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May 19, 2015

Badass Ladies You Should Know: Kaye M.

Kate Hart
A year ago this month, in the wake of a horrific misogyny-fueled shooting spree in California, many women on the internet found solace in #yesallwomen -- a hashtag in which we shared examples of the sexism, violence, and fear that affect our daily lives. The genius behind this simple phrase was Kaye M., a dear internet-friend who was already making waves with her involvement in #WeNeedDiverseBooks and the creation of #NotYourStockMuslim.

Only in her early 20s, Kaye is an inspiration as she finishes her English degree, reviews books, interns with a literary agency, and continues to raise hell (in a thoughtful way). While the internet has not always been kind to her, she continues to be kind to it, and I'm honored to profile her here.


Kate: Tell us about your career(s) and/or current projects.

Kaye: I am currently an English major and considering library school after I graduate. I’m honestly torn between publishing and becoming a librarian, but either way, I want to be in a career where I can push books I love onto people I like unapologetically and keep speaking out for diversity and representation all around the table.

Current projects…It’s still up in the air. I’m doing my best to stay up to date with diversity advocacy, and I will be speaking on a panel with my friends Nicole Brinkley of YA Interrobang and Stephanie Sinclair of Cuddlebuggery on Internet safety. I’m trying my best to do what I can where I can, while focusing on school and my own mental health.

Kate: When and how did you decide to commit to your career? How does it intersect with your passions?

Kaye: I feel the need to apologize in advance, because I often feel like younger friends look to me for this thrilling light bulb moment where I realized my voice mattered. If you know me, you already are probably aware of how I will punctuate every sentence with a “Sorry” when it’s implied that I’m Internet-famous, or cool, or admirable.

I mean – what is this life?

If anything, I think a lot of things happened by accident and just snowballed. I’ve always been vocal about women’s rights and feminism and equality, but probably at the decibel level of a mouse in a library. Sometimes, it’s hard to think that your voice matters, or perhaps you can be a little louder than you are, when there are so many negative messages about your gender or your race or your faith.

People want you to sit down, and stay silent. People want to make you feel that because of your age or your school history, you aren’t qualified. But I feel, very strongly, that if there is anything we are all divinely blessed and endowed with, it is the right to tell our story, how we feel we should tell it.

I was liberated, I think, by my involvement in the #AliceInArabia protests early on in 2014 (which, I will take a moment to do a little proud nudge, was spearheaded by my very talented and delightful baji Aisha Saeed, an awesome lady to keep an eye on if there was any). [editor's note: you can read Aisha's profile here!]

These voices rose together, so passionately, so eloquently, and it was enough to topple a racist premise and cancel a TV show. What else could be so inspiring?

Even after that experience, I feel like my career was officially cemented and validated by my participation with #WeNeedDiverseBooks – but it definitely started right there, when I realized that our stories, our experiences and our right to representation is valid and real and needs to be acknowledged. And I’m determined to spend my life making sure that happens and continues to happen.

I think, from all that, I’ve already spoken on how it intersects with my passions, but just to cover my bases: I don’t think I’m a person who was meant to be silent about changing the narrative. I am passionate about literature, I’m passionate about being able to find yourself in the literature you consume (because it’s so rarely happened for me), and I’m passionate about people being acknowledged for how beautiful and diverse they are.

I might not be able to eloquently and succinctly narrow how this all began to just one experience, but I’m so blessed and grateful that I realized it.

Kate: Do you have any (other) creative outlets? How do they influence/affect your main work (if at all)?

Kaye: I am a YA novelist – still in the pre-published stage, but I am putting words down on paper and forming my own narrative and breaking down walls in my own way. That definitely affects my main work, because I’ve always been about the children’s publishing industry and this feels like another way I can do something positive and challenge institutionalized practices and embedded stereotypes.

Beyond that, I’m a creative, interrupted. I enjoy baking. I used to make jewelry. I took up knitting. Sarah Kendzior of Al Jazeera taught herself how to crochet last year when she was also being attacked online and receiving death threats (yes, you read that right – Sarah is a marvel), and she recommended it as something I ought to consider at some point.

