Interview #12 — Kamna Muddagouni

Interview by Leah Jing McIntosh

Kamna Muddagouni is a lawyer, writer, communications adviser and podcaster. Her writing explores pop culture, diaspora living, feminism and her experiences as a woman of colour. She has been published in publications such as Daily Life, The Vocal, Junkee and Noisey. In 2016, she launched the podcast Can U Not? with Brodie Lancaster, which examines pop culture, identity and intersectional feminism. Kamna is also on the board of Fair Agenda, a not for profit organisation campaigning for gender equality. 

We talked to Kamna about the exotification of Yoga, the joy of making fresh pasta & co-creating the Can U Not? podcast.

Read 'Belonging', a piece by Kamna here.

You’re a lawyer, podcaster and writer—how did it all come together?

Sometimes I feel like I have no idea and other times I think it was a series of conscious decisions that led me to where I am. It depends on how in control of my life on any given day as to which it is.

After school finished, I wanted to do a lot of different things but Law stood out—academically it felt like it was something challenging I wanted to try. I had been around lawyers—my mum managed a community legal centre, and I was also just interested in the study of law. I actually started a Law/Media degree but dropped Media and picked up Arts, to major in politics. Six years after finishing law school, I’m a lawyer and find it fulfils a lot of my professional goals, so that’s kind of where I’m at.  

Pursuing writing was less structured.  While a lot of people think pursuing a legal career is such an all-encompassing thing, it actually motivates me to create and keep the creative side of me going, which is why I started writing a couple of years ago.

I was managing communications for Road to Refuge, and realised what I loved so much about the volunteer work was working with language again. So I started writing pieces initially focusing on Indian film and cultural events, which helped me practice my writing but also engage with my South Asian heritage. Now I mainly write articles and op-eds on the intersections of my identity—being a WoC, a migrant in Australia, South Asian and a millennial.  

Can you tell us about your writing practice?

It’s a real luxury and privilege to be able to decide when to write and what to write because it’s something you want to express or narrate - and if I don’t feel like writing something, I still get a lot of fulfilment from my career as a lawyer.

The first piece I wrote that fits with my current writing practice, was a piece for Daily Life about the commodification and exotification of Yoga in a way that excluded brown bodies and erases its South Asian roots at the same time as South Asians continued to be Othered in society.  The opportunity to write it actually came from a Facebook post I did about how problematic the use of namaste was by white people who either erased Yoga of its South Asian heritage and Hindu background, or whitewashed it to exclude brown people.

Jenny Zhang has a great article about cultural appropriation and erasure —'They Pretend to Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist.'

I think that’s it. I think so much of Indian identity, especially Indian Hindu identity, is mysticised in Australia. Just because our symbols or cultural practices are seen as exotic or of another world, white people assume that our practices, images and culture is for the taking without an understanding that there’s real people to whom these symbols and practices make up our identity and sense of self.  

People want to engage with aspects of particularly Hindu culture to find themselves or find some spiritual connection, but without an appreciation that it’s not an ancient mythical belief system or practice - it’s practised by actual people. We’re not just exotic, mystical, colourful things - we’re real people.

Though, that is not representative of all Australian engagement with India—I’ve met so many people who go to India and have a really fulfilling experience either personally or professionally. But they do so because they’re not trying to go there to consume an Otherness they feel they lack in their lives here. But there’s definitely a real ignorance in some aspects.

Was your movement from writing to podcasting a natural progression?

I’ve always felt that one of my strengths was talking to people and sharing stories, and fascinated with the idea that your voice as a writer can be quite an abstract concept when you’re trying to convey a feeling through written medium and connect with someone else. But with podcasting, you can use your literal voice.

I’d listened to podcasts for a while, but last year—being 2016—I really craved the voices and opinions and perspectives of people at the margins, especially from people of colour. Through podcasts, I found so many people who had found a way to be themselves, and represent who they were.

