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.
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
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
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 impenetrable from the outside.
Ultimately, I see Megaphone as an absolutely brilliant and affirming
way to turn a passion project into a reality.
I’m delighted to say that, together with the editors, I’ve made the selection of participants for Megaphone. We had over sixty applications, from all over England, and I was delighted with the standard. Ten were shortlisted, and the editors helped select the final five. They are… (in no particular order!)
Tina Freeth (writing and tweeting as Maisie Pernas)
Joyce Efia Harmer
Huge congratulations to all five, I’m very excited to be working with you!
And to all who applied – thank you so much. We only had five places to give, but I was so pleased with the standard of the applications that came in. Keep writing, and I hope that if Megaphone runs again you will consider re-applying.
Just re-posting this blog from Nosy Crow. I echo what they say about the amount of submissions they receive and how many they can publish. Back in the day, Chips Beans and Limousines was picked up from Usborne’s slush pile – that was something like one in three thousand! But if you’ve submitted and not got anywhere, don’t give up – keep on working on your writing. Usborne saw about three books from me before they took Chips. (But do follow all publisher guidelines of course!)
Hi everyone, I just wanted to apologise for the delay in announcing successful applicants’ names. It’s coordinating the last stages which is taking more time than expected. I will let you all know by next Monday at the very latest.
In the meantime, please be aware that the following is the date for the first masterclass, which will be with me, and will be a general introduction and orientation in writing for children/ teenagers.
First workshop = Saturday 02 April, 1 pm till 3 pm.
The venue is as specified on the FAQs page: Writing West Midlands have kindly given Megaphone use of their lovely meeting room in the Custard Factory, Birmingham (Digbeth).
Finally, if you’d like to get hold of a guide to writing for children, I can recommend Writing Children’s Fiction, a Writers’ and Artists’ companion, by Linda Newbery and Yvonne Coppard. It’s a wide-ranging book with a conversational tone, and you can dip in and out of it as you please.
Peter Kalu is a poet, novelist, playwright and script writer. He started writing as a member of the Moss Side Write black writers workshop and has had five novels, two film scripts and three theatre plays produced to date, winning a number of prizes in the process. I interviewed him ahead of his upcoming appearance at Bare Lit Festival (with Megaphone tutor Catherine Johnson), about, among other things, his Young Adult books, both of which are published by HopeRoad, and the Commonword Diversity Writing for Children prize – recently re-launched and open to submissions on the website: http://www.ihaveadream.org.uk/ . Peter’s depth of experience as a writer and with Commonword-Cultureword meant I was especially keen to find out his thoughts on the barriers BAME writers of children’s fiction face and how they can overcome them.
Leila: I’ve really enjoyed reading both The Silent Striker and Being Me. Marcus and Adele have such different voices; their characters really come through. It might be down to the use of first person, but Adele’s life seems more chaotic than Marcus’, I think because she has a more extroverted personality.
Peter: Thanks for those generous comments. I didn’t set out to create a sense of chaos, that’s simply how the Being Me novel evolved. In some way it’s a bluff – an embracing of unexpected turns the novel took as I was developing it. It does reflect Adele’s personality well, so maybe it was inevitable. I did the same thing in the short story I had published recently in the Closure anthology, but for different reasons.
Adele is definitely more extrovert than Marcus. Maybe the other difference between the two characters identity-wise is that Marcus begins with a sense of a stable core identity and HAS this sense Piccasso’d/destabilised by the onset of his deafness. Whereas Adele does not start with such a composed identity. From the get-go Adele has competing stories being told about herself – at school, by each parent, by her friends. She’s a girl. She’s a boy. She’s black, she’s white. She’s a caring person, she’s a villain. She’s unlovable, she’s adored. She’s a loyal best friend. She’s a let-down and an impostor. And Adele’s work is to figure out how to reconcile all these competing stories of herself. So Marcus and Adele have very different work to do. One is trying to rebuild his understanding of himself as having a stable core identity, the other is trying to work out what is the story or set of stories I want to tell about myself. Does any of that make sense?! It’s not something I set out to do as I was writing them, but looking at the two characters now, that’s how I feel about them.
Leila: That does make a lot of sense. Marcus is centred in a way that Adele isn’t. I wondered which voice you enjoyed writing most.
