Himanjali Sankar, the author of Talking of Muskaan, talks about the challenges of writing for young adults.
I wonder if it is a little weird for an adult in her forties to write from the perspective of teenagers. And before I start sounding Humbert Humbert-ish, let me word it a little differently. When it comes to writing for children it is what adults do. Younger children clamour for stories – they love to be read to and told tales of every kind. But young adults are by definition suspicious and untrusting when it comes to adults. So why did I want to probe the lives of teenagers?
Primarily because teenagers have elan. Forty-year-olds are often not very different from teenagers – we gossip, romance, contemplate suicide – just that when we do it, it’s not significant. It’s like we haven’t learnt anything from the many years we’ve spent on this earth.
Adults can be easily dismissive of teenage angst. Perhaps because it is more lavish and elaborate and not festering and rancid like adult angst. I do feel that a teenager is already the person she or he is going to be for the rest of his or her life. The mould is fully developed, the outline is drawn. What remains is for the blanks to be filled – the experiences that we are going to have, the places that we travel to – they will define us in our professional and intellectual lives. But the people we are, emotionally and mentally, that’s sealed pretty much by the time we are in our late teens.
The teens are a time of emotional richness, when the world is still new enough to fascinate and confuse. It is when our ideas and thoughts get fully formed, the seeds of who we will be as adults – conventional or questioning of received wisdom, adventurous or comfortable where we are, sensitive and thoughtful or self-absorbed and materialistic – they are all being sown, for us to reap over the next few decades of our lives.
The rich texture of the tumultuous inner lives of teenagers is unsurpassed. Personally, I love being in my forties because I finally know who I am. I have grown into my skin, I am comfortable with myself and I love life for what it is. I know the world is an awful and beautiful place and I revel in how infinitely inconsequential my life is.
I have made my peace with the world but what I have lost in the process is the uncertainty and wonder of it – I am unshockable and jaded. I go deep-sea diving to rediscover my faculty of wonder and it does help, but nothing, really nothing, is as unique as it once was. For a child the world is wonderful but because they don’t know any better. Teenagers know. They guess what the rest of their lives is going to be like, they measure adult lives with coffee spoons, or was it teaspoons? But they also dream of saving the world. The world is theirs, to improve, to alter and claim. In any case, I take my resident teenager very seriously. She might be the one who supervises my senility and ensures my adult diaper doesn’t leak.
I had my apprehensions when I embarked on Talking of Muskaan. The young adult market promised to be ruthless. Teenagers lack the ingenuity of younger kids and the diplomacy of adults who know how to stifle a yawn with grace and skill. I listened hard when my daughter spoke to her friends so I would get the tone right. I paid attention to her thoughts and feelings not as a parent but as a member of a group that I wanted to decode. And I remembered my own teenage years and realized that not much has changed after all. What has changed is the exposure and range of experiences – internally, teens are still the paradoxical people they always were – insecure and confident, happy and despairing, beautiful and mercurial. Basically, the stuff of good fiction. And I knew I wanted to write about them and all that makes the teen years fabulous and worthy of celebration, in literature and otherwise.