Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Q&A with Thushanthi Ponweera




Thushanthi Ponweera is the author of the new middle grade novel in verse I Am Kavi. She is from Sri Lanka.


Q: In the book's Author’s Note, you say you first wrote about your character Kavi in a short story when you were 17. How did you end up writing this novel in verse about her?


A: I was looking for inspiration for a novel. Even in short story form, the main character was quite endearing and memorable, and I was proud of that story. So I thought, why not flesh this out? Why not give her some backstory? The rest of the story followed naturally.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, in part, “Amid a historical setting informed by classism, colorism, and colonization, short reflective phrases and vivid cultural details bring out the nuanced story’s emotional depth and show the devastating impact of war on Kavi and her loved ones.” What do you think of that description?


A: I was grateful to receive such a thoughtful review from Publishers Weekly!


Classism is a big theme throughout the book. What makes someone better than you? What does it mean to be rich? How does who you were born as define who you are? are some questions I try to address as these are questions I had growing up.


Colourism is briefly referred to as it is a common issue in my part of the world and it was authentic to Kavi’s experience.

Colonization isn’t raised within the story itself, but it is something I discuss in the backmatter when giving readers a summary of the Sri Lankan Civil War.


While I was writing the story, I didn’t think that Kavi’s life was devastated by the war; she was one of the lucky ones really. But in hindsight, I can see how it really affected the entire foundation of her life and I’m glad PW illuminated that.


Q: Did you know how the story would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: The story changed quite a bit from my initial synopsis, which was quite dark, come to think of it (there was a bomb and the death of a loved one involved).


I am somewhere between a planner and a pantser, where I have a plot in mind but I also let my characters take over. So while writing each part, I would think “What would Kavi do?” or since this was a story with a serious background, “How can I offer the reader some reprieve here?” This steered my writing and the story took on a life of its own!


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: The fact that there are children around the world, experiencing life in completely different ways, but also facing the same problems. That we shouldn’t be afraid to question belief structures that we may have grown up with. That it is possible to be loved for who you are, even if it’s hard. That they now know where Sri Lanka is!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have multiple picture book drafts I’m tinkering with, and one big idea for what will hopefully be my next verse novel for kids!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Like Kavi, I recently moved from the country I’ve been in all my life –Sri Lanka—to a foreign land at nearly 40 years old. It’s not been easy, but seeing my children take on this change and challenge so positively has been a real inspiration to me.


I honestly believe there is so much us adults can learn from children, which is why I love writing and reading children’s books!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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