She would say later that she was so nervous, she felt she didn’t belong there, that one singular thought resounded in her mind when she first stepped into the room: I’m just a kid.
The Folger Shakespeare Library was crowded with the well-heeled literati, writers and thinkers and philanthropists in fancy dresses and suits circulating in the stately Elizabethan-style theater, exchanging pithy remarks and clinking wineglasses. They’d come to support the 26th annual gala fundraiser for the esteemed PEN/Faulkner Foundation. Tenth-grader Daniela Shia-Sevilla, one of two winners of a fiction writing contest sponsored by the foundation’s Writers in Schools program, had come to tell them a story.
Daniela was last to step onstage, her dark hair tucked behind her ears and a single printed page clasped in her fingers. Her calm, clear voice betrayed no hint of rattled nerves.
Home alone, no guys around, I feel no danger in wearing my skin.
She’d titled it “The Quarry” — a hunted creature. She wrote about what it means to be a teenage girl on a Metro train, a city sidewalk, in a high school classroom. She wrote about how it feels to be the daughter of a single mother.
When I was five, my mother’s lovers Floyd and Jonathan got in a knife fight over her. She told me the blood was cranberry juice.
She wrote about the dawning awareness of sexuality, the menacing conflation of desire and threat.
Casting my fears aside, I tell them, “Boys, I’m not edible.”
When the story ended, there was a fleeting quiet, a collective inhalation. Then the crowd’s lavish applause overwhelmed even her own wild heartbeat.
The day after the PEN/Faulkner gala, Washington Post book critic Ron Charles described Daniela’s reading as “the launch of a brilliant career.” Several of the writers sitting onstage “audibly gasped” at her story, he wrote.
Margaret Talbot, a New Yorker staff writer and one of several judges who chose Daniela’s story as a winner of the PEN/Faulkner contest, was also impressed by Daniela’s talent and poise.
“That was very startling, to see this young girl get up there and read this very personal, raw, edgy piece like that to this audience, with no apologies and no hesitations,” Talbot says. “There was a kind of toughness and swagger in her writing, but also a sense of vulnerability, so I thought that was really remarkable.”
Months later, Daniela still remembers the transformative power of that moment — the promise it held for a high school sophomore who hovers on the periphery of her social circle, who wrestles with her identity as the half-Latina daughter of a lost father, who writes poems on the bus and dreams of what comes next.
“I didn’t feel like a 15-year-old girl who was scared,” she says. “I felt like a writer.”
Curled on the brown couch in the living room of the modest apartment she shares with her mother in Northwest Washington, wearing a T-shirt and leggings and a shy smile glinting with braces, Daniela is just a kid. Just maybe not a typical one.
When she speaks, her words are quiet and thoughtful, punctuated by an occasional giggle. On the page, her voice is something different: It howls, snarls, grieves and experiments with language in ways that sometimes soar and sometimes stall. Always, her writing feels impelled by a deep authenticity and even deeper humility.
She won her first poetry slam in elementary school. Last year, she was awarded the District’s Larry Neal Writers’ Competition prize for teen poetry. A few weeks ago, she learned that she was among the top winners of the D.C.-area Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.
Daniela’s writing teachers at Duke Ellington School of the Arts encouraged her voracious reading and experimental writing.
“I started thinking more about my life, what I go through, what people I see on the street go through,” she says.
Across the room, Chimurenga Shia is smiling at her daughter, an expression that suggests baffled wonder. Shia, a petite massage therapist who exudes the same soft-spoken sweetness as her child, jokes that she doesn’t know exactly where this girl came from — how Daniela became a kid more consumed by the words of legendary writers than the influence of her peers and pop culture. Surrounded by so many new-world means of self-expression — Twitter, Instagram, Facebook — Daniela gravitates instead to an old-world tradition, shunning the glow of a screen for the weight of a hardcover novel in her hands.
What Shia does know is that Daniela has always been like this, from the first moment Shia read to her as a baby: “When she was little, she didn’t sleep with doll babies,” Shia says. “She slept with books.”
Shia is accustomed to Daniela’s constant questions about Shia’s work, or her past, or about Daniela’s father, who died when Daniela was 4. Shia, who describes herself as half-white and half-Lebanese, tries always to answer with unflinching honesty, knowing well by now that her responses will likely appear in her daughter’s poetry and prose.
“I know she writes about personal things, and I know she’s going to share, but it’s okay,” Shia says.
Daniela spends most of her free time around adults — her mother, her grandmother, her godparents — but she does have a best friend, Autumnreign Bush, who is a lot like her, a quiet girl who likes to write and is also the only daughter of a single mother. The two girls spend weekends together, reading each other’s writing and hanging out in comfortable silence. Daniela describes Autumnreign as a sister. Daniela’s social life is otherwise fairly low-key, she says.
“I’m more of an observer than a talker,” she says. “I hear people talk about how they’re going to smoke some weed, they’re going to do drugs. Some of my classmates are drug dealers. I see that, I try to write about it. Girls losing their virginity in middle school.”
She describes this pragmatically, without a trace of judgment.
“I try to just capture in images how it looks — how it looks to other people, how it looks to the people who are doing it. That’s kind of how Toni Morrison writes. She puts poetry in her novels. She can say the nastiest stuff and make it beautiful.”
It isn’t always easy to feel so removed from the experiences of her classmates, Daniela admits.
“Sometimes I want to be a part of it, but then, my identity is as a writer.”
Oct. 17: Daddy died like a flopping fish.
Last April, one of Daniela’s cousins gave her a journal for her quinceañera. The pages are filled with poetry, disjointed thoughts, pasted photographs. Daniela writes at least one sentence a day. