I’m interviewing the first ever Megaphone participants, giving those who follow the blog and have an interest in Megaphone an insight into the people who’ll be on the scheme. Today, Avantika Taneja tells us a bit about herself and her writing and her hopes for Megaphone.

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Avantika Taneja

Leila: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your writing life so far?
Have you been writing long, and what drew you to writing for children
and teenagers?

Avantika: It’s difficult to own my identity as a writer, but I suppose the
written word has always been my way of processing and encountering the
world. When I moved to London over eight years ago and embarked on
some solo travel, books and my Alice-in-Wonderland diary were my main
companions, so that was the first time I properly scratched my
creative writing itch. The anonymity of building a new life emboldened
me to take my first creative class back then, so my relationship with
writing is very much intertwined with my relationship to the city.

With a career in educational charities in NYC and London, my work has
always related to children and young people – enabling them to make
sense of the world and their voice within it, largely through the
education system. I had a few isolated opportunities to write for
children in a previous job, in the voice of animal characters,
distilling complex social issues into age appropriate stories.

Lucky for me, a couple of years ago I happened to marry a witty
wordsmith who is a screenwriter/filmmaker, and that has hugely
nurtured my storytelling imagination and helped me treat my craft more
preciously and professionally.

Leila: And can you tell us a bit about the book you will be writing this
year – what’s it about, and what inspired you to write it? What do you
think the biggest challenges will be in writing it? (the things you
think will be most difficult – e.g. researching, or structuring, etc.)

Avantika: The story I will be developing is a fictional piece about a young
Syrian girl and her family’s journey into refugeehood and the inner
world that the children create to cope with traumatic changes around
them. Throughout the physical journey of fleeing Aleppo, entrapment in
Turkey and the perilous path to Europe, the young protagonist invents
an imaginary society, The Children’s State of Aleppo, for the benefit
of her younger brother, where children rule the roost (democratically,
of course), chocolate fountains abound, borders are open and passports
are not needed, as enshrined in their Manifesto. The Children’s State
gains more solidity in their imagination and becomes ever more utopian
as they encounter more and more obstacles in the real world in their
quest for home.

My inspiration is of course current geopolitics and my own political
and personal interest and experience with migration regimes. But it is
also rooted in the utmost respect I have for children’s ability to
retain their sense of wonder and imagination even in the most
harrowing circumstances, and their capacity to imagine big, bold,
whimsical solutions to social problems. I want the children’s context
in my story to be very real, so to speak, forcing them to grow up too
quickly, and yet I hope my characters defy this with their childlike
ability to invent and carve out their own agency when so many things
are unravelling around them.

For me, migration stories are about the themes of childhood and
growing up: love and loss, displacement, sense of belonging and
arriving at a new ‘home’ – be that a place or a renewed identity.
Through the prism of one family’s story, I want to further normalise
the experience of mobility, migration and forced migration like some
of the inspiring children’s books I have relished by Elizabeth Laird,
Benjamin Zephaniah and Michael Morpurgo.

I expect my biggest writing challenges to be around researching and
representing the ‘real’ context my characters are embedded in. Because
the context is a live and moving and violent and highly politicised
one, I will have to anchor my characters in a particular moment within
this. I expect to be constantly battling the tension between age
appropriateness and overprotecting my audience, and I will need to
find some creative devices to condense the background of a complex
conflict within the story, without employing a ‘teachery’ voice.

Leila: Finally, what do you hope to get out of Megaphone?

Avantika: First and foremost, a like-minded community with a shared vision for
the landscape of children’s literature. It’s an absolute privilege to
be welcomed into a community of established children’s authors and
industry professionals as well as other aspiring children’s book
writers on a similar journey.

Through the mentorship and nurturance of Megaphone, I really hope to
tackle some of the storytelling challenges described above as well as
develop my craft by becoming more conscious of my own voice and my own
process. As my husband would say, becoming a writer means
professionalising your self-doubt so I’m also eternally grateful for
the mentorship and community to help weather the emotional journey
ahead!

I hope Megaphone can be the structure and accountability every writer
needs: knowing I am going to have to take my writing outside of
myself, even if it’s initially just to one other person, will force me
to create, in the best sense. Beyond this, benefiting from the
experience of established authors and industry professionals ​will add
a real practical weight to the writing process and ​a point of access
to a​ world that sometimes seems impene​trable from the outside​.
Ultimately, I see Megaphone as an absolutely brilliant and affirming
way to turn a passion project into a reality.

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