Manifesting Social Change: An Interview with Kavita Das
The cover art for Craft and Conscience: How to Write About Social Issues centers the book’s primary identity as an actionable craft intensive. Surrounding the title are the names of fifteen renowned authors because, as the reader soon discovers, Kavita Das has also curated an anthology—a diverse collection that places the work of social justice visionaries into conversation with her own socially conscious work and insights.
Like her new book, Das’s background is a blend of advocacy and artistry. For fifteen years, she worked in social change, addressing issues ranging from community and housing inequities to public health disparities and racial injustice. Das left the social change sector to become a full-time writer and to share the life story of Grammy-nominated Hindustani singer Lakshmi Shankar in her first book, Poignant Song: The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar (Harper Collins India, June 2019). A Pushcart Nominee, Das’s work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Longreads, Electric Lit, The Kenyon Review, McSweeney’s, Guernica, Teen Vogue, and The Atlantic, among others. She has been a regular contributor to NBC News Asian America, Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Rumpus.
I first met Das in 2018 at Tin House, where, under the mentorship of Kiese Laymon, we shared a transformative workshop experience. Unlike traditional writing workshops, we were encouraged to embrace socially conscious dimensions in our writing and feedback. Das had launched her nonfiction seminar, Writing About Social Issues, which she has taught at Catapult and The New School. She guides participants through lessons and readings on how to write about social issues in ways that resonate while doing justice to the issue. The class will be taught again early next year through the Shipman Agency Workroom, and information is available by contacting .
Das’s hope to reach more writers of conscience fueled her desire to write Craft and Conscience. The book’s October 4th publication date had just passed when we caught up for this online conversation.
Rochelle Newman-Carrasco: Tell us about the title of your new book, especially those two words: Craft and Conscience.
Kavita Das: In truth, the book did not start out with this title. I had come up with a snazzy title that was action oriented. Then, as it happens, towards the end of writing the whole book, I wrote the introduction and conclusion. I already had ideas about how I wanted the introduction and conclusion to serve, of course—but then, I wrote them.
In the introduction, I was framing the book. Why this book? Why me? Why now? What will you get from reading this book? A kind of a preview. So, in writing all of this, I used the phrase craft and conscience to address the importance of that duality. Craft includes conscience. Discussions of craft must include issues of conscience, because issues of conscience are not separate. They shouldn’t be regarded as a burden or ancillary. They are essential to the craft of writing.
I also thought it was important to examine what is meant by “social issues.” Do you find it in the dictionary if you look it up? That’s one of my underlying objectives in this book—to deconstruct and demystify.
RN: You start your book as you do your class, by asking if all writing is political. Is it?
KD: I think all writing is political, irrespective of the writer’s intentions, because it’s how it is received. It’s how it is discussed. There’s intention and then there’s what ultimately is seen and analyzed. In the book, I talk about how we tend to associate political writing with certain types of nonfiction like journalism, exposés, or op-eds. But there’s politics in every genre. Whether it’s westerns, romance writing, or you name it—they’re all political. Sometimes more explicitly. Sometimes more implicitly. But yes. There’s a political side to them all.
RN: You left your social justice career to write full-time, but that didn’t mean you left social justice work. Can you reflect on this throughline as you transitioned from one career to another?
KD: I was working in racial justice, heading up marketing and communications for a wonderful organization called Race Forward. That’s where I was before going into writing full time. My first project was writing a biography of an overlooked woman of color, musician Lakshmi Shankar, who was a Grammy-nominated artist. I wanted her life story told, although I didn’t necessarily know if I was the right person for it. I had imposter syndrome around just writing, then writing a biography and doing justice to her story. Then there was the R word: research. All these things scared me. But I felt compelled to write her biography. She was very advanced in age. I felt like there was the big way racial injustice happens. Then, there was a quiet way, which is lives and contributions being erased from history. I wanted to be part of rectifying that. That was my impetus.
As I came to writing, I saw how inequitable the writing and publishing world was. While working on the biography, I felt compelled to write about that, about industry inequities.
As I came to writing, I saw how inequitable the writing and publishing world was. While working on the biography, I felt compelled to write about that, about industry inequities. After reading this work, writers would sometimes come to me and ask me things like, “How did you go about thinking about this?” We’d have these discussions. I realized people did want to know how to address social issues. People were curious. Sometimes we would have fraught conversations. And—you know this from going to writing workshops—there are the conversations in the classrooms and the conversations outside the classrooms. I wanted to legitimize those conversations happening outside the rooms, conversations filled with questions about how this field operates, how it is dysfunctional, how it lets in some people and excludes others.
RN: In Craft and Conscience you reflect on the ways copy editors, and even sensitivity readers, impact socially focused writing—for good and for bad. What should writers be aware of?
