On a Journey to Happiness with Keah Brown
It’s a rough year after a rough year after…a rough year. Writer, journalist, and #disabledandcute creator Keah Brown reminds us to celebrate our wins and find joy anyway.
Keah has written for publications like Harper’s Bazaar, Teen Vogue, Essence, Catapult, Lenny Letter, The Rumpus, and Glamour. She also has cerebral palsy—and one day in 2017, she was feeling cute. So she posted a photo of herself with the hashtag #disabledandcute, and boom: she started a movement.
Since then, she’s signed her first book deal, written about everything from Lilliam Rivera to Solange, and generally taken the world by storm. Plus, Roxane Gay thinks she’s great. What more is there to say?
We spend so much time with disability narratives either being used to prop up an able-bodied character, or to die for the emotional turmoil of an able-bodied character. And I’m just like, nope. I live at the end of this book, and I’m going to keep living, and you’re going to see more of me, because I’m not going anywhere.
—Keah Brown, writer and #disabledandcute creator
Keah tells us all about:
- Starting the #disabledandcute movement
- Her Teen Vogue cover story on disabled representation in fashion
- Being named to The Root 100 list of most influential African-Americans
- Writing for Roxane Gay’s Unruly Bodies series
- The double-edged sword of being the “go-to disability writer”
- Working on her first essay collection, The Pretty One, due out from Atria Books next fall
- Relying on Demi Lovato, Paramore, and her friends to get through the hard parts
- Katel tells us all about her workshop with last week’s guest, Sonalee Rashatwar
- Sara has a very attractive knee surgeon
- Don’t miss Milena Paulina’s gorgeous photos of fat bodies
This episode of NYG is brought to you by:
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Sara Wachter-Boettcher [Ad spot] This episode is sponsored by Harvest, makers of awesome web software anyone can use to track time, plan projects, and get paid. I’ve used it for my own business for years and I love all the new features they keep adding like integrations with Basecamp, Slack, and Trello— or Harvest Forecast, which lets you map out your team’s availability over time. Check them out free at getharvest.com and when you’re ready to upgrade, the code “noyougo” is going to save you 50% off your first month. That’s getharvest.com, offer code “noyougo.” [intro music plays for 12 seconds]
SWB Hey everyone, I’m Sara!
Katel LeDû And I’m Katel.
SWB And you’re listening to No, You Go, the show about building satisfying careers and businesses—
KL —getting free of toxic bullshit—
SWB —and living your best feminist life at work.
KL Today we are talking to Keah Brown. She’s a journalist and freelance writer and she just had the cover story on Teen Vogue in the September issue, it’s amazing. She’s also up to all sorts of awesome things and she started this huge movement when she posted a photo of herself with the hashtag “disabledandcute.” So, I’m really excited about hearing from Keah, but I’m also really excited because, Sara, it’s the first time I’ve seen you since you had surgery. How did it go?
SWB Wellllll, my surgeon was very attractive.
KL That’s good, tell me more.
SWB Yeah, it’s obviously the most important thing when you have surgery, right? [KL laughs] It’s kind of disappointing, right? Because you don’t spend very much time awake [laughing] with the surgeon—
SWB —you spend actually very little time, which is good for other reasons.
KL It is good.
SWB Yeah no, he’s just very attractive. But more importantly, I guess, everything went well, so I now have a newly reconstructed ACL in my left knee, which is exciting. Also means that I have a very big brace and I’ve been hobbling around the house and starting to do some weirdly strenuous PT exercises. But a big shout out to some of my awesome friends, because I have received several bouquets of flowers, including some beautiful ones from Katel.
SWB And also things like some coloring books. Aaand! Extra special shout out to my friend Robin, who delivered four bags of Doritos. [KL laughs] Yeah, I’ve been sharing the wealth today with Katel, so—in fact, we were doing some planning for the show, and so there are sticky notes all over my wall. And I just looked up and I realized there’s this one that says “creative partnerships” and it’s [laughing] covered in Dorito fingerprints. [KL laughs]
KL Uhh yeah, also sounds about right. And I feel like Doritos is definitely a special sponsor of this show. Like not financially, but very much spiritually.
SWB Yeah, we already have a creative partnership with Doritos [KL laughs] in our hearts.
SWB So, honestly though, I’ve been watching a lot of TV. I’ve been figuring out the best way to go up and down stairs. It’s not that exciting. I think maybe a lot more exciting is what you’ve been up to, because last week we talked with Sonalee, and she mentioned her workshop. And you went to her workshop! So how’d it go?
KL It was so cool, even though I had a little bit of anxiety—just general, social anxiety going to something alone and where I wasn’t really going to know anybody. It was great because I was really excited to meet one of our guests—you know—in real life, because we don’t often get to do that. And it was just really amazing to see Sonalee speak because she was so in her element and so natural and she was just radiating confidence in everything she said and it was just funny because I feel like before we got our interview started, she mentioned feeling a little nervous. So, it was really cool to just see her shine like that.
