Life after Hogwarts: Rachel Rostad’s plans for the future

Jason Free, Features EditorBy Jason Free Few artistic mediums have the rich history of social activism as spoken word poetry. For example, Soujourner Truth’s history-altering “Ain’t I a Woman” is widely regarded as an early spoken word piece. The Harlem Renaissance, the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 60s and 70s and the emergence of hip-hop all seared their places in American culture by using performance-based poetry to raise awareness of vital, yet often ignored, social issues. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with a contemporary spoken word artist and political activist Rachel Rostad. While she may be best known today for her College Union Poetry Slam Invitational 2013 poem “To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang,” Rostad is making plans for the future to transition her talents into broader arenas. Jason Free: What are you working on right now? rostad_headshotRachel Rostad: Well, this summer I’m a Public Policy and International Affairs undergraduate fellow at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. It’s supposed to prepare undergraduate students to get their Master’s of Public Administration or Master’s of Public Policy. The program is specifically within the Woodrow Wilson School, but it’s part of the consortium of graduate programs. To that end, we’re taking statistic and economic courses, and we’re participating in policy workshops and policy memo writing workshops. We’re also networking and meeting with people from different state departments and people in different career tracks. It’s going really well. One of the most valuable things is just being able to forge new relationships with peers. It’s great to get the chance to meet people from all over the world and see what they are doing. Free: As a rising senior in college, you’re coming up on a crossroads.You’re going to have to make a decision as to what kind of career path you intend to follow. What is your thought process right now? Rostad: Yeah, I wish I had it figured out. I’m using this summer as a chance to explore the less artistic side of social change such as policy development and observing how policies are enacted.It’s been really interesting. It’s a completely different approach from what I’ve done so far with arts and social change. I think they’re complimentary, so I’m hoping in the future to be able to have more of a traditional professional career in social change and social justice, but I also hope to still be able to do the more artistic stuff, as well. Free: Well, tell me a little bit about the creative side of things. What are you doing now, creatively? Rostad: Most of what people know me for is my spoken word. I haven’t been doing that this summer. Last year, I was able to be on the National Poetry Slam team coming from Minneapolis, but I think I’m done doing it competitively. Instead, I’m working on setting up tours this fall to visit schools and talk about adoption issues related to Korean-American adoptees. I’m also working on my Honors project in creative writing for my final year at school. That will be less directly related to activism, but still will run through the same vein as my more explicitly activist work. Free: Are there any creative goals that you hope to accomplish in the long term? Rostad: Well, aside from the tour, right now I’m writing a very experimental novel about a Korean adoptee. It’s semi-autobiographical. It’s half investigative journalism and half a novel, and so I’m looking specifically into conspiracy theories in America and what roles they play in social justice. It explores how, depending on where you’re situated, your view of history can vary from someone else’s. It is very much in the early stages, but I’m excited to develop it more. Free: It sounds like it will be a very politically-conscious work. Have you always considered yourself to be a socially aware person? Rostad: Growing up in high school and earlier, I was aware of the ways that I was labeled and sorted. I didn’t have any background or theory about it. I hadn’t read any academic work on the subject. My academic experience at my college so far has been opening my eyes to all of these theories that express exactly what I have been feeling my entire life. My academic background in social justice has really informed the way I think about my work, specifically with regards to control and power. I haven’t really read that much on the subject, but I’ve read enough to start to relate these ideas about power and control to my own life. Free: When did you start emoting these feelings in a creative way? When did that creative side start to blossom for you? Rostad: As far as writing goes, or even drawing, I have been doing that pretty much all of my life. I think I started writing seriously in early middle school, and I have been writing ever since. It’s how I best process and communicate with the world. When I was really young, I read these books by this young adult author called Tamora Pierce. She writes all of these books about, for instance, girls pretending to be boys and becoming knights and things like that. They would be riding horses and fighting the bad guys and saving the day. I read those kinds of books a lot when I was younger. I don’t read them much anymore, but I think work like that was really influential in how I saw my own ability to change things. I read all of these stories about these heroines–not to say that I am one–and I think it was empowering. As I got older, the slam poetry community at my college and in my city really showed me how people can cohesively incorporate these feelings into that art form, and so I’m really grateful for them. Free: Is that how you took the creative side and went more to the activist side? Was it naturally through slam poetry or were there other outlets? How did you make the transition? Rostad: I think slam poetry got me more seriously thinking about activism, because it’s an art form that is bounded on that principle of speaking out and raising awareness. It is usually used to communicate stories that have some kind of implication for social change. Usually, not always. I think that comes out of the tradition of spoken word and hip-hop in general. When I sit down to write a slam poem, it’s not like writing anything else. It’s not like writing a page poem, where it could be about anything. I mean, you can write slam poems about anything, but I think the format is built for a message. At least, that is the way its practiced right now, particularly at colleges and among younger people. It’s definitely a vehicle for social messages and social justice. That made me think more seriously about how I could use my writing ability to communicate messages to make the world a better place, or to