“Pause. Take a deep breath. What are you trying to say?”
Great. Now I have to start again.
I’ve had a stutter all my life. Initially, my parents thought I could grow it out, as it was a common speech developmental issue, but the problem began to rise when I would stumble upon simple vowels and consonants like “a”, “w”, and “r” and outpassed the growth stage where stuttering was considered normal in society. It only went downhill from that point. Some days, I would stutter on my name. All the heat would rush to my face and I acted like I was in a battle of not maintaining eye contact with that person. Sometimes, people would copy my stutters and say “Just don’t stutter” as if it was something I could control. Presenting in front of a class was pure mortification. I would always speak fast. My brain ran faster than my mouth and when I tried to catch up, I would be stopped. The two hemispheres in my brain were imbalanced. Anytime anyone heard me stuttering, they would somehow immediately become an expert in speech impediment and provide unwanted advice.
But all that didn’t faze me even a bit as much as my parents. I was a disgrace to them. A stain of steel in their white linen clothes. I was ruining the seemingly perfect image of my parents. I had been overweight since birth. I had yellow teeth. I had broad shoulders and I laughed loud obnoxiously. I spread my legs when I sat down. I raised my hand in Biology before the questions were even asked. I struggled with spelling simple Bengali words, my mother tongue. My English skills were barely intermediate. Whereas my father spoke Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali fluently. His shirts were ironed the night before. He only wore white and black socks. My mother made sure to raise her pinky finger when sipping a cup of chai. She put her hand to her mouth when she laughed. Creases were nonexistent in my mother’s wardrobe.
We were a first-generation immigrant Muslim family from Bangladesh. We moved to America in 2020 on March 9th on the last flight from Bangladesh to the United States before the lockdown. My father was a well-known businessman in Bangladesh. He wanted me and my older brother to continue his legacy. Unlike my brother who found himself reading economic books and shadowing my father, I gravitated towards those Youtube videos like “Day in the Life of a Dermatologist” or shows like Grey's Anatomy. Medical professionals were considered low social workers in Bangladesh who were likely infected with various diseases. My father had OCD and having a daughter who was already more of a nuisance engage in such tasks and bringing viral infections home was probably what hell looked like for him. Nonetheless, we were living well, we were happy. However, my mother longed for a better life, she wanted quality education for her children and reunite with my grandma, who was fighting breast cancer here in Virginia. And so when the VISA letter came, we swiftly embarked on this journey, clueless of the gloominess it would bring us.
1. You are a poetry editor for HaluHalo Journal and a graduate of literature from the University of Santo Tomas. How has writing played a role in your life? What initially drew you to poetry?
When I was an undergrad in literature, I came from a background primarily founded on fiction. Going into the academe, I had initially thought I would formulate my bachelor’s dissertation on fiction, too. It wasn’t until I met my friend Eli, who at the time empathized with my reservations with poetry and its many forms, introduced me to poetry written by Filipinos. They sent me a list of readings containing, mostly, a poem or two per writer. Because I loved Eli, I read all of them, and I encountered and experienced the poems the way one might peel open and eat fruit. It turns out I really loved poetry, and to echo something John Green said in the debut video of Ours Poetica, many of us have loved poetry for a long time, we just didn’t know it yet.
Poetry, fiction, and the literary essay all share the same literary tools, and the deeper you are in reading the more you realize the boundaries between them are thin. It was poetry that moved me the most because of the bizarre and sometimes obscure forms you find them in. My first encounter with poetry is through the form of exam sheets and prayers, poems with lines that reappear and disappear. I’m always excited about poetry because of how deeply it can be contained within itself: the pronouns shift metaphysically, you can put yourself in the footprint of the persona and the apostrophe, often the addressee or the “you”, can be anyone you want it to be.
2. How has your relationship with writing evolved over the years?
It was mostly a journey of scribbling prose on the back of notebooks and word files until I made a decision to take poetry seriously in university. I used to not make such a big deal of writing, and in most cases I think this relationship of neutrality with writing is echoed with everyone else. When I was in undergrad I realized how deeply underread I was, and in an attempt to remedy this I read insatiably. I wasn’t thinking about writing at all, but I kept bouncing between books and, later on, would start repeating phrases or sentences I made in my head. In a way I think this is also writing. So I was writing while washing dishes or cleaning or running. In front of the screen, that’s when I started laying out the words in my head. I think writing is a response to the different literatures you’ve encountered, and I think it’s healthy to read more than to write.
