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The Risks, Realities, and Rewards of Writing About Social Issues
A roundtable with Kavita Das, the author of ‘Craft and Conscience: How to Write About Social Issues,’ and contributors Gaiutra Bahadur and Gabrielle Bellot.
Craft and ConscienceCoolie Woman
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?
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?
Das: Thanks for these rich insights. I share twelve of my own essays in , 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 , 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?
Fatal VisionThe Journalist and the Murderer
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?
Das: I appreciate your honest and nuanced perspectives. As I note in my own piece on cultural appropriation in the realm of biography in , 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 , 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?
The Philadelphia Inquirer
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.
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