SWB So, was there anything that you feel like really clicked for you? Or anything that she said that—you know—kept ringing around your brain for a while?
KL Gosh. I mean so much, but I remember sort of early on she talked about things like healthcare and reproductive justice issues. Like—you know—when you try to go get a yeast infection taken care of, or get a birth control prescription, but your doctor tells you to go on a diet. And you’re not getting the care that you need just because you’re in a body that is different than they’re expecting or not seeing a lot of. But on the show, she had talked about how body image is so much more than what we think it is. And so she challenged us to identify deeper examples of how bodies are policed. One person actually brought up the school-to-prison pipeline and we started to talk about the way black kids’ bodies are treated differently than white kids’ bodies at school. And we talked a lot about fat positivity, but also that body image isn’t just about that, it’s about how we treat people based on their bodies.
SWB Well, so thinking about that—I mean—was it weird for you, Katel, to be there as a thin person? I don’t know that everybody realizes this, but you’d probably call yourself a thin person, right?
KL Yeah, I think so. And I definitely had—you know—thoughts and feelings about it. I thought—you know—am I taking space away from someone else that—you know—deserves to be there more than me? Or maybe this isn’t for me, but it was, in fact, very much for me. But also, all of the messages and everything I was learning and hearing were really important for me to hear and realize. And I felt like—you know—leaving it would have been really easy to have sat through that workshop and feel overwhelmed or discouraged, like where do I even start with unlearning some of these things that I have these innate biases in me about? And one of the things Sonalee said was that we have to change our visual landscape. And one way to do that is to look at and look for other bodies and other body types and I was sort of like, “yes, I have been doing that and I’ve started to do that.” And I’m just really glad that I did a little while ago. And recently I started following someone named Milena Paulina and her feed is amazing. She’s an amazing photographer, she has all these gorgeous images and she even has this highlight reel you can go to and put gorgeous photographs of beautiful, fat bodies on your phone as wallpaper.
SWB I like this concept of that being something that you actively choose to do, actively choose to change that visual landscape and put it right there on your phone, that’s really cool. It reminds me of other conversations we’ve had about how important it is to hear from a wider variety of voices. That’s definitely something that we’ve—you know—been trying to do on the show. And it reminds me of one of the things that’s been really amazing about working on the podcast this year is that I definitely want to hear diverse voices, I want to hear from lots of different people, but because we’ve been running the show, it’s really made me be much more intentional about it and made me intentionally go through and say—you know—whose voices are we hearing and not hearing, and what does that overall picture look like of who we’re choosing to elevate and who we’re choosing to learn from? And I feel like that’s really made me challenge some of my own ideas and beliefs and sort of made me just think a lot harder about—you know—the kinds of topics we want to touch on, because we’re talking a lot about things like work, and ambition, and visibility, and I think all of those things are important, but I think that I’ve learned more nuance to what that can mean by having so many different people on the show, which has just been fucking great.
KL Something else that’s been really cool is that it’s also—I think—made us realize that we want to spend more of our time elevating more of those voices in a lot more ways. And I think this podcast is just the start. Sara, are you ready to tell them?
SWB Mmmmmm… yes! [KL laughs] Okay, so we haven’t really talked about this on the show yet. I think we hinted at it a little while ago, but me and Katel have been in research mode for a while now where we’ve been kind of looking at this topic of professional visibility, so are people known in their industries? Do they sort of have a voice? Do they have a seat at the table? Are they—you know—speaking and writing about what they do? And we’ve been focused on our own industries, right? So, design and technology, because that’s where I have experience as a speaker and as an author and Katel has experience as a publisher. And so we’ve been really asking this question of, how can we help more people, and a more diverse group of people, have more access to those kinds of opportunities where they can be centered? And for them to tell their stories and have their experiences be seen as valuable and influencing the direction that our industry faces in the future.
KL Yeah, it’s been so exciting because we’re in the really early stages of not only thinking through what the project might turn into, but we’ve gotten to interview all of these people about their experiences just, you know, navigating this whole thing. And we’ve also heard from hundreds of folks who took a survey we launched, which was so cool. And it’s just been so exciting to see some of these themes and insights start to emerge. For example, we knew that people gave talks or wrote articles to build credibility and be potentially a more desirable candidate for a new job or promotion, but something we hadn’t thought about was how often people do it because they realized it might help them learn and strengthen their own ideas.
SWB Yeah, you know, one of the things I keep coming back to is that we’ve just got so much research right now. We have so much stuff, we still need to go through and it’s hard to find enough time, especially running the podcast and then doing our regular work and then—I don’t know—recovering from this surgery. [KL laughs] But people keep asking me “oh, so what are you going to make? What are you and Katel going to do?” And I’m not really sure yet, we’ve talked about a lot of stuff. We’ve talked about things like giving workshops, which we’ve done a little bit of, we’ve talked about things like workbooks, we’ve talked about training programs—we’ve talked about all kinds of stuff. But it’s kind of fun to be in this place where we don’t really know yet, but we are generating ideas and thinking about where we might take it and just getting a lot of really good quality time together in the process.
