A Conversation with Pavana Reddy

Pavana Reddy. Photo by Joshua White.

Pavana Reddy is a Los Angeles-based poet and songwriter. She is most well-known for her first book of poetry, Rangoli, as well as a song called “Remain the Sea,” written for the critically acclaimed album Land of Gold by Anoushka Shankar. Her second book of poems, Where Do You Go Alone, was published in the spring of 2019. (web)

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CONVERSATION BETWEEN PAVANA REDDY AND TIMOTHY GREEN

March 9, 2019
Silver Lake, California

GREEN: To start, tell me a little bit about your background. When did you start writing poetry?

REDDY: I grew up with my family in a small town called Kamloops, British Columbia. We had moved around a lot before that, but settled in Canada until I was about eleven. I’ve always had an interest in stories and books, and my love for poetry stemmed from that interest. I remember reading The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle and being so obsessed with that book that I wrote a poem about it and submitted it to a Peter Beagle fan page—they ended up posting it, and I was so excited about it for months. After that, I kept writing mainly for myself. I just had this constant desire to get better. I didn’t even start looking at poetry as a career until recently.

GREEN: How old were you at the time?

REDDY: I had to be eleven, maybe ten.

GREEN: And have you written continuously since then?

REDDY: Yeah, I wrote all the time. I had journals—not always poetry, it would also be stories.

GREEN: And you said you just recently started taking it seriously as a career. How did that come about?

REDDY: Before I took my work to Instagram, I was posting my work on Tumblr under the pseudo-name “maza dohta,” which is a reference from the novel 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. I used Tumblr for a few years before taking my work to Instagram—I had seen other writers doing the same thing and decided to just give it a try. About two months into using Instagram, my childhood hero, Anoushka Shankar, emailed me asking if I would be interested in writing her a poem for her new album, Land of Gold.

GREEN: Oh, wow.

REDDY: So I gave her a poem. It was funny because she found me on Instagram almost immediately after I joined it.

GREEN: Do you have any idea how she found you?

REDDY: I have no idea. I don’t know if someone that liked my work was friends with her and made the introduction; I’m not sure. But she emailed me to ask me to write a song, and so I did. It was on her album, and she had Vanessa Redgrave read it.

GREEN: Wow.

REDDY: Yeah, so that was my push of motivation. I’d grown up listening to her, and so to have someone like her reach out to me, it made me look at the medium differently, like it could be really useful.

GREEN: And when was that?

REDDY: Two-and-a-half years ago.

GREEN: So not long ago at all. What were you doing before that? What was your career path or what were you planning on doing?

REDDY: Career path, that’s a good question. I didn’t have one, really. I was working at a coffee shop in L.A., and it was brutal, but I felt like it was helpful in trying to live a creative lifestyle, because it was flexible, and I was doing anything that would cater to that dream. That was always my focus.

GREEN: And was it poetry that you always wanted to write, or did you just want to be a writer in general?

REDDY: It’s always been poetry, but I always wanted to do poetry in different forms, particularly songwriting. It’s cool to see different mediums that people have been putting poetry in. Even brands and the way they want to incorporate poetry. It’s definitely opening up a world of writing for me, and I’m thinking more about screenplays and short stories. I like the idea of turning a poem into a story or short film.

GREEN: I saw you did a Macy’s ad. How did that come about?

REDDY: It was weird. I got an email and had to sign an NDA before they even told me who the client was.

GREEN: Really, wow.

REDDY: They were fun to work with. They reached out to me asking for a poem that would deliver a message without explicitly stating it. So I thought I could do that.

GREEN: Did you write it for them or did you already have something they wanted?

REDDY: Oh no, I wrote it for them. I sent them several drafts. It went from extremely abstract down to something that they were happy with. Actually it was cool because I got another poem out of that.

GREEN: That’s pretty much unheard of for a poem. There’s one poet, Win Cooper, whose poem is in a Sheryl Crow song, and they pulled Whitman out for a Levi’s ad, I think, but you hardly ever hear stories like these. What was the response? Did you notice a bump in your followers online?

REDDY: Yeah, because they posted it everywhere. They had a big beauty campaign and featured the poem, so that brought in a lot of people who responded to it; they loved the video. It was really cool.