KD: Writing is often talked about as a solitary pursuit. And it is while you are wrestling with the ideas—yes, it is. That’s you and the page. Then, whether it’s a book, an essay, or an article, you get to the publication phase. Overall, I’ve had wonderful experiences, where editors have understood what I’m trying to do and have helped me make the work stronger. But, you know, there have been a few not too great experiences.
One of the themes throughout Craft and Conscience is this notion of: Who gets to decide? Who gets to decide the ultimate intention of a work? Who gets to be gatekeepers? Who gets to decide what is neutral and what is provocative? Whether it’s writers or copy editors, whatever role is being played, all of us are shaped by our experiences and identities. Pretending or assuming that’s not the case is where the issues arise. That’s why an awareness on everybody’s part is key.
One of the themes throughout Craft and Conscience is this notion of: Who gets to decide? Who gets to decide the ultimate intention of a work? Who gets to be gatekeepers? Who gets to decide what is neutral and what is provocative?
RN: What about sensitivity readers?
KD: It’s an evolving profession. It was once something that often got done as a favor—which is another type of marginalization, right? As any field evolves, different standards and protocols evolve. Sensitivity reading is no exception. I’m interested to see where it goes.
Using a sensitivity reader doesn’t substitute for self-awareness. People need to do that work for themselves. Then, as a part of that self-awareness, say: You know what, I’ve taken this as far as I can take it. Given that my work is centered on or touches upon lives that are outside of my experience or identity, it’s important to have a culturally informed perspective.
I don’t think anybody should be made the monolithic representative for anything. Even a writer who is writing about their community—I mean, there are so many substrata. Is it the same class community? What about the level of education? Is that the same? What assumptions am I bringing to my writing about a community? Pretending we don’t have biases is part of the problem. Not interrogating those biases is an enemy to nuance and authenticity.
RN: Let’s talk about cultural appropriation. Who can write what? What criteria do you use to answer that question for yourself?
KD: This is a topic that comes up a lot in my classes. When we see it written about it’s often in this very binary way. It’ll be about accusations of cultural appropriation. Then the response is, Oh, you’re trying to censor us, you’re trying to cancel us. Then we go back and forth, and back and forth. While that’s happening, we’re just not having constructive conversations. Anybody who says anything about cultural appropriation is branded as seeing problems where there aren’t any. So, it’s just this unhelpful banter and not generative conversation.
I had my own evolving thoughts on this. So I sat down and interrogated myself: Why do I feel the way I feel? What do I really want? As a woman of color writer, writing about a woman of color—do I really want, to be blunt, a white person not to write about artists of color? Is that what I want? No, that’s not what I want. I want more people writing about these things. And yet… I had to be honest with myself about wanting them to approach certain subjects in a way that really required them to reflect.
I do believe most anyone can write about most anything and that it requires research.
But the thing that doesn’t get talked about is this: self-reflection of who you are relative to what you’re writing about and really thinking that through. That gets missed.
RN: In Craft and Conscience you discuss different strategies for writing about social issues— like reportage and personal narrative. Can you talk about some of these approaches?
KD: In the chapter that focuses on this, I talk about reportage and how that style values and focuses on an outsider’s perspective and includes many points of view. Even if there’s a central POV, there will still be multiple points of view. Reportage, as a word, can be daunting. I talk about it as telling the story from the outside in.
Similarly, memoir is telling the story from the inside out. It’s told from the personal point of view. You’re centering yourself, and you’re not making any bones about it. You’re like, This is a story told from my perspective. It can be about a social issue and your experience of it.
Now we’re seeing more and more hybridity. Maybe the writer studied the topic as an academic, and they’re a person who has a meaningful personal experience with a given issue. They’re able to use an investigative lens; they’ll examine the issue from a research standpoint. But they can also use the lens that comes from their own experiences. In a hybrid piece, they weave and toggle between these two perspectives.
Traditionalists in both fields will likely say: Well, this is too researchy to be memoir. We just want to hear your story. We don’t care about all this other background information. Cut. Cut. Cut. Similarly, from the reportage perspective, they’ll say: This needs to be neutral, objective, you’re coloring this with your perspective. And, in this case, that gets said as a negative. I think that’s why we’re seeing more hybridity—because classic forms aren’t big enough to hold what these writers want to say.
Sometimes writers assume that readers will not value our perspective if it’s outside. But there’s nothing wrong with an outsider perspective, so long as there’s transparency. So there isn’t any confusion. So the reader isn’t left with this feeling like: “Oh, but I thought…” or, “you presented yourself as such.” Or “I assumed because of the way you were”—you know, there were insinuations or whatever. There’s something to be said for a writer finding ways to acknowledge their identity and be transparent with the reader about who they are and where they are in the onion related to the issue.
RN: Your daughter Daya is just turning three. I know she will be changing the world, but she will also be absorbing an awful lot from classmates, teachers, and curriculums. As she navigates reading, writing, and the world, what do you wish for her?