KL Hell yeah! So, I think it’s time for more of that inspiration. Let’s listen to Keah. [music fades in, plays for five seconds, and fades out]
SWB [Ad spot] So, a month or two ago, me and Katel went to San Francisco for some business. And Katel, I’ve got to admit the minute I saw you at the airport, I was jealous! Because you had that brand-new Away carryon, and you just looked so legit. [KL laughs]
KL Thank you for saying that. Usually I feel like a mess traveling, but this time I felt like I totally had my shit together, because the Away carryon looks great, and it’s sturdy as hell. It has an easy-to-use TSA lock that keeps everything safe, and I wasn’t even worried about keeping my devices charged because it has a built in charger, and I can get all my important business done at the airport. And the best part? I did a little shopping in San Francisco and worried I wouldn’t be able to take everything home with me, but Away’s over-packer-proof system had me covered.
SWB Away is great because it was actually designed for people like us. They went out and asked thousands of people how they pack, why they travel and what bugs them the most about their luggage, and then they designed their bags to actually solve those problems. And no joke, Katel keeps on raving about how much she loves hers. So if you want to check one out for yourself, Away offers a 100-day trial and free shipping on any order within the lower 48 states. And just for No, You Go listeners, they also have $20 off any suitcase. Just visit awaytravel.com/nyg to get yours. That’s awaytravel.com/nyg for $20 off your next favorite suitcase. [music fades in, plays for five seconds, and fades out]
Interview: Keah Brown
KL Keah Brown is a journalist and freelance writer whose work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Essence, Catapult, and Lenny Letter. She’s an advocate pushing for representation of people with disabilities in media, and in early 2017, she started something huge. We want to get right to hearing from her. Keah, welcome to No, You Go.
KB Thank you for having me. I’m so excited to finally be talking to you both.
KL We are too! So, let’s start with that movement we mentioned—the “disabledandcute” hashtag you posted along with a photo of yourself. Can you tell us what that is and how it came to be?
KB Well, I do like to think of it as a movement. For me, it was about celebrating myself because I spent so long in a really negative place with my body in terms of how I viewed it. And “disabledandcute” is and was a place for me to be like “I finally like myself, here are some pictures of me. I’m disabled and cute. There’s no either or—I am both.” And so that was—it started out as a place for me to finally be like, okay, I like myself now and this is what the world is going to get. And if they like it, great, if they don’t, whatever. I’ll move on anyway. But it turned into a place where all disabled people could—you know—celebrate themselves, whether it was with pictures or just words. It became a place where people felt kind of, I think, at home in many ways. It was a place to go where there was no judgement and no fear of how people would react, even though it started out as sort of a selfish kind of all-about-me thing—which I think is great, I think that that’s necessary too—but I think…I like that it has evolved into a community, a place where people can go to feel—you know, in any corny sense of the word—free to be who they are.
KL Where do you think the movement is now and sort of what’s next for it or what are you excited about that has kind of evolved from it?
KB Well, I created the hashtag in February of 2017, which—as we all know—was a really rough year for the world. But I like that people are still using it, still posting pictures, still finding new reasons to love themselves and celebrate themselves, as well as each other. I think that people are using the hashtag as a jumping off point to meet other people and to share their stories and know that they’re not alone.
KL Yeah, absolutely. And it seems like it’s been—you know—a big part of your work. In fact, you just wrote a cover story for a Teen Vogue’s September issue, which is [laughs] just—it’s so wonderful. You profiled three models in a great piece for the magazine, and it’s just—it’s awesome. What was that whole experience like?
KB What was really cool about this one in particular was that it felt like, you know, magic. I know I keep talking about magic, but I really believe in it. I think that it felt like something special was happening while it was happening. And they reached out to me because they wanted to run the idea by me of writing a piece where I interview these three models, and I was like, “absolutely.” I want to be a part of that representation for people who don’t have it, you know. I spent so much of my life not having any sort of disabled representation, at least any sort of proper or positive disabled representation, that I wanted to give that to other people. And so for Teen Vogue to ask these three models to be on the cover, first of all, and to spotlight these models who are doing great work, but don’t necessarily get the same sort of attention that an able-bodied model might get. And then to ask me, a disabled writer, to pen the cover story really means a lot. I think it goes beyond lip service, it’s like, “okay, we’re not just going to say we care about diverse voices and we care about highlighting—you know—a wide range of people, we’re going to actually do it, and we’re going to make sure that we hire somebody who lives in that experience and understands that community and understands the intricacies of what disability is.” And so for me, it just felt like something magical and I think the response to it proves what I know to be true and it’s that people are really hungry for proper disabled representation.
