The PEN Ten: An Interview with Asha Dahya
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, Jared Jackson speaks with Asha Dahya, author of Today’s Wonder Women: Everyday Superheroes Who Are Changing the World (Ixia Press, 2020).
1. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
That would be Jasvinder Sanghera’s Shame. I read this in 2008 right before I left Australia to move to the United States to further my media career, and it absolutely floored me—in a good way! Sanghera recalls growing up as a South Asian girl in the United Kingdom, dealing with the issue of honor and shame. Sharing the horrific death of her sister and how she herself escaped a forced marriage, Sanghera then went on to start an organization to shed light on this still-hidden topic (at the time) in the United Kingdom and has become a leading figure in the United Kingdom in regard to women’s rights, culture, and gender violence.
I distinctly remember putting that book down after I finished reading it and asked myself, “What am I doing in MY life that is going to be impactful, significant, and filled with meaning?” It took me a number of years—and a divorce, birthing two kids, and writing a book—to figure it out, but it showed me the power of women sharing their vulnerable stories and how it can impact people in so many ways.
2. When did you first call yourself a writer? How did it feel?
I’ve never thought of myself as an “author” or “writer,” which probably has more to do with my imposter syndrome than anything else. I’ve been keeping a journal of my life, thoughts, and feelings since I was a pre-teen! But I didn’t publicly call myself a writer or author until I signed my publishing deal and announced my book. I think it says a lot about our culture and how we measure success and ascribe titles that we feel must be attached to some sort of monetary gain. I believe we need to change this. I have been writing my whole life, and it feels good to finally acknowledge that while embracing my own unique voice in the literary space.
“Each of us has a unique voice and unique life, and the more of that we bring to the table—no matter what kind of writing you do—it makes for a very authentic experience for the reader, I believe. For me, it was being a young Indian girl growing up in Australia and the United Kingdom, never fully feeling like I ‘fit in’ because the majority of faces I would see on TV or in media looked nothing like me.”
3. How does your identity shape your writing? Is there such a thing as “the writer’s identity?”
I do think there is. For me, my identity is shaped by my lived experience, and this is what I bring to my writing. We are all familiar with the saying “write what you know,” and it is so true! Each of us has a unique voice and unique life, and the more of that we bring to the table—no matter what kind of writing you do—it makes for a very authentic experience for the reader, I believe. For me, it was being a young Indian girl growing up in Australia and the United Kingdom, never fully feeling like I “fit in” because the majority of faces I would see on TV or in media looked nothing like me.
The blog I started back in 2013—which became the foundation of how I got a book deal in 2018—was created as a way to share more stories for, by, and about other women who also felt like they never fit in but wanted to share their story. So to be writing my first book about incredible women and girls whose names you may not know, but whose stories have impacted so many, is so thrilling. I brought my identity to the table, and this is what I get to write about!
4. Which writers working today are you most excited by?
I am a huge fan of Brit Bennett. I devoured The Mothers in a matter of days, and am currently reading The Vanishing Half. Her voice and stories are so layered and relatable. I love that she is topping bestseller lists and is still fairly new on the scene. Having more female protagonists who are complex and flawed is definitely my jam.
5. Your book, Today’s Wonder Women: Everyday Superheroes Who Are Changing the World, elevates women and female-identifying changemakers through a series of stories, essays, and interviews. Before the book was your website GirlTalkHQ.com, and before the website were the news clippings you began collecting in high school about everyday women doing inspiring things. Thinking back to your younger self, what do you think drew you to the stories and articles that you collected? Why do you think you not only read them, but stored them in a folder?
I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I never felt represented in the stories I saw in mainstream media and entertainment. I so desperately wanted to see someone who looked like me, who had the same family upbringing and struggles as me, but couldn’t find her. While I didn’t know it at the time, collecting all those news clippings and magazine stories was me subconsciously building a binder of proof that there are more people like me out there than I ever thought.
“It is so common to feel alone in our lived experiences, but once we see more and more people share their stories, we start to get that sense of belonging in the world. That’s what I wanted to do with my book—allow the reader to tap into their own unique voice and story and remind them that they matter.”
It is so common to feel alone in our lived experiences, but once we see more and more people share their stories, we start to get that sense of belonging in the world. That’s what I wanted to do with my book—allow the reader to tap into their own unique voice and story and remind them that they matter. Perhaps keeping the magazine clippings was a way for me to remind myself of my own worth and belonging.
6. What did your creative process look like for this book? How did think about arranging the sections? How did you go about editing the interviews, and how did you maintain momentum?
