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Brown Girl Bookshelf: Empowering Representation of South Asian Literature

Two dynamic young women, Srisruthi Ramesh, and Mishika Narula, have embarked on a journey to redefine diversity in literature through their innovative business venture, Brown Girl Bookshelf. It was founded on the concept of promoting underrepresented South Asian voices, and it is a shining example of inclusivity and empowerment in literature. Sri and Mishika, both ardent readers and advocates for diversity, saw a significant gap in the availability of books reflecting their cultural identities and experiences. Determined to fill this need, they set out to build a platform that promotes different perspectives and allows marginalized authors to shine. During an exclusive interview with TINDS, Sri and Mishika shared their fantastic story of founding a business and keeping at it.

Brown Girl Bookshelf: Empowering Representation of South Asian Literature
Brown Girl Bookshelf: Empowering Representation of South Asian Literature

TINDS: Tell us a little about both of your childhoods. Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

Mishika:  I was born in London. I lived in India briefly before I moved to the States. I was pretty much raised in the US. I’ve been here in Chicago since I was three and a half or four years old. I met Sri during my undergrad.

Sri: I also immigrated to the United States when I was barely four or five. I was actually born in Qatar and then moved back to India for a couple of years; then, my family moved to the Bay Area in California; that’s where I was raised and spent most of my life, including undergrad, where I met Mishika. I traveled around a bit, including living back in India as an adult, and eventually returned to California.

TINDS: Do you guys still visit India often?

Sri: I grew up going to India for most of my summers, and I am pretty familiar with it.

Mishika: I am scheduled to visit India this coming week.

TINDS: What three words would you choose to describe yourselves?

Sri: Introspective, Philosophical & a Conversationalist. 

Mishika: Creative, Curious & in Constant movement.

Brown Girl Bookshelf: Empowering Representation of South Asian Literature
Brown Girl Bookshelf: Empowering Representation of South Asian Literature

TINDS: How did you guys create something like Brown Girl Bookshelf? 

Sri: I think, we being friends, before we started this, we just had a common interest in books and stories that we were reading and finding, and so it evolved naturally to the state that it is in today because of the interest and the response that we saw to it. Our original goal when we started was to share what we thought out at the time with just our friends and family regarding the books that we were reading and also to create a project that would help hold us more accountable to having diverse reading because we noticed that we were finding the same books and reading the same kind of popular books that we heard about of just white authors. We wanted more diversity in our reading, so it started as a project. We thought our friends and family would enjoy following along as well. The response that we got from the page was so tremendous and just showed this gap and needed in the community and people who wanted to form a community around both the shared interest in reading and stories of South Asians and the South Asian diaspora as well. So it evolved from there, and we got a lot of momentum from the response. We wanted people to find the stories that they were looking for and find community.

TINDS: When did you guys start Brown Girl Bookshelf?

Mishika: We began in August of 2020.

TINDS: Why do you only focus on South Asian authors?

Mishika: The inspiration to start BGB stemmed largely in August because, in 2020, that’s when the conversation was happening around the Black Lives Matter movement. Sri and I were observing and actively participating in those conversations as allies. Still, we don’t identify as black, and beyond allyship, there wasn’t much that we could vocalize or felt comfortable vocalizing from a personal experience standpoint because we’re South Asian. So, when we were looking at the dynamics of the literature market at large, we realized there is a gap in promoting or actively talking about South Asian writing, and there aren’t that many spaces that focus on it on Bookstagram. You have creators who do talk about South Asian voices in South Asian literature, but there isn’t this one place that people would suggest or go to when South Asian literature is mentioned. We wanted to be in that place and environment because it aligned with how we identify. Being immigrants, we’re closely tied to our homeland, and we go back, and our families live there, so we feel like we’re not separated from that space. There’s a lot of pride there, a lot of conversation, and a desire to continue to stay rooted in that.

