Scaachi Koul has risen to prominence over the last few years as perhaps the most recognizable young voice in Canadian media. Currently a culture writer at Buzzfeed, Koul has gained a huge following on Twitter for her unique blend of self-deprecating humour and scathing commentary on racism and misogyny. She is currently on tour to promote her first book, the funny and frank essay collection One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of this Will Matter. Her tour brings her to the Vancouver Public Library on September 26, where she will be in conversation with CBC’s Lisa Christiansen.
In anticipation, Koul spoke to Room about female mentorship, racism in Canada, and the challenges of self-care. Look for a longer feature interview with Koul in Room’s upcoming issue 41.1, Family Secrets.
ROOM: Congratulations on the success of your book. What is it like being the centre of attention—having the tables turned on you, as a journalist?
SK: It’s weird, I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily comfortable with it, but I guess it comes with the territory. It’s not my preferred position.
ROOM: Can you tell us about any female mentors that have helped you in your career or life?
SK: In journalism, I was mostly surrounded by men. When I was starting out, Tabatha Southey was really kind to me and gave me a lot of good advice. She blurbed my proposal, which was super kind of her. But I didn’t know a lot of women. I think at the time I was really self-loathing, and I thought the way to get ahead in journalism was to be the worst kind of man. I thought, “oh okay, I gotta get in with the dudes,” which doesn’t work, by the way. It’s not a great way to go through life.
The team around the book, they’ve all been women. My editors are the smartest women I’ve ever met, and they turned the book into something that I thought would be funny but not necessarily sustainable into something that was both.
I read a lot of Nora Ephron, but I don’t think that counts. Ultimately, this is one of my failures, that I don’t have a great answer for [this question] because for a very long time, frankly up until quite recently, I’ve let myself live in these male-dominated spaces. I didn’t think about it. But I’m at that point in the last six years where I’ve realized how much of that I was doing, and so now I feel like I’m . . . looking for other women of colour who want to talk to me.
I think some of that is a function of, I grew up in a white city, I grew up in a very white neighbourhood [in Calgary], so I didn’t have access to things the way that I did by the time I was 20.
ROOM: Now that you’ve realized that being in this male-dominated world was shaping your behaviour, how do you try to break out of those patterns?
SK: The access that I’m given on the Internet, obviously, helps with that. I have DM chains with other brown girls where we just talk about the things that we would like to talk about in our vacuum. I read a lot more, I have more access to TV and movies that I didn’t have when I was younger. I think the world is shifting, too. I think the world has changed dramatically since 2002.
When I do live events or people contact me because they’ve read the book, that creates these pathways to other people as well. When you see how writing creates an influence in a larger way beyond . . . how it makes you feel as a writer.
ROOM: So you’ve discovered a new network through writing the book.
ROOM: In the essay “Aus-pis-ee-ous” from your book, you mentioned that so much of immigration is about loss. I’m wondering if writing about your family and India helped you reconcile some of the losses you felt your family was experiencing.
SK: I think to some degree. I think it also helped remind me of some of the losses. But I think writing things down is a good way to keep a record of a history that will get lost by time. And it might not necessarily be lost for me, but for my niece . . . now she’s got something. I don’t know if she’ll want it, but it’ll be there for her when she’s old enough.
If the book makes sense to her, great. If not, cool. She integrated in a way that I didn’t. I don’t know what’s better or worse, but at least there’s a record for her to have. Or maybe not her, but someone else in the family that maybe I haven’t met yet, or we don’t know about yet.
ROOM: You’ve talked a lot in the past about how Canadians like to talk about how we’re in an inclusive utopia, while sweeping issues like racism, colonialism, under the rug. Recently you wrote a story for Buzzfeed about the decline of The Rebel, a far-right media outlet right here in Canada. I’m wondering what you think of this duality and how we can move beyond this mythical, sanitized idea of Canada?
SK: In terms of moving forward and having a more nuanced understanding of the country, in terms of race or gender, I don’t how to fix that beyond getting white people to pay attention to me and pay attention to what other people of colour say. It’s not something that I can control at this point, it’s a matter of white people listening to what everybody else is saying to them. If you’re a white person and you live in Canada, and you’re not paying attention to what Indigenous people are telling you about their lives and experiences and history, then I’m not sure how to help you, because that feels like the most basic place to start.
The Rebel is a really interesting case where people think of it as an outlier. I don’t know if it’s an outlier, it’s just organized, that’s it. I don’t think The Rebel speaks to an overwhelming majority of Canadians, but I think they have beliefs that seem to link to enough people that it’s survived for this long. The only reason it’s [declining] is because it had an involvement in what [happened] in Charlottesville. Otherwise I don’t think this would have happened, at least not on this timeline.
But I’m not sure how else to get white people to listen. There just needs to be the way to get things done. If the solution is that brown and black and Indigenous people have to talk more, I feel like we’re talking a lot. But if [people of colour and Indigenous people] don’t have access to the resources that allow them to be heard, if they are not amplified, then what is there to do? I don’t know.
And if you’re a white person, and you function with a very limited understanding of history where you think that none of these things [such as Charlottesville] could possibly happen here, then we’re functioning at a loss to begin with.
ROOM: You have become a spokesperson in some ways for these issues, and you’ve cultivated this online presence. It does seem that people of colour are always the ones who take on the emotional labour of fighting racism. It must be exhausting to always be the one speaking out.
SK: Yeah, it is exhausting. I just don’t know what else to do with it. I feel some sense of responsibility because I’ve been given this kind of platform that I should be talking about these things. But of course it’s exhausting. My whole life is exhausting [laughs].
ROOM: Including, I guess, doing interviews like this.
SK: Yeah, it’s a piece of that, unfortunately. But I understand that I walked into that room, I made a choice to start writing and talking about these things. I don’t begrudge that part of my job. But it isn’t just a part of my job, it’s a part of my existence, which is really where it becomes exhausting.
But I think the white people around me are, for the most part, trying to help carry that load . . . for me personally, in my life. And the ones who don’t? Maybe I don’t spend that much time with.
ROOM: What do you for self-care?
SK: I eat a lot. I watch a lot of TV. I turn off the Internet when I’ve decided I’ve had enough. I read a great deal. My partner makes me go outside, but I don’t really care about going outside, but it’s probably for the best that I try to leave the building now and then.
My self-care is pretty garbage. I wouldn’t suggest “eat a lot of chocolate and watch Teen Mom” as a way to make yourself feel better. But, I like it, so.
ROOM: If it works for you, right?
SK: Yeah, exactly.
ROOM: Are you reading anything right now?
SK: I just finished The Stranger in the Woods [by Michael Finkel], which is really good. I’m also reading Who is Rich [by Matthew Klam].