Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Why Not? : An evening with Scaachi Koul

“Usually when I write something I don’t think about how it will feel to read it in front of 180 people,” says Scaachi Koul before launching into an essay on oral sex and body hair from her debut book of personal essays One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter. But she feigns no shyness, recounting aloud the events that led to her first knuckle-shaving attempt at age eleven (a boy from her class who was a “Hollister t-shirt personified” asked why she was so hairy) and reflecting on the politics of female body hair in 2017 (when Lena Dunham does it, it’s a rebellion, but when a woman of colour does it, it’s a mutiny). The reading set the tone for the evening - equal parts discomfort, vulnerability, and hilarity – kicking off one of the most rousing literary events I have personally ever attended.


Koul is known for her wit and her outspokenness, usually online and usually on matters of race and feminism. Depending on who you are, this makes her either a hero or a villain. In person, she’s as admirably antagonistic, smart, and clever as she is online, giving CBC’s Lucy van Oldenbarneveld a run for her money when it came to the interview portion of the evening. When Oldenbarneveld asked her how she made her book relatable to a wide audience, for instance, Koul was quick to point out that this question is typically only asked of non-white people and women. She also admitted that she had not given relatability much thought when writing, that her book was primarily for “brown girls”, and that if other people liked it too, that was fine. While some interviewers may have gotten defensive at a moment like this, Oldenbarneveld was as good humoured as ever. She retorted, “Well I mean, I read this book and liked it and I’m not young and cool like you,” to which Koul laughed, “I’m not cool. This is my bedtime.”


Though Oldenbarneveld and Koul covered a wide range of topics, the theme of the night seemed to be anger. Take Scaachi’s relationship with her parents (“I get my anger from my dad…the immigrant experience creates pathways of anxiety”), or her writing process (“this book was written on rage”), or even her online persona (“there’s this sense of women having less of a right to be angry about men”). Naturally, this led to a discussion of the one major time in Koul’s life that anger wasn’t enough to protect her. She made headlines last year when, as Buzzfeed Canada’s senior editor, she tweeted a request for pitches from only women of colour, drawing the ire of online trolls led by Ezra Levant, Milo Yiannopolous, and Ottawa’s own Scott Gilmour (who accused Koul of committing a human rights violation). When the trolls finally went as far as to threaten her life and her family, she removed herself from social media for a period of two weeks. Speaking emotionally to Oldenbarneveld, she said the experience felt like a loss of safety and access: “I can’t play on the Internet like I used to.” She says now she never posts pictures of her family online, never has location services turned on, and only picks fights that “seem fun.”


Ultimately the evening was fun and full of laughs, but Koul and Oldenbarneveld also did an exemplary job of discussing uncomfortable topics like race, gender, and sex openly and honestly in public. There was a refreshing, no bullsh*t air about the entire event that more literary panels and journalists, especially in Canada, would do well to take note of.