I was particularly taken by the MTV podcast SpeedDial with Ira Madison III and Doreen St. Félix—two pop culture writers who caught up on their show with each other, what culture they were consuming and the shitshow that was 2016 in the US, but in a funny way, a way that is filled with solidarity and warmth. So I guess I became enamoured with the idea that this kind of show, which didn’t really exist in Australia yet.

I’d known Brodie through the internet for a while. But the first time we met in real life was last year. We went and got fried chicken and talked for talked for hours and hour at what was meant to be a quick lunch catch up. One of the things we talked about was our mutual love for podcasts. At the end of the date, she was like: Why don’t we just try? Why don’t we just do it? 

It seems ridiculous but I think the third time we ever met was in the studio, recording our very first episode. The loveliest thing Brodie’s ever said about our show is that when people tune in and listen to Can U Not, they’re actually listening not just to us, but to our friendship growing, because we’re becoming friends through doing the podcast together.

How did you choose the name Can U Not?

Um, Brodie has a friend, Pork Chop, who kinda collects URLs—I don’t know the technical term. And a couple of days before Brodie and I met up he’d messaged her saying he had and asked if Brodie wanted it. And when we decided to do the podcast, we were like of course, Can U Not?  

It resonated with us because as young women with our interests and views, we’re so often interrogated about why we consume the world in a particular way or asked questions that people would just not ask of two straight white men and a good response is always ‘can u not’, often with a real life eye roll or eye roll emoji.

Can you divulge the processes behind creating the show? How does each episode come about?  

We record most episodes at Triple R studios in East Brunswick. We kind of come up with a theme for each episode mainly through our discussions or daily text messages about what has got us thinking that week. It’s seems like it wouldn’t work but often it’s one of us texting the other with 'What do you think about an episode about how awards season screws over People of Colour every year?' or 'How great is Atong Atem, let’s get her on and ask her to speak her usual truth and fire?' and almost always the other person agrees—and that’s that. We both do a little prep before an episode—more if we have a guest—but otherwise we just hit record and talk! Brodie is also the queen that does our editing but it’s really unusual, as a lot of the episodes are close to one takes!

How do you choose the contents of each show?

We take a really organic approach to the show. We knew it was broadly a pop culture podcast, but because of who we are and our life experiences, it would be from a lens different to what gets the most platform or coverage in our society. It’s hard to analyse a show that you’re in, but I think one of the things that works (and that people have told me that works) is that we never intended to be a political podcast, but I’m an inherently political person, and so a lot of that comes through. And so is Brodie; how she engages with certain things, what she’s interested in.

The reality is, in the current climate we live in, the personal is political. And so even us existing and talking about our lived experiences and having these discussions that can be broadcast is a political statement. As women that sit outside the women that get an easy platform to say what they want, us broadcasting our voices is a way of saying hey, we’re here, we exist and our views even if they are about the Kardashians matter.

We talk about things that the patriarchal structure we live in dismisses as being unimportant. The idea of high and low culture is a perpetuation of the cis-white-hetero-rich patriarchy we live in. The gatekeepers of high culture are largely white men, or white women, who don’t care about the inaccessibility of it all. So through our show we try and show that that divide is a myth and the idea that what is important and what is intellectual—it’s marginalising in itself.

I think one of the things I love about Can U Not? is that we completely self-produce the show. It’s just us. We get a lot of say in terms of what it turns out to be. At the moment it’s enjoyable because it’s just what we want to talk about and what we want to be heard.

We do try and be self-aware about it, we try to understand views that might not be represented in the discussions that we have. In Australia, Brodie and I both of us represent colonisers/the beneficiaries of colonisers, so we’re mindful of what isn’t represented when we talk things through and represent that to the extent we can. We’re both also conscious that we talk a lot about US pop culture and as neither of us are black, we are conscious of not talking over Black voices and listening to them and sharing them foremost. 

