Interview with Malavika Kannan

Malavika Kannan is a writer, feminist advocate, and Stanford English major dedicated to telling stories about women from underrepresented communities. Her debut YA novel, “The Bookweaver’s Daughter,” which was written when she was 17, was published in Fall 2020 from Tanglewood Publishing.

Introduce yourself! 

Hi! My name is Malavika Kannan. I am 20 years old. I am a writer and I am currently an undergraduate at Stanford University. I’m a Young Adult author of a novel called The Bookweaver’s Daughter that was inspired by ancient Indian mythology. I’m also really passionate about writing about gender and race from a Gen Z political perspective, and I’ve gotten to write for many publications, such as the Huffington Post and Teen Vogue. And I’m currently the Race & Equity reporting intern at the San Francisco Chronicle. 

You have a YA fantasy novel, The Bookweaver’s Daughter, that was released last fall.  Can you introduce this book and what inspired it? 

Yeah!  So I had the idea for The Bookweaver’s Daughter when I was 12 years old and then I wrote a version of the book in high school, when I was in the middle of my young adult fantasy reading phase.  It’s ultimately a story about a girl who’s trying to unlock her powers—about how language and storytelling can be used as a force for change.  And I’ve placed her in this world of ancient Indian mythology, which had the characters I grew up reading and loving as a kid. To give a mini synopsis, it is about a 14-year-old girl, Reya, who realizes that she is the heir to this magical lineage of powers in this ancient Indian kingdom.  It’s up to her to save those powers, protect her family’s legacy, and take on the corrupt government. 

What was the process of publishing this book like?   

My process was a little bit unconventional because I was really young. So, when I was in high school, I didn’t have any idea of what publishing a book would take. Neither of my parents work in creative industries, so I was the first “creative” in my family and friend group. But I heard about a competition called the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, which, for any aspiring creatives in high school I highly recommend applying to.  

I submitted the manuscript for what ended up becoming The Bookweaver’s Daughter, which nobody except me had ever read—and it ended up winning their National Scholastic Medal, which was a huge moment for me and kind of the first moment I realized “Wait, this hobby that I’ve been doing just for myself is something that other people think I’m good at and have enjoyed?” So it was really that first push of validation that made me think about publishing. 

With the Scholastic National Medal, The Bookweaver’s Daughter, caught some attention and I was connected to people who could give me some career guidance. From there, I started submitting it to independent publishers and that’s how I got my publisher, which is a really adorable small press called Tanglewood Publishing. 

 

You’ve also written tons of articles on topics such as politics, identity, and culture—and have been featured in publications like Teen Vogue, Refinery29, and more.  What inspires your writing? And is there a difference in how you approach an article versus a manuscript? 

I’ve always been interested in writing—especially how nonfiction can be used to start conversations that disrupt the narrative. I’ve been doing that for a while—my first publishing experience was actually my high school newspaper, which will always hold a dear place in my heart.  Later, especially during 2018 when issues like gun violence so prevalent, I realized for the first time that people were hungry for our stories.  Despite not yet being “experts,” our experiences and perspective gave us a lot of expertise to be writing on these issues. So, I decided I wanted to start telling some of these stories publicly as well. 

I think my process for writing fiction and nonfiction are more similar than you might think.  The topics that inspire stories in my mind are similar—the experiences I’ve lived through, what it is to navigate the world as a young woman, as a brown woman, etc.  I think that the ideas and experiences I have from my identity lend themselves to both fiction and to more critical analysis/critical essay/research.  So, it’s kind of just which avenue I want to take. But I think the sensibilities and identity from both sides of my writing are the same, they’re just me.  

 

Next question, which is a bit of a pivot away from your writing:  I was reading about the Homegirl Project, which you founded in 2018 – Can you introduce/explain Homegirl Project and how it came about? 

Yes for sure!  So, when I was in high school, I was really fortunate to be involved in a lot of youth organizing movements, particularly in terms of anti-gun violence and voter outreach. I was really fortunate to have a strong organizing community.  But I started to realize that while a lot of young people care about these issues, unfortunately not everyone gets to be as involved as they’d like or know where to find those guides. 

I think it’s the truth that it’s largely affluent white youth/suburban youth who get attention afforded to them and I feel like if you don’t live in a liberal area or you don’t have that kind of support at home, it can be hard – especially for first generation girls, girls of color, girls in more conservative areas – to get involved in politics. 

I wanted to create a space for outreach.  Because I think a lot of people complain that young people don’t do much, and I don’t think that’s true.  I don’t think the idea that we don’t care is true, I think it’s just that there’s been very intentional coverage and disenfranchising of things.  Like, there’s a reason why we don’t learn history past, like, the Civil Rights Movement. Or why we learn only parts of the Civil War in a lot of our curriculums. There’s a reason why we are not taught proper civics.   So, I think my friends and I kind of wanted to close that gap, specifically for girls of color, by creating a space for us and by us.  And that’s what we did. 

