This is a guest blog post by Malavika Kannan, a senior from Seminole High School in Sanford, Florida. She is a national winner of the 2017–18 Letters About Literature contest, a reading and writing competition for students in grades four through 12 that involves reading a work and writing to its author (living or dead). Entries for the 2018–19 contest are now being accepted. Here Kannan writes about her experience as a participant.
Kurt Vonnegut and I don’t have a lot in common – at least, not on the surface.
He was a cynical old man, while I’m a teen who wants to change the world. He spent part of his youth dodging shellfire across war-torn Europe, while I worry more about dodging calculus homework. He was cantankerous, miserable and regrettably sexist. (I pray I age more gracefully than that.) But we’re both writers, and we tell stories because we need to. Because to us, writing is more than just an art, or a creative way of interpreting human society.
It is literally the only way to live.
So, when I discovered the Letters About Literature program, I was excited by the opportunity to explore my connections to my favorite author – to understand how I could use words to provoke with power. To start conversations. To carve my own space in the world. For my letter, I chose to write about Vonnegut’s famous antiwar novel, “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Although that book is dark, twisted and crude – literally, its nonsensical plot follows a traumatized veteran who believes he’s been kidnapped by aliens – I got it. It got me.
I wrote my letter during a long road trip through Texas. At first, when I opened up that blank document on my computer, I felt like I was staring into my own brain – blank, stuck, empty. So, I decided to do something crazy in my letter – I decided to tell the embarrassing, pathetic story behind the first time I read “Slaughterhouse-Five,” which was this: I read it in an attempt to impress someone I liked. And when things didn’t work out with this person, I was forced to re-evaluate everything I thought I knew about life, literature and love. (This ended up changing my life.)
Maybe my letter wasn’t the most profound, intellectual piece of writing I’d ever created. It was unflattering and vulnerable and embarrassing, but it was authentic. In fact, the writing process felt so personal that I almost forgot that I was writing for the Letters About Literature competition. Ultimately, I think that’s what made my letter so compelling.
I was at school when I got the call that I had won Letters About Literature. At first, I couldn’t believe it. (I’m serious – I picked up the phone in the loud school cafeteria, so I wasn’t sure that I had heard correctly.) I could still remember visiting the Library of Congress as a little girl – how I’d stared up at the massive columns of books, how I’d wished I could live there – so it meant the world to be recognized by that institution. I cherished the letter signed by Carla Hayden, whom I’ve long admired. Kurt Vonnegut once said that the America he loved exists at the front desks of our public libraries, and on that point, I agree with him.
My Letters About Literature experience was transformative because I applied the knowledge I gained from my letter to everything in my life. As I worked on my own novel, I turned to Kurt Vonnegut for inspiration – whether I needed phrasing references, or modelled dialogue or just the simple reassurance that literary magic may be rare, but it’s real. Knowing that Vonnegut didn’t get his big break until he was 45 gave me the strength to persevere through the 38 times my novel was rejected by publishers.
This summer, I signed my first book contract, and while I’m forever indebted to authors who came before me, I’m excited to create my own literary path. As I take the next steps in my writing career, I believe the Letters About Literature program played a pivotal role in my journey. I’m grateful to have been recognized by the Library of Congress and given invaluable experience, exposure and inspiration for my future.
To my fellow teen writers – whether or not you win Letters About Literature, I promise that the contest is worth participating in. It’s not just that you’re getting a prestigious opportunity to fangirl/boy about your favorite book – although that’s definitely a legitimate perk! The best part of Letters About Literature is the chance to dive head-first into books, find something that speaks to you and take a piece for yourself. Whether you’re texting, pitching, praying, tweeting, verifying, chatting, scheming or recounting, the potential of literature and the written word will stick with you.
Pick your book, start writing and don’t forget to be your authentic, inquisitive and passionate self.
You’ve got this.