I think everything I take up seeps into what I do in some form or another. It’s part of forming my own identity, and being able to discuss and recommend to other young girls who may be on the same path and need to know what they can do – or what craft of choice might be adequate to keep your mind occupied when your inbox is a wreck.

Kate: What's your biggest challenge?

Kaye: My biggest challenge is, and has always been, biting off more than I can chew! I’ve had to step back on a few projects recently, and a lot of my energy is going into my studies – which goes back around to wanting to learn more so I can do more and help more – so I’m just trying to focus on balancing it all, working on my priorities and realizing that sometimes, there is nothing I can do and I need to move on and continue to do what I can.

Kate: How do you stay inspired? Productive? How do you deal with negativity?

Kaye: This is so very much a work in progress.

Last year taught me so much about myself. A lot of it was good and encouraging – you have a voice! You can use it! Your voice can create change that is bigger and better than even you could imagine!

But it also taught me stuff that, even if it was important, I might have not wanted to learn – you are a very anxious person! Your depression can come to bite you in the heel when you least expect it! There will be people who will hate you and want nothing more than to make sure you get down and stay down!

It is very hard to talk about it, but sometimes, I’m not sure if I did all the right things last year. I think that is what made it very hard, by the end of the year, for me to get a running start into 2015. And it’s definitely been an uphill struggle to focus on inspiration.

I’ve been working on a binder, printing out the lovely things friends have said to me – particularly about my writing and where I’m headed with it – for those extremely bad days, and I’m also trying to focus on my younger self: the Kaye that was fresh and bouncy and peppy and didn’t care what anyone said about her hundred-chapter long epic about a princess with a name that invariably started with a C- and ended with –lena and who did it all for the fun of it.

I’m learning to embrace the moments when I just need to write out something silly, or when I need to listen to that song in particular six times in a row to hammer out a certain idea. Literally, sometimes you just need to go with the flow.

Productivity…is a topic that I don’t feel qualified to advise on as much as gain advice on! I’m trying to look up to the women I admire, the women who seem to be able to do it all, and I’m definitely trying to make the most of the techy tools that abound nowadays to curb distractions and focus on the goal.

Right now, my main focus is my education, so a lot of things have fallen to the back burner, but I’m taking this as my settling-in period and working on what I can. You can do it all, but in very small bites – or “bird by bird”.

Like I said before, I am not the best to ask about negativity, but – if it helps – I believe strongly in kindness. When I feel saddened or depressed, I focus very strongly on spreading kindness and love and smiles and hugs wherever or however I can. And I pray a lot. That is all I can do sometimes, but I focus on doing something that can possibly help, even if it is small.

Kate: Tell us about a time that you bounced back from failure.

Kaye: I think this…is very much a work in progress. The latter half of 2014 felt like a snarled mess to me. I successfully resumed my path in higher education, lost some friends and mended ties with others. I let things slide and realized how deeply rooted my depression was, how sly and snake-tongued it could be in compelling me to procrastinate on the simplest of tasks, to spend days in a fugue of bitter, wretched regret and constantly go over and over what I’d done wrong.

It’s very hard to not look back and focus on every single failure over the past year. So many conversations with friends have devolved into “what ifs” – What if I hadn’t locked? What if I’d mustered up the courage to accept an interview request and used it as my platform to ask for everyone to please stop suffocating me with their entitlement to my privacy?

What if I’d done everything wrong after all?

It’s an uphill battle, and I’m fighting it against my own conscious. There are good days, and there are days when the only thing that keeps me from going back to bed is the fact that there’s an assignment due or someone asking me for a book recommendation or a new Muslim question in the Writing with Color inbox.

All I can focus on, I’m finding, is what I can control: not the past, but the steps I’m taking forward.

Kate: Did you have any defining moments that galvanized your understanding of and/or commitment to feminism? How does it inform/inspire your work?

Kaye: Honestly, I’m still learning. I take it as a large step forward that I can identify with the word “feminist”. It always seemed to be meant for women who were not me or from my ethnic background or faith.

