Fortunately for us, Koul has taken that angst and turned it into a beautifully daring collection of personal essays where she not only taps into issues of race and gender but also the hair politics of brown culture, shadism, interracial dating, and the continuous reconciling of her Indian roots with her modern Canadian upbringing. It is a complicated struggle, but with rewarding outcomes.
As far as essays go, they don’t get any more personal than this. Koul’s writing serves a larger purpose: she highlights the experience of someone who’s felt out of place or less of a person for simply being who they are. The essays are about realizing Koul’s roots — “So much of immigration is about loss.” But they are also about accepting all aspects of herself: “My pubic hair looked like a wise man’s beard, V-shaped and thick and all-knowing,” she writes about her decision to give her body a break and to stop waxing herself into white culture’s good graces.
Koul is the senior reporter for Buzzfeed News based in Toronto. She’s written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Jezebel, The Hairpin, and a slew of other publications. In these venues, she keeps it real. Reading her essays is like having that friend you’ve always wanted; brutally honest — mainly about herself — and fearless in her capacity to be an outspoken and vulnerable human being.
We spoke on the phone about doing the Lord’s work in this book.
ORLY MINAZAD: I know you’ve been outspoken on social media about issues of race and gender. Was writing a book a more or less challenging platform?
SCAACHI KOUL: I think writing any book is a challenge. There’s not a version of myself that finds writing easy. The personal aspect feels really inevitable to me and my work, feels really natural. It was a different challenge, but it didn’t feel like a worse one or a less-tangible one.
You share a lot of personal stories. Was there anything that was off limits for you?
“I don’t feel uncomfortable about almost anything! I’m pretty open.”
I think there is a line between writing about yourself and using yourself as a vessel for other people to see their experiences through. I didn’t want to write chapters that felt like I was just writing about myself because I was bitter or angry or confused. If there isn’t a secondary emotion then it’s just sort of like a diary entry.
I don’t think it was so much about feeling uncomfortable as it was about stories that I don’t think were that interesting. There are stories that are really about navel-gazing that I felt I could write, but it doesn’t feel that relevant or that necessary. And there are stories within nonfiction essay writing where you just need to give the piece the time to live. You need the story to have some time to end. I had drafts written about things that are going on in my life and continue to go in my life that haven’t had any sort of firm resolution and aren’t ready to be written about.
I’m Iranian and so shocked about how much our cultures are similar.
Yeah, I get this all the time when I do events. I had a woman come up to me who was Nigerian and she was like, “Oh my God, our moms are the same,” and I was like, “Yeah, moms are the worst! Wherever you are. They are so difficult.”
A lot of people ask me about how to make the book relatable and I didn’t try. It just happened. I think if you let people of color, and women of color in particular just tell you a story, it’ll be relatable. You just have to give them room to do it. And I got really lucky ’cause my editors let me do that.
I have yet to have — with a couple of exceptions and I’m just going to assume these people are dumb — but I’ve never had a white person come up to me and say, “I couldn’t really get into it ’cause I didn’t understand.” You don’t need to! I’m either explaining it to you or maybe that portion of the story is not for you but you can still like it. You’re allowed to laugh. Don’t worry about it.
I didn’t cater it to a white audience. I catered it to brown women. Brown is a big term, I know that, but I didn’t cater to just Indian or Hindu girls. That’s not reasonable. Those are narrow designations. But I figured, you know what, I’m fine with brown girls being into it and everyone else is just icing on the cake.
Do you feel like you’re a spokesperson for brown girls?
I think white people would like me to be that because there aren’t that many. There just isn’t that many people of color in media so it’s easy to say that. No, I don’t feel that way. I think I’m telling you a story, I think I know stuff about my community. I don’t mind being asked. But I think referring to me as a spokesperson would be a bad idea! I don’t speak for everyone and who knows, maybe some day I’ll say something fucking crazy and everyone will regret it.
You write about your niece Raisin — who is biracial — and how hard you’re trying to get her to recognize her “brownness.”
She’s a beast. I’m always trying to get her to do that. It’s not working yet, but she’s young. We’ve got some time before I feel like I have to use some force. Her mother bought her [a copy of the book] and I signed it. We’d give it to her when she’s 16. Let’s give to her when she’s 45. I don’t really wanna be around for that conversation. I’m sure she’ll read it eventually and maybe it will make sense to her, if it doesn’t, then she can go to hell.
You talk about navigating between these two worlds, a problem I think most children of immigrants experience. In the chapter “Aus-Piss-EE-OUS,” you write about your cousin’s elaborate, sexist wedding. “Hamhock will do it because he loves me and I will do it because I love him, but above all, I will do it to give my family an ending, a promise that I remember parts of our history I can’t possibly know.” Do you feel like wanting to continue with those traditions will label you as an anti-feminist?
That’s nonsense. Being a human being is living in dualities. Feminism isn’t defined by bra burning, or whatever 1970s second-wave feminism definition people still have in their heads. You are more than allowed to be a feminist and also want some dumb fucking wedding with a big-ass dress. Trust me, it’s fine. I don’t begrudge you that. I don’t particularly want it but live your life.