1. You are a prose writer for HaluHalo Journal. How has writing played a role in your life? Why prose writing?
Like most writers, I began as a reader. I particularly loved Dork Diaries as a child, which would inspire me to begin writing through my own journals. As a scholar of creative writing at the Philippine High School for the Arts, writing and literature are a staple not just of my hobbies, but also my responsibilities as a student. Four out of seven days of the week, we write, read, and workshop with both fellow teens and writing mentors from all over the country. I don’t think it’d be an exaggeration to say writing is intertwined with my life.
Though I’ve dabbled in songwriting and poetry before, prose writing remains the companion I return to over and over again. Maybe it’s the way I was raised to view the former two, but prose has always been less intimidating for me. Writing prose didn’t require as much scrutiny of form or rhyme. Prose left me free to explore without the pressures of conforming to what I’d been taught it should be because prose, as a whole, is so broad. Though she was referring to nonfiction, this quote from Annie Dillard sums it up best: “prose can also carry meaning in its structures and, like poetry, can tolerate all sorts of figurative language, as well as alliteration and even rhyme...it can handle discursive ideas and plain information as well as character and story. It can do everything.”
Regardless of where we end up, we need to start somewhere. For most, that will be prose. And whether or not we stay with prose, its variety is what has always made it welcoming to anyone and everyone to me, wherever they may be in their writing.
2. You are a queer teenage writer living in the Philippines. Does your identity affect your work? If so, how?
I feel like it would be disingenuous to say it didn’t. Even if I tried my best to divorce my identity from my writing—which I have no interest in doing—it is inevitable that it will be read through a socio-political context. As a writer from the Philippines, the fact that I write is already something that spotlights my identity. In a society and literary canon which has silenced queer, Filipina voices, to speak is itself an act of resistance.
Additionally, it’s important to acknowledge how identity has shaped my ability to write in the first place. In the Philippines, fluency is a luxury, and as an English-language writer, I wouldn’t be where I am now if it weren’t for the economic privilege that enabled me to pursue writing. My privilege has influenced my work as much as my marginalization has. Whether it’s bigotry from fellow Filipinos when I write about queerness, or being heralded as the be-all, end-all perspective on Philippine society by foreign readers, a marginalized identity forces me to confront a myriad of challenges beyond the page. However, writing openly has also helped me find a community of writers and readers who appreciate the joy of creation despite our struggles. I wouldn't have it any other way.
I’ve never seen something so beautiful.
Round and pale, steaming hot.
Show me what you are, and I’ll show you what I’m not.
With so much inside, show me what you hide
To your laws I’ll abide.
And I’ll tear down my pride
Pretty, pretty girl
With round cheeks and fair skin
With so much you hold within
Siopao, I call you
I like how that sounds.
Steamed buns just like you,
Pretty and round
With hidden treasures at your core
Siopao, and so much more.
Description: Siopao is a widely popular snack here in the Philippines and is a sort of Philippine twist to baozi. It is a steamed bun with some sort of filling, usually pork.
Hannah Sophia Gonzaga is an aspiring writer from the Philippines. She has been writing since she was 10 and also sings, acts, and plays guitar.
The blazing sun began its descent, casting a golden hue across the bustling city of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, painting the skies with a multitudeof reds and oranges. It was in this vibrant metropolis that my story unfolded—a tale of resilience, faith, and personal growth. At the tender age of fourteen, I found myself navigating the labyrinthine corridors of life, battling the shadows of racial remarks, judgment on my appearance, and the weight of academic stress. As a born-again Christian, my heart was steadfast in my faith, finding solace and strength in my relationship with Christ. However, the world around me seemed determined to challenge my resolve. The echoing hallways of my high school became breeding grounds for toxic friendships and unkind words, whispered and shouted in ignorance.
