That essay is included in Das’s new book Craft and Conscience: How to Write About Social Issues. The book is a refreshing take on “cancel culture,” writing outside of one’s community, and the ways sociopolitical issues shape and inform our writing. It deconstructs bias, authorial ego, and the writer’s putative “right” to tell whatever story they see fit. The book doesn’t chide or lecture, though. Instead, Das gently raises awareness about the power writers have when telling stories, encouraging them to reflect on their motives, dump harmful stereotypes, and engage in immersive research in order to elevate their craft. And isn’t this what all writers want — to produce the most accurate and least harmful work?
Das sat down with Los Angeles Review of Books to discuss her new book.
ANJALI ENJETI: How did your years of working on issues of racial justice in the nonprofit sector shape how you came to understand your goals and responsibilities as a writer?
KAVITA DAS: I came to writing full-time when I was close to 40 years old, after working in social change and racial justice for close to 15 years. I worked on intractable issues like poverty and racial injustice. While societal change usually only comes after much time and struggle, you have to believe in your vision of justice. Similarly, in writing, you have to believe in your artistic vision even as you struggle through rejection and revision.
As an avid reader and an emerging writer, I knew that I wanted to bring the same passion and ethics to my writing that I brought to my social-change work. At first, as I was trying to find my voice as a writer, I wasn’t sure how to do this, but I came to realize that, while I value honing my craft as a writer, I don’t want to forgo issues of conscience for the sake of craft. For example, when I’m writing about a fraught social issue or a marginalized community, I’m seeking to raise awareness, but I never want to sensationalize the issue or jeopardize those most impacted by it for the sake of “eyeballs.” So, I’ve come to view conscience as not separate from craft but integral to it.
Craft and Conscience’s release comes at a time when writers are having long-overdue conversations about some of the perils of storytelling, such as the possibility that stories can cause immeasurable harm to some of our most marginalized communities. Are you optimistic that writers are finally beginning to view their own writing through a more rigorous and introspective lens?
I do think there is growing awareness of the harm that problematic stories can and have caused. There is more of a willingness to reevaluate some literature from the past, which contained damaging stereotypes or erased whole communities. Some people are bristling at this and calling it “wokeness” or “cancel culture.” However, I don’t think the aim of reevaluating these works should be to “cancel” them but to discuss them holistically. As we’ve understood, books can be masterpieces in terms of some aspects of craft while espousing harmful stereotypes. Authors can be masterful at their craft while being problematic in their lives. Speaking about them in their totality helps us understand how craft and conscience are linked.
I have heard the statement often over the years that art is a form of activism. I have trouble grappling with this pronouncement, particularly when I think of all the art that upholds white supremacy. What’s your take?
First, I believe art is a powerful tool. It can be wielded to promote hatred and discrimination, or it can be used to promote equity and justice.
Second, I do believe art can be a powerful form of activism. It might not be the most immediate means to social change, but I think it can reach hearts and minds in ways that traditional means of protest might not. The evidence for writing being a powerful form of activism lies in the number of writers who are imperiled because of the ways they resist injustice through their work. The recent brutal attack on author Salman Rushdie only underscores the power of writing and the risk to writers who engage fraught social issues on the page. More evidence can be found in all the attempts at banning books underway in our country. As scary as the rise in book bans is, it also suggests that there is a widespread belief in the power of the written word to inspire change.
Craft and Conscience is an essay collection but also an anthology. You’ve written the introduction and 12 of the essays and also included essays by other writers. How did you settle on this particular structure for the book?
This book grew out of my class Writing About Social Issues, where I teach key concepts and lessons like balancing context versus narrative or avoiding cultural insensitivity and appropriation, and then pair these lessons with readings by a diverse range of writers. I used the first six months of working on the book to think about and reach out to writers whose work I admire and whose work embodies the book’s key concepts and lessons. I aimed to include a diverse range of writers, not only in terms of identity, but also in terms of their approach to writing, and the issues they engage in. This was important to me because I believe in the importance of diversity and because I want readers to understand that there is no singular way to write about social issues, so they can identify what works best for them.
In some cases, as with Garnette Cadogan and Jaquira Díaz, I included two essays by the same writer on the same topic to demonstrate that the same writer can use different approaches when writing about a specific issue. Also, I love their writing, so what a great excuse to feature more of it!
I decided to include my own essays because, while I can parse the work of other writers in terms of craft, it’s not always possible to speak to their motivations or hopes for their work. By including my own essays, I can reveal my motivations (and fears) about writing a piece and also trace its evolution from conception to publication, which I believe is helpful to emerging writers.
Many writers believe they have a “right” to write about social issues and ignore any responsibility to the reader. Your book asks writers to consider their motivation and intention. Why is this the better path?
I believe we waste too much time and ink on the false accusations of “cancel culture” made by privileged writers whose rights and livelihoods are not in peril. Instead, I believe it is useful for all writers to interrogate why they are writing about a specific issue or community, and, just as importantly, what they are willing to do in order to do so with integrity.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd’s murder, #MeToo, Trump’s reign of terror, and the horrors of this global pandemic, there are books coming out on these issues from established writers who actively avoided issues of race and identity, viewing them as gauche and “too political.” And the question is, are these authors now truly committed to parsing these issues, or are they just taking advantage of cultural trends? Given the lack of diversity in the publishing realm, will this lead to the publication of more travesties like Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt? Ultimately, I’m more concerned about the books we’re not seeing by voices who truly understand the personal impact of these issues. I myself was advised by the editor of a literary magazine that my commitment to engaging social issues in my writing could be seen as propaganda.
I’ve been told that many times too! And now here we are, in an extremely dangerous political moment. Why do you think it’s hard for some writers and editors to understand the difference between writing about social issues and writing propaganda?
