NISHTA J. MEHRA is the proud first-generation daughter of Indian immigrants and the author of two essay collections: The Pomegranate King, self-published in 2013, and Brown White Black, published by Picador in February 2019. A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Mehra now lives with her wife, Jill, and their six-year-old, Shiv, in Phoenix. She spends her days working as a high-school English teacher, cooking for friends & family, reading as voraciously as possible, and hiking on South Mountain whenever she gets the chance. Connect with her via her website, nishtajmehra.com and on Twitter & Instagram @nishtajmehra
In a few sentences, please tell us what you do and what your job involves.
I’m a high school English teacher and a writer. Both are my job, and though the work of each can look quite different from the other, the two really inform each other. I learn so much from my students, which I work to bring into my writing. And I believe that what I have discovered about myself in my writing has made me a better teacher.
What is something you wish you knew about your industry before you entered it?
I wish I had been a bit savvier about the people politics that are an inevitable part of any institution, including schools. Though I received a fair amount of training related to the work of teaching and supporting students, I was fairly naive about how things outside the classroom operated and ended up learning - sometimes the hard way - how best to navigate relationships with fellow faculty members and administration.
What inspired your writing career and to write Brown White Black ?
Writing is something I’ve always done, from a young age. I have boxes full of journals that date back to the days before I was able to write down my own stories and poems, so my I dictated them to my parents, who scribed for me until I could take over. My writing remained personal and fairly hidden until I pursued my MFA after college; from there, I tried to imagine what a writing career might look like, done alongside teaching. I started with a blog (bluejeangourmet.com), which was a wonderful way to develop my voice and build discipline; that space and the audience who showed up there motivated me to self-publish my first book, The Pomegranate King.
The idea of Brown White Black was born out of an essay that is now part of the book but was first published online, Black Is the Color Of My True Love’s Hair. My first book explored my own experiences right up to the birth of my child, Shiv. As Shiv grew and our family started to move around in the world, I started to share about our experiences on my blog; one of my entries prompted a good friend to suggest that there might be more behind it, more to unpack & explore - turns out she was right!
Your book speaks to the racial and systemic inequalities you have seen and experienced in your life. What guidance would you give to young artists and writers that hope to incorporate social activism into their work?
For me, continual learning & self-reflection are key. Activism can’t just be a posture I adopt when I sit down to write, or it will ring hollow and inauthentic for readers. I hope to maintain a position of humility from which I acknowledge that I have much to learn and inside which I strive to engage with the work of artists and writers whose viewpoints and experiences differ from my own. The most generative relationships in my life are the ones that push me to look at things I haven’t looked at before, or to see about them newly; cultivating these relationships is crucial to keeping my thinking sharp and my writing as honest as possible.
What do you hope readers can learn/takeaway from your book?
One of the things that’s been so gratifying for me since the book came out is hearing from a variety of people, all of whom have found something to relate to in the book. In that sense, I hope readers can take away a sense of being mirrored or reflected, or of having something occur like a truth for them, just maybe not in words they would have constructed themselves. And if my writing can allow readers to consider a perspective or issue that they hadn’t closely examined before, that would be wonderfully fulfilling!
What are some of your favorite parts of your job and what are some of your not-so-favorite parts?
Easy - favorite part is spending my day with teenagers, who are funny and wise and earnest and whom I vastly prefer over adults. In all seriousness, sometimes I almost feel like it’s cheating to get paid to talk to my students about ideas that really matter, to do hard thinking with them and to support them as they work to figure out what kind of people they want to be. All of that far outweighs my not-so-favorite part, which is meetings.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
The best writing advice I’ve ever received was “Don’t let them mess with your voice," which is something my friend Isaac told me before I started graduate school. The best teaching advice I’ve ever received was “Never ask anything of your students that you aren’t willing or able to deliver to them." My students have enough hypocritical adults in their lives and I am fervently committed to not being one of them.
What is your advice to a student who is interested in entering the industry you work in?
My advice for writers is predictable but no less valuable - build a writing practice for yourself and protect it like the sacred thing it is. My advice for new teachers is to build a community for yourself outside of your school; it is essential to have places and people separate from the very consuming work of teaching who can offer perspective and care!
What's the latest book you've read that you couldn't put down and why?
I was completely floored by Kiese Laymon’s memoir Heavy. It’s a fugue of a book, unbelievably honest and so necessary.
Brown, White, Black – including audio & electronic versions – is available for purchase wherever books are sold!