Mala Kumar wears different hats and manages it all with an unparalleled level of ease and high level of success. She is a natural at taking the lead and doing a great job whether she is writing on tech or tackling international development and social justice issues or succeeding as a published author and a podcast host. How does Mala see herself?
That’s a very kind way to describe me! I’ve been lucky (and bold enough) over the years to go deep into different topical areas in an increasingly lucrative career. I’d say I see myself as someone who sees patterns better than most people, and someone who is able to use research and critical thinking to decipher between a good idea and a dead end.
I knew 15 years ago when we were in grad school that focusing my career on digital tech and international development would lead to something big, before most people understood there was a real intersection. I’m glad I stuck with it, but I’m also glad I figured out how to translate my career at the UN into something more financial stable and directly related at a very well-known corporate tech company. I basically created my job (Director of Tech for Social Good) and everything I do at GitHub (my company), and I don’t take that for granted.
One of the main topics we want to focus on is your second novel titled What It Meant to Survive. It is a book about a mass shooting that you lived through 15 years ago. Tell us more. Why a novel and not a first-person account?
When I was in grad school (where we met), I took a nonprofit fundraising class. One thing I learned in that class that has stuck with me is that when a society hears about a tragedy that affects many people, the humanity of the victims is less salient than when a few people or one person is the focus of the story. That’s why projects like Humans of New York compel people to act on a cause more than saying millions of people were affected by COVID, or homelessness, or whatever the issue. The purpose of this novel is to focus on how the life of one person was changed by a mass shooting, since the American public has gone numb to the sad and high volume of mass shooting victims.
I know the people who are most likely to read this novel probably already agree that we need major and serious gun reform laws, but I’m hoping stories like What it Meant to Survive compel more people to understand that this issue – gun violence – needs to be at the forefront when we make any decisions that have legislative consequences for gun control.
I chose to make this a novel instead of non-fiction so I could take liberties with the narrative and how exactly the main character was affected. In real life, I was not in the classrooms when the Virginia Tech Massacre occurred. I drove up to campus about 20 minutes after the shooter died. In the novel, one of the main characters, Ramya, was shot.
What are some of the questions that you raise with your book What It Meant to Survive that might or might not have been asked in the various debates and conversations dealing with mass shootings?
Honestly, I think the conversations America was having ten years ago were more nuanced than now. What’s scary is that with an ever increasingly polarized country, more people – particularly young white men – are slipping into rabbit holes of misinformation that their still developing brains cannot process. Couple that with being able to buy high-capacity guns at the age of 18, and we’re seeing even more intense gun violence. That’s why not allowing anyone under the age of 21 or 25 to purchase firearms is one of many laws that needs to be in place.
Is there a specific moment that helped you decide to write What It Meant to Survive?
What it Meant to Survive is much like my first novel The Paths of Marriage in that it’s a fictionalized version of my story and the story of someone I know, in this case, my wife.
In real life, I spent the 10-year anniversary of the shooting at the house of one of the victims. My friend and I cooked dinner with her (Austin’s) parents and it was there that Austin’s mom - Renee - pointed out that my friend and I were also victims of the shooting and that we were all suffering from some form of PTSD. I knew that on some level, but I had felt guilty claiming myself as a victim since I wasn’t physically injured.
In some ways, finally admitting that I was a victim was cathartic. I met my now wife just a few months after that conversation, and I don’t think the timing was a coincidence. In the years since, being with my wife has given me the courage to explore truly awful questions that had always lingered in my mind, like what if I had been shot? What would that trauma look like? I don’t know if there was one particular moment when I decided to write the book. All I know is that I am in a very good place in life right now and am happily married. Meanwhile, it sometimes feels like the world around us is falling apart. More and more people in America are becoming victims of gun violence. If there were ever a time to publish this kind of novel, to explore these dark questions, it’s now.
We have an ongoing campaign titled #BeatTheBlues with real life choices linked to our mental health. What does Mala Kumar do to #BeatTheBlues?
Obviously, if someone is suffering from depression or other mental health issues, they should seek help from a trained professional. Other than leaning on my wife and my greater supportive network, I exercise a lot.
There are numerous studies that show consistent and varied exercise can lead to better mental health and reduce injuries. In many ways, I owe my life to an active lifestyle. Thanks Mala. Looking forward to readingWhat It Meant to Survive.
To learn more about Mala Kumar, visit her website here.
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