response. Then also, I liked that you also teased out that quote, from Matthews Salesses,
“Craft is made by culture.”
The fact that craft and conscience again are inseparable things and those are important things for us and think about it, because otherwise, we end up being like that person who thinks, oh, anything that’s not about my dominant experience. The world is political, when meanwhile, every choice we’re making is still political. So, thank you for that. I want to make sure we have time for questions from folks who are here watching live as well. You can voice it, say it aloud, or you can type it, it’s up to you.
Yeah, I have a question. Just as a way of introduction. My name is Louise, I live in Southern California, Camilla traditional lambs. I really appreciated reading this book. I love the way you structured it. I don’t think I’ve seen a book that had this kind of structure with example essays after each chapter. So, that was super helpful to me.
My question is a real kind of practical focus one. I always go to the back when I see an anthology, and I see where are the pieces were originally published. So, I’m specifically looking at the places where your work was published. And I was wondering, Catapult, rip, but like The Rumpus, Guernica, several from Los Angeles Review of Books, some places I’m a little more familiar with, as far as like, literary outlets, you know, Kenyon Review.
I guess my question is, how did you decide where you wanted these different pieces to go? And were you pitching? Were you submitting full articles, especially for the ones that are less commonly known literary venues, like the Atlantic, and you don’t have any of your pieces for The Guardian, but there are several others. I’m guessing you’ve probably written for The Guardian.
Kavita Das: 43:32
Yeah, this is one of the biggest things I had to learn as a writer. So, generally speaking, literary outlets, they want you to submit the whole piece in general, whereas with journalistic platforms, they are interested, generally in you pitching. Then they will see if they like the idea, and they might even come back to you and say, this sounds great. But we also want you to cover this or, you know, we don’t want the part about this part. They want to sometimes dialogue with you about what they want. There’s also the issue of expediency. So, definitely, if you’re speaking to something that is happening, as we speak, journalistic places want you to be able to deliver it very, very fast.
Literary outlets are more expensive, and they sometimes take forever, glacially to get back to you, because many of them are run by volunteers so it takes them a long time to go through stuff. What I was talking about before about hybridity, that’s more for literary outlets, where they give you the latitude to be a little more experimental, and some are more focused on experimental writing than others. So, when you asked have you been there? It’s like, I was like, yes, all of the above. So, I will read something like, just like many of you, you read something that really strikes you and seems very similar to the kind of writing that you’re doing or want to do. That is information.
So, you can say, okay, this is a place that I want to write for or where my work fits, where you won’t have to try too hard to convince them that your work fits there. So, that’s exactly how it is I literally looked at what the requirements are, what they’re looking for, and I tried to speak to that in terms of if it’s a pitch. But if it’s a submission, it’s a submission. Sometimes, like, I came to this space without connections, so I didn’t have a Rolodex of editors. So my Atlantic piece, which is the hilarious story is I was pissed off, deeply concerned and pissed off by the reaction to Marlon James. I was so happy that he won the Booker Prize, but the reaction in the writing community, which I understood as a writer, but it was like, people being don’t give up, he was rejected by all these agents, he gave up on writing, he went off and then this one person went and found his. I was like, you see that as a positive story? I see that as a system failure, that so many agents, and so many editors couldn’t see this shining brighter.
So, to me, I wanted to use it as an example to critique the whole system. So, I ran it on Facebook, and my friend, Shakira Diaz wrote to me and said, this is an essay. I was like, what? Then I wrote it, I wrote it very quickly, because I had been thinking about it. Then I said, where should I submit this, and she’s like, to The Atlantic, and I was like, but I don’t know anybody there. I submitted it to the general Slush Pile, and I got accepted. They didn’t even edit it much. So, I have many other stories that go in the other direction. But I want to say that it is possible. If you’re reading something, and you find it compelling in it, speaks to what you’re writing about, or the way you approach things, take notes, keep a list, a spreadsheet, and focus on those entities. Hope that’s helpful, Louise.
Rachel Thompson: 46:58
Thanks, Kavita. We have Kelly Morgan next.
Kelly Morgan: 47:01
Thank you so much, Kavita, for your conscience, your craft and your wisdom. I really love your comment about harm that we have to anticipate the harm we’re doing to others. But I also wonder if you could talk a little more about the harm we often do to ourselves. It seems like there’s been an elevation of flaunting our worst selves on the page, and I don’t know if this is a push among women in particular kind of a way to put ourselves down either to connect with others or to conform to the systems and structures that have been keeping our voice since in the margins.
