A chat with writer Nadya Agrawal

Gundi Crush__7 January 2019

Nadya Agrawal is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Better known as the founder and editor of Kajal magazine, she also writes for notable publications like iD Magazine, Huffpost, and Quartz to name a few. We caught up with her in Brooklyn to tell us about her journey so far.

How long have you been writing? What drew you to a career in journalism ?

I’ve been writing for years now! Emo poetry in middle school to speech and debate and school newspaper in high school, it’s been eons. It wasn’t until I was about 21 or so that I started being honest with myself that my goals had changed – I wanted to be a writer, or at least try to be a writer, before I pursued a more professional (read: sturdy) career in law.

I came to journalism because I wanted to tell human stories. It was idealistic in the beginning to believe the American media industry was a cure for something, but I came from a family that read widely and regularly and put a lot of store in good reporting. There’s still a stack of New Yorkers in every room of my parents’ house.

When did you start Kajal, and why ?

I started Kajal in December 2014. I was finishing grad school and a job at Oxfam about to dive deep into media, but I didn’t know where to start. I knew I needed a few bylines under my belt but I had no idea how to go out and get them. The media landscape, as an outsider looking in, felt so hostile and insulated and white. I wasn’t sure how to make a foothold. But I felt if I could point to a legitimate place that housed my work I could make a start. And if I was having this problem, other brown writers must be too! So Kajal began as a way for me to legitimize my writing and my skills as an editor, but also as a place for other writers like me who were trying to get their start in an overwhelmingly white industry.

Being a brown woman, the source material is rich.

Tell me about a really low point you might have had working on Kajal, maybe something that made you want to give up? What made you keep going?

I’ve had quite a few low points that made me want to throw the whole project away. Looking back now I can see that I was extremely burned out and didn’t know how to ask for help from the folks who supported me. Those times taught me to be kinder to myself but also work smarter rather than harder. I learnt how to delegate more effectively so I wasn’t doing every  single thing all the time on the site.

I kept going with the project because no matter how I felt about it, it was clear Kajal had a life beyond me. I’d get so many comments and emails from folks who read our work thanking us for putting it out there. Knowing it had an impact beyond how it made me feel helped me get back to it. It felt like a service we were doing for our community. People were pouring themselves into out work just like we were.

What does a typical work day look like ?

I wake up, walk my dog, make a full pot of coffee, and try to stay off my screens until I’m done with breakfast. (This rarely happens.) Then I spend the next hour or so answering emails for Kajal and my freelance writing. I have a day job also, so I log on to Slack or get ready to head out to the office. When my work for the day is complete, I’ll start editing the pieces our writers turn in and schedule them out according to our editorial calendar. I take tons of Twitter breaks and read what other outlets are putting out. In the evening, if I have time, I’ll work on my own creative writing projects, do the household chores and spend time with my partner.

Nadya wears a gundi tshirt

Nadya in the Sufragette Sweatshirt

Talk to me about the double edge burden of being a brown woman in media today ?

Well being brown and a woman makes me a target for sure. I’ve received the most disgusting hate mail from readers, stuff thats so repulsive and violent, just for doing my job. And sometimes the only pitches that get picked up are the ones that need me to air my trauma, my experiences with racism and sexism, and my worst moments. I feel like white men don’t have to do that to make it in the industry.

But, because of and despite all that, I have perspective that no one else does and it injects my writing with depth. Being a brown woman, the source material is rich. So, horrible experiences but better writing.

Eventually, I hope, the desire to restrict brown women will fall away when it becomes clear we won't listen.

Your article in Quartz called “The Pursuit of White Women” really hit home for me, both with dating Indian men in the US and facing colorism at home. How do we counter / deal with this ?

I don’t know that there’s so much that *we* can do to convince brown men to stop treating us terribly. Whiteness is put on a pedestal all around the world. We live in a white supremacist state. But we can keep pushing our goals beyond cultural expectation. Eventually, I hope, the desire to restrict brown women will fall away when it becomes clear we won’t listen.

You really like plants and cooking a lot of things from scratch, and your next issue of Kajal is called plant life. Clearly it seems like your creative pursuits inform each other. How important is it to have more than just one?

Creativity is a compulsion for me. I have never been able to just sit still. Even watching tv, I have to be working on something, weaving or knitting or sketching out ideas. Changing my mediums, from writing to textile work to cooking to gardening, forces me to rethink the way I approach a problem. It also gives my brain a break from whatever roadblock I had with my work. I think having more than one creative pursuit keeps me sharp.

Lastly, when was the last time you felt like a bad bitch and why ?

When I got to read one of my articles aloud at the iconic McNally Jackson bookstore in Williamsburg. The people who showed up for the event were pouring out of the folding chairs and standing in the stacks to listen. I wasn’t really feeling my piece before then, but reading it aloud to this massive crowd in one of my favorite bookstores confirmed everything for me. I had to take a second to be like “fuck, you’re achieving one of your dreams right now holy shit.” Just for a second, I was in awe of myself.