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Student Spotlight: Lily writes brave and vulnerable prose poem about living with marginalized identity
Lily—a rising sophomore homeschooled in Pikesville, Maryland—worked with Polygence mentor Alexis on authoring a short story “on skin and its uses” that explores personal queer identity. Alexis, who is a PhD candidate in Latin American Literature at Stanford, crafted a diverse syllabus of literature not covered in typical high school English classes. These works, especially those of Native American and African literature, often used the notion of the grotesque as a literary device, which Lily was clearly inspired by in writing “on skin and its uses.” Prior to Polygence, Lily’s interest in the humanities and writing was sparked by online fandom communities and fan fiction, and with Polygence it has only grown. For instance, Lily remarked that a creative writing project afforded many deep discussions on great literature as well as attentive feedback on personal work. You can read more about Lily’s Polygence experience in the interview below.
Did you have any experience with creative writing before Polygence?
I spend a lot of time creating my own stories and doing research because I want to be a writer when I grow up. I want to make sure I have good representation and grasp the full scope of experience in my writing. So I've poked around with writing and research, but before Polygence, I hadn't really found any guide on how to do it. It's always just been me trying to figure it out as I go along, so it was really great to work with somebody who could help guide me through this process.
Can you tell me a bit about your experience being homeschooled and how that’s led you to decide to do a Polygence project?
Polygence was great in that it was a real challenge like college classes, but it was also a one-on-one experience, similar to how my mom homeschooled me when I was really little, before my siblings came along. I think the decision to undertake a Polygence project happened because my mom was like, Hey, you should check this out. I thought Polygence seemed more science focused than the humanities, but I gave it a shot anyways. Then once I was accepted, I was like, okay, now I’m here, I’m going to make the best of it. I had a really, really great experience working with Alexis, and I'm very grateful.
“Polygence was great in that it was a real challenge like college classes, but it was also a one-on-one experience...”
What was a typical session with your mentor Alexis like, and how did the sessions build off of each other so that you were supported in writing your own story?
So the first couple of sessions we were kind of feeling each other out. She was trying to get an understanding of where I was at with my analysis skills, how I could pick stories apart, and what I was interested in. We had a lot of great discussions because we would disagree sometimes, just on interpretation. I really enjoy talking to people I disagree with--not disagreeing in the bad sense, but just in the sense that we interpreted these two things differently, so let's argue both our points. I love discussions like that, because no two people are going to read a story the same way, just because of their different experiences and backgrounds. All the sessions were mostly Alexis and I having free flowing discussion. It felt like I was talking to a peer as a peer, which I really appreciated. She never talked down to me or anything. She definitely helped guide the sessions, which was great. Whenever I was floundering, she’d shoot me a question and help me get back on track.
The next couple of sessions we got going and started cross-referencing literature from different cultures. Once we finished up the African literature unit, we hopped around a bit. I think the most interesting one we did was on Native American literature, because we got into a really great discussion about how the Christian church impacted native cultures. I thought it was interesting because I was raised by two atheists, and I'm atheist myself, so I don't have a whole lot of experience with being in any organized religion, but I've definitely seen the effects of it all over. It was a really good discussion, and I'm very grateful we had it.
How did your vision for your final project evolve throughout your sessions?
The original project was to essentially write fanfiction based on one of the stories we read, but as we got going, I realized I was more interested in creating my own story with my own experience living as a minority in a sense. While I was writing it, I wanted to make sure I was being very careful not to erase the privilege I do have, coming from a white middle class family. I decided I wasn't going to write an explicitly queer story, but a more metaphorical one, similar to this story Alexis and I read, “House of Skin.” It was my biggest influence because I really, really enjoyed the grotesque nature of that story, so I kind of took that idea and ran with it. And I really appreciate how Alexis was willing to go with the flow with that project, and let me do my own thing.
What were your typical assignments between sessions, and how did they prepare you to author your short story?
The assignment was basically the same one for every session: come to the next session having read a story and thought a little bit about it. Alexis gave me some really nice tools to think about each story. She would have me pick out, I think it was, five themes, two literary tools, one specific thing I’d like to add to my toolbox in the future, and two or three well thought out questions. By the end, I'd kind of rolled the themes and questions into one thing because I really enjoy exploring the thematic nature of stories the most and talking about the symbolism and getting deep. Alexis would also assign me to two to three little research projects, like come prepared to talk about the history of this country, come with some sort of background information, which was always really helpful and allowed me to understand the story at a deeper level. It was very nice to have specific guidance for what I was looking for with each story.
“We had a lot of great discussions because we would disagree sometimes...I love discussions like that, because no two people are going to read a story the same way...”
Can you tell us a bit about your short story and how it helped you grapple with your own identity?
Though literature is always subjective and open to interpretation, I can tell you what I wrote it to be about. It's kind of a mix between an exploration of my mental health issues, specifically rejection sensitivity dysphoria, and then what it felt like to realize I was not a girl, that I was in fact genderqueer. I wasn't sure what to do about it. The first thing I realized was that I was not a girl—that “Girl” was not a label that fit me. Then I was like Oh god, what if there's nothing else? I spent months panicking about that until I learned that there was something else. So the story was kind of about me figuring that out and realizing that even if my life is going to be much harder if I start making this public, if I start outwardly presenting the fact that I am a non-binary person, it’s what I had to do.
