6 Stories on Race, Family and a Dystopian World by High School Writers

5-24-16 Girls Write Now main
The latest anthology from the writing and mentoring nonprofit Girls Write Now, titled "(R)evolution," was published Tuesday by She Writes Press. It features writing from 136 mentors and mentees, including Mariam Kamate and Zahraa Lopez, pictured here with their mentors. Maggie Muldoon, Salmaan Rizvi/Girls Write Now

The girls and women of Girls Write Now have once again put their voices together in a new book. (R)evolution: The Girls Write Now 2016 Anthology was published Tuesday by She Writes Press.

“Our fundamental goal is to get the girls’ voices out there into the world, to have their stories have an impact on the world,” says Maya Nussbaum, founder and executive director of the nonprofit writing and mentoring organization for underserved girls in New York City. “This book is an important vehicle for that.”

The members of Girls Write Now’s writing and mentoring program are high school students, and the vast majority of them are young women of color. Their mentors are poets, playwrights, journalists, novelists, professors and other writing-related professionals who meet the participants in pairs each week and in larger groups each month to explore poetry, fiction, memoirs, journalism, and screen- and playwriting.

The intergenerational group of women writes, shares and edits in this closed, supportive environment before members read their work publicly at events like the Girls Write Now CHAPTERS Reading Series—featuring keynote speakers like Angela Flournoy, Tanwi Nandini Islam and Roxane Gay—and submit their best pieces to the anthology. Participants are coached through the process of selecting, framing and editing their work before a strict deadline in early spring. For most mentees, the annual collection is their first opportunity to see their byline in print, which Nussbaum calls “a privilege but also a risk.”

“Part of our mission is to help girls lead the life of a writer,” Nussbaum says, from exploring new genres and acquiring new skills to rewriting and editing to sharing their work out loud and meeting deadlines, embracing the excitement as well as dealing with the fear and challenges these processes bring. The mentors serve as models to the young women and they, too, have to demonstrate a willingness to put themselves out there by writing and sharing alongside the girls.

The anthology dates back nearly to the beginning of Girls Write Now, founded in 1998. “The girls’ writing has always been original and sharp and creative,” Nussbaum says, but the anthology has evolved from more of a chapbook early on to a larger project with more visibility and wider distribution.

Each year, Girls Write Now picks a theme to use as a launching pad for programming and the anthology. In the past, the group explored “Becoming Women” (2008), “Where We Live” (2010), “Breaking Through” (2014) and, this year, “(R)evolution.” “They’re growing up at a time when the voices of girls and girls of color in particular aren’t heard,” says Nussbaum, and “feeling that they sort of have to rise above race- and income-based inequalities that their neighborhoods and school systems impose on them.”

The book (available in bookstores and online) contains contributions from 136 Girls Write Now mentors and mentees.

“The stories, essays, and poems gathered in (R)evolution: The Girls Write 2016 Anthology are expressions of, and vehicles to, power. Writing them, the girls discover who they are and who they want to be—and how they want their community and their country to be,” writes Francine Prose, an author of fiction and nonfiction, in the collection’s foreword. “And the power they gather from writing carries over into their daily lives. Writing these pieces, the girls learn how to talk, how to reason, how to express themselves. They learn that what they think and say matters.”

Here are excerpts from just six of the dozens of high school students whose work is published in this year’s volume.

ZahraaLopez_CatherineLeClair Zahraa Lopez, a senior at Cristo Rey New York High School, with her mentor Catherine LeClair, senior strategist at Gawker Media. Salmaan Rizvi

Keeping Faith

By Zahraa Lopez
Memoir

Seeing my mother go through her own revolution by helping her complete college inspired me to go through my own revolution by applying to college this year.

My mother was always a warrior. She was born battling the tough streets of BedStuy, strong and ready to conquer the world. Quick to have her guard up and seldom trusted people. She never believed in her self worth and she had no idea that she’d be a savior some day.

When she had us she decided she no longer wanted to linger onto her past. She wanted to build a future that her babies would be proud of, an empire that would grow with us. But she didn’t think she’d be able to do it on her own. The man she thought she loved grew distant and her empire was falling. But she never lost hope. Her faith was as strong as her grip on God, refusing to let go. Two years ago she decided to go back and get something that could never be taken away from her: an education. She struggled through many sleepless nights, and I was always beside her. 2AM grammar checks without my own homework done. But seeing her walk across the stage to get her diploma made everything worth it. That piece of paper was the key to freedom – momma you earned it. Tears fell down my face and I was so proud, like I was the parent and she was the child.