GREEN: Do you think of yourself as an “influencer”? I feel especially old every time I use that word.

REDDY: I don’t think I am. I’m not very good at it. I did a thing with Reebok once. They sent me merchandise with a motivational message and I posted photos of that on my IG. That’s pretty much as far as I’ll go with “influencer” work, because I don’t think that’s what my readers particularly want to see.

GREEN: You mentioned making money earlier. Is it just those isolated instances, or are there other streams of revenue?

REDDY: The revenue from the book is decent, too. It’s been very weird. I sent out info for the book release, and I only expected 100 people to show up, but I was amazed that 250 turned out on a Friday night in L.A. to hear a poetry reading. I don’t think growing up that’s something I was interested in as much as people are now, which is really cool. But my income has been very sporadic. Macy’s was one thing, the album was another—so it’s great and rewarding, but I still have to work to supplement.

GREEN: It’s interesting that writing a song could be a springboard to all that. What was the song called?

REDDY: It’s called “Remain the Sea.” The album was a response to the ongoing refugee crisis. So she’d asked me to write a poem about what it feels like leaving your home.

GREEN: Did you work from a song perspective, or was it more that you wrote a poem and she adapted it for a song?

REDDY: She adapted it for the song.

GREEN: That’s really cool. This issue is featuring Instagram poets, so we want to explore that phenomenon here, and you mentioned you have some mixed feelings about Instagram. We published an essay by Erik Campbell online recently that was pretty critical, and you said you agree with some of it. Do you write things specifically to be published on Instagram, or do you just write whatever you write, and post things that fit the sensibilities there?

For Instagram as a way to make any kind of profit, I’ve learned that you need to write for that audience, as much as you don’t want to.

REDDY: For Instagram as a way to make any kind of profit, I’ve learned that you need to write for that audience, as much as you don’t want to. It’s funny, sometimes I’ll post poems to see what the reaction will be to them, and it could be a poem that no one’s read from me before that’s longer, and it could be a good poem, but people would rather hear me tell them they’re magic. [both laugh] Those are the poems that get the most attention, and I don’t know how to take that. I know that I’m writing to an audience, but also I know that audience is responding to something that maybe they’re going through, so I can’t criticize that, necessarily, but it does get frustrating.

GREEN: Yeah, I can see that. For this issue I’ve read so many Instagram poems—we had 1,000 people send their poems, and then they could also recommend other poets, too, so I was going through thousands of accounts. The really frustrating thing was that there’s good poetry there, but there seems to be no correlation between popularity and how good the poetry is or how interesting the thoughts are. It seems like what people are really drawn to is a kind of personal branding. The popular accounts are often like an aspirational vision of who you could be, which is really the commodity you’re buying, and the poetry is only an accessory to that, which some viewers care about and some don’t.

So what’s your writing process like, given all that? How do you approach what you normally write versus something you make for Instagram?

REDDY: What I normally write usually stems from a story I’m trying to interpret, so I sit on it for a long time. First I have to figure out the story. I had a friend tell me once, “If you can’t write the poem, write the story, and you’ll find the poem in there.” So that’s what I try to do, but I keep that to myself. I don’t tend to share that with Instagram.

When it comes to Instagram—I have some poems in my first book that I’ve been working on for years, but I also have poems that I know would sell. I know I can post certain poems as advertisements for the book, because people will respond, but I know there are better poems in the book. Some of those poems take a lot of time, but others are really just a thought. It’s funny to see how people respond to that.

GREEN: Do you delete things after, if you don’t get a response, or do you keep everything up?

REDDY: No, if I delete something it’s because I want my page to have a certain aesthetic. Also, I used to post my work without my name on it, but then people would take it and put their names on it, so I removed a lot of it and then would repost it with my name. So that’s been another frustrating part. People will tell me, “I saw your poem; I thought it was written by so and so.”

GREEN: That is strange. Do you know the slam poet Taylor Mali? We published his poem “What Teachers Make” in our slam issue back in 2006, and I got so many messages saying, “He plagiarized that poem, I read it years ago!” Because it had been passed around among teachers so often that people didn’t know who the author was, they just remember that the poem had been passed around, at the time it was on email lists. But that hardly ever happens with regular page poetry. So that’s something that happens a lot on Instagram?