We created The Homegirl Project, which kind of became a political community-building tool or a political incubator, that was entirely operating via the world of Zoom and the internet a few years before COVID.  We were really able to create a really cool network, put on some really great educational events, launch a fellowship, train a bunch of people—and while I’m no longer on Homegirl Project, I am super proud of the work we were able to do.

This project connects directly to your work as an activist: Can you elaborate on your work in this area? What issues are concerning you now? Are there any resources that have helped guide you in particular? 

Yeah!  When I’m thinking of “changemaking” in the broad sense —well, the first thing I think I’ve realized is how much we all have to learn, myself included.  Going to college has been a really good opportunity for me to stop, reevaluate what it is I want in my life and what role I think I’m going to play in this movement.  

And something that has arrived to me lately, in a lot of clarity, something that I’ve always known deep down but has been really confirmed, is that I really think that the role I want to play in this revolution is as a storyteller, as a creative, as someone, to quote Toni Cade Bambara, who “makes the revolution irresistible.” And I think that is a goal I want to place for myself here on out.  

I really do think stories have a lot of power to impact the way we discuss issues, power, and the way we center people in conversations.  I want to use storytelling to address a lot of issues that are faced by brown women, young women, and queer women.  I want to talk about those unspoken power dynamics in our relationships.  I want to talk about how systemic issues can affect one person in the course of their own narrative journey.  

But, at the same time, I recognize that the world is literally actively burning down, so it’s hard.  But there is a lot giving me hope right now. A lot of the direct actions that people are taking, for example.  I’ve been really inspired by the work around racial justice that’s been taking place over the past year.  A lot of direct calling of truth to power.  Something I’ve been thinking about since having a platform now, is how I want to call out inequities as I see them. I want to amplify people who are doing the frontline work.  And another big thing I’m thinking about is mutual aid. It’s something I’ve noticed really popping up during the COVID pandemic and it’s something that gives me a lot of hope – that we can take care of people without pomp and without fanfare.  We as a community can directly take care of each other without having to wait for the government or an election or a march.  We can just do it ourselves.

 

This time of COVID-19 and the rise of anti-Asian hate has been difficult for the whole Overachiever community – and we know it has hit students very hard.  How have you been coping with this time?  How has your year been?  How has your writing/work changed or been affected at all? 

Such a big question—I’ll try to speak to each point one by one. First, in response to the rise of anti-Asian violence, I think this past year during COVID-19 has been, I wouldn’t say a wakeup call, but kind of like a confirmation about what I think a lot of us know deep down, that our country is in a deeply violent, white supremicist place, and that bad things will keep happening as long as we stay this way. On one hand, that is a call for us to demand better from white people, and to organize.

I was able to play a kind of interesting role during this time because I currently work as an intern at the San Francisco Chronicles, specifically covering race and equity. And, as I’m sure you know, the San Francisco Bay Area has been one of the hot spots for anti-Asian violence.  So, what I wanted to do right now is go into the communities, amplify stories, and let people tell these stories.  It kind of sucks that race and equity journalism has only really just started to be catered to/created for, as a result of these racial traumas. But at the same time, I was pretty interested to see how storytellers and journalists can make long-lasting investments in these communities. 

One response I’ve had to anti-Asian hate is feeling like I need to work better than before as a storyteller & journalist. I need to be more vigilant, more invested. On the other hand, it has also reminded me that all of us, and especially my East and Southeast Asian friends, need to keep cultivating our joy as well. I want us to have a lot of light to look forward to. 

To answer your question about what I’ve been up to over the pandemic: I took a gap year, which I was lucky to be able to do, because I was able to stay employed the whole time therefore continuously earn money, which I know is unusual during this time, as a lot of people have been taking really hard financial hits during the pandemic. But, for me, it’s been really good, just a really fortunate experience. I think that anytime you can spend stepping off that ever-accelerating ladder of school, capitalism, good grades, etc., is good and spiritually healthy. And I realize the way I live my life now feels really good. Obviously I work, but I don’t work too hard.  I close my laptop by dinner every night.  It feels truly sustainable and it’s what I want to continue going forward.  It is what life could be like.  And it kind of sucks that it’s taken a pandemic for us to see it. 

I’ve kind of had the time now to restock my creative juices.  I’ve been reading a lot—I went from barely being able to read for fun in high school to now being able to read 5 or 6 books a month, which has done wonders for my creative process.  I actually just finished writing my 2nd book, about last month which is super exciting!

What does self care mean to you?  How do you take care of yourself? How do you recharge?  

Wow, what a good question.  Sometimes it’s hard for me to feel optimistic about self-care because “self care,” the way it’s been marketed in the form of capitalism, feels like putting on a band-aid that does not begin to address the real onslaught of pressures we face (like white supremacy and capitalism and patriarchy). 