A year later the tables turned. Now I was staying up late to edit my college applications and through it all she was my biggest motivation. Soon I’ll be walking across the stage to get my diploma. I am afraid of the future. But I know my mother’s perseverance will continue to inspire me. When I feel like giving up I will think of her: a single mother with the weight of the world on her shoulders. When I have children one day I hope I can be half the women she is. Half as strong, half as kind, half as determined.

If she can do it so can I.

RachelAghanwa_SaraPolsky Rachel Aghanwa, a junior at Queens Gateway to Health Science Secondary School, with her mentor Sara Polsky, senior features editor at Curbed. Salmaan Rizvi

A Big Brother, A Big Mouth

By Rachel Aghanwa
Poetry

This poem is important to me because it’s dedicated to my brother, who I worry about often due to the struggles we face being black in America. I used to be tentative when speaking on issues regarding my race and identity, but I’m learning how to open up through writing.

I always wished my voice were louder when I was a young child.
Oh dear god, yes I had a big mouth
but what is the use if it moved without purpose?
I wish I were less naïve
when I thought just being myself was enough.
As if there aren’t people
who want to see me suffer.
As if there aren’t people
who want my brother shot in the street, dead.
I wish I were as carefree as I was when I was a child,
unaware of the trouble life had ahead of me.
Oh dear god, I wish.August 9th, 2014. I didn’t see Michael Brown’s name plastered all over CNN.
I saw “MY BROTHER,” because that’s who it could’ve been.
Oh dear god, I pray every night to keep him safe.
I say, “Thank God my brother isn’t six feet, or he’d be six feet under.”

MariamKamate_BrookeObie Mariam Kamate, a senior at A. Philip Randolph High School, with her mentor Brooke Obie, senior digital editor at Guideposts.org. Maggie Muldoon

A Time to Heal

By Mariam Kamate
Memoir

This piece is part of my life story, of what I have gone through and where I am going. Though life could get better or worse,I've learned that I am brave and I am a survivor. I can do anything.

Where I’m from, in Bamako, Mali, they say something bad always happens when it’s too hot outside, but that day, I didn’t listen. I was 12 years old and I wanted to play with my friend across the street. I saw her and her little cousins standing in the shade of a tree and I went to join them. As I got closer, I noticed an older boy near them, taunting them.

“I told you if I ever saw you outside, I’d beat you up!” I heard him yell at my friend in our language, Bambara, and I could see my friend had tears in her eyes. I ran to her and stood between her and the bully. “Leave them alone!” I told him.

Before I knew it, he swung his fist at my face and we began to wrestle on the ground. “Stop, please!” He began to beg when I started to win the fight. “Will you leave them alone?” I asked him, holding him in place. “I promise!” Satisfied, I got off of him and smoothed down my long taffé skirt and my braided hair. I turned to ask my friend if she was okay, but she just said, “Look out!”

I turned back around just as the bully launched a rock at my head. It hit me right in the mouth and an unending flow of blood gushed from my lips. It would take several stitches to close the wound and I was left with an ugly scar on my lips that remains today.

I was 14 when I moved to America. I had a hard time keeping up and understanding English since my classmates would laugh whenever I tried to speak it. We spoke French in school and Bambara at home in Mali. English was never a language I needed back home.

Still, I really wanted to do well in my new school. I worked hard to prove to those students how smart I was. I was speaking English in six months and earned an A average in my first year in America.

Writing became my escape. When I write, I see my characters alive. I feel in control. It makes me feel like a goddess. It is where I can create a world of my own where I can be hopeful, joyful, and free; anything can happen when I’m holding the pen.

Soon, writing evolved into my lifeline when my classmates went from simply teasing me to all­out bullying. Every time I looked in the mirror at the scar on my lip, it reminded me of what happens when you stand up to bullies. So, I said nothing.

When they would taunt me, mock my accent, call me ugly and fat and weird, I would write poetry. “To my dear, depressed sleepy friends,” was the name of my favorite poem I wrote for others whose depression from bullying caused them to be just as exhausted as I was. But writing wasn’t enough.

I couldn’t focus in class. When they would laugh at me, I sometimes quietly cried, and my teachers never seemed to notice any of it. So I started skipping class. Soon, my A average dropped significantly.

The morning I decided to stop skipping school, I looked in the mirror and saw my scar, like I do every day. But this time, I saw something different. I saw the time I stood up for my friend. I saw myself as courageous. I saw myself as a survivor. And everything changed.

Bullies had no right to mess with my education. I realized I shouldn't care about what they think of me because I was here for myself, not them.

I went to the back of my favorite notebook and wrote down every word the bullies ever said about me: stupid, fat, ugly. The names they called me over the years filled the entire page. Over top those words, I wrote in capital letters, “HEAL”.