get my thoughts out there. Before, writing was more of a personal thing or something that I did to produce something aesthetically pleasing that I liked. Now, I think I am more politically conscious about my work. Free: Well, you’re thinking about going on tour. Can you talk about your plans? What is the message you hope to convey? Rostad: Maybe “tour” is a bit of an overstatement. It will be in the fall. I might do it in the spring, too, but I haven’t talked with anyone about that yet. I’ll be visiting Harvard, Brown and Bryn Mawr. Regardless of the size of your project, I think what’s key is to build a brand. I’ve built a brand already, so it’s not like I’m starting from nothing. I think it would be a lot harder to just start from scratch. Last year when one of my pieces went viral, I was getting emails from people that were interested in having me speak at events. I wasn’t able to go to these events last year, but I kept those in the back of my mind, because having a network really helps. I know a lot of people through the college slam poetry scene who are part of organizations at their own colleges. They might be members of an Asian Student Alliance, or something similar. For example, I have a friend who attends Brown and he and his friends are very involved in activism around Asian-American issues. I recently messaged him and said, “Hey, I’m trying to put together a small tour this fall, and I would love to stop by Brown. If you know anyone who would be interested in having me speak about adoption, or if you know of any speaker series organizer, who could I get in touch with?” It’s about networking, and it’s also about targeting specific people. That really helps. It’s also important knowing how to market yourself and what you do. One thing I could’ve done is just said, “Oh, here are all of the different things I can talk about.” Instead, I’m focusing specifically on adoption. That makes it easier for someone to say,“Yes” or “No” in my situation. Whereas, if I said, “I talk about Asian-American issues!” That’s so broad and it wouldn’t really pique anyone’s interest. Knowing how to market yourself is essential. If you’re already doing arts and if you’re already doing communication, that might come easier to you than it would to someone else. Free: Creatively, are you having to approach the tour differently than how you have approached other creative pursuits? Rostad: This is going to be slightly different from other things that I’ve done because I’m not trying to get just one message out there. It’s more nuance because I have to consider that my audience is mostly Asian-Americans. It’s specifically about raising awareness about the presence of adoptees in Asian-American communities, because it’s such a complicated identity. I’m not thinking of it as me trying to get one message out there, but more of as a conversation that I can have at different schools through a personal lens, because it will combine spoken word with me talking about my experiences. I’m interested in personal narrative, at least for this first tour. People don’t really know what it means to be adopted, so I want to share some personal narrative and spark a dialogue. Free: Let’s talk briefly about the piece that you performed that generated so much buzz. I’m wondering if you could say a little bit about how the buzz took off. Was it completely spontaneous? Was there anything that you did to amplify it? Was there anything that someone else did to spread word about the piece? A lot of people would be curious to know how that trend developed. Rostad: The whole theme of the piece was a major part of it. If I wanted to talk about the fetishization of Asian women in Western media, I could’ve picked something that was more problematic. I could’ve picked Memoirs of a Geisha, which I do mention in the poem, but I could’ve picked something more obviously problematic. If someone hears something about Memoirs of a Geisha at a poetry slam, they’re not going to be as interested in that as opposed to a reference that comments on something that they all know and love, like Harry Potter. I guess I blatantly used that franchise as a vehicle. Not that the franchise isn’t problematic, but out of all of the things that I could’ve picked to comment on this topic, I’m going to pick that one that will get the most attention because it already has a broad fan base. The topic is square one. That’s where the potential to go viral happens. I knew that it would be put online, because my friend actually runs Button Poetry, which is a YouTube channel that has all of these slam poems going viral. It was a year ago, though, and they only had one that had gotten really big by then, so it was sort of unheard of. I wasn’t expecting that much. They posted it, so I put it on my Tumblr. I thought, “Oh, people on Tumblr like Harry Potter, and they like slam poetry, so they’ll probably be into this.” I posted it, and I got a lot of attention. I don’t even know how it went viral, but I think it started on Tumblr, which makes sense. I deliberately picked the platform that I knew had the demographic that would be interested in what I was saying. I knew that they’re really into Harry Potter and that they’re really into general social justice. Tumblr users are more politically conscious, and I think that that’s what Tumblr is for, more than something like Twitter. A week after I got back from the college National Poetry Slam, which is where the piece was recorded, I remember it went online and it was getting some attention. I woke up the next day and it had had thousands of notes. People were freaking out, and there was even some controversy. This brings me to another important point about branding. I wanted to do something about the controversy because I felt misunderstood. I knew that a casual video would be much more effective for addressing the critiques than a vlog post or something like that. I answered questions on my blog as they were being fired at me, as well. I think being responsive and being open-minded really helps in terms of spreading the word about your work, because people saw that I was listening and addressing my critiques. They liked the interaction. It’s interesting, because I think it’s something that couldn’t have happened 10 years ago or 20 years ago, to have an artist responding and being able to be so flexible in real-time. Editor’s note: As part of our Living Case Study series, I plan to post additional interviews with Rostad as she completes her final year as an undergraduate student. I will trace her college speaking tour, the progress of her experimental novel as well as her decision making as she seeks employment in an area that will allow her creativity and activism to continue to develop and impact the lives of others.

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