Like many college students, Upasna Barath has questions: Is it okay to be a romantic? How do you find what you’re passionate about? How do you know if your crush likes you?
Unlike many college students, Barath doesn’t endlessly ponder her questions alone on the couch; she answers them on the internet, for a publication that draws thousands of readers each day, in the hopes of connecting with the many, many teenage girls out there wondering the same things.
Barath is a writer and video contributor to the online magazine Rookie, a site that publishes writing, photography, artwork and more by and for teenage girls. Editor-in-chief Tavi Gevinson began the website, which was a transition from her personal style blog, in 2011 at the age of 15.
Since then, Rookie has grown into a social media bastion boasting over a quarter million followers, as well as a four-series line of books featuring compiled and new writing from the magazine. Barath contributes personal essays to the site and is the creator of her own ongoing video column, “Upasna Asks,” where she answers common questions facing young adult girls.
Some would call Barath’s start with Rookie serendipitous. In 2015, after favoriting one of the publication’s tweets, Gevinson noticed the notification and clicked on the personal blog Barath had linked in her bio. She read Barath’s essays, reached out to talk and the ongoing collaboration was born. Though such a story is probably every Rookie reader’s dream, in reality, luck played only a small part in Barath’s journey; she had been preparing for the opportunity, unknowingly, her entire life.
“I grew up an only child, so when I spent time alone, I would just write a lot of stories on notebook paper,” she says. Barath later began to type out her stories and then transitioned to recording nonfiction, real-life stories on a personal blog. When Gevinson found Barath, the burgeoning author had no aspirations of a freelance writing career; she was just writing to survive.
After she began her partnership with Rookie, Barath began to shift the way she thought about the stories she was recording. “When I saw other people [writing] for their career, I understood how significant writing had been for me growing up, and I started understanding how it was the same for other people, that there as a whole community out there that used writing as an outlet that was part of their identity,” she says.
In her essay writing, Barath tackles serious topics with a keen eye for observation and a gripping honesty. She’s written about parental expectations, fear, student protests and being a minority on campus, and her essays have sparked important conversations between teen girls across the country. While Barath enjoys sharing her thoughts and writing about important topics, the satisfaction does little to make the task of baring her personal life on a public platform easy. “I didn’t realize before how brave of me it was to do that,” she says of writing personal essays for Rookie. “Anyone who puts their life out there on the internet is doing a brave thing.”
While her essays are usually serious in tone, Barath’s “Upasna Asks” videos tend to be lighter and cover a wider range of topics. And yet, though the videos can be silly and fun (which, admittedly, is a big part of their charm), Barath treats every question, even simple ones, such as “Do I have to grow up?” with her trademark insightfulness. Engaging seriously with these topics gives teen girls a voice and a space to grapple with the problems going on inside of their heads.
Barath says that being able to share her personal life through the videos has been freeing. “The one I did that struck a chord with me was ‘Does My Crush Like Me Back?’ I was able to admit to the world that, yeah, I kind of suck at this, but it’s great that [the readers] can navigate it with me.”
As a result, the conversations she’s able to start on Rookie have helped her as much as they’ve helped her viewers. “It’s made the world feel a lot smaller, in a good way, and it definitely makes me feel less alone,” she says. “It’s humbling.”
While Barath continues to write and produce videos for Rookie, her future interests are uncertain. She’s pursuing a double major in economics and theatre, with current plans to go to law school after graduation. And yet, she’s also interested in script writing for television and expanding her essay writing into a book format.
“I don’t know who 2019 graduated Upasna is, and I don’t want to make any decisions for her yet,” she says. “A very smart person named Tavi Gevinson once told me, ‘You do not have to know now.’ I don’t want to make decisions for the person I haven’t become.”