Peter: They were both a challenge. I enjoyed writing particular scenes. The scene where Adele spends the night in the Adenuga family’s spare room listening to all these strange noises and movements, that was fun to write. The Marcus moment where he objects to his uncle being buried with Marcus’ favourite football and his mum faints as he scrambles after it was a highlight for me. There’s usually also some key emotional scene or moment in each book that I wouldn’t say I enjoyed writing, but which mattered a lot to me.
More generally, I had such a great bunch of writers around me giving me feedback for both books and I enjoyed meeting up with them and bouncing ideas back and forth. I’ve not answered the question have I? I can’t choose!
Leila: Was there a particular reason to write Silent Striker in third person and Being Me in first?
Peter: I was aware that Marcus’ story was in parts autobiographical so I wanted to ensure I didn’t under-distance the space between author and character. To fend that off, I placed the Marcus story in the third person and used the past tense for it. Those choices flip for the Adele story – she’s in the present and in first person. I wanted Adele to be the unreliable narrator of her own story. The spaces between what she thinks is going on and what others – including readers – think might be going on interested me. I decided that was best done in first person. Then for speed and immediacy the present tense. Again, I might be rationalising. I probably make these choices intuitively.
Leila: The voices in both novels are different, but feel really realistic. I feel as if I could hear them on the back of the No 50 bus any day after school lets out! I wonder why there aren’t that many voices like this in children’s literature.
Peter: Not enough published writers are catching those No 50 buses! In my area it’s the No 192 that’s legendary. Dropping the metaphor, I guess few working class writers break through. Mainstream publishing is run by the middle classes and they choose books for their imagined readership which of course means a reflection of themselves. At least that’s my impression.
I recently opened up some YA books in a Manchester Waterstones (so serving a population of high cultural diversity). And randomly chose some books that looked as if they were set in the ‘now’. Overwhelmingly, they featured middle class protagonists.
Leila: What was your own journey to publication like? Did you try many publishers before finding the right one?
Peter: The book was part of a project with my writing buddy, Tariq Mehmood who wrote You’re Not Proper at the same time that I was writing The Silent Striker and Being Me (I write faster than him!) We would meet up several times a week and swap notes. The journey to his kitchen and back those mornings was invigorating. While writing, I’d heard some of what Malorie Blackman said at a writing conference about how black writers break through. So rather than approach a mainstream publisher, I went straight to Hope Road: I knew they had a commitment to diverse writers.
Leila: And what are your writing goals for the future?
Peter: Apart from another CYA novel (featuring zombies!), I’m working on a crime novel. And completely unrelatedly, I want to write a novel in the way that visual artists produce collages, but I’ve not figured out the techniques needed yet.
Leila: Can you tell me a bit about Commonword and Cultureword – how did you come to be part of these organisations, and where did the idea for the Diversity Writing For Children prize come from? It’s great to see it relaunched, by the way!
Peter: I got the writing bug after reading Alice Walker and Maya Angelou in the 80’s. I went to the Moss Side Write workshops that had been set up by Commonword-Cultureword, where I met the legendary, Lemn Sissay. My involvement kicked off from there.
The Diversity Writing For Children prize came about through schools telling us there were no books with BAME characters in them, no books that reflected their classrooms. The more we looked into it, the more startlingly apparent this absence. The prize does something to tackle that.
Leila: What barriers do you think that UK BAME children’s/ YA authors face in particular? And how do you think they can best approach them, get over them, go round them…
Peter: Two arguments tend to surface. First, white children don’t feel comfortable having to read about the UK through the eyes of black characters. I simply disagree with that – it’s not what I’ve found. Second, parents – who buy the books – don’t feel comfortable buying such a book (approx 40% of buyers of YA fiction are actually older adults who simply enjoy the genre). There’s some truth in that. It’s well known for instance that mainstream publishers for a very long time avoided putting a black kid’s face on the cover of a YA book as their marketing departments told them it would inhibit sales.
As writers in command of our craft there are solutions to that white ‘we don’t feel comfortable’ problem: exotifciation, omission, ellipsis, inversion, exfoliation. In non-technical terms, add a major, heroic white character, reduce cultural friction, downplay division, celebrate collaboration, fly into fantasy, erase the blackness, write under the radar, at least make your book a black-white two-hander. These solutions can work but at times can feel soul destroying for a BAME writer. I prefer not to craft something that is guaranteed to make white people comfortable, but instead to allow they themselves address that issue of why they are uncomfortable (or, to simply not be published). The world’s changing. Heterogeneity is growing. Those who ignore it or oppose it are like King Canute trying to turn back the tide. Publishing, including YA publishing, in the end will embrace it, probably when it hits their cash tills.
