Rebecca Louie is as at home in a compost heap as she is when covering red carpet events. The New York native has followed an unlikely road to her dual passions — a road, she describes, as one filled with obstacles and surprises.
Born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents (her father is from Southern China; her mother, who is also Chinese, grew up in the Philippines), Louie and her siblings were raised in Queens, a borough that is often talked about for the strength of its diversity. But for Louie, who was bused to a magnet elementary school in another part of Queens, that diversity wasn't always reflected in her childhood experiences. “For the longest time, I wasn’t very aware of being Asian American," she told NBC News. "I went to bar mitzvahs, spoke English at home, watched lots of TV with lots of white faces reflected back me. I didn’t have an Asian-American narrative to refer to, so I deferred to a self-understanding dictated by the mainstream and my everyday life.”
Once Louie began high school, her perspective began to shift. “It was only once I went to Hunter College High School in Manhattan, which drew from all five boroughs and began in 7th grade, that I met groups of other Asian-American kids," she said.
Louie describes her early aspirations of becoming a novelist — a path that seemed at odds with her parents' career decision (they are both physicians), but it turned out her mother had always wanted to be a writer herself, even attempting to flunk out of medical school.
Louie went on to major in cultural studies at Swarthmore College, graduating in 1999. Her passion for writing was put to use as an intern for the Village Voice. “In class, I was studying how our cultural products — from pop to highbrow to seemingly innocuous everyday things — were full of overt and subtextual messages, narratives, and ideologies that expressed who we were as individual and cultures. Having the chance to use my passion for writing to explore these ideas and share them with audiences was revolutionary and exciting," she said.
After graduation, Louie worked as an editorial assistant for Vibe magazine, then as a features writer at the New York Daily News before returning to Vibe as a freelancer. But the initial excitement of interviewing celebrities on the red carpet didn't continue to hold her interest. “I was always interested in telling stories that were either not represented in the mainstream, or challenging some of the stereotypes and mythologies in the ones that were," she said.
“Writing is in my head, composting is in my hands, but both live in my heart."
Louie said she grew disenchanted and eventually quit her job to do some soul-searching in a Costa Rican jungle yoga retreat. While working as a live-in volunteer at a holistic center, Louie found herself cooking and thinking about ways to be more resourceful, and when she returned to New York, she signed up for the NYC Compost Project Master Composter Certificate Program, a free program offered by the city.
In 2010, she created The Compostess, a company that provided in-home consultations and education to adults and children on composting, and last year in 2015, her two worlds of writing and composting came together with the release of her debut book, "Compost City: Practical Composting Know-How for Small Space Living," which she says aims to "take away some of the intimidating or ick-factor aspects of composting."
“The trick to getting more people to compost is to meet them where they are at," Louie, who now works as a creative lead in copy for General Assembly, said. "If everyone in this country buried a single banana peel in the ground a week…could you imagine how many banana peels that will be? How much diverted from the landfill?”
While her book takes a lighthearted tone to composting, Louie said she finds deep meaning in the connection between her writing and composting work. “Writing is in my head, composting is in my hands, but both live in my heart," she said. "They are both about taking parts of the world surrounding me, processing them, and transforming them into a form that hopefully brings growth and a truer form to the world. They both require understanding the potential and context of a thing. A peel isn’t just a peel, it’s part of an ecosystem and a cycle. The details in everyday life aren’t isolated instances, but the culmination of many histories and choices expressed in a given moment.”