Featured Image: Kajal Magazine
From traditional folktales to iconic fables, storytelling has been a powerful tool that has played a fundamental role in shaping human civilization into what it is today. For the founder of Kajal Magazine, Nadya Agrawal, writing and sharing her stories has been her preferred form of expression for as long as she can recall. From her humble beginnings as an avid reader in school to the creation of her own column in Catapult magazine, Sepia Tone, Agrawal has not shied away from any opportunity to speak her truth about her identity and help amplify the voices of the South Asian diaspora. I was able to embark on a journey with Nadya Agrawal as we discussed the importance of creating an outlet for young writers, the influence of diaspora films, and the creation of new subcultures.
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Growing up as an avid reader, Agrawal recalls her enthusiasm for writing developing stronger as she began to fashion herself into a writer in middle school. Although she was drawn to this industry from a young age, Agrawal made note of her hesitations when considering writing as a serious career endeavor. She went on to explain, “I kept pursuing it in high school thinking that I wouldn’t do it for real, like I wouldn’t pursue it as a career. But I kept finding myself in high school and college coming back to it, and ending up in positions where I was writing. It took a while for me to recognize it for the pattern that it was.” Rather than Agrawal making the decision to choose writing as the right career path for herself, it almost felt as though writing chose her.
“It wasn’t really so much that I chose it as it was more a part of my first language of expression.”
As the young writer was approaching her departure from graduate school, she began a new career venture when she founded the infamous magazine publication, Kajal Magazine. Fulfilling its purpose of being a safe space for the South Asian diaspora to express themselves and amplify their voices, Kajal Magazine has made waves internationally to reach a diverse demographic of young adults. The submission-based publication covers various forms of expression, from poetry and short fiction to photography and podcasts. The magazine prides itself on its efforts to reject societal standards and foster an environment where individuals in the South Asian diaspora can express themselves as they please.
Agrawal was initially inspired to found Kajal when she realized many jobs at newspapers and magazines required clips and by-lines. Although Agrawal attended UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) and was familiar with their highly respected newspaper, Daily Bruin, she hadn’t participated in this publication as she reflects on it being quite intimidating with all the work it required and she didn’t feel like she could participate in this alongside her school load. Agrawal goes on to explain her thought process, “I didn’t have those prestige clips coming out of college. I figured if I was encountering this experience, there had to be others encountering this as well. People who didn’t get those opportunities or didn’t get a fair shake when it came to writing.” Upon reflecting on her own experience, Agrawal used this revelation as an opportunity to build the Kajal Magazine, to support writers like herself who were seeking a safe environment where they can publish their craft. Agrawal contently exclaims, “Kajal became an opportunity to legitimize a lot of people’s abilities as writers and give them a place to put their work with high expectation and caliber that writers can point to.”
After founding Kajal in 2014, Agrawal shares how the publication has grown over the past few years and how her experience has developed over time. In terms of her personal growth, Agrawal explains how editing was something that felt quite organic to her, as she recalls always having a strong perspective on other people’s writing. Guiding fellow writers, and passing down her industry knowledge to the upcoming creatives always felt like something Agrawal wanted to explore through the magazine. Throughout the years, she had the pleasure of meeting some kind colleagues who walked Agrawal through the basics of journalism, and now she constantly finds herself trying her best to impart that knowledge further for the pieces she is editing. In terms of the magazine as a whole, Agrawal acknowledges the growth of Kajal, and how it has flourished into a greatly sought-after place over the years. She goes on to say, “It’s incredible to see writers use Kajal as a stepping stone and really test themselves against the process of writing and editing. I feel like in a lot of ways Kajal’s growth reflects my own growth as a writer and editor.”
“That’s been a very fulfilling relationship in my career.”
Nadya Agrawal continues to flourish as a writer as she embarks on various, new career endeavors. Notably, her column on Catapult known as, Sepia Tone, has provided the South Asian diaspora with an insightful perspective into some of their favourite diasporic films. The Sepia Tone is built on analyzing nostalgic South Asian diaspora films and approaching them in a more contemporary manner. When asked what initially inspired her to begin this column and reflect on these movies, Agarwal explains, “I feel like I have been thinking about these films for my whole life, because they have been so foundational throughout my life. I feel like these films are pieces of culture — pieces of expression that I learned so much about myself from.” These diaspora films served as foundations for a new culture created by the South Asian diaspora, which encompasses elements of their South Asian identity as well as aspects of their Western identity. “I strongly believe that in terms of the South Asian American community, we are building our own culture here. So, it’s not really a matter of balancing two different cultures, it’s more about coming together as the whole South Asian diaspora and building our own culture here.”
An extremely influential film can often be the primary cause for a sequence of mimicry amongst the audience. It’s not uncommon to see trends birthed from scenes in a movie that were appreciated by the masses. Agrawal reflects on the influence of diasporic movies, “In a lot of ways they [South Asian diaspora films] either led conversations or resulted in very deep conversations, and they serve as artifacts for future generations to encapsulate certain experiences and return to them over time.” Through her column, Sepia Tone, Agrawal made sure to reference some classic diaspora films, including Bend It Like Beckham, and Mississippi Masala. However, she also made sure to mention a film starring a young Kal Penn, which will always have a special place in her heart, “When I watched Where’s The Party Yaar? for the first time it was like my world blew open. It was a very cheesy, over-the-top, slapstick film but it was also very charming as a result of that.”
“That’s the beautiful thing about these films; they transcend time.”
On the conversation of film, it is evident to note the scarcity of South Asian representation which existed in mainstream media, specifically in the past. When there seems to be representation in media, it is often stereotypical and only serves as representation for a small portion of the overall diaspora. Agrawal goes on to explain, “There are many South Asian Americans who live below the poverty line and we don’t get to hear their stories. There are different diaspora experiences that are completely removed from the conversation altogether.” As time has progressed, diversity in mainstream media has become a popular topic of conversation. Agrawal claims, “In terms of media, what we really need are more South Asian people, more people of colour, more people of different class and caste experiences in seats of power — for example, in the director’s seat or as the casting director. That’s when a story will actually be influenced on a concrete and fundamental level.”