Brown Girl Bookshelf: Empowering Representation of South Asian Literature
Brown Girl Bookshelf: Empowering Representation of South Asian Literature

TINDS: How big of a team is BGB?

Mishika: You’re looking at it. It’s the two of us, but we run a guest reviewer community. We realized after a certain amount of time that we couldn’t take on all the books that we were receiving. And so we started a guest reviewer community, which I think has over 150 readers who follow us actively, engage with our material, and want to read South Asian literature. So they read some of our advanced copies and the material that we receive, and then they write the review, and we post their review. Edit them on our page. 

TINDS: How do you guys work? Do you read books that you come across randomly, or do you people directly work with the authors?

Sri: Initially, it was finding books that we wanted to read, going to the library, and picking them up from a bookstore. Now, because of the more comprehensive presence, we get a lot of inbound outreach from authors themselves, publishers, and agents who have books that they want as part of their marketing campaign to find readers that want to read these books, and so oftentimes, they send us copies of books. And that’s also where we got such an influx of interest from those people. Of course, there’s also such a range of books out there; we get everything from finance and self-help and medical nonfiction to memoirs, historical fiction, romance, etc. Like the whole spectrum of books, it’s never-ending. We may not be the best or ideal readers for some of those books. I would need to figure out what to say about some of the really niche topics, and that’s where the guest reviewer program evolved. There were a lot of books out there. We couldn’t feasibly read all of them, nor were we perhaps the ideal audience for them. So we wanted to find readers who would give the best impression or were interested in reading that particular book and could speak to it with some authority or interest in the review. 

TINDS: What are your plans with BGB?

Sri: Since last year, we have started doing more in-person events and kind of expanding the community beyond just being a digital platform. I think when we started, it was entirely digital, and that was nice. But I would say the actual stories or the way the things that we relate to in those stories are what most captivates me about this community and how you can relate to other people. I was recently reading a book by an Asian American author, and there was a lot of historical fiction about China within the book. It sparked conversations I had in my real life with people whose grandparents lived in China during that time. I would never have had that conversation with people if there hadn’t been some jumping-off point, and I love that about the community-building part of this. We hear from different people, and we get to listen to their connections to stories. That’s where I want to continue growing BGB, whether that’s through in-person or online events. Also, growing the guest reviewer community or ways for our community to be involved is important because there is such high engagement with all of our stuff, and there’s something more that I want to tap into in terms of how people get connected not just with us but with each other also through the platform.

Brown Girl Bookshelf: Empowering Representation of South Asian Literature
Brown Girl Bookshelf: Empowering Representation of South Asian Literature

TINDS: What would you say you had to struggle with the most, being a digital platform and only being able to communicate with your audience online?

Mishika: We always talk about how the digital landscape is all about likes, shares, and follows, which are significant when growing your platform, but they can also be demoralizing and hold us back by measuring our progress and fulfillment by those numbers. However, we measured our progress through audience DM, comments, and emails, which are encouraging. We’ve grown significantly, people are still interacting, and we have important conversations. It’s been hard to compete or get numbers up, but our goal is to impact a few people, and we see that every day.

Sri: Being South Asian might be tough since we never had to be so open about our identity, right? We just existed as South Asian Americans, and I think carving that out against the public in the public sphere has been difficult and is probably still ongoing because there are so many ways to identify as South Asian, and then there’s the diaspora and people who still live on the subcontinent. We feel pressure to represent everyone while being honest with ourselves and how we convey this identity. The way we feel about it is unique, and representing that in a way that feels authentic, especially on social media, especially with the big platform, can be counterintuitive because we must share stories from such a wide range of things. Still, we are individual people, so yeah, I think there’s this ongoing challenge.

 

TINDS: Which would you say is the last best book you’ve read?

Sri: A Passage North, a novel by Anuk Arudpragasam.

Mishika: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, a novel by Shehan Karunatilaka.

Find Them:

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/browngirlbookshelf/ 

Website: https://browngirlbookshelf.org/ 

 

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