May 2017: Sarah Feng
Sarah Feng is a freshman who attends Pinewood School (Los Altos, CA). She is a 2016/2017 American High School Poets Just Poetry!!! National Winner and the author of two self-published novels, Beneath (2014) and Chiaroscuro (2017), the latter of which is out in paperback as well as eBook. Chiaroscuro was ranked internationally at #17 for humor and #99 for general fiction on the online writing platform Wattpad and recently earned Sarah a publishing contract from Pulsepub. Additionally, her works have been recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the Write the World Novel Writing Prizes, the California Coastal Commission, and the Los Altos Historical Commission, and have been published or are forthcoming in TAB: A Journal of Poetry & Poetics, the Rising Phoenix Review, Black Napkin Press, the Blue Marble Review, and Moledro Magazine, among others. She has written for the Los Angeles Times Insider and the Los Altos Town Crier and edits her school paper. Additionally, she has an appearance scheduled on CCTV, China’s largest TV broadcaster, for her writing this summer.
memorial day (2017-2018 Just Poetry!!! selection)
thick, citrusy. you could not read this poem if you tried. in
Zhi Jiang, our mouths gaped like wide, elliptical
orange peels, the ones that aunt roasted for us
to eat. we thumbed them down
our throats & tasted streetlights tucked under
the rent. you cried when the sour stung your tongue, so
aunt gave us cheap soy milk to rinse it down.
on qing ming jie, we kneeled
on the roadside and this is why, you said. give me a candle,
a husk. we swallowed the yangtze & all its blanched-bone
lips, brown light shuttering on the banks, but yangtze is a word
you can’t even say: t z e curved like fingernails, like
ripe moons. in august we watched a little boy fold himself
into the river. the water (a jellyfish, a swan-neck)
moved spinelessly to fill his negative space & you held
my wrist to help cup
the water. we kneeled on the white-blue roadside with
oranges & milk in the hollow of my throat,
the Chang Jiang heavy in you, and when we looked up
the face was mine.
A Conversation with Sarah Feng
Richa: Your poem 'memorial day' is replete with vivid and powerful imagery. Could you tell us more about the inspiration behind it?
Sarah: Of course! 'memorial day' is a piece about cultural conflict of Chinese-American immigrants in America, and how painful it was to lose my culture and tongue. I grew up in Zhi Jiang, a small town nestled in the back of the Hubei province in China. There, the Yangtze is constantly colored blustery gunmetal by the clouds, and the marketplaces are full of raw turnips and water chestnuts grown on the banks, corn sold by vendors on the side of the street, grimy plastic flaps, and the smell of cumin and beef kebabs. I grew up fluently speaking zhijianghua, a dialogue native to Zhi Jiang that rolls at about twice the speed of Mandarin and dips with different cadences.
Last year, I visited Zhi Jiang again and found that I could no longer speak or understand zhijianghua. When preparing for the AP Chinese exam, I found that even my normal Mandarin Chinese had begun to grow rusty. I cried for a week when I realized I couldn't fit into my qi paos, or talk to my grandpa without asking my mom for constant translation. I was losing myself.
I hardly celebrate Christmas, because Chinese people don't really celebrate that, but I hardly celebrate Chinese New Year, either, because American people don't really celebrate that. I think a lot of Chinese-American kids know what's it's like. It's a little bit like living in limbo, or floating in this purgatory where you can't really latch onto either side, and it's a prevalent problem that's largely under-represented in mainstream media.
Richa: You've self-published two novels! That's amazing! What is your most recent novel, Chiaroscuro, about?
Sarah: Thanks! Just to clear things up, Chiaroscuro isn't a symbolism-laden literary work of poems or short stories like a lot of the previously featured teen poets have written. It's actually a 311-page YA fiction novel that includes elements of suspense and romance. It details the story of a college-bound girl named Eadlyn who has her bag stolen by a boy named James, who is living in the slums of the city even though his father is one of the most successful businessmen in the world. They end up working together and fly to Switzerland for a business trip, where James's old skeletons come out of the closet. I can't reveal much about the characters, as the story revolves around revealing the backstories of each member of the Chiaroscuro cast, but I can say that there's murder and betrayal involved. The name Chiaroscuro is an art term dating back to the Renaissance, where artists used darkness to make a painting appear more three-dimensional.
Richa: What helped usher you into the world of writing?
Sarah: Honestly, the reason I started writing is kind of funny--I wrote my first short story out of spite. In America, there's a stereotype that people like me only speak in two languages: Chinese and math. During third grade, some of my classmates were joking around that I probably wouldn't be able to even finish my piece during writing workshop (a period where we follow prompts to write stories) because I'd be too busy thinking about my multiplication homework. At 8, I was a pretty tiny kid who was either angry or hungry half the time. So, out of pure bitterness and indignance, I pulled out my pencil and pumped out a solid story about a mad scientist creating a machine that eliminated all pollution from the world (at the time, this seemed relatively scientifically accurate to me).
At this time, there was a school-wide writing competition that was taking submissions, so I decided to submit. A few weeks later, I received the news that my piece had won the competition. A rumor floated back to me that my victory was a fluke, so the next year, I entered another piece and won again. I discovered that I kind of liked this hobby that I had started initially as an act of vengeance, and I kept writing short stories until I won my first cash award in a writing competition I entered in sixth grade.
Then I self-published my first novel, Beneath, a sci-fi/fantasy novel about mermaids, when I was 11. Although it was filled with loopholes and amateurish characterization, the reviews it got on Amazon — saying that although the book itself was extremely mediocre, the author had so much potential as an 11-year-old author — were my first official encouragement that the world beyond my school and city acknowledged me as a writer. The moment I received my first review is the moment I widely regard as the second my writing career took off — which is partly the reason why I love reviewing the works of other writers. I totally understand how much that one line of "wow, amazing job!" means to someone who's just starting out, and it's my honor and privilege to get to say it.