KL When you think back to when you started writing and just how this whole journey began for you, was there a moment when you sort of decided that you were going to be more vocal about disability and your own experience living with cerebral palsy in your work?
KB I think because I have a physical disability that you can see—cerebral palsy—I kind of just jumped right in because I was like “there’s no—I can’t ignore it.” I spent so long being like “I want to ignore it, I want to pretend like it doesn’t exist.” But when I started writing in 2015, I was like, I have to talk about it, because I’m not seeing these stories anywhere else, and I’m tired of not seeing these stories. So I’m going to write them and hope that somebody else sees them too. And when I started my career, I didn’t like myself. So I wrote a lot about—you know—being unlovable, being afraid to be in public view because so many people spend so much time staring at me. Now I know that that sounds like a very vain thing, but it’s something that you pick up on and I picked up on really early in my life. Adults would be staring at me open-mouthed, or they would come up and say, you know, “when were you in the car accident?” or “what car accident happened?” And so I was always very insecure about my disability, and it wasn’t until about 2016, 2017 that I started having more nuanced ideas about my disability because before it was just—even when I started writing, it was just this burden that I had and this thing that I was dealing with. But now, it’s that lovable best friend you get annoyed with, but they’re yours and so you love them. And I think when I started out, it was just like—I wanted people to see how hard it was to be disabled and now I’m like, “yes it’s hard, it still is very hard, and some days I’m frustrated, but there’s also joy too.” And so I think it’s more about the evolution of the work that I’ve done in regards to disability than talking about it because I did start talking about it right away, but the way that I’m talking about it now is so different from the way that I talked about it when I started.
SWB That’s so powerful to know that you’ve sort of been part of that change and sort of making that change happen. But it also makes me wonder—something that I’ve heard from other writers is that they can feel like on the one hand, they want to talk about their identity and their experience, but then on the other hand, sometimes it’s easy to feel like they’re pigeonholed to only talking about that part of their identity or experience. And I’m curious if that’s something that you’ve dealt with. Do you ever feel like you’d like people to ask you to write about other types of things that are not related to disability, or worried that that’s all people see about your work?
KB Yes, I do actually, I worry all the time. In fact, I spend a lot of time on Twitter specifically telling people to let me write about something else. Because I don’t want to be pigeonholed. I think that the disability work that I do is important, don’t get me wrong. But what I’m hoping is that once—you know—my book comes out, people can see that I’m much more than just this specific identity. I love so many things. I feel like I have the ability to write about them, I just need the opportunity. Now I really have written about other things before—Catapult, I wrote about Morgan Parker and Solange. At Harper’s, I interviewed Roxane Gay. The Rumpus let me interview Lilliam Rivera. So, I think that I have the range, it’s just getting people to see it. But yeah, I do. I worry about that. I worry about being the go-to disability writer because that’s not all that I am. It’s a very big part of my life, but it’s not all that I have to offer, so hopefully—you know—that changes the more that I keep doing the work.
SWB Absolutely. And I also, I mean, I think, you know, part of this is definitely something that I think speaks to the kind of—I don’t know—ambition and wide interests that you have, that you are out there interviewing lots of people. For example, Roxane Gay, holy shit! Uhhh how did that feel? We would be pretty excited about that, personally. How did you keep your cool?
KB I was so excited. First of all, I didn’t keep my cool. I want to make that clear. [KL & SWB laugh]
SWB Phew! Good okay, so you’re human!
KB Yes! No chill at all. So Harper’s reached out to me and they were like “hi, we’re doing a Women Who Dare series and we want to—Roxane Gay is on that list, and we want you to interview her.” And I thought they were joking. I was like, “are you serious? You want me to do it? Like speak to her? Words?” And they were like, “yeah, we want you to do it.” And then two days later, I called her and so before we started, I was like “I’m just going to tell you now, I’m nervous and you know that I love you and it’s this whole thing’ and she was like, “you’re going to be fine, it’s fine.” And then I cleared my throat and then I started asking her questions and then once the interview was over, I told her I was writing a—like I had my book sent out for publishers. And she was just so kind and so courteous, and then I was just like, “you have no idea what this means to me specifically, I love you so much.” It was this whole thing. And then when she asked me to write for her Unruly Bodies series, that was when I was really like, “I can’t believe this is my life.” She emailed me and she was just like, “will you write for the Unruly Bodies thing I’m doing for medium.com” and I was like, “yes, absolutely.” She sent the email at like 12:00 and I responded at like 12:01. And you know, so to be edited by her and to be seen by somebody you admire so much, it just feels so good to know that she sees my worth as a writer. And so I think that’s what keeps me going on bad days. Like after a rejection, I’m like “well, you know, Roxane thinks I’m pretty good.” So yeah, I mean I have no chill when it comes to her, but she’s been so supportive of my career and so supportive of me and I’m just so grateful, but I still fangirl all the time.
