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Renaissance Woman

3 weeks ago / by Melanie Fourie

Poet, author and publisher Shikha Malaviya tests the boundaries of literature

Shikha Malaviya wears several literary hats.

Besides being a poet and author,, Malaviya has founded The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, a company that publishes prominent writers from the diaspora. A nominee for the Pushcart Prize, her work has appeared, among others, in such publications as “Plume.” She’s also been a speaker at TEDx events and was the 2016 Poet Laureate of San Ramon, California. In an interview with SEEMA, she discusses her life and work in literature.

You were born in the U.K. and grew up in India and the U.S. What was it like growing up in multiple continents?

It was a balancing act of sorts! I had the fortune of dwelling in multiplicities — multiple languages, geographies, and cuisines. I learned to embrace change very early in life while holding on to a strong sense of self. People questioned my accent and skin color, my family’s reason for immigrating, and how we were able to uphold one culture while living in another. In India, I had a large extended family to help me solidify my roots, and in the United States, I had the space and resources to explore several interests and acquire new skills.

What or who first inspired you to become a poet?

My paternal grandfather was a poet, so I like to believe I inherited the desire to become one from him. I started writing poetry at the age of nine as part of a school assignment about spring. I loved that I could express big emotions and observations within a few lines. It felt so powerful. And then a few years later, my mother gave me a copy of “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran. I didn’t quite understand every word of it, but there was this lyrical, numinous quality about it that made me want to try and recreate that kind of magic.

What does your anthology “Geography of Tongues” encapsulate?

Geography of Tongues” is a collection of poems that explores multiple notions of home, asking what it means to belong to more than one place, to be a cultural shape shifter, or “morpher,” if you will.

What was the inspiration behind “Geography of Tongues”?

The life of an immigrant. The poems in “Geography of Tongues” are largely autobiographical, dancing between rumination and experience. There are poems about identity, my family, what it means to be torn between continents, what it means to be the other, and so much more.

What do you treasure most about being a poet?

It is a sacred and radical calling that is powerful, cathartic, and healing; it can be personal yet universal at the same time, and it brings people together.

What do you feel is the role of poetry in society?

To be both illuminating and unifying. I look at poetry as a form of activism, where the poet must go beyond the realm of the personal, where the poet is a combination of witness, historian, truth-teller, and protester. There are so many stories in the margins waiting to be told and magnified, so many histories waiting to be unearthed.

Tell us a bit about your journey as the co-founder of your literary press, The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective.

I’ve learned so much from being a publisher, and I have a much deeper appreciation of how a book comes out into the world. The journey has been a winding one with a steep learning curve. None of us had been in the publishing business before. We founded The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective in 2013 to fill a critical gap in poetic voices from India and the Indian diaspora. At the time, all three co-founders were poets in Bangalore who had received their writing foundation from the U.S. and were grateful for the resources to hone our writing skills.

We realized that this was a huge challenge in India, where no formal creative writing program or workshop existed, and we strove to provide a platform for those serious about the craft of poetry. Eventually, all three co-founders moved back to the US, but we remained committed to our mission, realizing how difficult it was for diaspora voices to get published. We’ve published nine books so far, and the tenth will be coming out this year, after which the Collective will pivot to include more global voices.

What does your writing process entail?

I’ll be very brief here: rumination and distillation. Of course, there’s a lot of reading and writing that goes around that.

How do you unwind? Do you have any other passions?

I love cooking, interior design, art, music, and spending time with family and friends.

What is your support system?

I’m so grateful to my family for giving me the space to think and write and never balking when I buy more books. I also have writer friends who are always a phone call away and who aren’t shy to give critical feedback as well as push me towards finishing projects. I must also mention three organizations that have nurtured me in various ways: Mosaic America, an arts organization in the SF Bay area, where I am a fellow; The Writer’s Grotto, a community of writers in San Francisco Bay; and AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Professionals, where I’ve been a poetry mentor for seven seasons.

Any words of advice for aspiring poets?

Poetry, like any other craft or skill, needs to be honed over time. Write as if your life depends on it, as the poet Adrienne Rich says. Read as many poets as possible and try to break down how their poems work. If possible, take classes and seek out lectures/talks online. Attend poetry readings and connect with other poets. Give each other feedback and support. There is no escape from the hard work. No one is a poet overnight.

Do share your forthcoming literary endeavors with us.

I’m thrilled to share that I have a book of historical persona poems, “In Her Own Voice,” coming out in July 2023 with HarperCollins India, based on the life of Anandibai Joshee, India’s first female medical doctor and the first Indian woman to study medicine in the United States in the 19th century. The poems are all written in Anandibai’s imagined voice, from the time of her birth until her death at 21, revealing a brief, wondrous life full of grit, struggle, and determination.

Discover more about Malaviya’s work here.