Once I decided on 50 stories altogether, I then looked at the list of women and girls I had shortlisted, some of whom had previously been featured on my blog GirlTalkHQ.com—which was the genesis of this book and how I originally got my book deal—and others who I wanted to interview for the first time. I then tried to find some common themes among their career focus, the aspects of their story I felt needed to be shared, and how each of them was looking to create change in their world. When I had a solid idea of the chapter breakdowns, I then began categorizing each of the stories and profiles.
Because I was contracted to a word limit, I had to eventually eliminate a handful of stories, which I hated doing because it was so hard! After I had this structure in place, it was easier for me to focus on the creative content. Because of the nature of this book—which featured so many different women and girls, and images—I also had to spend a fair amount of time getting clearance for images, getting release forms signed, and making sure I checked all the necessary boxes for the admin side. So it was an interesting process altogether, getting to learn both the creative and more business side of putting a book like this together.
I had also just found out I was pregnant with my second child—my daughter—when I began working on Today’s Wonder Women, so it was perfect timing to work from home (battling daily nausea!) and quite a full circle moment writing a book about women and girls when I was pregnant with my daughter!
“It starts with authenticity, which means don’t focus on the bigger picture of creating or affecting movements at the start—simply write what is true to you. I think the more the world can see, hear, and read authentic and unique stories, the more we will see progressive and necessary change.”
7. How can writers, and books like yours, affect resistance movements?
I think it starts with authenticity, which means don’t focus on the bigger picture of creating or affecting movements at the start—simply write what is true to you. I think the more the world can see, hear, and read authentic and unique stories, the more we will see progressive and necessary change. Writers, influencers, and ordinary people have been more of a voice than ever before with blogs, social media, video platforms, and other digital avenues. With this, movements have been born.
Both the Black Lives Matter movement and the Women’s March began with the original founders sharing their pain and their stories on digital platforms like Facebook and Twitter. And look at where they are today! BLM is now the largest social movement in global history and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Founder Patrisse Cullors-Brignac is a bestselling author, speaker, and activist. There are so many examples, many of which I talk about in Today’s Wonder Women. English novelist and playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton once famously said, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” which Malala Yousafzai quoted in her first speech at the United Nations. I think that really sums it up well.
8. What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing your book?
The literary universe was all very new to me, so I think I enjoyed every moment along the way, learning about the process of how a book goes from idea to release. The way my book deal came about was quite unexpected, so I never really had any pressure on myself from the start. I think that helped a lot as I was able to focus on what I was writing each day.
The most difficult part was the release. It came out March 18, just as the world completely shut down due to COVID spreading. I canceled a whole East Coast publicity tour, which was devastating as my publicist and I had lined up some really big press and media opportunities especially in NYC. At first, I became a little despondent, but as the months in quarantine rolled on, I decided to take the pressure off myself in terms of sales numbers and look for the outlets that wanted to share the type of stories I had in my book. So I think writing the book—and releasing it during a fraught time—actually taught me a lot about my own resilience and resourcefulness as a creative person, and this is a lesson I hope to carry into all my projects.
“Seeing what is possible in the stories and lives of other people can give us courage to take our own leap out into our potential. . . The more we see people in leadership like the women in my book, the more it empowers those who have traditionally been left on the sidelines to know that they too belong in positions of power, redefining what it looks like to be a leader.”
9. Why do you think women—and people generally—need stories like the ones presented in your book?
Seeing what is possible in the stories and lives of other people can give us courage to take our own leap out into our potential. We’re so accustomed to stories of great men who change the world and make history—and usually white, straight men. The more we see people in leadership like the women in my book, the more it empowers those who have traditionally been left on the sidelines to know that they too belong in positions of power, redefining what it looks like to be a leader.
10. What advice do you have for young women who hope to create real change? How do they tap into their “own superpower?”
Step away from the noise and focus on what it is that truly drives you. What are you passionate about? Start there. Stop comparing yourself to others. Be inspired by someone else’s story, but don’t feel you need to be the “next” anyone else. Historical change has often come about from ordinary people who saw a problem and knew they had what it takes to drive change. Be in collaboration with others who share your passion. And finally, know that what makes you unique in the world is your superpower.
Asha Dahya is a TEDx speaker, author, and producer with nearly two decades of experience creating content for major broadcast and digital platforms including FOX, ABC, MSN, and MTV. In 2020, Dahya released her first book titled Today’s Wonder Women: Everyday Superheroes Who Are Changing The World, where she interviewed 50 women and girls from around the world. An ardent women’s rights advocate, Dahya is also the founder and editor-in-chief of GirlTalkHQ.Com, a daily female empowerment blog promoting women’s voices and stories. Dahya is passionate about the intersections of female representation, reproductive justice, and religion. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children.