The day began like any other, with the cacophony of voices and the scent of freshly brewed tea filling our cosy home. My parents, hardworking individuals, had always instilled in me the importance of education and excellence. Their dreams for my future were etched deeply in their eyes, and I carried their aspirations upon my shoulders. But they soon morphed into burdens that plagued my heart. I slowly crumbled from academic stress that loomed over me like a relentless shadow. The expectations of my parents, who longed for me to excel in my studies, became an unbearable weight on my shoulders. Every grade I earned, and every test I took, was scrutinised with unwavering intensity. The fear of disappointing them, of falling short of their dreams, suffocated my spirit.
But amidst the pressure to excel academically, I found myself struggling with the weight of my own insecurities. Racial remarks whispered in my ear like venomous serpents, seeping into the crevices of my self-esteem. But the attacks didn't stop at my ethnicity. My weight became a target for cruel jabs, words that seeped into my thoughts like venom. I battled against the relentless pressures to conform to society's warped ideals of beauty, as whispers of "fat" and "ugly" echoed through my mind. I felt the harsh sting of judgment on my weight and the presence of arm and leg hair that defied societal beauty standards. My self-esteem withered like a fragile flower in a scorching desert, wilting under the weight of those hurtful words.
I hate the sound “nga.” The most basic of principles within Tagalog, and I have never learned how to say it. Out of all of the twenty-six letters, the language rearranged them to this, creating my veritable hatred for it. The frustration of never connecting with your culture over a single sound. One of the first words you learn to pronounce as a child growing up in the Philippines. I did not get that. I never got it. Am I separated from my culture if I cannot even begin to say my real middle name? This spiraling of unknowing leaves me miles away. My identity is unfinished. I have been made unfinished. If I were a book and you were to open mine, you would see a myriad of blank pages. My alienation from my own culture leaves me with streaks of red. If an alien were ever to look upon the earth, they would want to participate with the other beings but feel left out. This situation was left to me, to wonder and dream about, but never complete.
The constant reminders from family and friends of “Do you speak Tagalog? Can you understand it?” If someone were to ask me if I was bilingual, again, my answer would be unfinished. Sometimes I answer with “one and a half,” as understanding and being able to read a little bit is not equivalent to speaking and writing. Never complete. Daily reminders of me falling short of the expectation. I question if the people to blame are my parents for never fully teaching me, or myself. Why should I apologize for not understanding my cultural language? Nobody apologized for never teaching me. Instead of blaming the situation on the rain, it brings me comfort in tricking the brain that there is someone else at fault. I’ve been drowning in these foreign words, feeling lonely.
As I got older I unconsciously distanced myself away from teleserye shows and cultural events, like debuts. Growing up I found these shows and movies brought me comfort and I wanted so badly to celebrate my eighteenth birthday with a debut and to visit the Philippines for the first time. I was done spending lost time wondering and focused more on distractions. I filled my schedule up with activities, where my days were filled to the brim with Taekwondo, Kumon, drums, guitar, and swimming, alongside schoolwork. I learned that piling on work was not healthy, but I still put a barrier up to wall the difficulties away. A reversed emotional education made me forget how to smile. No longer did I remember how other things can pull at the tendrils of my heartstrings. These distractions were perfect for someone who preferred having no free time, but although it seemed like it was a match made in heaven, I was chained down to earth.
On my desk, there are two things: my report card still lodged inside of its envelope, its unwelcoming nature making me nervous, and my phone open to a group chat with my friends, all of them panicking about that one science teacher’s grades. I pick up the letter and each slight tear into that deep, yellow-colored paper I do sends me forward to a moment in time in which I am hovering over a patient, their stomach cut open and a scalpel in my right hand. I place the letter down, I turn off my phone, and I reach for my laptop. My fingers click on the keyboard in rapid succession as my vision begins to blur with both fear and anger fighting for their own prominence in my mind. “How do I not disappoint my parents?” I worriedly press the enter key as I tremble.
I am a doctor. I have been one since my birth. An obtrusive ‘P.H.D.’ acronym is etched into my birth certificate. I will pursue pulmonology, as it has been the field that has interested me for years. But I will help society not through my prescriptions or my surgeries. My words, my ability to piece words together as a doctor clumps a patient’s symptoms together, is the ability of mine that will help others. I value a pen more than a stethoscope. I am a writer for both the benefit of myself and the ability to connect people with each other and start discussions.
