Poorna Bell writes about a South Asian woman who reevaluates her life after dodging death
British journalist, speaker, and writer Poorna Bell has her first paperback novel, “In Case of Emergency,” published by Penguin, out this month. The work is an insightful and hilarious tale of a South Asian woman who, after surviving an almost fatal incident, must decide what she desires in life and whom to rely on. It delves into the stresses modern women face and portrays the complexities, triumphs, and subtleties of being a brown British woman in England.
The work of Bell, a former executive editor and global lifestyle head of HuffPost UK, has also featured in “The Guardian,” “The Times” and on BBC. Bell was named 2019’s Rising Star by “Stylist” and won the 2019 Big Book Award from “Red” magazine. She is part of the Mind Media Awards and Costa Book Awards judging panels. Her works have been lauded by a wide range of celebrities, including actors Ruby Wax and Jameela Jamil, author Matt Haig, and singer Will Young. In an interview for SEEMA, Bell spoke about her life, work, sport, and the inspiration behind her success.
You were born in England, but your parents are first-generation South Indian immigrants. What was it like growing up in the UK as a female of South Asian descent? Did your parents weave a lot of Indian cultural experiences into your childhood?
I actually had a different childhood than most British South Asians. I was born in England, but my family and I moved back to India when I was 7, with the intention of moving permanently. We then moved back to the UK when I was 12. That experience was formative because I knew the difference between what it felt like to go to school and be surrounded by people who looked like you and shared so many of your cultural practices, and what it felt like to feel othered and as if your culture was something to be kept secret.
Unlike a lot of South Asians in the UK, we didn’t have any family members here beyond an aunt and uncle, so community events weren’t really a thing for us. My parents brought us up with certain cultural values, but they were also super liberal and didn’t force us to do anything we didn’t want to.
We made frequent trips back to India to be with our family, and that was enough in terms of feeling connected to our culture.
For my sister and me, it has always felt like an organic, natural thing rather than something preserved in a bubble within a Western landscape. The flip side, of course, is that there were times when we felt like we didn’t belong anywhere. We didn’t belong back in India because we were too British, and we didn’t belong among the British South Asians either, most of whom are not South Indian. While there are overlaps and similarities, we differ in language, food, and, in some cases, sensibilities.
You have a prolific career and have worked in many kinds of media, from print to digital to broadcasting. Who or what first inspired you to delve into media?
I was always good at writing. I knew that from the age of 7. Frankly, I was a disaster at anything to do with science or math. When it came to deciding what to do career-wise, I was torn between broadcast and print journalism. But broadcast was so much more difficult to get into. I mean, journalism is a tough industry regardless, but I had no contacts, and there were no entry schemes. I couldn’t see a way in. But I started my first journalism job on a small South Asian newspaper because I was lucky to have a contact who gave me work experience.
At first, I was given the really small news in briefs to do, but then [astronaut] Kalpana Chawla passed away and I was tasked with writing a profile on her. Researching and writing her story changed something in me. I saw how important storytelling was and how important it was to tell the story of women like Kalpana to inspire other people who didn’t know how to dream so big.
What were some of the most profound highlights of your time as the executive editor of HuffPost UK?
There are so many, but the biggest for me was kickstarting the conversation around mental health and strong-arming that into the mainstream news agenda. It’s easy to forget that we didn’t always cover or talk about mental health now, when it is so much more embedded in the mainstream. But back then it was unheard of.
We worked alongside mental health charities, gave a platform to bloggers, and made that a part of what we stood for. The other was the annual push around women’s content and making that as inclusive as possible, and always having as our guiding stars women from marginalized communities. When the rest of the world discovered racism in 2020, we were covering it in a way that had always prioritized and wanted to tell the stories of women from all walks of life and intersectionality.
I ran a special International Women’s Day month in 2014 and worked with Jameela Jamil to be our guest editor. That was before her career went stratospheric. That was also a special moment. But above all, it was occupying a space that I knew was rare for a South Asian woman and trying to open that door for as many people as possible. Success is meaningless if you don’t use it to help people. There is more than enough to go around.
You’ve previously authored three well-received nonfiction books: “Chase the Rainbow,” “In Search of Silence,” and “Stronger.” Even though your debut novel, “In Case of Emergency is a work of fiction, the protagonist is a South Asian woman living in the UK. Do the protagonist’s experiences parallel your own?
I wouldn’t say it’s parallel, but definitely some of me is reflected in the book. For instance, in the passages about her teenage years growing up, she was an alternative or an indie music kid like me. I felt it was really important to reflect that generation of girls, not just the Spice Girl generation. She’s also stubborn as hell and doesn’t ever ask for help. I see some of myself in that too. And finally, some scenes of corporate life and wanting to beat your head against a keyboard. Let’s just say all of that wasn’t entirely fiction!
