Enemies to contemporaries: Rising authors at Stanford and Berkeley

Nov. 16, 2023, 3:19 a.m.

Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley both boast talented youth authors among their students and alumni. College rivalry aside, this generation of rising writers has much in common with one another. The Daily interviewed four about their creative processes and literary focuses.

Aparna Verma (Stanford ’20)

From her early imaginative scribbles to her recent, politically nuanced works, Aparna Verma has carved a path in literature that mirrors the fiery trail of self-discovery. 

Verma believes that writing is inherently political. Her fictitious heroes confront challenges that are not only personal, but also societal in nature; they are not just black and white, but are morally complex beings living in shades of gray. She draws inspiration from Toni Morrison’s exploration of power and struggle, Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s revolutionary poetry and Jasmine Moore’s literary prowess. 

Her journey began at the tender age of four when she first tasted the power of narrative under the canopy of her mother’s storytelling. During high school, Verma ambitiously embarked on the “National Novel Writing Month” challenge to write a novel within a month. Though she didn’t complete the challenge, it did inspire her to study journalism. This educational detour shaped her philosophy in writing; she learned to craft stories that demand the reader to critically engage with the text, rather than passively consume it.

After graduating from Stanford with a B.A in English, Verma self-published “The Phoenix King” in August 2021 (previously under the title “The Boy with a Fire”). The novel caught the viral winds of TikTok, making it the first South Asian adult fantasy to surpass one million views on the social media platform. Eventually, it captured the attention of traditional publishers, leading her to sign with Orbit. 

“The Phoenix King” is a testament to her depth. She manages to simultaneously engage the readers in a close reading of politics, far-religious movements and an intricate web of generational trauma amid father-daughter dynamics. Drawing from life experiences and sensitive observations of religious fundamentalism worldwide, Verma presents a narrative that is as much about the tragedy of an unbending leader as it is about the beauty of resilience.

To dive deeper into Aparna’s literary world, you can catch her at the end of January for a reading in the Stanford bookstore. 

Muskaan Darshan Shah (Berkeley ’25)

As an international student pursuing a double major at Berkeley, Muskaan Darshan Shah has a unique perspective that she channels into her writing. She has previously contributed to the Daily Californian podcast and continues to share her narratives through blogs. For Muskaan, the creative sanctuary of writing offers respite from the pressures of academia. A prodigy in her own right, she penned her debut book at 15 and followed with her sophomore manuscript, “Scottish Lavender,” during the global stillness of COVID-19.

The evolution of Shah’s writing mirrors her own movement from the comfort of home to the solitude of an overseas education. Her first book reflects the sheltered innocence of a child, while her second is a diptych of tales inspired by her travels to England and Scotland and a summer abroad in Greece. Shah invites readers to join her on a contemplative voyage of self-discovery at the junction of innocence and experience. Her prose melds literary influences like Ruskin Bond’s “Crazy Times with Uncle Ken” with the autobiographical elements of her life. Her writing style looks to classics by Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, as well as the humor of Jerome K. Jerome. 

Shah’s artistic expression extends far beyond writing. She has been painting since before she could write and has also explored dance in the past. Today, she channels her expressive energy into abstract canvas paintings, some of which have been showcased in exhibitions. The author is also a passionate advocate for societal change and contributes to a non-profit organization (@crimson.taboo on Instagram) that educates underprivileged girls about menstruation in India. 

As she looks ahead, Muskaan Darshan sees her path diverging from the medical aspirations of her early years. Muskaan’s current ambition lies at the intersection of literature and scientific research, equipped with the pen and the petri dish. 

Kathaleen Grace Mallard (Stanford ’25)

Kathaleen Grace Mallard, a double major in English and Biology at Stanford, started her writing odyssey during the COVID-19 pandemic. She turned the tides of isolation into a creative crucible, penning two novels. She made her mark on the literary world with her bold debut novel “Shadow Walkers.”  

Influenced by the intricate plotting of Sarah J Maas, the cultural depth of Chloe Gang and the dual perspectives of Mary E. Pearson, Mallard is committed to infusing her stories with diversity that mirrors the real world. Drawing from shows like “Bridgerton,” she creates narratives where diversity is not an obstacle but an integral thread of the storyline. Her debut novel, “Shadow Walkers,” carries a profound message — our upbringing is merely a starting point, and our worldview is ours to change.

When publishing her debut novel “Shadow Walkers,” Mallard encountered an ethical dilemma early in her career. She parted ways with her initial publisher upon learning of the publisher’s inappropriate conduct regarding authors with disabilities, a revelation that Mallard says she could not, in good conscience, overlook. For two weeks now, she has been in the throes of finding a literary agent who aligns with her values. The quest has been fraught with rejection and setbacks, but Mallard approaches it with a unique philosophy: a ‘no’ is not a dead end but a redirection to a more synchronous partnership.

Her creative process is a meticulous blend of inspiration and discipline. The spark for “Shadow Walkers” came when listening to Taylor Swift’s music after a challenging chemistry exam. From there, she dove into scrupulous research into the fabric of Victorian clothing, architecture and vernacular to weave an authentic and enthralling fictional world for the book.

Away from her manuscripts, Mallard is a member of the modern dance group “Traction” and indulges in creative outlets on TikTok, where she shares her love for painting and baking with a burgeoning online community.

Fawziyah Laguide (Berkeley ’23)

Despite growing up with a general push towards the STEM fields, Fawziyah Laguide found herself drawn to the fertile grounds of Berkeley’s literary academic community. With the University’s help, what started as a spirited form of rebellion has since matured into a diverse tapestry of themes, reflecting her multicultural experiences and passions.  

For Laguide, writing has become a powerful tool for wrestling with the challenges of growing up in a culture that often overshadows its own vibrancy. Her craft is a bridge between two worlds: the one she inhabits and the ancestral stories of Benin that she knows only through tales. Rejecting the notion of romanticizing her heritage, her work grounds itself in the realism of her family’s experience in the United States. Her unique perspective and dedication to authenticity make her a powerful voice for those whose stories have been overlooked or misunderstood.

Her creativity is spontaneous, igniting whenever she catches a muse, be it in the shower or during a walk. This approach has culminated in an anthology of unfinished poems quickly scribbled in between daily tasks. Sharing her work is an intimate act, reserved for her sister or partner and kept away from others until it reaches fruition. During the pandemic, she incorporated new and old poems into a self-published first poetry collection, “The Letter ‘P’: Power, Passion and Purpose.” This work is an introspective journey through Laguide’s teenage years, exploring societal dynamics, intimate relationships and self-realization.

Laguide draws inspiration from the timeless and captivating expression of Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers” while equally cherishing the fresh, vibrant voice of modern creators like Simply Sayo on TikTok. Her love for literature spans from the classics to the contemporary, infusing her work with a diverse palette of inspiration.

Laguide is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her academic interests in gendered educational and political participation inform her poetry and inspiring potential forays into short stories or novels.

A previous version of this article used incorrect versions of Muskaan Darshan Shah, Kathaleen Grace Mallard and Fawziyah Laguide’s names. The Daily regrets this error.

Olena Bogdan is a predoctoral research fellow in finance at Stanford GSB. If you have questions or ideas for an article, please contact her at [email protected]

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