I Wish My Childhood Hero Was a Brown Woman

When I was eight, I fell in love for the first time. She was adventurous and dramatic and daring. Her qualities were the antithesis of everything I was.

I met her at a Border’s shelf in the children’s version of the biography section. Her name was Nellie Bly and I’m pretty sure she made baby Tanya the feminist I am today.

For those who may not know, Nellie Bly was an investigative journalist who became the first woman to travel around the world — solo, I might add — in under 80 days on a hot air balloon. The largest thing she brought on her trip was her tub of cold cream. Nellie was also known for being a killer investigative reporter; once going to a women’s mental institution undercover to discover the extent of horrifying abuses towards the patients.

For Nellie, kicking ass and taking names was just a regular Tuesday and the young, wide-eyed me was instantly enamored with her.

I’d always been drawn to stories, whether it was reading, telling, writing or listening to them. Journalism, good journalism — whatever your definition of it is — , is all about telling a compelling story and Nellie did just that. So, as soon as I started digesting every piece of information about her life and work, I was hit with an overwhelming fascination with journalism as a medium for storytelling.

Now, this didn’t all happen at once in that little Border’s biography nook; it was a gradual realization.

For the present me, however, due to a series of circumstances and expectations — not to mention lack of real talent — writing professionally will not pan out as a viable career option. Nevertheless, my love for a good story holds steadfast.

It’s why I still pursue writing as a hobby and why in the 11 years since I was eight, I’ve found many writers that have captivated me and became formative to my character: Jane Austen, JK Rowling and John Steinbeck to name a few.

You’ll notice that all of the writers I’ve listed in this column are white. A majority of the individuals I’ve read from or written about, whether it is for academia or fun, have been white writers from upper-middle class backgrounds.

I can name the South Asian writers I know and have read on one hand. In fact, I can do it for you right now: Jhumpa Lahiri, Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling and Mira Nair. Only one — Jhumpa Lahiri — is part of the embarrassingly few writers of colors that I’ve gotten the opportunity to read from in school.

It bothers me that I can wax poetic about a white writer, like I did for a majority of this column, without hesitation, but struggled to move beyond Lahiri in naming more South Asian writers.

There are stories about Nellie Bly going on epic adventures in search of the truth for the greater good. There are South Asian women who might have done the same, but I sure wouldn’t have found them in the biography section of the Border’s store. It’s not because they didn’t exist, but because they weren’t important enough to be recognized and cemented in history.

Yes, Nellie Bly was a powerful and independent woman. Undoubtedly, she was a great person to look up to and admire for a timid young girl like me, but I can’t help but wonder what kind of an impact it would make on me if Nellie had been brown.

Maybe I would have pursued writing as a career if I had seen a brown girl do it. I’d have realized that saving the world and flying on hot air balloons across the globe was an adventure I could take too.

But still, maybe not. The point is, I’ll never find out, will I?

Somewhere out there is a young Desi girl who’s perusing through the aisles of an independent bookstore, a library or a Barnes & Nobles. A young girl with actual talent for writing and the tenacity to go on epic adventures around the world. She deserves to find someone to read about and read from who looks like her, just so that girl can realize that she can kick ass and take names too.

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