KL It’s so great to hear that that’s how that experience went. I think we were all just smiling huge and loving every minute of that story. So, just going back to writing a little bit. You recently tweeted about sending out a writing pitch and having it rejected saying “shout out to yesterday when I sent a pitch and it got rejected in less than 45 minutes. Just in case anyone thought otherwise, I still get rejections. Shout out to everyone on this journey to tell stories.” And as a publisher, I love seeing this because—you know—rejections happen all the time, but it absolutely doesn’t mean the end of something and, you know, you’ve got to keep going and putting things out there. How do you navigate the times that you do get rejected or, you know, when stuff like that happens?
KB I just have to remember that sometimes what I want isn’t necessarily for me. It does feel personal, so I don’t want to say that it doesn’t, but I think it was taking my worth out of rejections and acceptances that helped me a lot because I used to put my worth solely in the work. So, if I wrote a piece and the piece did good, then I’m a great person. But if it didn’t do what I thought it was going to do, then I’m a bad person. And that took a really long time for me to unlearn, but that’s what helps me now with rejections is knowing that whether I get an acceptance and the piece does well or it doesn’t do well or I get a rejection to this place that I really admire, that doesn’t mean that I’m worthless. It just means that it did or it did not work out. And honestly, what helps me truly with rejections is Paramore and Demi Lovato and my friends. I just blare Paramore and Demi Lovato when I’m having—you know—a bad day after a bunch of rejections. That’s what helps me, is music. And I’m like—I’ll complain to my friends, and then I’ll send out another pitch. I don’t like to dwell on it. I think I give myself like an hour to be upset and then I’m like, “okay, where else can this pitch go? Where else can this pitch fit? What else can you try to work on?”—you know? And I try to be—and I hate when people are like, “oh, I would never—this person rejected me, so I would never write for their publication”—it’s like no, you just—the thing that you wrote wasn’t right for them at that time, but something else might be. I think that if we spend our time deciding never to pitch places just because they rejected us once or twice, we could lose out on an opportunity to write for them in the future. So, I think that you just have to look at rejections as stepping stones to either something greater, something different, or just a moment in time when you were not ready and they were not ready for you.
SWB Yes, I love that sentiment. And the other thing I always think about—personally, I know there are times when, whether it was for something like speaking at a conference or whether it was writing something or even something like applying for a job back—I haven’t had an actual job in a long time—but back when I didn’t work for myself, I have had moments where I sent something in and didn’t hear anything back and I was very quick to assume that that meant that they hated me, and I should be ashamed, and I should definitely, definitely die of that shame alone somewhere in the dark. And then realized much later that they had screwed up and never seen it, it had got passed along to someone who was supposed to follow up and didn’t do it or whatever. Sometimes it’s straight up people just let things slip and it feels so personal, but—you know—one of the things I had to learn was not to take that as the kind of thing that would be like, “oh, you should definitely be ashamed to ever contact that person ever again in your life,” which is how I would feel [laughing] if I didn’t get a response from the first message! [KL laughs] And I feel like that was a really important lesson that I have to remind myself of still because it’s still—my first reaction is like “oh my gosh”—
SWB —“I must be dead to them.” It’s like if you’re dating somebody and you text them and they don’t text you back, you’re like “okay, I guess that’s done, right?” [KL laughs] And I would feel like that about all of these other kinds of work relationships and then I realized [laughing] that’s not helping anyone!
KB Yeah, no, and it’s hard. It is really hard, I think still for me too, I have to remind myself like, “okay, your worth is not tied to this specific rejection.” But that’s—it’s hard. I think that everybody does it, and I feel like maybe that will help too is knowing that you’re not alone in it. We’re all still getting rejections, we’re all still getting humbled in that way I think.
KL Yeah. I also really love that you do allow yourself some time to kind of—you know—feel bummed out, and you make space for that, and I think that’s also really important.
SWB So, Keah, I also wanted to ask you what it’s like to be doing well when things are not going so well in the grand scale. So, you said once that 2016 was a really terrible year in general, which, yes, obviously, and that also that was an incredible year for you, which is something I actually—I also really relate to. You know, I had a really good 2016. Meanwhile, I felt that everything was kind of on fire around me.
SWB And so we’ve talked about this kind of stuff on the show before, right? How do we experience joy and success in the midst of difficult times? And how does that make us feel and sort of—you know—how do we work through that? So, I’m curious, from your perspective, what was it like to feel like you were having a lot of success in the middle of an objectively awful year? And how did you find space to let yourself be joyful for that anyway?