I took every ounce of power out of those hateful words and gave the power back to myself and began to heal the wounds. Then, I wrote another poem:

I didn't give up, it only made me get stronger.
You'll no longer be in my way
You'll no longer be the reason I won't show up.
If I fail, it must be because of me and not you.

I began to share my poems online and got amazing feedback. People were able to relate to the struggles I was going through and to find some encouragement in my words.

Suddenly, my writing wasn’t just for my own healing anymore. By sharing my pain, others felt like they weren’t alone, that someone out there thinks their life matters.

Writing taught me that loving myself and making peace with my soul leads you to love others better. I learned to love the world—even the bullies in it.

Writing not only gave me a new sense of self and an opportunity to help others, it also earned me my first major award. It was truly an honor when I received a Silver Key for my poetry in 2015 from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.

Writing even led me to pursue a degree in nursing, once I realized that my goal for myself and all people is healing. I want to help people be well, physically and mentally. I believe everybody has the right to be happy. And through my writing and my future career as a nurse, I can help heal the world.

WinkieMa_StephanieGolden Winkie Ma, a junior at Stuyvesant High School, with her mentor Stephanie Golden, a freelance author and journalist. Christina Drill

Three Reflections

By Winkie Ma
Fiction

I wrote this piece for the Dystopian Fiction Workshop. It is flash fiction—only 500 words. As I wrote, I was thinking of power, but in a strange turn of events, the story went the other way.

Bella has been counting the days. It is day four. She’s in the dormitory bathroom, staring at the mirror, cocking her head to the side. She looks different. Her orange hair, normally vibrant and pulsing with liveliness, is a shade darker. She lifts a shaky hand to her face. Her cold fingers trace the fading freckles across her cheeks. The matron said this is what those gray pills are for—it’s part of growing up. All the other girls’ faces have been blank and paper-like the past few days. One to two weeks is all it takes, her friend Jenelle reassured her. Then they’ll be out of this godforsaken place and rewarded with a secure job in the government. Bella casts another lingering look in the mirror before heading back to the dormitory.

Day nine. Bella ducks into the factory bathroom. I am a mess, she thinks, gazing at herself in the mirror. The nightly pills are undeniably in full effect. Her hair is darker, limply clinging to her gaunt face. Even beneath layers of soot, she can make out the paleness of her skin. Bella

leans in closer to the mirror, noticing how the pills have drained the emerald glimmer from her eyes. The other girls are changing, too. Each day a few girls are taken away by men in gray suits. And each day Bella wonders just how they are being rewarded. One night Bella considers spitting out the pill, but Jenelle convinces her not to. She reassures her that once it is all over they will be fine. But Bella can see the lethargy in Jenelle’s blank eyes, can hear the doubt wavering in her voice. Even Jenelle doesn’t really trust the pills.

At last it is day fourteen. Bella is alone. Jenelle, the other girls . . . they’re all gone. Waves of fear crash over her as she stares at her reflection after dinner in the dormitory mirror. Her hair is pitch-black, her skin fairer than snow. Her freckles are gone. The pills have replaced her irises with black holes. She is like a ghost, ready to vanish at any moment.

Bella turns around and nearly jumps: the matron is there, holding out the gray capsule. With her heart pounding and the pill inside her mouth, Bella thinks, It’s my last chance to spit it out. I can do it.

But it’s too late. She’s powerless. She swallows the pill.

Later that night Bella lies on her bed, hands folded on top of her stomach. She stares straight at the ceiling and doesn’t sleep. Instead, she waits.

SaraneJames_MargoShickmanter Sarane James, a freshman at Bronx High School of Science, with her mentor Margo Shickmanter, an editorial assistant at Penguin Random House. Salmaan Rizvi

I’m Not a Nigga

By Sarane James
Poetry

Spending three years in a middle school attended by mostly black and Hispanic children meant that the word “nigger” was just as commonplace as “the” or “I.” I tend to let people know very quickly that I will not let them apply it to me.

“Aay, mah nigga, what’s up?”
Silence.
“I said, what’s up?”
Oh, I’m sorry, were you talking to me?
’Cause last I checked, I’m not a nigga.
Yes, my skin is brown. Yes, I consider myself black.
Those are not the only reasons why I’m not a nigga.
I preach equality and practice self-respect.
Therefore, I’m not a nigga.
Forget planes,
Somewhere there’s a rocket ship
That shoots for the stars and lands on the moon.
That rocket is me, and I’m not a nigga.
You can change the spelling and
skew the pronunciation,
But that won’t change the meaning.
Nigger is a word associated with slavery,
Being three-quarters human,
But I’m free as a bird
And more human than I can sometimes bear.
I refuse to forget my heritage or give up on my legacy
So that I can be “hip” and “street” and “on your level.”
I refuse to let you call me “Your Nigga,” because
“I’m.
Not.
A Nigga.”