If anything galvanized my understanding and commitment to feminism, it was watching feminists of color in action on Twitter – particularly in the fallout stage after #YesAllWomen. They all go through it, every day. They told me what I should do and how I should go about doing it to keep myself going and keep myself safe. They constantly speak out for other women at the risk of their own privacy and safety.

They stood in stark contrast to other women who called themselves feminists but were the first to try and worm out personal information so that they could dox me, or protest when I remarked on something that related to a particular group of women and not them (and note these were always protests made from a position of privilege).

These women underscored what feminism should mean – ALL women, but not all experiences on the same level. It really made me understand what intersectionality means. My feminism is not confined to one group of women, but I will signal boost where I can. I won’t speak over other voices. I will emphasize but not co-opt.

And maybe I wasn’t entirely honest – my understanding of feminism comes first and foremost from my mother and the other strong women I’ve been exposed to as I grow up.

Even though my mother’s always been critical of mainstream feminism and how it shuts out or condescends certain groups of women, she’s taught me to respect and admire other women, proudly point at their work and projects and movements, and never sit down if I feel that there is something unjust going on that I can speak about in some way.

And, though I’m disappointed I can’t mention her by name, one of my aunties was telling me just the other day to empower myself however I can. It’s because of them and their example that I can be who I am and keep moving with what I have to do.

Kate: What are the best ways to support other women?

Kaye: There is so much to be said in openly expressing your love and support for other women. Seriously. There is something wonderful about opening my notifications or my e-mail and seeing a note of encouragement or love or comfort. It means so much and though it isn’t entirely needed to validate what you are doing (because, again, I know how hanging on for someone’s approval at all times can become very toxic and anxiety-inducing), I think that sometimes you just have to come out and say it.

Kate: What is your advice to aspiring badasses?

Kaye: Don’t think your voice isn’t important. It is, a thousand times over. If you’d asked me last year – or, let’s admit it – even now, I wouldn’t say that my voice was important than any other Muslim woman’s. And I still don’t think it is. I think that my voice is important in the fact that I am expressing myself and I am challenging a narrative that is often bent on silencing or misrepresenting me. I am casting my thread into an endlessly woven tapestry of stories. It might not always be seen, but it might just be seen by the person who needs to see it and know that is there.

There may be a girl out there – another aspiring heroine of our time – who sees you saying something that she feels in her own heart, and it’ll help plant a seed of inspiration in her heart: about who she is and what she wants to be in this world.

Don’t censor yourself before we’ve had a chance to hear you.

Also, sometimes, you have to say what needs to be said. I always, always look up to Ellen Oh – seriously, she’s very top tier on the list of ladies I want to be when I “grow up” – and everyone probably knows by now that when it needs to be said, Ellen will say it.

People will not like it. I’m a recovering people pleaser in that sense. You cannot please them all, and every time I’ve tried to, it’s nearly been the death of me. Focus on you and the voice inside you that needs to be heard.

And – this is something I’ve struggled with a lot – never think it’s too late. Never think it’s too late to start this. Never think it’s too late to try and learn something new. Never think it’s too late to change your course of study if it’s what fits you and what you’ve discovered about yourself. Never think it’s too late to write this, or think about that, or approach this person, or take that trip you planned on.

Seize the day. Seize every day. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re getting too old, or you are too old, or you’re too young. If the window of opportunity is open, you take advantage of that.


Kaye M. is a Muslim magical girl (in training), YA writer, English major and online diversity advocate. She is best known as the creator of the 2014 viral feminist hashtag, #YesAllWomen, #NotYourStockMuslim and as a former member of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign team.

(To her friends, she is also known as that girl who drinks too much tea, but that is another story entirely).

She currently serves as a moderator on the Tumblr blog Writing With Color, and works in the publishing industry as a literary agency intern. You can find her online at @gildedspine, her blog Watercolor Moods, her personal Tumblr, and answering questions about Muslims at Writing With Color.

Don't miss the second half of Kaye's interview + bonus features on the Badass Ladies You Should Know website!

Kaye's avatar was created by Simini Blocker.


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