Malavika Kannan: A Homegirl's Project
Malavika is the founder of The Homegirl Project, an online teen-run media platform that empowers women of color through storytelling. By educating the world about the achievements, challenges, and issues of WOC, the Project hopes to give a voice to the voiceless and foster positive dialogue. They interview inspiring WOC from across the world--entrepreneurs, artists, teen activists, trailblazers, survivors, and more--and share their stories. The goal? “To reclaim our own narratives, increase positive representation of WOC, and create an engaging place for women to network, share experiences, and get inspired.”
Malavika started The Homegirl Project in May of 2018, drawing inspiration from media movements like #HumansOfNewYork and social movements like #MeToo. It began with only her and a Macbook, but she was able to build a team of 40 talented young creatives from across the world. This team of managers, editors, graphic designers, and writers spans 10 countries and 10 U.S. states, bringing a truly global perspective to the process. Additionally, the team is entirely composed of young women, mostly teens, representing one of the most overlooked demographics in society. By connecting aspiring writers with inspiring women, she hopes to build an intergenerational network of supportive WOC.
The Homegirl Project operates entirely online in order to reach the greatest audience. Their website (homegirlproject.org) gains over 10,000 views monthly, and posts two new features every week. Additionally, their instagram page allows them to reach almost 1.5 thousand loyal followers. Their viewership is due entirely to a grassroots movement. They have grown through word of mouth, and most of their writers were recruited through social media.
In reflecting the spirit of diversity, their interviewees come from many backgrounds; but, they’re united by the common thread of kindness, passion, and a commitment to peace and cooperation. Past and upcoming interviewees include a survivor of the Parkland shooting, the CEO of New York City’s first women’s mobile tattoo parlor, a New York Times best-selling author, the first South Asian actress on Orange is the New Black, and the Emmy-winning writer of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.
Homegirl Project does not only focus on celebrating identity and diversity. Malavika shares that she’s also passionate about combating gun violence in our communities: “Growing up in Orlando, I’ve been accustomed to violence all around me--our school lost an alum to the Pulse shooting, Trayvon Martin was murdered near my school, and Parkland is only a few hours away. As an activist against gun violence, I recognize the intersections between violence, racism, and lack of empowerment for marginalized communities.” She puts her beliefs into action in numerous ways. For example, she is a member of March for Our Lives Orlando, encourages voter registration and has organized a high school walkout of 400 youth participants. She’s learned to combine her my passion for writing with her activism by advocating for gun control with op-eds in Teen Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. She was even invited to perform her original poem “Two Weeks to June” (about gun violence) before Florida Senator Bill Nelson this summer.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the places where stories meet, the way memories pulse through us like heartbeats. This gave me the idea for my first novel, The Bookweaver’s Daughter, when I was twelve. Like all my stories, it began with one question: what if? What if a girl from medieval India discovered magic and danger in her favorite book? What if she ended up having to conquer a kingdom? The Bookweaver's Daughter (TBD) began as a hypothetical question, but it became the greatest achievement of my life.” She silently worked the 300-page fantasy novel over five years, viewing it as a passion project and self-care ritual. She shares, “it was still the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I had to sit down daily to write, even if I felt unmotivated. I was my own harshest critic, forcing myself to write and re-write. I added and killed off characters. I toyed with the same sentences for hours. Honestly, the biggest challenge was letting myself finish. At some point, I had to stop making edits and start feeling proud of myself.”
Despite this, she didn’t want to share TBD with anyone. She believed TBD wasn’t worthy of being read,due to her own “internalized misunderstanding of what defined “good” literature.” She felt hollow when reading popular books, realizing that they weren’t written for girls of her background. She even hesitated to set TBD in India, because she feared being taken less seriously than The Great White Male Authors Who Have Long Dominated Literature. But somehow, TBD ended up being about a girl who is sassy, big-hearted, and brown-skinned like herself--and it finally felt authentic.
Five years after starting Chapter One, she took a risk and submitted TBD to Scholastic Art & Writing, the nation’s top writing competition for students. Despite never attending a writing seminar or camp, or even having others edit, TBD won the National Medal, awarded to the top 1% of entries. It was a nerve wracking experience, and she “couldn’t believe [she’d] been validated by this famous organization.
This gave her the confidence to share TBD with her best friend. To her surprise, she says her friend “didn’t care that I had won some medal”. She shares that instead, her friend “cared that I had written about the kind of character who’s rarely featured in literature. She cared that I had smashed stereotypes with passion and authenticity. In that moment, I realized that good literature isn’t defined by winning awards. It’s defined by the people it touches.”
Malavika spent a year pitching her novel to publishers, collecting over forty rejections. It was an inherently challenging process to a tenth grader, made even more difficult when considering only 1% of books get published; teen authors are even rarer. However, she states that “books are powerful extensions of hope and understanding, and I needed to share my story.” Motivated by this sentiment, she took the next step on her journey and self published TBD this summer. “Kids like me need to see themselves in the pages of books, feel valued, and see beyond their own lives.”
Although this could be a satisfactory end to her experience with TBD, it got even better. This month, she signer her first book deal with Tanglewood Publishing. She opened up that she nearly cried when she got the email, recognizing how pivotal it will be to be an official, traditionally published author. She’s excited to know that “this opens so many doors for me and marks a major milestone in my publishing career.” After so many rejections, her book finally found a home. Take her story as an example; in the face of failure, never give up hope.