Kavita Das: 47:45
That’s a really good, nuanced question, Kelly. I think it’s important not to chase trends. I’ve had people tell me, usually white writers say, oh, you write about really trendy stuff like race. I’m like, oh, no, I’m not writing about race because it’s a trend. I feel compelled to write about this issue, because I’ve worked on this issue. That’s how I feel about it. And that’s how people should feel about social issues that they write about. Impelled, not because they’re like, oh, this is hot right now.
The reason I’m bringing that up is because I’m glad to see more women writers, I’m glad to see more of all types of writers being published of all backgrounds and identities. But there’s a way in which there’s a salaciousness for trauma memoirs, but I find it interesting. It’s like we will publish your work other work novels and short stories and pieces, but I have this kind of what do they call it? When you’re bumper to bumper and traffic, rubbernecking kind of fascination with like, the only way your life is interesting to me is if you give me all of the salacious background that you may or may not feel comfortable with. But this is the only way you’ll get published.
That being said, if you are truly okay with those portions of your life being out there, because maybe you do want other people who have had similar traumatic experience to know that they are seen and heard. And you are okay with that and you’ve sat with it and thought about the implications of that being out in the world, then that’s one thing. I don’t think that’s what’s always happening. I think there’s sometimes a lot of pressure and this kind of justification of like telling your truth, to leave it all out there. I think that that can be a good thing, but it can also be a harmful thing.
I’ll just give an example, which may be helpful. So, I given the background that I have writing in, working in social change and social justice. I am more used to writing about fraught issues and knowing that when I put it out in the world that there’s going to be opposition and so forth. That doesn’t scare me as much as writing deeply personal, revealing things about myself. For me, like I included in an essay in the last chapter, a personal essay about being born with a cleft palate and the health struggles I had and navigating. For me, that was deeply personal. That was a lot for me to put out into the world. Yet, I got contacted by folks who had cleft lip and cleft palate, saying thank you so much for writing this, I don’t feel like this is something written about. It was very gratifying compared to some of the other things I’ve written about social issues where it’s like, yeah, I agree with you, give them hell! Both are wonderful, but they’re just different.
We all have our different thresholds. So, I think one of the things that’s difficult is when we try to measure ourselves by other people’s threshold, and it fundamentally is, what do you love reading? What do you want to put out into the world, rather than trying to follow trends, because those aren’t necessarily people who are thinking about the implications to you, right? So, you want to have you and the people that you most trust, helping you think about whether you want to put that out in the world?
Rachel Thompson: 51:12
I’m seeing so many nods. So, yes, I think it was very helpful. Thank you so much, Kavita! That’s all of our time. I already taken you over a couple of minutes. So, I just want to make sure that we have time to thank you, then our gratitude for this book that we’ve really enjoyed reading. We don’t often have the author’s come in as guests, actually, normally we try to discuss it on our own. But for this one, we really felt it was important to bring you in. So, I’m really grateful that you did come to talk to us.
Kavita Das: 51:36
Well, thank you, Rachel. And everyone, thank you for choosing craft and conscience and having a collective conversation about it. I hope it’s helpful. That was my aim. I have my class and I reach a certain amount of people every time I teach it. I wrote the book, because I was like, how do I put this out there for more folks, and my goal is for more people that feel like they can be writers of conscience and thinking about these things out in the world and on the page.
Rachel Thompson: 52:06
So, lovely listeners! That was Kavita Das on Craft and Conscience, published by Penguin Random House.
There is so much in this approach that really brings us closer to the core of what we’re saying as writers and seeing more clearly how craft is conscience and every choice we make is a political one. The more grounded a writer is in who they are and what they stand for, the more compelling and clear their writing—something that has come up time and again on this podcast from previous luminous guests.
Our next book club book, by the way, is On Connection by the poet Kae Tempest, which is about combatting alienation through creativity. The Guardian reviewer, Holly Williams, said of the book, I drank On Connection down like a fresh glass of water. So, if you want to get refreshed and then be part of our next book club conversation, which will appear in this stream, the podcast stream toward the end of November, so you have time to pick up a copy and read it and prepare to discuss it and hear our discussion. Refresh yourself and join our community book club conversation then. So, pick up your copy!
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Thank you for listening—I encourage you to hone your craft and conscience (because they are one and same) and write luminously!
I acknowledge the lands I’m recording on, as a guest in the South Sinai, Egypt, on lands historically and presently occupied by the el Muzzina Bedouin.