Do you adhere to a set writing process? If so, what does it comprise?
For me, writing books is a different medium but requires skills similar to those I’ve used in journalism. I need to have set deadlines, accountability, and structure. I spend about a month laying out the plot of the book, then I begin writing. But I have a set number of chapters per month. And I tend to have a daily word count, which can change depending on how much I need to get done. I went completely bananas in the last month because I usually don’t see any of my friends and family, my flat is a feral nest, and I’m surviving on hunks of whatever hasn’t died in the fridge.
Who are your favorite authors?
My reading taste is a mixed bag. I love Haruki Murakami, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Monica Ali, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, Raven Leilani, Banana Yoshimoto, Terry Pratchett, Jonathan Stroud, Sarah J Maas…
You were trained at RADA and conduct panel discussions. You also chair conferences and speak at events. What first drew you to public speaking?
At the age of 8, my school was doing a musical production of “Oliver Twist.” I am a horrible singer, but I knew I wanted to be a part of it, and the only non-singing role was the “conductor,” who introduced the musical in a written speech. I campaigned and harassed my teachers into giving me the role. And the moment I went on stage, I knew I loved it.
As an adult, what draws me to it is the fascination of how much confidence is a mental thing. That it has almost nothing to do with anything physical, which shows you the power of the mind and how belief can carry you. I love being able to make people laugh, educate them, and inform them. There is enormous energy you get from doing it, too.
You’re an advocate for mental health and well-being. A lot of your talks have been on this. What’s the best advice you can give anyone who speaks on this topic?
Don’t give anything more than you’re able. Don’t feel pushed into talking about anything you don’t want to. And just because you have spoken about something before does not give people free reign to ask you about it at length in another setting. Give yourself decompression time not just the day of the event but also the day after. It will take it out of you, and you have to put your own oxygen mask on first. Just because you talk about mental health does not mean you are a bad person if you take a break or set boundaries.
You’re an ardent power lifter. What motivated you to start power lifting, and how do you typically prepare for a contest?
I took up strength training in my mid-30s. Initially, it was just a drive and desire to be a bit physically stronger and do things around my house without having to rely on a man for everything. In 2018, I met my now-trainer, with whom I initially did standard strength coaching, but it turned out he was a powerlifter.
When the opportunity came up in a local gym to try out a competition, he encouraged me to go for it. Initially, I was very skeptical, but it changed how I engaged with sport (I was never sporty) and physical activity. It made it more about achievement and joy versus weight loss or aesthetics.
With competitions, you go into peak training for two months ahead of the competition, and the rest of the time is off-peak work, but you’re still working on strength training and how to tweak or amend things.
The competition training itself is super intense and involves lifting a lot of heavy weights. So I usually scale back on my social life because I need to prioritize my sleep and nutrition. Outside of my team, no one in my life competes in lifting, so at first, I think they didn’t know what on earth I was doing. But now it has just come to be accepted as part of who I am and what I do.
Tell us a bit about your support system.
I have friends and family who are amazing, Some of them have gotten me through some very difficult times. But I also am a strong believer in therapy and having structured support and help. Something I see a lot of is people using their friends and family as therapy, when therapy is therapy.
Describe your favorite self-care routine.
I prioritize my sleep, and I don’t overcommit to social engagements. But I don’t think self-care is about having a nice bubble bath. I think it’s about consistently making decisions that make you able to feel rested and mentally okay to do all the things you want to do in life.
What’s your best advice for aspiring authors?
Focus on what you want to achieve. A lot of people get stuck or worry that what they are writing is terrible, and my advice is just to get the entire book out and then go back and edit it.
If you try to edit it as you go along, you will get stuck. Trust me. There is also no such thing as writer’s block.” It’s a myth. There is no muse. What we think of as writer’s block is actually anxiety.” My advice would be to take long walks to periodically clear your head, set yourself deadlines and goals, and stick to them as if your life depends on it.
I had this really romantic notion that I needed to be in some far-flung location or a shack to write. I literally need a bed, a fridge with food, access to a gym, and peace and quiet. That’s where I wrote my first book — at home, in bed.
Once you have a manuscript, I would always advocate pitching it to an agent, unless you are a master negotiator. I am not. But now there are so many avenues of self-publishing worth considering. Finally, not everything is a book. Interrogate your idea, ask yourself why it needs to be written, and be passionate about it.
To purchase Bell’s book, go to https://amzn.eu/d/aWC9Shk or In Case of Emergency by Poorna Bell | Waterstones