Pinewood School junior Samantha Hsiung earned an honorable mention in the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum’s Literary Contest for her poem “chinatown pt. 2,” one of only six entries to receive a prize from a pool of submissions from across the country and overseas.
Hsiung’s winning poem is based on the true news story of a 94-year-old Asian woman who was fatally stabbed last summer in San Francisco. Hsiung read the story when she was participating in a creative writing summer program. Although she had already begun working on the piece before learning the theme of this year’s contest, “The Radiant Hour,” which honors F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Beautiful and the Damned,” Hsiung said her poem aligned with the theme because it illuminated a story that may have gone unnoticed by many people.
Written in an untraditional structure, “chinatown pt. 2” uses slashes in the place of the typical line breaks to portray the violence of the subject matter. The lines toward the end of the poem that follow the description of the violent incident are uninterrupted by punctuation.
“It’s like the poem itself is being stabbed in a way,” said Hsiung, a Cupertino resident who works as an intern for the Town Crier. “At the end, I wanted the reader to feel like a hurricane was coming at them. And then at the very end when the slashes return again, I want the reader to slow down and really absorb everything that they read.”
Hsiung admitted that she was not too familiar with “The Beautiful and the Damned” before she submitted her poem to the competition, but reading her poem – which contrasts the beauty of San Francisco’s Chinatown with the horrific fate one of its residents was subject to – invokes a near literal interpretation of the book’s title, one that pairs with and also goes beyond Fitzgerald’s 1922 meditation on disillusionment after World War I. Where Fitzgerald’s characters are bored in the face of adversity and violence, Hsiung’s protagonist is emboldened by it, vowing to set the city aflame until it can be recognized as something entirely new, free from hatred.
The teen’s literary inspiration comes mainly from contemporary Asian-American writers Ocean Vuong and K-Ming Chang. She said she wasn’t interested in writing poetry before discovering Vuong’s “prosey” work, which exposed her to an entirely new style. Hsiung, who is Taiwanese and Chinese, also found inspiration in Chang’s work that explores being of mixed heritage.
Despite only being “serious” about writing for two years, Hsiung has already been published several times. In fact, “chinatown,” the companion to her contest-winning poem, was published in the Rising Phoenix Review in March 2021. She is also president of Pinewood’s creative writing club and will serve as editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Perennial. She has contributed several stories to the Town Crier as an intern.
Beyond high school, Hsiung is torn between majoring in English, creative writing or journalism, but for now, she plans to keep submitting work to competitions and encouraging others to write. She said she’s excited to teach writing workshops to elementary school students with her creative writing club in the coming months, with a goal to inspire a love for English, a passion she did not discover until she was nearly a teenager.
“I think at a certain point you start digging deeper and figuring out so much more about text other than just the technical things,” she said.