I think the false notion of neutrality has been worshiped for too long in the writing realm. In journalism, there’s the valuing of supposed neutrality over truth, which is a failure to acknowledge that all stories are shaped by the writer’s identity and experience. Who are the judges of neutrality? The white men who make up most of the newsrooms and mastheads of major newspapers? In the literary realm, we see a similar desire to parse political writing and writing about identity from other forms of literature. Why is there a need to differentiate? And again, who determines what is propaganda and what is art?
Is all writing political? The answer is yes. Irrespective of genre, from romance novels to westerns, and irrespective of the author’s intentions — all writing is political. Whose perspective informs a book, which characters are foregrounded, which are left out — these are not just craft decisions; these are decisions of conscience, or they should be.
It’s important to recognize, of course, that many of the editors and writers who do understand the difference between social justice writing and propaganda are marginalized editors and writers — the folks who still only inhabit a fraction of the top positions at big media conglomerates. Is the lack of representation part of the problem?
The lack of representation is absolutely part of the problem. The reason BIPOC and LGBTQ+ writers tend to innately understand and value writing about social issues is because our lives are not immune to these issues. They show up in our everyday lives, so why wouldn’t they show up in our writing? In fact, it would be unusual for them not to in some way, even if they are not central to our work. And it has been my experience as a writer of color that editors of color have been more receptive to my work and have even pushed me to be bolder in my engagement with social issues while also helping me hone my craft. For example, some of these editors have helped me trim unnecessary explanations and justifications that we writers of color sometimes feel the need to include for mainstream (read: white) readers.
I’m encouraged, however, to see some of the shifts in power and leadership in the literary and publishing realm. I’m already beginning to see the impact of this in terms of book acquisitions and releases and cultural programming. But I hope we won’t see backsliding. There were a lot of pronouncements of commitment made in the literary world with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and following George Floyd’s murder. It still remains to be seen if these spaces will live up to their commitments in the long term.
It’s so tricky navigating how to write about social justice issues without sensationalizing them. In the book, you address how you wrote about the brutal gang rape of Jyoti Singh in Delhi. What was your approach to navigating writing about this horrific crime, which made international news?
As a South Asian woman, I was deeply saddened and horrified by the brutal gang rape and death of Jyoti Singh. And after her death, I hoped for justice for her and greater safety for all South Asian girls and women, given the epidemic of sexual assaults and gender-based violence in South Asia. I felt haunted by this tragic event and turned to artistic explorations in order to process it. I watched two documentary films, a play featuring South Asian sexual assault survivors, and a comic book exhibition. These works used different artistic media to explore the terror of this incident and its aftermath.
When I wrote two pieces about this tragic event — one through a personal perspective and the other through the lens of cultural criticism — I wanted to ensure that I was not sensationalizing Jyoti’s death, which had already been sensationalized and politicized. Instead, my motivation was to shine a light on her legacy, showing how her life and death had inspired resistance, change, and artistic activism.
I loved your chapter on op-eds. In this era of increasing misinformation, disinformation, and clickbait, do op-eds hold the same kind of sway that they once did?
Despite all the noise from the 24-hour news cycle and social media, I believe op-eds remain an important space for public discourse on social issues of our time. However, research and my own experience have shown that it is very hard to change people’s minds, and even harder now with rampant misinformation and disinformation and people self-selecting what media they consume based on their views or political affiliation. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth sharing our crucial perspectives, especially if they’re not being represented in the public dialogue. But rather than putting unrealistic pressure on ourselves to change the minds of those who have vehemently opposing views, I think it’s helpful to approach opinion pieces as a way of informing people who might still be undecided or to bolster those who share your viewpoint. Change rarely happens overnight or from one person’s words. Rather than seeing this as a deterrent, we should think of our words as joining a sea of words from fellow believers and contributing to the momentum for change.
The term “cultural appropriation” is a hot topic but also one that is misunderstood. How did you decide to tackle it in the book?
I dedicate a whole chapter to understanding cultural sensitivity and avoiding cultural appropriation, where I share my own insights from pieces I’ve written about this topic as well as the expert insights of some of our best writers and thinkers, including Matthew Salesses, Paisley Rekdal, Alexander Chee, and Kaitlyn Greenidge.
I believe it’s crucial for any writer who is writing about a person or community that is outside of their identity and experience to explore their motivations, do extensive and immersive research, and reflect on how they relate to this person or community, especially when it comes to power and equity.
I loathe the idea of problematic works like American Dirt exploiting the struggles of undocumented immigrants, but I’m also uncomfortable with the idea that the conversations around cultural appropriation are so fraught and intimidating that some writers of good intention might avoid building narratives around characters of color for fear of being called out. Ultimately, however, I’m most interested in seeing more books and essays from writers of color and other marginalized writers who have an inherent understanding of their communities and the issues they face.
Writing with conscience often involves collaboration — getting feedback and critique from other writers or other members of a community. How do you go about this process yourself?
Writing with conscience is truly collaborative, and for this reason, when I’m writing about communities or events outside of my own identity and experience, I try to center the voices and perspectives of those who are most impacted. Therefore, I am thankful to those who have allowed me to share the perspectives of their communities. I’m also thankful to editors who understand the importance of these perspectives, which only strengthened my work and made it more truthful. Writers of conscience understand this, and rather than seeing this collaboration as a burden, they see it as an opportunity to strengthen their work and its impact in raising awareness through authentic insights.
Anjali Enjeti is the author of a novel, The Parted Earth, and Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change. Her other writing has appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, The Boston Globe, the Oxford American, and elsewhere. She lives outside Atlanta.