We had the good fortune of connecting with Pooja Shah and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Pooja, where are your from? We’d love to hear about how your background has played a role in who you are today?
I was born in a dingy hospital in Ahmedabad, India; the facilities were so understaffed and underdeveloped that my mom wasn’t even offered an epidural. My dad, who at the time doubled as a cashier at a Rockefeller Center kiosk during the day and in the evenings counted the inventory at a convenience store, sponsored my mom and I to come to New York. We used to rent the basement of a house in Hillside, Queens- that was all they could afford at the time on a $5/hour salary. Growing up, I spoke with a thick Indian accent and embodied a lot of “Indian” mannerisms such as taking off my shoes at school, referring to teachers as “aunty and uncle” and bringing Indian dishes instead of PB&J sandwiches for lunch.
Despite having being bullied for having a “fobby” Indian accent and learning English as a second language, I loved words. Reading was what filled most of my weekends and free time after-school. I remember distinctly my fifth grade teacher, Ms. Vallerugo, tell me that I should pursue writing one day because it’s where I felt most safe and heard.
In undergrad I was a double major in English and Philosophy and minor in Chemistry. I wrestled with the idea of pursuing English as a career, but my parents pushed for me to become a doctor or a lawyer. I ended up going to law school and I am currently a practicing attorney. At the start of the pandemic and with extra time, I thought about making my passion into a side hustle- that’s what inspired me to start pitching to magazines and to build a writing portfolio. Today, I have bylines in VOGUE India, StyleCaster, InStyle, HuffPost, Thrillist NYC, and so many more publications. My writing is focused on social issues and elevating women of color, especially South Asian women. The girl that couldn’t even say “watermelon” without pronouncing the “w” as a “v” has made her dream of writing a reality. If it wasn’t for my fifth grade teacher and the countless mentors along the way who pushed me to try and to get over the fear of failure, I wouldn’t have been confident enough to pen my thoughts.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
When I went to law school I further learned how to speak and write succinctly. I think this skill has been applicable not only in my legal practice, but also in my creative works as a writer. Writing is all about storytelling and about communicating a message effectively and effortlessly. It was difficult to get through the door of many publications at first, because I didn’t have many articles or works to prove I was serious about this. I learned how to pitch and accept rejection. I spoke to many editors, other freelance writers, novelists, and journalists on the dos and donts and took their advice. I realized that rejection was part of the process of becoming a better writer and for ideating more powerfully. Along the way I also read a lot and picked up on different types/styles of writing and thought about what would make me unique. I want to be the voice of those who can’t speak for themselves and to illuminate stories that are not yet mainstream.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
The two cities that I love most are London and New York. Growing up in NY has of course opened my eyes to the diversity of bars, restaurants, excursions and experiences that exist here. I love Italian food and NY undoubtedly (besides Italy) has the best pizza and pasta. Some of my favorites include Rubirosa, Puglia, and Upland, or the corner dollar slice.
I recently got married and my husband is British. I have loved London since I went in 2016 as my first stop in my solo post-Bar trip. London embodies the same excitement, culture, and fast-paced lifestyle that NY does, except it’s cleaner! It was the UK that inspired my love for espresso martinis– something that I seek everywhere in NYC bars. To this day, the best espresso martini I have had in NY is at Dante’s in the West Village. London is also the gateway to the rest of Europe- there is nothing more I want than to move there and go on impromptu trips to Italy or Paris for two days (because you can and it’s affordable!)
Both of these cities are full of chance. You can plan to have a night out with your girlfriends or a date night with your partner/spouse, but end up making memories with people you meet along the way.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I would like to shoutout Ms. Vallerugo (my fifth grade teacher at PS 199Q) for believing in me at such a young age. Children need to be told by their educators that they are capable and she instilled in me the confidence to start recognizing my worth and to do something with my passion for writing. Because of her I entered middle school essay contests and shared my works with peers.
I also want to shoutout my college professor Min Hyoung Song who I took “Asian American Literature” with at Boston College. That class demonstrated to me how there is still a gap in representation of Asian American stories in literature. His class was one of the most memorable classes I took because I felt empowered. There was this particular lecture where he was telling us about how hard it was for writers with last names like “Kim” and “Roy” to see themselves on shelves in American bookstores and I remember thinking to myself that one day I want to join those ranks.