KB Well, I mean, I have my friends to thank for that. They were very keen on being like, “you’re not going to be able to just bypass this, I’m not going to let you just forget about all these great things that are happening to you because the world is on fire.” And so that really took me into a place where it’s like, “okay, that felt like a punch in the gut,” because I don’t want to make people feel bad about my joy, but at the same time, I want to make sure that I sit in it. And so for me to be able to do that, I had to lean on my friends to give me the okay to be like, “yes, celebrate getting into these big publications.” And even in 2017, that was a pretty good year for me as well. I got an agent, I sold a book. And so my friends were just like, “nope, we’re not going to let you—you know—slip that in and just say it quickly and then move on and talk about how bad things are. In order for you to be a balanced human being, you have to make sure that you celebrate your wins as much as you mourn the world’s losses.” So, I really do have my friends to thank for that.
SWB Well, I think all of us probably have your friends to thank for that too because [KB laughs] I mean, it—I think it sounds like it’s really important for you to be able to have those joys, but I also think that it’s really import for the world. You know, one of the things we’ve talked about between me and Katel is how nothing is better if we don’t celebrate the stuff that’s actually good, right? Not celebrating things that are good simply because—you know—the world is in a bad place, that doesn’t fix the world. It just takes away the one bit of joy that you had and the one bit of joy you could be sharing with people. And so I think we do need to be able to sort of take ownership of that. So, I for one am very glad your friends encouraged you to do that and made sure that that actually happened.
KB Well thank you and yeah, no—I feel like I feel better for it. Sometimes the world needs little doses of joy, and I think it’s so nice to know that people are happy for me when things happen. When I announced that I signed with Trident Media Group, everybody on Twitter was so kind and so—you know—congratulatory and they were so excited for me and what was next. And then when I announced the book deal, it was the same thing. And so it’s nice to know that you have a community of people who you may not have met in real life yet, but they still care. So, I don’t want to be selfish in that way to be like “oh no, I’m not going to talk about it because things are bad.” Because if we don’t hold joy, we’re just going to be miserable forever. You have to find joy in the midst of all this bad in order to keep going.
KL Yeah. I think—I think so too. One thing that is bringing me a lot of joy in this moment right now is that you mentioned that you have an essay collection coming out next fall. It’s called The Pretty One from Atria Books. That is so exciting—can you tell us about it? What made you want to write it?
KB I’ve always wanted to write a book. I mean hello, I’m a writer, so that’s our thing. But I always wanted it to be fiction first. I was really bent on fiction happening for me first, and then I sat down with my agent—shoutout to Alex Slater—and I was just like, “I want to write an essay collection. I want to do it.” And I think I have the wherewithal to talk about my life so far and things that I love and things that I don’t love and things that can be improved upon. And he was like “okay!” So, we sat down and we planned out what it was that I wanted to talk about. And I wanted the book to run the gamut from—you know—disability rights and protections and advocacy, to pop culture, cheesecake, and music. I wanted people to see that I could write—you know—about disability as well as I can write about anything else. And I wanted to make sure that this book wasn’t just about disability. I mean, disability is mentioned in every essay, but it’s not the subject of every essay. It’s the lens through which I see the world, obviously, but it’s not the focal point of everything. And I just wanted to talk about—you know—concerts and my friends and my family and what we’ve been through. And I wanted people to see a fully realized human being who also has a disability and lives her life—you know—with joy just on a journey to happiness and what that journey looks like for me. And so the—the collection itself, like I said, it runs the gamut of all the things—pop culture and disability and music and food and kind of the idea of a chosen family and a family that you were born into, and how they’re both very important—at least to me. And I just talk about all these things that I’ve always wanted to talk about, but didn’t have the opportunity in freelance pieces. So I saved them for the essay collection, and I’m really very proud of it. Somebody told me that I was going to get to a point where I was like, “oh this is—I just don’t love the book.” There was I guess this point where you’re editing it that you’re supposed to feel that way because you’re just like, “there’s so much to edit and there’s so much to do,” but I love this book so much. And I really hope that people take something of value from it. I hope that they see either themselves in it or they understand someone they know and love or they just like a journey that has to deal with grief and love and joy and sadness.
SWB We cannot wait for your book to come out, I am very excited about it. When is it going to be out?
KB It will be out in the fall.
SWB Well, so in the meantime while we’re waiting for the essay collection, something that we saw that is happening right now is that you were just named to the 2018 Root 100 list. So, the 100 most influential African Americans. And no joke, here are a couple other names that we saw on that list: Serena Williams—I don’t know if anybody’s heard of her. [KL laughs]
SWB —yeah, no big deal! Uhh Janelle Monáe [KL laughs] hmm yeah!
KL No big deal.
SWB Whoever that is! Uhh Beyoncé is on that list. [KB sighs] And so is Keah Brown. Sooo—
KL I mean.
SWB —what’s that like?
