Desi Making Waves
By Mala Bhattacharjee

Neelanjana Banerjee: A Writer's Core

Passionate poet, journalist and teacher — Neelanjana Banerjee does it all, and she wouldn't have it any other way. "I can't really imagine working in a field that you don't care about," she says. "It's important to give yourself time and space to think about what you really want, whether it's by writing it down or spending time just going for a walk by yourself and thinking, 'What am I doing in life?'"

Banerjee started her career in journalism by working her way up the ranks at pan-Asian weekly newspaper AsianWeek from 2000-2003 and then serving as managing editor of YO!, Youth Outlook Multimedia, for the last several years. But Banerjee wanted to get back to past territory. "I've been working for about ten years in media and that was always kind of my side hustle," she says. "After college, I moved to San Francisco to become a writer and I was like, 'Oh, I'll do some journalism on the side to pay the bills,' and over the last ten years it kind of crept up and overtook my career. So I'm really excited to get back to working with creative writing."

Neelanjana Banerjee in San Francisco. Photo by Angelika Gomez

Neelanjana Banerjee with graduating participants in the 2008 Changing The Odds Summer Media Program held at YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia. Photo by Robin Sukhadia.

Her new venture not only takes her back to writing but also to teaching teenagers. "I work for WritersCorps, which is an organization run by the city of San Francisco's Arts Commission, that puts artists in schools and community centers to teach creative writing," explains Banerjee. "With the state of California public schools as they are, there's no real room at all for arts education, and WritersCorps supplements that by pairing people who are writing, with teachers who want to bring them into their classrooms. A lot of the sites that we work at are continuation high schools — schools with young people who didn't do as traditionally well in regular academic settings. [As a part of WritersCorps,] I'll be teaching at Ida B. Wells High School in San Francisco, but I'll be also working in the San Francisco juvenile hall and another juvenile justice system called the Log Cabin Ranch, where young people are sent who are facing more serious sentencing for their crimes. It's really giving these kids a chance to communicate."

Banerjee notes that making the transition from journalism to working with teenagers isn't as daunting as it may sound. "For the last five-six years, I was at YO!, where I was working with young people to help them produce media; I was teaching people to use media to get their stories out, so I don't feel like it's a huge shift. We're starting at the same place: asking young people to examine their lives and tell the stories of their neighborhoods," she points out. "I wrote a lot when I was young, too. As a young South Asian growing up in the '80s and '90s, there was nothing. We weren't present at all in the greater conversation; we were completely invisible — especially growing up in the Midwest. So for young people to get their story out there and get it published or to read a poem in front of other people, anything like that, it allows them to be taken seriously and I think that's what everyone wants."

Banerjee's own story begins in Dayton, Ohio, where she grew up with physician parents and a close-knit Bengali community. Despite the sparse ethnic landscape of southwestern Ohio, "I always felt like I knew who I was; I was never confused about being Indian," she says. "You really had the sense of being a minority and people not understanding you, but I always read a lot, so my life was rich in that way. My home life and my cultural life were very strong. My grandmother was around a lot when I was young so I had those stories; my father is a great storyteller and my community was strong. We did lots of dance dramas that allowed us to really saturate in our culture," notes Banerjee. "It was a guard against the story-erasing that happened in school — until around middle school and high school when I started to have a big group of diverse friends again."

Becoming a storyteller and poet herself was a natural leap. "I went to college, like all good Indian girls, still thinking I was going to be pre-med," she says, grinning. "But I finally gave in to the fact that the subjects I was most interested in were English and writing. Creative writing classes became very important to me, and I studied with some great people." These days, Banerjee continues to hone that craft. "I got my MFA in fiction from San Francisco State University in 2007, and my thesis was a collection of short stories, some of which I'm just starting to get published. One was recently published in the online journal DesiLit. So that is my goal: to really focus on putting out a collection."

That's how her aunt, best-selling author, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (Mistress of Spices, The Palace of Illusions), got started. Did Banerjee draw inspiration from her aunt's creative trajectory? "Oh, definitely," she says, smiling. "I remember from her first book, Arranged Marriage — and before that she published a few books of poetry — it was always a big deal for my family. And I always had the inkling [that I wanted to be a writer], and it really helped me to have somebody [else] working in this field. We're very, very close. She's very supportive of my work. But I do think it's funny, because my parents and my brother, they're all doctors, and when I first was starting out and I wanted to be writer, they didn't get it. They had no idea. Then, my aunt started becoming very successful and now they know too much about it! Now the pressure is on. They're like, 'Who's your agent? When is your first book going to come out?'"

The answer to that question will be answered soon enough. Banerjee is helming a groundbreaking anthology of poetry called Indivisible. "I'm co-editor, along with two other South Asian women, Summi Kaipa and Pireeni Sundaralingam, and it's the first ever South Asian American poetry anthology," explains Banerjee. "It's going to be published in 2010 by the University of Arkansas Press, and it's something that we've been working on since 2002 — it's like our first child," she adds, laughing. "South Asians in America have really made a name for themselves in terms of fiction writing, but there are so many great people writing poetry and that has kind of been underground. So we wanted to bring these voices together and put them out there. It's an amazing project. We have 49 poets from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, all of whom are living and writing in America. The poets range from some of [the South Asian community's] biggest poets, like Agha Shahid Ali and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, to emerging poets and award-winning poets who are just starting to be published. It's really exciting and something that I'm really proud of. As a South Asian American writer, as I've grown up and this community has become more visible as writers, journalists and poets, I feel like it's an integral part of what's allowed me to get my voice out. This is really a way to give back and bring other people's voices out!"

Neelanjana Banerjee at Unleash, a poetry reading in San Francisco. Photo by Samantha Thornhill.

Banerjee encourages other young South Asian women to find their own voices and really commit to what makes them happy. "It's important to really know what you want and follow your dreams and not let anyone prescribe [your path]," she stresses. "For me, it wasn't like I hated the idea of being a doctor, but once I got to college, I stopped going to any of my pre-med classes because it became clear what I should do. And I feel like I've been really fortunate thus far in my professional life that all of the jobs I have had, I've really felt passionately about. I did them out of love."

It's a love that Banerjee will continue to share with the next generation of writers and poets.

Visit to learn more about Indivisible and to learn more about the works of WritersCorps.

Mala Bhattacharjee is currently news editor, columnist and blogger for Soap Opera Weekly magazine. When not interviewing daytime's bold and beautiful, she's perfecting her chana masala recipe and Netflixing Hindi films.