I am so adamant of becoming a doctor; nay, the fact that I am a doctor, because I know that I must become one to become something in this world. To be cared about. Because people refuse to care for artists. We live in a world that discounts artists and refuses to understand their inherent cultural value. Artists are all around us, yet when do we take time to appreciate what they do for us: expand our ability to think and understand critically and help us truly see the beauty of life? I would spend my nights as a middle schooler researching what medical professions would get me the most money because that is what my worth is as a person under a society that values both capitalism and nuclear families: money. A world that values how much money you make, where the common response to being told someone is an artist is not ‘What does their art look like?’ but ‘How much money do they make?’ Where my ability to be a surviving parent is more important than my ability to be a survivor. I am a doctor because the fight against my worth being quantified instead of qualified is a slippery slope downwards, and I am a short-haired Filipino warrior not strong enough to fight it.
I will sit in my science classes, research at night for jobs that would make my family believe I am not a failure, that I was worth betting on, and I will be a writer after the day ends. I must be a doctor. That is not a discussion anyone who has put in the time to fight for me to live in this world has, or will, ever want to have with me. But I know that my writing, my words, and my emotions are all so much more important than that job. I will know deep down in the pumping parts of the arteries in my circulatory system that words flow through my body, not radiation from a CT scan and not sleepless nights from treating patients, but words. I know that I will have the moniker ‘Doctor’ to the left of my name whenever I am referred to, but to the right of my name will be the word ‘poet.’
Aldrin Badiola is a poet and prosaist in the Eastern United States who loves to write about his attachment to the Philippines, identity, and the social issues that come from both topics. When he's not writing, he's listening to 80's Filipino disco or playing the piano. His Twitter can be found @cyvilizations.
This is my ending, Davy. You’ve hardly begun.
Orphan Davy David struggles to make ends meet in the hopeless village of Brownvale. Days before Christmas, a stray dog named George completely changes Davy's life, as Davy triggers a series of events that force them to leave.
The two of them are transported by a cunning wind to an abandoned museum outside of town, where they encounter Miss Flint, an elderly hermit. She hires the hesitant Davy (and the little stray who follows him around named George) to accompany her on her final excursion before her time is up. However, the strangest thing happens as they move along: Miss Flint gets younger and younger with each mile, and the tale of her life progresses along with it.
The Road to Ever After by Moira Young is a 211-page contemporary-fantasy novel best suited for ages twelve and up. Its magical adventure, filled with unlikely friendships and a crazy turn of events, is determined to tug at your heartstrings.
This book had a generally unsettling writing style. Its prose focused on the strangeness of what was happening while describing the scene from an original perspective. The first three chapters felt aimless, which is the only part of the book that bothered me and made it less memorable.
It started by presenting Davy David, a typical main character who was orphaned, lonely, and artistic. His ironic name was also courtesy of his dead mother. His choice of artwork, sweeping angels, appealed to me because of its original, unique notion. You read that correctly. Davy is the town's anonymous angel maker who scatters angry-looking angels in residents' front yards after copying them from a library book (which was later given to him.) Davy is a quiet boy who keeps to himself, going about with the “unmemorable main character” trope, but he minds his business for a little too long and it dragged the beginning.
Although sweeping angels seems rather poetic, not everyone finds it appealing to have a mean-looking angel on their front lawn. I can't remember the name of the grumpy man Davy's photographs accidentally brought up because he was never a particularly noteworthy character. Davy is forced to flee, but he could have made that decision three chapters earlier, for a different purpose that would've made the book more intriguing. The call to action was when he practically hunts Davy down like any heartless wench does.
The first act of this novel never gave the slightest hint that the plot was going to "jump." If you’re a reader who loves the daily routines of a character being shared, you’ll appreciate this pacing, but that’s just not me.
There were many ideas throughout the story, like a small group of kind homeless people who gave Davy some food in order to celebrate, that I wish played a bigger part in the story. The ending didn’t achieve any closure about many little aspects because they were sprinkled in like sugar and salt.
The story "officially" began in the fifth chapter, when Davy meets Elizabeth Flint, an old woman with her death planned out. She wants "unmemorable, insignificant Davy" to assist her in her journey to, um, swallow some pills and die. Her funeral is prepared. She needs the assistance of a young stranger, who could easily be a thief. She’ll pay him a huge sum in exchange, assuming that he doesn’t take some money, go back to his boring town, and never come back.
