May 9, 2021
I spent my 20s reporting on everyone else’s stories while neglecting my own.
This realization hit me like a wave in 2020: After a difficult pandemic spring, after I watched a summer of cries for racial justice, after my grandmother died — the wave crashed over me. I was left lying prone in the sand, dumbstruck. I tried to speak, I tried to yell. No words came out.
For someone who has built her career on words, this feeling unmoored me. I followed the journalism playbook. I consulted the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. I excelled in journalism school and followed my professors’ advice. I landed competitive internships and post-grad jobs. Still, I wasn’t satisfied. I was anxious, I was sad, and then I became too afraid to write.
How did I get here?
As I came of age, I was served up the mild cocktail of microaggressions and erasure: I was going to hell for idol worship, because my family wasn’t Christian. I was Indian, Asian, but not really American. I couldn’t find myself in news stories, books, plays, theater. Hardly any of my teachers or college journalism professors looked like me. Two folks have said it to my face: Asians aren’t people of color.
Instead of standing up for myself, I started believing them, thinking Asians and Indian Americans didn’t matter. I wrote about this journey earlier in 2021 in my side project, the Red, White and Brown newsletter (please subscribe if you’d like to read more about South Asian issues):
And so, slowly, you learned all the letters in your last name. You learned that if everything important was baked into headlines, if the newsprint we got was the paper of record, if books we read in school were stories worth telling, if journalism is the first draft of history, you are not important.
I used to love writing: The power to own my words. Sentence structures I could craft to dance on a page unexpectedly. The art of spending a day writing and then rereading my work with pride. But I stopped tweeting, feeling like I had nothing important to say. My blossoming writer’s voice, carefully molded through college and young adulthood — I threw that away, too.
Losing my voice was a bizarre kind of laryngitis. I wanted badly to write, but paralysis gripped me. Often, I couldn’t form the words, or the ones that would tumble out would be stoic, jargon, nothing words. I was stifling myself. I didn’t know how to stop. Then in 2019, I saw Heidi Schreck’s one-woman play, “What the Constitution Means to Me,” about the Constitution but also her family’s relationship to it. And I left the theater thinking, hey. I could do that.
Playwriting was a dream, but it was also a necessary repair. Drafting my own play and putting it on paper took up nearly every pandemic weekend, as I’d sit at my desk, typing into Microsoft Word. Parts of my story became Meera. I still doubt myself, even as I self-promote this work harder than I ever have; I hope it’s a story worth telling, but that critical voice in my head harps on, telling me otherwise. “Meera’s Kitchen” was my pandemic passion project, but it was also essential therapy.
Even in the repair process, I’ve lost so much sleep over this play — worrying not only what people will think, but also how being so public about my identity and mental health struggles will affect their perceptions.
I can’t erase the brown from my skin. I wouldn’t even if I could. I love that I turn a deep dark chocolate in summers spent baking in the sun. I love that my community is vibrant, misunderstood, beautiful, messy, full of stories like mine waiting to be told. I love that growing up as a child of immigrants and struggling with my mental health makes me a more empathetic journalist.
I lost my voice. I’m starting to find it again.
I recoiled from writing because of my own self-confidence issues, but also my struggles with mental health. I have obsessive-compulsive disorder and I live with a voice in my head that doubts everything I do. I’ll talk more about my voice and mental health next week.
Because life doesn’t happen in a silo, every issue of Inside the Kitchen is edited by a special guest editor — a person in Beena’s life who’s also intimately familiar with the subject at hand.
Hannah Covington is an Oklahoma-based writer and educator who has admired Beena’s work since their shared days as reporters at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Few of Hannah’s Minnesota memories rival her chats with Beena over Milkjam ice cream as they talked about storytelling, journalism and life. Some of Hannah’s favorite stories have unfolded over meals or around kitchen tables, and she loves teaching writing classes on food and how it shapes memory, identity, culture and creativity. Count on Hannah to eat heaps of ice cream while marveling at “Meera’s Kitchen” on her laptop in June.