But yeah because the show is a full representation of who we are, we get to talk about parts of our identity which aren’t really represented in Australian media I get to talk about my South Asian identity, family, culture and all that. It was never a distinct choice, but it just comes out. 

How do you navigate living as a South Asian migrant in Australia? 

I migrated to Melbourne as a six year old, but my family had already migrated to Mumbai, where we living just before moving here, from other parts of India. My mum is from Kerala and my dad is from Hyderabad in what was Andhra Pradesh—which are both in South India but Malayali and Telugu identity are very, very different identities. They don’t share a language, lots of the aspects of their identity and upbringing are super different. They fell in love, and moved to Mumbai, which is completely different from both Kerala and Hyderabad again. 

They created this almost third Indian culture, mixing both aspects of their identity and also what it was like to be Indian in Mumbai, and then we moved to Melbourne. It’s so funny, because while I feel Indian-Australian, for me my Indian identity is not monocultural. I’m half Malayali and Telugu but also very much a Mumbai girl in some ways. So my heritage was hyphenated before even migrating to Australia.

The way that Australians discuss India, it can be so monocultural and homogenising. It doesn’t compute for so many people. This idea that it’s so much easier to engage with me as an Indian Australian than a South Indian Malayali and Telugu Australian—people just don’t really understand how diverse India is.

So not only are you living on the hyphen as an Asian-Australian, but also as a Malayali-Telugu-Mumbai-Australian. The word 'Asian' seems an inadequate signifier. 

Yeah. Mum and Dad always lived away from their respective extended families so the differences in each of their cultures was only ever really something I grappled with when we would go back to visit family. It wasn’t something I had to deal with in my own family unit because it was just the way things were.

However I think I knew I was different from most other Indian kids I would meet. It was super rare back then for people to get together from different parts of India particularly if there were language and cultural differences. So even growing up, I thought—people don’t understand that I’m not just one form of Indian. But I think it’s great. I get the best of both worlds. I kind of feel comfortable with that multiplicity. And I’ve got my own cross-cultural relationship going on now so it’s just more of that multiplicity.

This question is tricky, but I ask in an effort to open up dialogue about something which is often hard to broach: how do you navigate your cross-cultural relationship?

I think I’m genuinely really lucky. My partner has always been very aware that being with me was about being with me but what makes up me is a lot of my culture as a South Asian woman and my identity as a migrant, and he wanted to be with me he would need to get to know, understand and share all of that. My partner has tried to cultivate his own relationship with India through his work and learning Hindi, and making connections with my family and travelling to India with me. Which I think is really important because there’s only so far you can go with engaging with another culture unless you’re putting in the labour and work in, so it’s not just something you’re claiming.

It’s still been a learning process because there’s so much of being in a cross-cultural relationship that seems easy when you’re in 'shared spaces' for lack of a better word—for example with friends you’re just two people but if you’re in the space of the other any differences can be emphasised.

But we navigate it through being really open about our values, challenges we face and try and take it one step at a time, and be supportive.   

What are you working on at the moment?

Can U Not? has a live show coming up with Megan Tan of Millennial Podcast at the Wheeler Centre. So that’s something I’m thinking about and creating a live show that still fits within our podcast format. It is also Can U Not’s Season One Finale, so that’s exciting.

Megan Tan’s podcast is about being a millennial, coming of age and making decisions about what you want to do, pursue… things that are going on in your life. She talks about her asian heritage through her dad. It’s probably my favourite part of her podcast.

Can we talk about freelancing?

I didn’t choose the freelancing life, the freelancing life chose me! Nah, I’m just joking.

I was thinking about this the other day actually. I really enjoy my day job. I think that the dismissal of that kind of lifestyle can be quite shallow. When it it’s coming from an anti-capitalist agenda, it can be valid - but other times it can be very elitist and privileged to dismiss that. I support myself and my life through my job and it fulfils me intellectually as well which is something I work hard at but also value.