It’s hard for me to answer because, what does self-care mean? Does it mean taking an hour-long bubble bath when you know the next morning you have to get up and go back to work?  I don’t know, but for me, at least, I’ve been trying to approach self care as a more sustainable “revamp” of the entire way I do things. 

For example, in college there was this real grind culture that I subscribed to, but now that I’m on a gap year, I’m trying to reassess things. Like, “No, I don’t want to work on weekends if I don’t have to,” or “I don’t want to answer Slack messages late in the evening”.  It’s trying to really carefully reassess my boundaries with work, with how much outside news I consume, with accepting what things I can’t help others with and what things I can.  

Something really hard about living on the internet is that it keeps you in a perpetual state of awareness and frenzy about everything that’s going on and going wrong in the world, while our ability to do something is obviously not that proportionally high. So, I think for me, self-care is a lot of grounding, a lot of stepping away from social media, creating boundaries. 

Yeah, essentially being intentional with your time, which is so hard to do when everythings being thrown at you.  Next question, on another note: is there anything you wish you knew when you were beginning to pursue writingIs there any piece of advice you’d want to share with other aspiring young writers of color starting out?

I feel like I’m still so young and just starting out doing this… I think I’m essentially still in my “fetus” stage, you know?  I’ve just turned 20 years old.  I finished exactly one year of college. I’ll literally repeat to you something my mentors are telling me now, which is that there is just so much time.

As a young writer, and particularly as a young writer of color, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be exceptional.  To be the best.  To be the youngest and fastest and the prodigy.  I know why we feel that way and why I have felt that way, because there are such limited seats at the table that we have a lot of scarcity mindsets, especially in the Asian-American community. A lot of us want to prove to our parents a sort of stability that we want to achieve quickly.

And while I get that and I’ve felt that, I’d encourage people to remember that life is really so long, especially for writers.  Something that continually shocks me is that, in the writing industry, you can be considered a prodigy even if you publish your first book at 30, which, for a lot of us, is over a decade from now.  

So, I would encourage people to really just take their time with writing, focus on getting the creative and joyful part down first.  Figure out the things you love about writing first.  Figure out your cautions.  Figure out who you write with and exactly who inspires you.  Worry about the career and capitalism stuff later.  That’s what I’d recommend.

So, now we have our rapid-fire questions: What is your go-to coffee shop order? 

I don’t really have a regular coffee shop order, but I can tell you my boba shop order! I go for a Jasmine Milk Tea with Lychee Jelly and Cheese Foam!

Yum—you just inspired me to go get boba later.  Next: What item(s) can you not leave your house without? 

I would say my laptop, my notebook, and my hammock. 

Any good films/TV shows/books you’re watching/reading right now? 

I just finished this coming-of-age festival book called “Prep” by Curtis Sittenfield.  I’m watching Fleabag right now—oh, and Minari!  Oh, and I’m also reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler right now—my friend got it for me for my birthday last month!

Ultimate comfort food?

Hmmm, I would say dosa—it’s like a South Indian crepe.

What has been the highlight of your day today? 

Okay, I’m gonna be real and share that I just woke up (because I just flew home from California, so I’m still in PST), so I’ve literally only been up for all of 30 minutes. So let’s say the highlight so far has been this interview!

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I mean that sounds good to me, I’ll take it! So then, final question, What are you working on right now?  What is upcoming for you and what does life look like in the immediate? 

Something that I’m looking forward to both life-wise and career-wise is that I have my vaccine scheduled for later this week!  I just finished my second novel, and I’m in the process of doing publishing things with it.  And, literally on the plane ride home, I had an idea for another book, which is great because I had felt completely emptied after having finished this one.  As for today, I work at the San Francisco Chronicle, which I mentioned, so I just have to push some more articles out, talking about race and how racism is affecting young people and other underrepresented communities.  

Amazing. Thank you so much for talking with Overachiever!  It’s very exciting to hear about everything you’re doing. 

Sure!  Thank you so much for thinking of me again! 

Malavika Kannan is a writer, feminist advocate, and Stanford English major dedicated to telling stories about women from underrepresented communities.  Her debut YA novel, “The Bookweaver’s Daughter,” which was written when she was 17, was published in Fall 2020 from Tanglewood Publishing.  She’s a widely-published essayist and commentator about identity, culture, and politics for publications such as Teen Vogue, Refinery29, The Lily, Nylon, and the San Francisco Chronicle, where she currently interns.. As a creative, she has cultivated a following of nearly 40,000 across my social media platforms. Beyond the page, Malavika strives to uplift her fellow girls of color. In high school, she founded Homegirl Project, a youth-led digital collective that trains girls of color in political organizing. She’s organized with the Women’s March, March For Our Lives, and Giffords, and co-created Slam Gun Violence, a viral poetry campaign released by Refinery29.

 When she’s not writing, Malavika enjoys beaching, snacking, thrifting, reading, and calling her representatives. You can keep up with her on Instagram and Twitter.

Social Media/Websites: www.MalavikaKannan.com

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