REDDY: Yeah, I feel like that’s something that happens because of social media. It’s just so easy to access, and it becomes an aesthetic where it’s not about the poem or who wrote it, it just looks pretty on your Instagram page. It’s not with any kind of malice necessarily, it’s just that the author becomes an afterthought.

GREEN: Do people claim authorship, or do they just post it and readers assume?

REDDY: It’s almost like, “Let me see how much I can get away with.” There is a writer in Ecuador who goes by the name Ron Israel, and he stole a bunch of work and rewrote it in Spanish. He interpreted all these poems and had a crazy following, and I believe he had a book, and a couple of my poems were in that book. All these people were reading it, and they had no idea. Or maybe they did but didn’t care.

GREEN: So did you write to that person?

REDDY: Yes, myself and some other poets reached out to him and had him remove it all.

GREEN: What do you do with the work that isn’t written for Instagram?

REDDY: I haven’t figured out a home for those yet. I don’t know if they’ll become stories or if they’ll become separate projects. I’m looking into writing a children’s book. I have these poems that I know work better for different mediums outside of Instagram.

GREEN: The thing that I thought was really interesting about you was that you have that aesthetic appeal that becomes popular, but there’s also a lot of depth to what you write about; there’s another layer beneath it. For example, the title of your first book is Rangoli, and that’s such a great metaphor for the content. Can you explain a little about what rangoli is and what the book’s about?

REDDY: Rangoli is an art design popular in India. What we do is use colorful sand or crushed petals to make symmetrical designs. Usually we do this in a new home, it’s a way to bring good luck into an unfamiliar space. So I grew up watching my mom do this everywhere we moved to—and we moved around a lot. This book is specifically a story about our journey here, the death of my sister, and overcoming that loss. Rangoli took me such a long time to write because of the story it told. My sister killed herself two weeks before my eleventh birthday. She was only thirteen years old. It took me more than a decade to even be able to say the word suicide. At one point, I didn’t know what else I could do to pull myself out of the depression I was experiencing, but I knew I had to figure something out because I couldn’t keep pretending. I really wrote this book for myself. I chose the name Rangoli because of how it represents entering a new space—this is my way of welcoming the reader into my family’s home. The art is all done by my mom—the cover and the chapters.

GREEN: The art is beautiful. In the description, you say the book “travels through dynamics of diaspora and colorism across borderlines and cultures.” And the way that rangoli—I don’t really know that much about it, but you draw the lines first, and then fill in with colored sand, so it’s like the lines are there beneath it all, which makes it such a great metaphor for the diaspora.
And then with your next book, which is just about to come out, Where Do You Go Alone, I loved the preview that you have:

before her first breath of dawn,
the moon said to the newborn earth:

when you open your eyes,
this will all become temporary.

and the earth replied
by gazing directly
into the sun.

That’s not the kind of thing that you often see as popular on Instagram—that’s real poetry. That’s something that you can’t easily articulate. Can you explain what this new book is about?

REDDY: I read about this singer named Kesarbai Kerkar from Goa. Back in the ’70s, when Carl Sagan released Voyager 1, he put together an album called the Golden Record, which included specific sounds from Earth that were supposed to represent life on this planet. He also picked music from around the world to put on this album, and among the artists chosen was Kesarbai Kerkar. After the Golden Record was released into space, she died a year later, and it is said that all of her music died with her. The song is a raga sung on a loop, and it translates to, “Where are you going all alone, fair maiden, do your feet not know?” I thought that was such a haunting image to think of in space. There’s a comfort knowing that her voice still lives somewhere among the stars. And if you hear the song, it’s so beautiful. It reminds me of how I escaped into writing when I couldn’t find a way to heal anywhere else—poetry is where I go to be alone. There’s a quote I read by Carl Sagan that pretty much sums up the meaning behind this new book; he describes Earth as a “pale blue dot” and says we’re just “on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” It made me think about how much all those tiny hearts living in that mote of dust actually carry, and at the end of the day, does any of it matter? And if it does, given a chance, would you do it all over again?

I divided the book into five chapters based off of the different full moons, and I did this because while each moon carries a different, significant meaning, at the end of the day it is just a cycle. I find comfort in that thought.