I think that essay is entirely about that duality. Trying to make sense of a culture that also kind of hates you. All cultures are a little sexist. This isn’t to say that Indian people are backward or whatever, I hate that narrative. White culture — whatever that culture would be — is sexist. So being a woman is fighting with that all the time. I would love to live in a world where I could just want stuff and I don’t have to think about the political ramifications of it. Or live in a world where I could just not want stuff. I don’t know what the solution is. For example, if you want kids then you’re a bad feminist. If you don’t want kids, then you’re selfish. I don’t think there is a right answer to that but I certainly don’t ascribe to a point of view that if you don’t want X things you’re not a good feminist. I think if you are anti-abortion, you’re a bad feminist. I think if you’re against gay marriage or racial equity, you’re a bad feminist. Those things to me are what would preclude you to call yourself that because those beliefs seem inextricable from feminism. Weddings, wanting to wear certain things or not wanting to wear them or whatever has nothing to do with it. They don’t matter in the long term.
I feel like the older I get the less I care about what people are going to say. When I was younger, I was very worried about boys liking me. By the time I was 23, I was like, “Oh, I could give a shit.” I do not care. Now I’m a little bit older and now I don’t care what a lot of women think either. That argument comes from women mostly, I feel. I can’t engage with it. Men engage with it as well, but I’ve shut my ears off to that because I don’t care what a dude says about my life choices.
They have opinions, but it’s a little easy to say, “Well, it’s not valid.” If my boyfriend said anything to me I’d be like, “Go fuck yourself.” I don’t listen to him either.
You have a large following of angry trolls on Twitter. How have they responded?
The nice thing about writing a book is that there is a fee for entry. On the internet, it’s free for you to scream at me and you can say whatever you want and you can read the headline of a piece or look through an interview and decide you’re mad at me. Fortunately, publishing has not caught up with the many whims of piracy so it’s really hard to get a book for free. Unless you want to really spend your time at the library or really have to invest. I don’t think those people want to give me $16 just to scream at me.
Every so often someone tweets at me about how they think the book is self-serving and narrow. That’s fine. I can live with that. But ultimately if you have a problem with me because of my race, or my gender, my politics, or because you think that I’m angry or loud or you think that I should be put in my place the book is not going to change your mind one way or another. You’re still going to find a way to yell at me. Maybe that’s another layer, another barrier for them to cross.
You said it’s not fun having sympathy for the people who try to hurt you.
I just feel like at the end of the day, they’re worse off than I am. And I don’t get anything by being angry at people who are worse off than I am. I don’t feel bad for people like Milo [Yiannopoulos]. I think he’s probably doing fine, and that makes me mad. I don’t feel bad for Martin Shkreli, who’s that pharmaceutical lunatic who just screams at people all day. I don’t feel bad for those people because I think they’re too lucky and that makes me mad. I do feel weirdly bad for the ding-dongs who follow these dudes and become disciples of them because they’re lost and they’re sick.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve followed the line of when someone tweets something calling me a cunt or threatens me. If I follow that line and talk to them, some of the time they answer back sincerely and tell you what is wrong with them. It is always some kind of abuse or misdeed, or something happened to them and they just don’t have the tools to deal with it. I would argue that a lot of that is just influence of talks of masculinity. They have not been trained to just see a fucking therapist so they go online and yell all day. To be angry with someone like that, I don’t get anything. So you know what, I’m really sorry that your life is like that and that’s how you’re dealing with it, but I can’t give you more energy beyond “boy, that’s tough, I’m sorry to hear that.” That’s all you get.
So it doesn’t seem like anything that’s resolvable, the online harassment.
No, there is nothing I can do. Trust me, I’ve tried! I thought, “Okay, I’ll get to this next level of my career, and this book will come out and everything will be beautiful.” No, that doesn’t exist. There is always somebody who thinks they’re the one who is going to be able to take this away from me. I feel like empathy and sympathy is the easiest emotion I can have ’cause it requires almost nothing from me. Anger requires something from me, frustration does, sadness does and proactive anger does but just being like, “Aw, bummer,” that’s the least energy I can give. And that’s what I’m doing. Part of this is taking the higher road, I guess, but it’s not really that noble. I’m just saying I’m fucking tired and I don’t want to give them anything else.
I don’t know how else I’d be able to work if I kept listening to it.
You ended the book moving in with Hamhock, a taboo in your culture — among others — for girls to do before marriage. Your dad wasn’t happy about it. How’s he dealing?
He’s made great strides. I finished it that way because I didn’t have an answer at the time. For all I know, my dad can become an unbelievable jerk yet again. Life is cyclical so who knows, but things are good. There’s always going to be parts of my life that my dad isn’t going to want to engage in, and I respect that. Like, he doesn’t need to hear about our shared living quarters. That’s fine. I’m okay with that.
Your dad is at the center of a lot of these stories, and he’s hilarious. Sounds like you’re turning into him.
Yes! I’m trying to not do that but I don’t know how. It’s inevitable. Half of me is my mother. Which is like kind of nervous, weird, and dramatic and the other half is my dad, who is funny and angry. I don’t know what’s going happen to me. But it’s fine. I’m ready to die.
Orly Minazad is a freelance writer covering arts and culture in Tehrangeles (also known by some as Los Angeles).