KB First of all, I’m dying. [KL laughs] Because they don’t tell you! And when they announced it, I didn’t even know. My friend, Sean—shout out to him, I love him—he tweeted me and was like, “I didn’t see you tweet about this.” And I was like, “I didn’t know at all. No one told me.” And then I was like, “what is this?” So, I went to their website and I was like, “okay” and I’m scrolling and I’m seeing all of these names and I’m seeing Meghan Markle and Serena and Janelle Monáe and Beyoncé and I’m like [gasps] as I’m scrolling and I’m scrolling and I’m scrolling and I’m like, “I’m number 83! They put me on this list!” And I think it’s like a thing where people can nominate you and I was like, “I want to thank personally each person who nominated me to be on this list with Beyoncé.” I mean it’s less than six degrees of separation! I am living my best life. And I cried! Because I found out when I was working on the book in the library and I was like “oh my”—I started crying—I was like “oh my god.” Because it’s something that you want, but you never think is truly possible. And then it just happened. I’m literally on the list with some of my favorite people in the entire world. I just want to live my life to make Oprah proud and [laughs and SWB & KL laugh] I’m on a list of people that I’m sure she knows. So I’m just really—I’m so excited and it’s such an honor I think to be on this list because—you know—I think that sometimes when you’re doing the work it never feels like it’s making an impact until it’s out in the world and I think sometimes I have to remember that people are actually paying attention. I think sometimes with my disability work in particular, I find that people don’t take it as seriously as I do, you know? And so to be on this list and to know that there are people in the world who are taking it seriously and do recognize the hard work that I’m putting in, it just means the world to me.
SWB Well, we are so happy for you and we hear that there is a big gala night in New York for this, right?
KB Yes! I think it’s on November 8th, it’s like invitation only, and it’s just—I don’t know—I just—I’ve never been to anything like that. I’m just going to be super pumped and I’m just going to try to introduce myself to as many people as possible and get my name out there and—you know—show people the other sides of disability and it’s not just the really crappy portrayals we often see in movies and TV shows. My biggest thing—you know—with the book as well is just like, “no disabled person died in the making of this book.” I want—[laughs] I want people to be like “ooh so they can live at the end of a book, or they can live at the end of a movie or a TV show.” Because so often it’s like, we get things like Me Before You and Million Dollar Baby, which Hilary Swank was amazing in, okay, don’t get me wrong. But I just want people to see that there’s so much to live for and right now, as it stands, we spend so much time with disability narratives either being used to prop up an able-bodied character, or to die for the emotional turmoil of an able-bodied character. And I’m just like, nope. I live at the end of this book, and I’m going to keep living, and you’re going to see more of me, because I’m not going anywhere.
KL That—I am so excited by that. You are incredible and this honor is incredible and you deserve all of it. And we hope you have such a good time and please send us some photos because [laughs] we want to live vicariously through you.
KB Oh absolutely! [laughs]
KL We know that you still want to do so much more and accomplish so much more, but you are absolutely someone a lot of people look up to and—you know—just as a parting thing, do you have any advice for anyone who is listening that is just maybe starting out and kind of looking to build up work that they’re doing?
KB The first one is, don’t think that you have to sell your trauma just to get a byline. If you don’t want to talk about—you know—if you’re disabled and you don’t want to talk about it, then don’t talk about it. If you are in any sort of marginalized ideal and you don’t want to use that identity to get a byline, you don’t have to do that. I spent so long in my career starting out just trying to—I would write about anything—write about sadness, write about whatever, not necessarily because I wanted to, but because I thought I had to. And so one of the biggest things I can tell people starting out is, write what you want to write and the opportunities and the audience will come, as long as you keep a steady social media presence and you follow other writers you like and follow publications that you want to write for, and just kind of get your name out there in that way because that has helped me—you know—online, on social media. Make sure that you’re following and reading other people’s work. You never want to be that person that just shares your own work and no one else’s. You don’t want to be that person. Trust me, those people suck. And then [laughs] my next bit of advice is just to keep going, even when it feels like nothing is working and—and these things take time so you have to be patient, but just keep going. Even when you’re unsure how—you know—you’re going to get through x, y, and z thing because you just keep getting rejection after rejection. I can not tell you how many “no”s I received before I even received the first “yes.” And so it does take time and I think that what I can tell people is just to be as patient as possible and understand that there is worth in your work and you have a story to tell, you just have to wait for the right time to tell it because that’s going to happen. It just does not—maybe it won’t happen in the time that you want it to or the time that it happens for your friend next to you, what is yours will be yours when it’s time. And so yeah, just read widely, write as often as you can. You don’t have to write every day—that’s a total hoax—but just write as often as you can. Read other people’s work, share other people’s work, try and find a community who will have your back throughout everything and just really believe in what you pitch to people. If you don’t believe in the work, if you don’t believe in what you’re writing or what you’re pitching to somebody, that’s going to come through. So, you’re going to keep getting rejected until you care enough about what it is that you want to write. Because when you tell stories that are really authentic, be true to who you are, that’s when they will come.