RomaissaaBenzizoune_RobinWillig Romaissaa Benzizoune, a senior at Hunter College High School, with her mentor Robin Willig, chief of staff at the Center for Reproductive Rights. Christina Drill

Hijabi or Jihadi?

By Romaissaa Benzizoune
Memoir

This year I’ve been writing a monthly column about what it’s like to be one of three hijabis in a New York City specialized public high school of about 1,200 students. I wrote this column after the Paris attacks in November 2015.

It’s kind of awkward to “share” a religion with a band of killers who bomb capital cities and shoot up holiday parties in their free time.

It’s not the frustrating awkwardness of falling on the school steps, or even the tragic awkwardness of wearing a denim-on-denim ensemble.

It’s the kind of awkward where I actually ran away upon seeing a stack of newspapers on the sidewalk that described ISIS’s attacks on the Stade de France. (To be fair, my phone had died and I was hopelessly lost; away from the Washington Post seemed as good a direction as any.)

Terrorism is a hard thing to outrun.

Hardly a moment has passed since then and already there is a new group of people to grieve for, even closer to home. A new collection of xenophobic Republican statements that I must make a point to debunk before the next horror hits.

You have to understand that my initial thought following these terror attacks was probably similar to yours: Oh my God, these crazy fanatical Muslim terrorists.

My second thought was more like one of those dreadful realizations you have after you wake up: Wait, I am Muslim.

How do I forget something like that for even a minute, you ask? I mean that’s my whole thing, right? Like, hello, loud hijabi over here, victim of general American ignorance, self-appointed educator of both students and teachers (in a gifted school, no less), butt of all misconceptions, the fabulous star in her own sitcom life, etc.

Could it be possible that I, Hijabi in Plain Sight, am a secret Islamophobe?

I know that terrorism has no color or creed; that the word Islam itself means “peace”; that the Qur’an reads, “Whoever kills an innocent it is as if he has killed all mankind.” And that ISIS has not only violated this basic tenet of Islam but dozens more. (What kind of Muslim bombs a mosque? You’re not even supposed to wear your shoes in a mosque. I’ve seen someone get the stink-eye for reading the Qur’an too loudly.)

Despite all these facts, every time I hear the name of my own religion—and it’s usually coming from the mouth of some politician who garbles the “s” into an omnipotent, multisyllabic “z”—I cringe. The Arabic meaning of the word bites at me like a personal mockery.

Peace. That’s my religion. Literally. There are only so many times I can try and explain what the word jihad really means. There are only so many times I can try to explain the difference between a helpless refugee fleeing ISIS and an actual member of ISIS. Between beheading people and putting it up on YouTube and actually practicing Islam.

Like all Americans, I have processed the Islam/terrorist association. Unlike most Americans, however, I am at once the target audience and the monster to be feared.

This is an unpleasant state of being.

For the first few days after the Paris attacks, I kept myself in the dark. But there was no escaping the tragedy. When I tried to look up sites on which to illegally re-watch The Mindy Project, I found myself staring at the tiny black ribbon on Google’s homepage. I tried to find humor in an episode of Saturday Night Live only to be a) met with a Paris-related intro, and b) reminded that Kristen Wiig was no longer part of the cast.

And when I went back to school the Monday after Paris, an exceptionally nice girl came up to me and hugged me.

I felt relief at first—she understands—followed by a twinge of annoyance.

Now, there are many reasons why I would like to be hugged. Surviving a weekend in rural Pennsylvania with no Wi-Fi. Consistently dropping the ball in gym class in front of a certain someone. Enduring the SAT (again) at a testing site where the sole hallway decoration was a laminated Tupac quote—something about dreams—peeling off the wall.

Note that international terrorism is not on that list.

The girl was being nice. But even sympathy propels me further and further away from normal, from the possibility that being American and being Muslim could someday overlap.

I am seventeen years old.

It is crushing to think about spending an entire life shapeshifting and explaining and overcompensating in a desperate attempt to prove that I’m okay. That I too am American. An entire life watching people watching me and wondering what they think, even though it is entirely possible that they don’t care at all. My grief, my anxiety, my sense of alienation and obligation cannot be resolved with a brief “we stand with Paris” cold-open. This column was supposed to be funny. It was supposed to be about gym class. But after the Paris attacks the plans changed. After San Bernardino they changed again.

What happens tomorrow?