GREEN: With Rangoli, would you say it was written for the Instagram audience to some degree, or not?

REDDY: Yes and no. Let me put it this way. There’s definitely an audience via Instagram that really wants that type of poetry, but there’s a deeper story also with Rangoli that doesn’t translate to everyone, and that’s the story of my sister’s death. To have that story exist in that book is the most honest part about it, but that’s not something I could or would ever display. It’s not a story that I would ever use Instagram to tell because it’s not for an audience. So yes and no with Rangoli—there’s a real story in there, and I’m grateful for those who felt it.

GREEN: Now, you self-publish these books on CreateSpace. What’s your experience with that? I’ve always been a fan of self-publishing, unless you want to become a professor and need to fill up your CV, because a press can do very little for poetry. But Instagram is changing that, since there is an audience, which means money, and bigger publishers start to take that seriously. So why did you still choose self-publishing when you could have waited for a press?

REDDY: I didn’t want to work with one. Instagram already commercializes poetry, and then a press comes in and commercializes it even more. Like for Rangoli, that cover took so much thought. And this isn’t to talk down on what’s popular in poetry, but for me I wanted something that wasn’t going to fill up shelves but something that would always have a space on the shelf of whoever bought it. So it wasn’t necessarily about selling copies. I’d been wanting to write the book for a long time, and that was all it was, and it just went from there. I’ve had publishers reach out to me since this book, and none of them have been worth it—it just feels better self-publishing again. I’m open to a publisher, but only if it’s on my terms.

GREEN: Do you have any experience with design and layout, or did you just dive in?

REDDY: I definitely utilized my friends. [laughs] I’m lucky to be around creative people, who helped me with design and layout and all those things.

GREEN: Yeah, it’s really cool that you do it that way. It’s also interesting to hear the way you talk about the business of it, and I think it’s probably universal across the board on Instagram that there’s a more mature understanding of the marketing aspect of being a writer. It sounds like you have your marketing face, but maintain something much deeper underneath that. How do you think you developed that sense?

REDDY: For the phenomena of social media poetry, being in the thick of it taught me a lot. Seeing what kind of poetry was being popularized, seeing how many people could ignore an imitated poem and excuse that and then also excuse that author because of who the author is—so for me, if you are on social media, you have a platform, and with the platform you have a level of responsibility.

So with your art, you can’t preach to people without really thinking about what you’re talking about, and I don’t think that everyone who uses social media thinks about that aspect. It’s so easy to get caught up in the attention and forget the impact of your presence—so I’ve been really trying to balance both. I’m not here to have a large following, I’m here to become a better writer.

I think I was a lot more active on social media before I became more visible. The attention that was being given to what I looked like versus my work started to bother me a lot—because that shouldn’t be the reason you buy a book of poetry.

GREEN: Well, it seems like the presentation is a persona, “here’s the artist,” but the real person is always underneath. I don’t know if traditional writers understand that distinction as well—I know I have trouble with that. It’s easy to forget that you’re always a persona on social media. But Instagram poets seem to get that dichotomy between real life and the presentation that’s put out.

REDDY: Yeah, I don’t like it. [laughs] I really don’t. I know that it would help if I were better at that; it would definitely boost my sales.

GREEN: So do you see yourself as distancing your own authentic self from social media more, then, intentionally?

REDDY: Definitely, especially with where I am in my life personally. I don’t want to share any part of my life unless it’s something that’s centered around poetry.

GREEN: I think that’s most clearly represented with that poet Atticus, with the mask he always wears. It seems to me that the people who are popular end up adopting that sense that there is a mask. There’s a sense that he wants some distance.

REDDY: Maybe he does, I can’t say why he does it, but I do think it’s funny how Atticus can have the readership and followership he has, but then you have someone like Nayyirah Waheed who also doesn’t show her face, but she doesn’t get that same attention. Her work has so much depth. Nayyirah Waheed also has an explicit message behind not wanting to show her face, and I really respect that.

GREEN: It does seem like there are different genres of Instagram poetry, and one of them is the “broetry” or whatever you want to call it, and there are a lot of them with a kind of romance novel image.

