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Winning Words: Vereen Bell Award Recipients Share Advice, Inspiration

Graham Marema '17 and Evan Yi '18, a fiction writer and a poet respectively, are this year's top winners of the Vereen Bell Memorial Award in Creative Writing, a flagship Davidson award for best creative writing work in fiction, poetry or drama. The award is named in memory of Vereen Bell '32, a promising and successful young novelist and short-story writer who gave his life for his country at the Battle for Leyte Gulf during World War II.

This year's Vereen Bell contest was judged by Kazim Ali, an associate professor of creative writing and comparative literature at Oberlin College who is author of four books of poetry. Ali will serve as Davidson's McGee Professor of Creative Writing in the fall 2017 semester.

Here is a taste of the winning works, and their authors' answers to a few questions.

Graham Marema smiles in front of a patterned wall
Fiction Writer Graham Marema ’17

Graham Marema

"Though no one had ever asked me to write a story backwards, it was immediately evident that he wasn't kidding. He stood before my desk, streams of water pooling from his clothes to my hardwood floor, shaking his head and clutching his chest and gulping down big breaths. I tried to tell him that's not how it's done–stories start and then they happen and then they end–but he wouldn't listen."
–Opening lines, "A Writer and a Man and a Boat and the Sea"

How did you become a writer?
Even before I learned how to write, I loved the way writing looked; I filled up notebooks with meticulous nonsense scribbles, which must have really freaked out my parents. In second grade, once I had an alphabet to work with, I wrote my own Harry Potter series, with such favorites as "Harry Potter and the Magical Shell" and "Harry Potter and the Magical Lamp." I've been addicted to writing ever since, with my titles becoming marginally more creative. Davidson has been an incredible place to hone my addiction into a craft, in large part due to its amazing professors.

What's the story of your story?

This piece followed in a series of creative works written backwards that I did over the course of a few years. I'd told a story backwards in poem and song form, and I wanted to see if it could be done as effectively in fiction. It's always exciting to start with a problem and work through it in your writing.

What's your advice to young writers?

An addiction to writing is the only addiction you should ever feed. If you're lucky enough to have one, let it take over your life, fill up notebooks with scribbles, write your own Harry Potter series even if other kids think you're weird, write forwards, write backwards, write like you can't help it, write, write, write.

Evan Yi outside
Poet Evan Yi ’18

Evan Yi

"... i want a poem/ that is not a eulogy/ for my country/ i want a south that is a home/ and not a hundred fifty year old exit wound/ i want a south/ that is not declared new/ every night a white cop/ decides to keep a brown boy breathing/ i want gods that look/ like my dead grandfather/ i want syllables that do not salt the field/ of my mother's tongue/ every time she tries to speak them/ i want a joy they cannot steal/ with a history lesson..."
–From "asian art"

How did you become a writer?

I started writing creatively–mostly spoken word poetry–when I was 12, so I've had a few years of experience. For people interested in writing or just beginning their writing careers, remember that progress is often invisible to you.

What's the story of your poems?

My intention with "Sojourner" was to speak to the various and never-ending ways in which the history of the two countries my parents immigrated to and from have defined my life, so I compiled four of my poems that each spoke to a different part of that kaleidoscope. "asian art" represents the anger and alienation I have felt throughout my life without an Asian-American community or history; "Triptych for an Eight-Year-Old" speaks to the quiet sufferings and joys of an immigrant child, suspended and traveling between countries; "Leslie Chow" examines double consciousness from the eyes of a very problematic and famous Asian character in The Hangover; "bloodletting" illustrates a brutal history suppressed to my family members in China and lost to me.

What's your advice to young writers?

I've found patience to be the most important trait for a writer; you will frequently feel stuck, like you are writing the same poems over and over. That's not really ever the case. A lot of folks are scared of writing because they see the finished product of poets and think, "I can't do that." The truth is nobody ever stops writing awful poems. The greatest poets have loads of poems that they will never, ever, ever let anyone see because they are terrible, but those poems still serve a purpose, because the poets learn from them. So my advice is simply to write unapologetically bad poems. Writing is a muscle, and any act of writing will make that muscle stronger.