KL Ugh. I—all—everything you just said is going to be hanging around my brain for so long and I’m so glad that it’s going to be. Keah, thank you so much for being here with us today. Where can our listeners get more of you in their lives?
KB Well, thank you for having me. And you can read more at keahbrown.com. That’s k-e-a-h-b-r-o-w-n dot com. You can follow me on social media—Twitter and Instagram I’m at keah_maria. No, that’s not my middle name, it’s just a thing that stuck. And then I have a Facebook page, it’s keahbrown4. So, you can reach me all those places and don’t be afraid to say hi, you know? Let’s chat! We can talk about Paramore, we can talk about cheesecake, we can talk about Oscar Isaac—I’m down for whatever, just—you know—be friendly when you reach out and I hope to hear from everybody soon and just—you know—make more connections with people.
SWB Well, thank you again, Keah, we really loved having you here.
[music fades in, plays for five seconds, and fades out]
SWB Hey Katel, got a minute to talk about some awesome jobs at Shopify?
KL You know it.
SWB OK, so back when I started calling myself a content strategist like 10 years ago, I never saw job postings for it. So I am still really excited when I see one, especially when they’re really good ones like this: senior financial solutions content strategist at Shopify in Montreal. In the posting, they say: “Issues that involve money can seem complicated and even scary. The goal of the entire team is to demystify this process.” I love how human that is.
KL That sounds kiiinda perfect. I also saw that they’re hiring a UX research lead for their core product. Something extra cool about it is that it’s not just doing the research. They also want someone to work on “broader internal initiatives to cultivate empathy throughout Shopify”—so that means helping your non-researcher colleagues get better at understanding people and their needs.
SWB I love that at the end of that posting it says, “We know that applying to a new role takes a lot of work and we truly value your time.”
KL Yes! So, if you want to join a team where you can really stretch your skills—and even enjoy the job application process—then you should check out Shopify. Browse all their open opportunities at Shopify.com/careers.
KL Uhh, I have a fuck yeah for us this week.
SWB Yes please!
KL Table for one, anyone?
SWB Tell me more.
KL So, there’s a new restaurant in my neighborhood called Nunu and it’s super packed because it’s literally a week old. And I was out doing an errand the other night and I walked by it and I thought, “even though it’s a weekend night, I’m going to try to get a spot.” I was by myself and I thought—you know—“why not? Maybe there will be one seat for me.” And I walked in and there was literally exactly one stool at the bar, so I sat down and it was wonderful. I treated myself to a nice dinner out and I got a lovely drink and I even ordered from their “french fry” section of the menu.
SWB So, I actually do that a good bit when I travel, but I don’t tend to do it as much at home. But recently I was in Cambridge, England and I was there for a conference, but I was pretty tired and I didn’t know a lot of people at the event, and so I was hanging out by myself. And instead of just kind of doing something real casual grabbing—grabbing something to go or whatever—I was like, “no, I’m going to go out to dinner.” And so, I went to this little restaurant and I got myself a nice glass of bubbles and this fancy pan-roasted fish dish with all these little like very nicely arranged vegetable accoutrement, you know? And I was sitting there and I was reading this novel—it was Sally Rooney’s new book, it’s called Normal People, which I really loved if anybody wants to pick that up—and it was just so nice that I was hanging out with me and my book and my nice little bubbles and my little dinner, and kind of having a great time, even though literally everybody around me [laughing] seemed like they were on a date. [KL laughs]
KL It always seems that way I think [laughing] when you’re on your own, but it is really lovely. I had such a nice time just kind of chilling.
SWB I do love a good fancy solo date. And, I mean, the only thing that really ruins it for me though is when there’s somebody there who assumes that because you’re alone, you’re definitely lonely or you’re definitely wanting to talk to them. I remember this one time, I was in New Orleans and I was having a very similar evening. It was like I was reading the New Yorker, drinking a very fancy cocktail, eating these delicious fried Brussels sprouts. And I just couldn’t get people to leave me alone. I don’t even mean gross hitting on me necessarily, but just sort of like I don’t need to join your party, I don’t need you to ask me a lot of questions about what I’m reading because I’m literally reading right now—
KL [laughing] Yeah.
SWB —like I’m good!
KL Yeah, you’re like, “I am good!”
SWB Very happy. [both laugh]
KL Yeah, that was nice. I did not get bothered and it was just really lovely. So, fuck yeah for treating yourself and just spending some quality time with yourself.
SWB Fuck yeah! Well, that is it for this week’s episode of No, You Go. NYG is recorded in our home city of Philadelphia and it is produced by Steph Colbourn. Our theme music is by The Diaphone. Thanks to Keah Brown for being our guest today.
KL If you loved today’s show as much as we did, don’t forget to subscribe or rate us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to your favorite shows. Your support helps us do what we do, and we love that. See you again next week! [music fades in, plays alone for 32 seconds, and fades out]