I am here. Hear me.
An Interview with Saira Rao
By Catherine Henderson
Saira Rao describes herself as a “wall-street lawyer turned novelist,” a title that immediately leaves room for a story. Raised in Richmond and educated at the University of Virginia, Saira “did everything right.” She went to law school at NYU. She clerked for the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. She worked at a white shoe New York City law firm.
As she entered positions of power, she found corruption, narcissism, and backstabbing. Saira began to write about what she saw, using her voice to separate herself from the systems she disdained. These musings became Chambermaid, a novel that was translated into five languages and optioned for a Warner Brothers film.
Yet Saira noticed a larger problem in media. The vast majority of TV shows or books for her brown children featured white kids: funny, tough boys or glittery, unfunny girls. She teamed up with her friend from UVA, Carey Albertine, and launched In This Together Media, a company that packages diverse middle grade and young adult literature. Saira and Carey brainstorm ideas in their mission of diversity and hire authors to pen them. Once completed, their agents in New York sell the books to publishers such as Simon & Schuster and Knopf.
Now, she’s joined the GALS Inc. Board as a firm believer in diversity in education. She is a dear friend and confidant of Liz Wolfson. Saira describes GALS Inc. as the educational equivalent of In This Together Media.
I sat down with her for an interview at her home in Denver. I shortened our interview for the sake of succinctness.
How did you meet Liz Wolfson?
I moved here four years ago, and I desperately wanted to meet other women in the empowerment space. I asked everyone I knew, and her name came up over and over again, so I just reached out to her.
Describe the first time you went to GALS.
It was mind blowing to me because we at In This Together Media believe that every story counts, and GALS felt like the educational version of what we try to do in media. I’ve never seen a school, nonprofit, or company that does what it does, putting theory into practice. Every one of the kids looked me in the eye, introduced herself, shook my hand, and was able to answer my questions with kindness and confidence. There’s a sense of self-awareness that you don’t see in other schools.
What books do you recommend for educators looking to expand curricula to move away from clichés?
People ask that a lot, and I think that for everyone, it’s different. What I would recommend to my daughter who’s a 9-year-old brown girl would be different for a gay, white kid in Kentucky. Of course, excellent stories transcend all boundaries. I love the Hunger Games as much as the next gal, but when it comes to recommending books that pervert stereotypes, I think that’s the homework of parents, teachers, and librarians to dig really deep. That’s a tough job. Our goal [at In This Together] is to flood the marketplace, so it becomes a lot easier to find more books with characters who reflect our diverse population. We are currently working on a book featuring a 13-year-old trans kid. We’re working on a book about a pug who’s a dictator who keeps other dogs out of the park. We’re working on a story with Muslim-American kids and geeky, white-girl stand-up comics. Not every book is for everyone, but we want people to have choices. I, for one, am sick of the cis-gendered, straight, funny, white-boy protagonist.
How has Liz Wolfson and GALS Inc. changed your view on education and diversity?
When we started [In This Together], we had people openly laugh at us in the industry. We had a person at Scholastic tell us that straight, white boys sold. And here we are, we’re doing it. Liz is the same way. She was an outsider who did what everyone told her she was crazy to do, and she did it anyway. And it’s working! She and Nina have proven that there’s another way, that black kids and white kids, poor kids and rich kids, trans kids and cis kids can all be in the same school, be friends, and perform well.
In your article, “Confessions of a Closeted Brown Woman,” you talk about trying to diminish the self-loathing you experience as a minority. How do you think a school like GALS can diminish self-loathing and help students accept who they are?
I grew up in Richmond, Virginia where there were black kids and white kids but no Asian kids. I went to private school. My parents didn’t know what else to do, and they thought there would be less racism. So I made myself white. When I got to college, I joined the greek system, I went to mixers at fraternities with confederate flags everywhere. It makes me really sad to think about. I’m trying not to blame myself too much for the extremely poor choices I’ve made in terms of whitening myself. But at a school like GALS, you aren’t presented with that horrible option. There’s no single mold there. As a result, you grow up as yourself rather than trying to fit into something else. You learn to say, “I am here. Hear me. Listen to who I am.”
How do you live the GALS values in your everyday life?
I keep going back to “hear me.” I think about it all the time. I think that we don’t know our own power. And it took me a long time to trust my voice. Trying to fit in makes you dampen your own voice. At GALS, it’s the opposite. It’s something that will stay with you for the rest of your life. It’s knowing your power and refusing to be silent in whatever way works for you.
Who are your sheros?
I have a lot, but I would say right now, it’s every single black woman in this country. Every single black woman in this country is my shero. And my late mom, the baddest of brown asses there ever was.