Local teen author, Malavika Kannan of Sanford, uses writing as a tool for change.
Some kids covertly eat candy in their rooms. Others may put dirty laundry under their beds. For Seminole High School senior Malavika Kannan, her secret was a love of writing – a passion she hid until recently.
“In sixth grade, I wrote a draft of a book,” Malavika says. “It just wasn’t something I told anyone about.”
Many of Malavika’s stories have been fairy-tale spinoffs. She is a fan of the Harry Potter series and the Inkheart fantasy trilogy by German author Cornelia Funke. But in those kinds of books, Malavika rarely found many main characters like herself, a native of India with brown skin. So, she crafted stories of her own that featured characters to whom she could relate.
One of those stories blossomed into The Bookweaver’s Daughter, Malavika’s new novel that has not only been picked up by a publisher, it’s won a Scholastic National Book Award, as well. The story features a heroine named Reya Kandhari, who becomes a symbol of revolution.
The book’s success means Malavika’s secret life as a writer is no longer a secret.
Reading work from authors such as Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, who wrote Beloved and Song of Solomon, Malavika realized that books – even works of fiction – can be more than just entertaining. She learned that literature could do more than just tell a story. It could also be representational, perhaps even provoke real social change.
Malavika began writing The Bookweaver’s Daughter in earnest during her sophomore year at Seminole. While many books feature a white, male hero for whom a romance with a female character is the ultimate goal, The Bookweaver’s Daughter puts a female friendship front and center.
Malavika sent the book out to about 100 publishers, she estimates. About 40 responded.
Malavika accrued “a stack of rejections,” she says, though some publishers did make helpful suggestions. Finally, Indiana-based Tanglewood Publishing accepted her manuscript and plans to publish The Bookweaver’s Daughter in 2020.
Writing a novel is just one of Malavika’s accomplishments, many of which involve being active in causes near to her heart. She describes herself as “a relentless advocate for female empowerment” and says the book is just one step toward a larger goal.
In May of 2018, Malavika founded an online group, The Homegirl Project, for teenage women of color around the world. Today, 17 countries are represented. The group’s member-writers interview and share stories of empowered women, with a goal of empowering one another.
One Homegirl member, for example, interviewed and wrote about Pakistani labor activist Syeda Ghulam Fatima, on the subject of ending bonded labor work in the brick kiln industry. A Boston teen interviewed a city councilor on the need for diversity in politics. Another piece profiles a former teenage mom who helps lead a Chicago social-service agency.
“They are all women of color changing the game in some way,” Malavika says of The Homegirl Project’s writers and their subjects. “It’s using storytelling as a way of changemaking.”
Next for The Homegirl Project, Malavika plans one-on-one mentorships between women to discuss things like career topics, for example.
With her book and The Homegirl Project as platforms for expression, Malavika hopes to use her voice to improve the world around her.
On a trip back to India in 2014, she visited a rural school run by the charity Ekal Vidyalaya. The one-teacher school operates on about a dollar a day, Malavika says, but it makes an invaluable difference in the lives of children. Malavika wanted to find a way to help, so she started Artsy Hearts, which hosts fundraising arts classes to benefit Ekal Vidyalaya. So far, Malavika has raised enough to support nine schools in remote Indian villages.
While waiting for her novel to be published, Malavika stays busy with advocacy around the world. In addition to running Artsy Hearts and The Homegirl Project, she traveled to Washington, D.C., in January as a member of the national Women’s March Youth Empower Cohort.
“My main love is real-world advocacy,” Malavika says, and she doesn’t plan to keep it a secret anymore.
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