The stigma which persists around non-binary people is incredibly frustrating. I had to accept that not everybody was going to be a fan of this, and there were going to be people who were going to take a lot of issue with me. I'm somebody who's always had confrontation issues. I don't handle it very well. And that was, I guess, why I wrote the sort of coming-out story, symbolized by the skin stripping off, to be as grotesque as possible, because that's what it really felt like, people get to see the real me now.
Your beautiful and intricately structured story read almost like a prose poem--where do you get your stylistic inspiration?
Thank you! I really appreciate that sort of a writing style. I picked it up through a friend of mine who I met through fandom. We both wrote fanfiction for the same thing, and she wrote something I really liked. We ended up in the same chat room one day and I was like, oh my god, it's you! Who are you? Then we really started talking. She writes beautifully, like she's a master of her craft, and I'm really grateful to know her and speak to her. She wrote one of my favorite things ever that was very important to me, and I started sort of mimicking her style, in a sense, and it's a really lovely way of writing.
You also created a beautiful painting as cover art for your story. Can you talk about the symbolic significance of this piece?
The painting contains the three symbolic elements I feel are most important to this short story: the mirror, the snake, and the peeled apple. The peeled apple represents the protagonist of the story, and their desire to be seen in full, by both themself and others. The snake both constricting and biting the apple represents the protagonist as well - they're holding themself back, and poisoning their own water with their refusal to let their real self exist on top. The use of specifically a snake and an apple, calling back to the Christian story of Adam and Eve, is also important—specifically because this is a story written from the perspective of a queer experience that is often demonized by extremist Christian groups.
The mirror, with the reflection of both the snake and apple is important as well - the writing was definitely part of a reflection on my personal experience with gender, and what having a gender crisis really felt like. I also feel like the mirror at the end of the short story was a central part of it - the protagonist can finally see themself, for who they really are. The mirror reflecting the backside of the snake is no accident - it allows the viewer to see parts of the snake and apple that otherwise would have been hidden from them, just as the mirror in the story allows the protagonist to see that they are beautiful, even without their skin.
How was your mentor different from teachers or tutors you've had in the past? How was your Polygence program different from the English classes that you took in middle school?
It seems to me like English isn't usually taught that well at school, because there’s not an emphasis on why studying these literary themes and symbols matters. I got into literary analysis, honestly, because I started reading literature that excited me, that got me going. I read stuff with really interesting themes and symbolism—stuff that I found on my own and that I really liked.
In my eight grade English class, we were taught to write essays in a way that personally felt extremely dishonest. My teacher had us come to a conclusion, and then go hunting for evidence to support said conclusion. And I was like, why would you do that? That's not how you write things. In my opinion, that's how you end up with dishonest writing, and not an honest reflection of what you took from a text. Polygence was very nice in that it was literally the opposite of that. I was expected to sit down and have a one-on-one discussion with somebody who would argue back politely and would give me my space to express myself. If you're one of 27 in a class, and if you're not very popular in said class, you're not going to want to bring a whole lot of stuff to the table, especially things that are going to make other people think.
I’m also frustrated by the lack of diversity and representation you see in school English curriculum, so I really appreciated that Polygence allowed me the flexibility to craft an inclusive syllabus for myself. I think it is sort of a fault of the public school system that you have a one-size-fits-all for books you're expected to read, and the books you're expected to read are mostly by white male authors. If you're lucky, you might get a white female author in there. Schools often assign books which deal with really sensitive issues--race, sexual violence, gender and sexuality--that are not handled in a delicate way, and you can't opt out reading them or you fail the class. I feel like that's not a very good way to handle it. What I appreciate about Polygence was, I feel like if I had said, hey, this story has some themes that make me really uncomfortable, we would have found something else to read, and we would have sat down and had an honest and open discussion about that. It’s just kind of hard to have an honest and open discussion about delicate topics like that in a big class.
“Through Polygence...I didn’t have to just sit down and listen to the correct interpretation of things—I had my own voice.”
How do you think your Polygence experience has influenced your thinking about majors and possible careers?
Recently, I’ve shifted from wanting to study art practice or animation to wanting to get a literature degree, although I do still want to pursue art and animation. Polygence definitely played a role in that. My mentor helped me get a solid idea and understanding of what proper literary analysis is and what having a discussion as peers is actually like, in a non-fandom context. Because honestly, I got into literary analysis entirely because of fandom, because we'd sit down and we talked about things and we discussed things, and I was there as a peer and not as a kid to be talked down to. Through Polygence too, I didn’t have to just sit down and listen to the correct interpretation of things—I had my own voice. It was a really good experience to have, and I'm very grateful I had it.
What piece of advice would you give to a student who is about to start a Polygence project?
I would say, don't stress too much or worry about it. Your mentor is there to help you and not to judge you. You're here for something you're passionate about, and you were accepted for a good reason. So sit down and be prepared to have fun with somebody who's really interested in the same things that you're interested in, and is looking to help you be successful.
You can read Lily's story "on skin and its uses" here