REDDY: And they love to borrow from women writers and write about women, which is also funny, because they know that’s what’s popular.

GREEN: Do you think the men are worse on Instagram?

REDDY: Definitely. At least with most of the women writers, their work is coming from a real place. I don’t like reading poetry from guys like Atticus telling me how I should be grateful for my pain because it makes me beautiful. [laughs] No.

GREEN: It’s hard to discuss some things without being rude. [laughs] But there is a phoniness to a lot of stuff that I don’t know how it can possibly be appealing.

REDDY: It’s a popular aesthetic.

GREEN: I remember when I was talking to Ron Koertge, the young adult novelist and poet, and he said you always want to write a character who is a few years older than your target audience, because the main drive for a kid reading is that they want someone they can look up to, who is older than them and cooler than them, and they want to be that way in three years when they go to high school. It seems to me that a lot of stuff on Instagram is people looking up to someone who is slightly older and slightly cooler, and someone you aspire to be like in three years.

REDDY: Yeah, definitely.

GREEN: I’ve heard it said that it’s kind of a young adult version of poetry. Do you think that’s true? Do you think most of your fans are younger than you?

REDDY: Yeah, they’re definitely younger. I have a good divide, though, between younger readers and moms.

GREEN: Oh, that’s interesting.

REDDY: What I’ll get from readers is, “Oh, my mom and I follow you on Instagram.”

GREEN: That makes sense, so it’s a communal appreciation of what you’re doing then, sharing the poems between mothers and daughters?

REDDY: Yeah, and maybe someone with a large platform with a mom page will post a poem, and all these moms will come in. Instagram funnels people to you that way.

GREEN: Do you know the gender demographics on the platform? Is it mostly women?

REDDY: I believe it’s 80 percent women.

GREEN: And it makes sense, too, because the people who follow someone like Atticus seem to be teenage girls who are attracted to that bad-boy male persona. Do you think that’s the way it is?

REDDY: Maybe that, or more it’s like, when you’re at that age, you want something to post to your crush so that they don’t know that you’re talking about them, but you might be. Little things like that happen a lot in pop poetry. People liking it not because it means so much, but because it delivers a simple message that we all know and have heard before.

GREEN: I think about that distinction as exploratory art versus explanatory art. Originally, we couldn’t capture things; you couldn’t take a picture to capture a real moment, but now that we can, and easily, art evolves into being about finding what you can’t capture with a camera—the deeper, more complicated, inarticulate aspects of being human. So to have a lasting purpose, art needs to explore the things we don’t know, rather than express the things we already do. But on Instagram it’s mostly just expressive. Would you agree with that?

REDDY: Yeah, a lot of what’s on Instagram is just captions for your photos. Which is fine, cool—but sometimes it hurts. There’s more to this; you could be diversifying your reading if you just allowed yourself—that’s the real magic of words. I know a lot of writers like myself who are trying to make that happen, but it’s frustrating.

GREEN: In the essay that we talked about before by Erik Campbell, he called it “poetry for people who don’t read.” But the defense of Instagram as a platform for poetry is that it can work like a gateway drug and lead people to more meaningful poems. Do you find that to be the case?

REDDY: I think it’s a little bit of both. I definitely have people who follow me who are avid poetry lovers, and who will still read Instagram poets because they like them, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I do think there’s more positive aspects to poetry on Instagram than there are negative.

GREEN: You have this audience. Do you see yourself trying to move people toward what they now call “deep reading”—which just means reading books? [laughs] Do you feel that’s kind of a mission, to get them hooked with Instagram, and then you can move them to stuff that has more lasting impact?

REDDY: I hope so. I like to share poets, and I still have poets who will send their books to me. That’s the best part about social media, I think. I had a writer from Pakistan send me her book, and I was just blown away. Her name is Orooj-E-Zafar, and she doesn’t have a huge following. I’ll share her work, and it’s so in-depth, but nobody responds to that. I’m hoping! Some people appreciate it, but it’s not the feedback it should be getting. So it’s frustrating, but it’s worth being able to funnel a few readers to that.

GREEN: What would your advice be to someone who wanted to start publishing on Instagram right now, hoping to find an audience?

