Updated: Feb 18, 2021
By Sarina Patel
Founder of NovelMinority
For our second edition of Writer Of The Week, we selected Kiran Misra, a journalist whose work has been featured in The Guardian and the Pulitzer Center For Crisis Reporting, among others. We sat down with Misra to talk writing mango poems, being on competitive Indian dance teams, and pinpointing the danger of a single story.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
NovelMinority (NM): How did you get into reporting?
Kiran Misra (KM): I did newspaper all throughout middle and high school. I just sort of stuck with it until I graduated. When I was in grad school, I started writing for a local paper on the South Side of Chicago. I was a bail reform reporter, and since bail reform is still a popular issue today, a lot of the contacts and stories that I had then have served me well. Now I write 50 pieces a year, which is way more than I ever could have imagined. But it's still hard to think of myself as a journalist, because I have a separate day job.
NM: Is it hard to manage a day job with a side job of journalism?
KM: It is pretty hard, actually. I work for the UN, so my time really isn't my own. And then [while doing that] I need to talk to sources and turn around drafts for my journalism side job. At least I have my lunch hour to do those things now...when I used to live in Italy, I'd write on the way to work, or in the middle of the night, or during bathroom breaks. It's something that I really love doing and I try to build in time to do that.
NM: Same! On the way to school, I would wake up at 6 am to type on my phone, then go in the car and type more, then get to school and type even more. I think we're so used to finding those little spaces in our day to write, because we don't get time to write in our normal day. I'm a student; you're a full-time worker. So it's like we have to multitask our secret journalistic lives with our real careers, so to speak.
KM: Yeah, I remember one time my sister was visiting me in Rome. I had to drop her off while typing up a piece on my Google Docs app. I was like: how did I end up like this? [laughs] But I love doing this, so it's not a pain. Usually.
NM: One thing you mentioned that really piqued my interest was your love of dancing. How does that help your love of writing, and what's the benefit of knowing two art forms?
KM: I grew up in Iowa, where I was [pretty much] the only Indian. So when I went to college, I was really enthusiastic about getting involved in South Asian clubs. Today, we've come so far that people [outside of our ethnic group] actually care about us. And so I'm able to write about things that affect my community, which is great.
NM: That's interesting--I was also involved in a bhangra team at the local community cultural center. Do you still practice?
KM: [laughs] I want to practice more than I do! I joined a professional team in Chicago. It was an all-boys team; I was the only girl.
NM: No way! My dance coach also had a similar experience in her youth, so she founded a co-ed bhangra team of which I was a member. What was bhangra like for you?
KM: I have a lot to say about being a girl in the bhangra circuit, because bhangra is a traditionally male-dominated dance form. People say, "Girls can do bhangra too!". I understand the theory, but I would have to bribe the captains with food to give me feedback. I was even told to just quit by guys on the team who claimed they were "looking out for me" or "considering my best interest"...really tough [to hear] for the only girl on the team to hear. Even though I don't practice as much now, I still feel like I'm a part of that community & I hope to return when the pandemic ends.
NM: The writing complex is real...especially between teen writers! They're constantly thinking: "I have to be better than my friend, who got published in X newspaper" or "What am I doing if I'm not being featured in Y magazine?" As someone slightly older [but not too far away from it], what has it been like for you to navigate the publication space as a creative of color?
KM: Honestly, I've been very lucky not to have faced the traditional obstacles, because I'm a freelancer--I pitch all of my pieces independently. But I'll definitely think "Oh, I need more bylines" every now and then.
NM: On your website...I confess...I stalked you a little bit...
KM: [laughs] I love people reading my website! That's why I made it!
NM: [laughs] On your website, you stated that you like to write about the mechanisms behind systems of political power and the stories of people who are impacted by them. How do you seek out those types of stories in your community? KM: My friends. Because of them, I am so clued in to the different ways people are organizing. I wrote about some South Asians being left out of the stimulus [due to their immigration status] last year and only found out about that because some of my friends work for Chicago Desi Youth Rising and were doing fundraising for those South Asians that were left behind. My journalism is entirely voluntary, so when it starts not being fun anymore, I know that I should probably just walk away.
NM: So I've read all of your articles, and I love them. Seriously...I went to your website and just stormed through all of them, click after click!
KM: [laughs] Oh, thank you! I don't even think my mom reads all of my articles.
NM: One of the articles that really grabbed my attention--the one that I reached out to you about, the one that's the blueprint for Novel Minority itself-- Mangoes & Monsoons: Rupi Kaur and Exploiting Diaspora Trauma. Within it, you pointed out the danger of a single story being manufactured for white entertainment. Have you ever witnessed the disaster that a single story can cause?
KM: I'm a freelancer, so I don't see it as much [inside newsrooms]. Where I've seen it is...there are some far-right South Asian politicians, yet somehow, people don't think that people of color can make immigration/healthcare policies that can actually harm South Asians. So as a freelancer and a consumer of media, that's how I've seen a single story play out.
NM: You raised the point that South Asian art can sometimes only be accepted when it meets expectations of white comfort, which I completely felt. I don't often get hired unless I'm promoting a certain aspect of my identity, and I know many young writers share this feeling--we don't get opportunities often, so we feel compelled to exploit ourselves when we do. How did you overcome your fear of being pigeonholed into writing about the diaspora?
KM: I think it's because I got my start as a bail reform reporter. I definitely write for some publications that only discuss the diaspora, but it's not my main focus. There is a market out there...especially in what I call the think piece industrial complex...where your leverage is your identity. Thankfully, if I ever talk about the diaspora too much as a freelancer, I can just pitch something else.
NM: Right, that's something I've been thinking about lately. If you sell your identity online, what do you have left?
KM: Definitely. That's why it's so important for me to have one foot firmly in the criminal justice world.
NM: What article has been your favorite to write?
KM: [laughs] I asked my mom that the other day, and she was like: they're your babies! You have to love them all! But I'm most proud of my piece about present-day manifestations of caste in the diaspora...I was able to write a piece in which I was a character, while also examining people who had lived that experience more distinctly. I wouldn't imagine a white American reader would be interested, but so many white guys I went to college with actually told me: "Wow! I've learned so much! Never would've guessed that there's this California textbook controversy right under my nose!", which is super cool.
NM: Okay, last question. It's a Writer Of The Week series tradition, and something we do at the end of every interview. Basically: you have one sentence of advice to offer young BIPOC writers. What will it be?
KM: Okay, so my one sentence is: remember who you're accountable to. I write about politics and criminal justice, two things that people get opinionated about. I do feel pressure to make everyone happy, but at the same time, I have to get pushback. You have to keep fighting for the stories you want to tell and the voices you want to highlight--my work is driven by my being accountable to marginalized populations and people who are impacted by policy. Not everyone's going to be happy with me!