KD: I feel like this book, the motivation and the hopefulness, is because I’m playing the long game. If anything, Daya’s arrival has only made me more focused on that. I feel an urgency—not an urgency as in “everything must happen now,” but that I continue to believe and to fight. I continue to write about social issues, because I want to see the needle move on things.
Growing up, I went from a diverse environment in New York City to suburban New Jersey—a relatively affluent community where I was one of a handful of people of color in the whole school. When I asked, “Can we read writers of color?” my teacher said, sarcastically, “Like who?” And I was like, “What?” Because we were reading E.M. Forster about India. And I was like, “Can we read somebody from India? An Indian author, Rabindranath Tagore, won the Nobel.” So, when you say, “Like who?”—that’s more about you than me. I had to have those conversations. Right? And I lost. But I would emphasize—everybody lost. I didn’t see it that day. I didn’t understand. Everybody lost.
I want a world where Daya doesn’t have to have those conversations. Sure, she’ll have to have other ones. But I want her to be equipped and know her worth. I want to be honest with her about the world and where it’s at. But I also want to emphasize what she can do within it. That’s a hard balancing act. But that’s where I try to land. When I feel like throwing in the towel, and the cynical side of me kicks in, I think no—none of this happens overnight.
What I’ve understood from my work before writing, and from writing as well, is that change takes time. Change is not easy. Change meets resistance. One of the ways you know that you’re on the right path towards something is when it’s not easy, when you meet with resistance.
What I’ve understood from my work before writing, and from writing as well, is that change takes time. Change is not easy. Change meets resistance. One of the ways you know that you’re on the right path towards something is when it’s not easy, when you meet with resistance. That’s true even when you’re writing, and you go to edit. If your way of editing is to be like: I’m keeping all of this. Why should we make changes? It’s all good, you know? Or, if you’re trying to interrogate a topic and you’re not hitting walls, that means you’re not interrogating. Really, you’re just trying to spew.
RN: You’ve witnessed a growing number of people wanting to write and express their viewpoints on social issues. Is this growth for better or worse?
KD: For better. Definitely. But I do have a little caveat, because it can be for worse. It requires self-reflection, and not everybody is willing to do that. Some people jump on the social issues bandwagon because they see it as a trendy beat—like, “Oh, race is so hot.” If you look at race or misogyny, for example, as a beat—if you’re thinking, “Let me get in on this trendy topic,”—that’s not a reason to write.
Similarly, publishers, after not being interested in the experiences of marginalized people for so long, now have an interest in traumatic stories. But there’s not a discussion about what those stories are doing—to writers, to readers. I’m not saying they should or shouldn’t publish trauma stories, but when a writer is being pushed in that direction, they need to take a moment to consider what it will do—to them and to others—to have that out in the world.
RN: What’s something you’ve recently become conscious of?
KD: I have become as committed to joy as I am to justice. I had a difficult time publishing my first book, then Trump was elected—and I had been worried about that possibility, but I was surrounded by people who either ignored me or acted like I was a conspiracy theorist. They were like, this is America. That’s never going to happen. Right? So, all of it put me in this place. But then, with my daughter’s arrival, it forced me to ask what my perspective on the world was going to be. What is it that I want?
What’s interesting is while I was having these thoughts, I came to find all these people in the social justice sphere. Whether it was Adrienne Maree Brown or Valarie Kaur, so many people I respect were having thoughts about joy and happiness too. I acknowledge what I can and can’t control in the world. I know what I want to put into it—that’s what I can control. And if I have diminishing joy, how can I put joy back into the world?
RN: The opening dedication in Craft and Conscience seems tailor-made for the Antioch MFA community. As an alum, who came to writing after a decades-long career in cultural marketing, it really spoke to me. Before we conclude, would you mind reading it aloud?
To the social change agents,
who risk much to change the way we think and act,
by speaking out and marching forward,
and most importantly, by modeling a better society.
To the writers,
who take us on journeys,
within and without,
through their wondrous imaginations and words.
And to those, like me,
who straddle the two realms,
fervently believing that writing can, and has,
changed the world.
Rochelle Newman-Carrasco credits her NYC Lower East Side roots with her love of culture, language, and story. She holds a BFA in Theater from UC Irvine and an MFA from Antioch, LA with an emphasis in CNF and Literary Translation. Her bilingual children’s book, Zig-Zag, co-authored with Alonso Nuñez, was published by CIDCLI of Mexico City. For over three decades, she has had a pioneering career in multicultural and inclusive marketing, writing for Ad Age and other industry publications. Her literary essays and articles have been published in Lilith, Off Assignment, The Independent, The Muleskinner Journal, and Lunch Ticket, among others. In addition to her author interviews, which have appeared in Lunch Ticket, she has published a series of interviews with C-Suite marketers as part of a new CMO guide published by the ANA’s Alliance for Multicultural and Inclusive Marketing.