REDDY: I would try to keep submitting your work outside of Instagram, and make Instagram your website. That way you’re getting readers who are looking for poets, and you’ll also get readers who love your work, and who will share it with other poetry lovers. The slower it is, the better, I think, because then you get a better audience. You’re going to have people who are really engaged in your work, and you never know who they are—they could be bringing you audiences that are publishers looking for new writers. So don’t get too caught up in needing the followers. And also don’t forget why you’re writing, because Instagram is really good at making you forget.

GREEN: What about the visual aesthetics of what you post? Another thing that stands out is that the people who are popular know how to visually display their work. It might just be trial and error over time, and A/B testing constantly, because you can’t help but notice what works and what doesn’t—but it might be that some people have an artistic eye and know what looks beautiful and what doesn’t. Is there any advice you’d have for that?

REDDY: I guess if you want your Instagram to cater to that, there are a lot of ways to do it. Writing your poem out on a typewriter, or maybe your thing is just white space with words in the middle. People respond well to that; they want to see something that’s visually appealing to the eye. I don’t know. It’s not like I came to Instagram with some idea; I was just playing around.

GREEN: Instagram has a much more positive mood than other social media platforms, it seems. It’s more about sharing uplifting moments, I guess you’d say—but is there still hostility in the responses you get sometimes? Do you worry about negative comments?

REDDY: Occasionally I’ll get comments that just don’t make any sense. [laughs] I used to get toxic comments when I posted pictures of myself, so I stopped doing that for a while, but I’m slowly getting more comfortable with it now. The comments I get these days are people asking me to write about a certain topic or re-write poems to incorporate their ideas—and it drives me crazy. I only write what I know. Suheir Hammad said that writing must always have intention because words have power, and I try to remind my readers about this as often as I can.

GREEN: Where do you find your inspiration? Where do poems and stories come from?

Poetry is making a story out of a moment. You can unpack any moment so many different ways, and that’s what I like to do.

REDDY: So many different places. In general, if I’m just writing for me, they can come from anywhere. Poetry is making a story out of a moment. You can unpack any moment so many different ways, and that’s what I like to do. I like to take my time with that. It’s kind of a relaxing time; I can go work and come back and unwind by thinking about the story.

GREEN: Do you send your poems to traditional publishers?

REDDY: I haven’t.

GREEN: Never?

REDDY: No, I never have, actually.

GREEN: Do you plan on doing that?

REDDY: I do, yes.

GREEN: What publishers would you send to, what do you have in mind?

REDDY: Honestly, it wasn’t about sending those poems to publishers, it’s about the story itself, and once I write the story I will, but I don’t know if I’m there yet.

GREEN: But the weird thing is that there’s no one who publishes poems that has a larger audience than you already have. So what’s the appeal to be publishing the traditional way? Is it that the audience is already into poetry?

REDDY: Um, yes and no. It’s more that I understand the stigma that comes with Instagram. My work—The New Yorker, it’ll never happen. But when a publisher has a respectable name, it has the power to show that you’re more than just someone on Instagram.

GREEN: So it gives validation.

REDDY: Yeah, annoyingly it does, and it would be nice to be able to exist in both places.

GREEN: Well I think that’ll happen for sure; I think you’ll be in The New Yorker. [Reddy laughs] I do. When we did the slam poetry issue, there was a similar kind of stigma about slam, at least within the academic poetry journals. You know, “Slam poetry is just ranting about politics.” But now if you open an issue of Poetry magazine, it seems like half the people in there started in slam. I like to think that we helped with that, and hopefully we can help to open the door to Instagram poets, too. I think there are good writers on Instagram who will go wherever they want to go. And maybe the sad thing, from a poet’s perspective, is that you’ll all just leave us behind. [laughs] Poetry magazine has a huge endowment it’s using to market itself, and you still have a bigger audience on Instagram than they do. So, in a way, you’re slumming it if you publish in the dream place that we all wish to be published in some day. [Reddy laughs] So it’s a strange situation.

REDDY: Ironic—

GREEN: It really is. We got a little sidetracked and didn’t talk about your background as much as I wanted. You said you moved around a lot. Where did you grow up?