Miss Flint appears wealthy, or at least, she generously rewards Davy with a mouthful of cash for performing even the simplest tasks, so at first, I felt nothing toward their relationship (not in a weird way). She also takes him to a nice restaurant. The pace quickened as they rented a place to stay and got to know one another (which was adorable, again, not in a weird way).
But the problem was that the relationships Davy had in the first act, such as a kindly librarian and a few people who helped him along the way, the story temporarily forgot about them. Did I mention that there was a loving stray dog, and he was attached to Davy for no reason, too? The idea was overdone, but I loved it nonetheless. Anything for the dog!
One unique thing about me is that I relate every body part to a food item. Or at least, almost every body part. Though I can’t pinpoint the exact moment that I realized this “talent,” I do recall a very early example of this phenomenon. In 3rd grade, I vividly remember a friend asking me what I would do on a deserted island; naturally, we discussed climbing coconut trees, building sand castles, and cooking fish. The conversation took a turn, however, when I mentioned that the thumb looked edible. I reasoned that the flesh underneath the thumb, combined with the thumb itself, resembled a chicken drumstick. She was astonished. I have since learned that not everyone sees a chicken drumstick when they imagine their thumb.
The thumb is not the only body part that has fallen victim to my food-ingrained mind. Celery reminds me of my arm bones, a large sweet potato looks like my stomach, and coconuts strangely remind me of my brain. My most recent discovery actually had to do with the texture of arteries. I was at Weill Cornell Hospital for a Heart/Anatomy Lab, and my mentor had allowed us students to touch the heart, carry the lungs, and feel the arteries and veins. The second I touched the artery, I felt it. The phenomenon had occurred. Loudly, I exclaimed, “THE ARTERY HAS THE SAME TEXTURE AS AL DENTE PASTA.”
Since the dawn of time, animals have been forced to adhere to the cruel ways of the jungle. It has always been “Kill or be killed” and “Eat or be eaten” where the dominant species stand above while preys are forced to hide and cower in fear. Schools are no different, they’re a breeding ground for competition and a catalyst for stress. But there’s no mountain we can’t climb, no river we can’t cross and no challenge we can’t overcome. Here are some ways for you to survive from the jungle’s harsh clutches.
Firstly, STOP (Stop, Think, Observe, Plan). To avoid the stress and tangles of an academic jungle, it’s important to gauge the danger levels. Assessing what you should and shouldn’t do is a crucial step in survival that most people disregard. Curiosity and imagination are powerful assets. Having a clear set of goals, planning your schedule and managing your time well are key variables in maintaining the motivation to survive and move forward. Whenever you lose your will to try, it’s important to STOP, think about your goals and reflect about why you’re doing what you do.
Secondly, select your weapon of choice. Would you choose to wield a pen that inspires, a sword that defends, or a shield that protects? Choosing the appropriate weapon that compliments you and highlights your skills is a decisive factor in one’s survival. Survival of the fittest means learning to maximize the strengths that you have to excel in the field of your choice. Cheetahs have their speed, lions have their teeth, elephants have their size and giraffes have their height. What do you have that sets you apart from the crowd? The sooner you find and hone your edge the more chance you have at survival.
Lastly, it’s always important to know your worth. “You can’t judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree.” A jungle is filled to the brim with animals of all shapes and sizes, each one unlike the other. Likewise, there are many talented individuals in a classroom that excel in different fields, may it be academically, musically, athletically, or artistically. Each student is different in their own way, you don’t need to be the apex predator to flourish. It’s easy to feel “ordinary” in a room filled with “extraordinary” people, but just because you’re not like them, doesn’t mean you’re lesser than them.
The secret to surviving in a jungle is not putting on a mask trying to be someone you're not. Because no matter how hard you try you can never teach a fish how to fly. We are all built uniquely different and hard-wired with different skill sets. Instead of focusing on what you’re not, take your time to hone your skills and be the best at what you can be. To survive in a harsh environment where it's “Eat or be eaten," it's important to know your worth and maximize your strengths.
Felicity Zamora is 17 years old and from Cebu City, Philippines. She wrote this piece in hopes of helping other students who are currently unmotivated, lost, or experiencing academic burnout.