But I think that I came to the realisation that I’m not the kind of person who is fulfilled by just the one thing.Which means you’re often balancing things and pursuing multiple things at the same time.  It’s a battle sure but in talking about freelancing, I have to acknowledge my privilege: I can choose when I want to do it, because I’ve got a job backing me up. 

With my writing, I get to make choices as to what I do want to write about, and what I don’t. I can be more targeted in terms of what I want to put out. Recently I wrote this article about tone-policing for Junkee, and I don’t think I would have had the ability to write that if it was something that I was just trying to do to make an income. Because the amount of work I put in, physical and emotional labour, was must more than the financial benefit I got out of it.  But I feel lucky that I could write it because I had that space.

I think with freelancing, it can be hard to create a practice where you’re doing things that are paying enough that you can properly consider and producing that you like and represent you.

I don’t know if there’s an answer, to that struggle—at least I don’t have it. But it’s always been important to me to balance my various interests and pursuits with social justice work, at least while I am privileged enough to do so. In the past that’s been through Road to Refuge, and currently I sit on the Board of Fair Agenda—an independent community campaigning organisation driving change that promotes fairness and equality for women. It means a lot to me to be leading in organisations as a young WoC and showing visibility and creating opportunities for other women like me.

As you become a more public figure through both podcasting and writing, how do you negotiate the presentation of your public self? People of colour are so often pressured to represent so much more than their singular, fallible selves.  

I think part of it is being conscious that the work I’m producing or putting out there still rings true to who I am on a day to day basis—I know that sounds like a cliché because we all present a curated version of ourselves whether it be for image or self-care—but without that consciousness it would be a lot of work. I think being aware of not speaking for or over others at different intersections is something I constantly think about and avoiding that is part of being happy with my public self. But yeah existing as a WoC as a part of a diaspora, it’s hard to be just you.

When I write or talk about something related to my identity, I feel a personal responsibility because of the scarcity of representation, but all I can really do is represent my lived experience and be confident and comfortable with that.

Do you have any advice for emerging podcasters? 

There’s a certain freedom with podcasting which allows you to be flexible and while that’s amazing creatively, it can allow you to forget that what really matters is a good conversation or story with light and shade and multiplicities, and being accessible. So if you keep that in mind when creating whatever it is you choose to create, you’re going to appeal to people and enjoy what you’re doing.

Who are you inspired by?

This is such a pageant answer, but honestly my mama. She’s a powerhouse, she left her family at such a young age and since then has juggled being a mother, a career woman, a migrant and done it by being so resilient and caring. She’s currently the CEO of a community organisation that provides really vital services to communities in need and she still manages to dedicate so much time to caring for those in her immediate circles and pursuing her own growth. She’s the best.

What are you currently listening to?

I’m listening to the podcast Nancy which unpacks frank conversations about the LGBTQ experience today, another podcast called See Something Say Something which discusses Muslim identity in America through very cute personal interviews and I’m always listening to Zayn Malik singing Urdu.

What are you currently reading?

I am never going to stop reading Aisha Mirza’s personal essay 'White Women Drive Me Crazy'. Her ability to break down the difficulties of living as a WoC in a world that benefits White women and ignores the harm they are capable of, is just breathtaking.

How do you practice self-care? 

I acquired a pasta maker last year and I have been making a lot, a lot of fresh pasta lately as a meditative and nourishing activity. My partner and I are currently mastering the tortellini having ticked off a few other beginner shapes. Not only does it fulfil my deep love for pasta, I also feel like I'm making something beautiful for me from my very own hands (and my family and friends who I share it with). I have very long term plans of moving to Italy and making pasta in a tiny trattoria one day.

Also I'm aware that this makes me the female version of Dev Shah, and I am so okay about this.

What does being Asian-Australian mean to you? 

It means being part of a diaspora to me—a community within a community—and navigating the connections that creates or the sense of loss it can sometimes give you.

Interview and Photographs by Leah Jing McIntosh