REDDY: I was born in Australia—as a baby, a lot of this was very quick. But then we moved to New Zealand, and then back to the Fiji Islands where my dad is from, and then we moved to Canada, where we lived until I was eleven, and then we moved to California.

GREEN: What was the reason for all that moving?

REDDY: A lot of it had to do with my mom finding a good place where she could teach—she’s a professor. She didn’t want to teach in Fiji or Australia, then we were in Canada for a while, and then she applied for jobs in California, and we’ve been here ever since.

GREEN: Why didn’t you go to college for writing, if that was something that you wanted to do?

REDDY: For me, it wasn’t something my family wanted me to do—they wanted me to stay in medicine and do the traditional Indian route. I did take one creative writing class in college before dropping out and moving back, and that teacher was not the most helpful [laughs] when it came to being a better writer. But fast-forward five years, and another girl from that class messaged me to ask if she could do a paper on my writing. It’s amazing how that comes full-circle. Leaving college was a tough decision, but I don’t regret it.

GREEN: So how did it feel when you got your break? When you were asked to write that song—did you know that was a big break at the time? How did that feel?

REDDY: That was so shocking. I think I saw it at four in the morning, and I started freaking out. Because Anoushka Shankar is someone that I grew up listening to; I love her music. So for me it was like, “Whoa, my hero just told me she liked my work.” It was very grounding. It made me look at my work more seriously and be like, “Okay, if I can do that, let’s see what else I can do.”

GREEN: Can you talk a little more about Rangoli, and the story of the brown girl?

REDDY: It’s mostly poems that reflect a lot of what I felt like being a brown girl growing up in this world. It could be anywhere. One of the most popular poems in Rangoli is “brown girl, you are lovely in every shade,” which was a direct response to an ad for a skin lightening cream in India, so I was thinking of South Asian girls, but it’s really for all girls from all walks of life. It was amazing to see how many people related to that poem.

To have a story where even the title is recognizable is everything, because Rangoli means so much to me and where I am from. So if there’s a Telugu girl out there wondering if there’s any place for her in the art world, she doesn’t have to look very far.

Another thing that I didn’t get to see a lot of growing up were more South Indian creatives. People, especially women, from my mom’s village in Tirupati, if they make it out, have to fight to go to school. My mom fought her way through high school and college until she received her Ph.D.—but you don’t see as many Telugu—which is our language—you don’t see many Telugu girls going out and becoming full-time artists. Most of the people from my mom’s village grow up in poverty, so for them to go to school is a huge deal and not everyone has the luxury of chasing dreams that do not guarantee a stable life. To have a story where even the title is recognizable is everything, because Rangoli means so much to me and where I am from. So if there’s a Telugu girl out there wondering if there’s any place for her in the art world, she doesn’t have to look very far.

GREEN: How close do you feel to India? Do you feel connected?

REDDY: Yeah, I lived there for two-and-a-half years, in Bangalore. And growing up my mom would tell me so many stories. So I do feel connected, but I also try to talk about India with the respect of someone who is from the outside, because I did grow up here.

GREEN: Are there specific Indian poets that you like to read?

REDDY: Yeah, my favorite poet was Sarojini Naidu. She was this incredible child prodigy who died really young. Also Vikram Seth, Kamala Suraiyya, and Meena Kandasamy.

GREEN: And who are your favorite writers, just in general?

REDDY: I can’t say I have a favorite writer, but I have favorite writers that I go back to and read. Vikram Seth is my number one. He’s an Indian author who wrote A Suitable Boy. He also wrote An Equal Music. Those two books are my favorite. I found A Suitable Boy when I was in India, and it’s a massive book, probably 2,000 pages, and it opens with a poem apologizing to the reader’s wrists. It’s such a cute poem; he’s a poet, too—his work, the way he details images and takes you to that place and that time frame. There’s another book called Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, and the third would probably be anything by Arundhati Roy—she’s my idol. And of course Margaret Atwood, as well. I met her in Calgary; she was amazing.

GREEN: Do you imagine writing novels like that, is that a goal, too?

REDDY: I hope so. We’ll see. I have so many ideas, so one baby step at a time.

GREEN: Well, I think you’re going places, so it’s great to get a chance to interview you early on. Thank you.

REDDY: Thank you so much.

from Rattle #64, Summer 2019