Leila: I’m interested in how the conversation around diversity in children’s literature plays out in the USA as well as in the UK (for example, A Birthday Cake for George Washington). What do you think the differences and similarities are between the USA and UK children’s publishing industries and how they include (or don’t) BAME writers?
Peter: The commentator, Paul Gilroy described Britain as suffering from colonial amnesia. The most barbaric events of the British colonial era didn’t happen on the landmass of Britain so that amnesia is easier to sustain. The USA has no such distancing. Plantation slavery is a fraught part of USA history and happened on American soil. Yet the Washington book news story showed the USA was giving amnesia a good go.
The demographics in UK are different: a higher South East Asian population and, I believe, a greater ‘mixed heritage’ population.
The Oscars controversy suggests USA is only slowly waking up to its privilege and prejudices, and still does not like to look at them straight in the eye. That uncomfortable thing again. The statistics for USA and UK on percentage of BAME characters in published CYA books sing the same song. The USA statistics on under-representation are here: http://blog.leeandlow.com/2015/03/05/the-diversity-gap-in-childrens-publishing-2015/
As far as I can tell there has been no hard, statistically significant research done in the UK but the anecdotal evidence is similar to that of the USA.
Yet it’s not all bleak. As in the USA, there are signs of improvement. My impression is that the general population is way ahead of the publishing industry. If I crystal ball gaze, then my guess is that ventriloquism –getting white writers to depict black lives – will be the prominent in the first wave of change, to deal with that ‘comfortableness’ issue. Simultaneously more BAME writers will get taken up, though not at a speed to frighten the horses. Finding publishers who will break cover and take a risk is the game. Of course, once that risk makes some publisher big money, suddenly every mainstream publisher in the land will follow suit, perhaps as a new fad.
The publishing industry is not an island. It sits within society itself and so there are limits to how fast things can progress in publishing while the (older) UK white population keeps up its postcolonial melancholia, its longing for a mythical white Britain.
“Ten years ago, I believed that working within the industry was the only way to effect change. Now I believe that entrepreneurship is the only way forward – for authors to be more savvy about promoting their books, for individuals to spot niches and move quickly to capitalize on them, and for people who feel disenfranchised to do something for themselves. In 2016 don’t expect anyone else to create the cultural environment you want to see. Pursuing your own vision will be the hardest thing you do. It will also be the most rewarding.”
Read the full post here: http://publishingperspectives.com/2016/01/3-reasons-uk-publishers-not-buying-into-diversity/?utm_source=EQUIP+Newsletter&utm_campaign=2f3c05d3f9-EQUIP_Newsletter_January_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_2de6bb1556-2f3c05d3f9-38839081#.VrDryLKLRD-
I have just finished making the final shortlist for megaphone. We had sixty-two applications and it has been incredibly difficult to choose the shortlist of ten, knowing that after editors’ input that will have to go down to just five successful applicants.
I really didn’t know what to expect – how many applicants, what standard of writing – and I’ve been amazed, firstly at the high quality of the submissions, secondly at how many people have already made big investments in and sacrifices for their writing, thirdly at how interesting everyone was. I would have liked to give everyone a place if only to meet you all. It was also notable that many people expressed the feeling that Megaphone was a necessary, not just a desirable, project. So many applicants wrote about the sense of being absent from literature as children – locked out of the secret garden – and the real effects that this had on their developing identity. Many people wanted to write the book that would change things for the child they once were. But most of all, what came through was the joy all applicants took in story-telling and creating worlds (a joy that’s often under-rated, and easily lost).
Megaphone aims to develop five publishable novels for children and young adults over the course of one year. That was always going to mean that some really promising writers were not going to be shortlisted. I’d like to stress that writing matters even if it does not immediately (or ever) result in commercial publication. Communicating with children matters, diverse stories for young people matter, and in the next months I will be looking into ways in which Megaphone can be developed to help more people reach goals that are right for their current stage in their writing life.
What happens now:
I should hear back from the editors and publishers by February 16th and will inform the successful applicants first. I will then email everyone else. I will let you know if you were on the shortlist and you are welcome to use this fact on a writing CV if you wish. Unfortunately I can’t give feedback on unsuccessful applications, but I stress again – your writing matters and even if you are not successful in this instance, it doesn’t mean you won’t find success with your writing in the future.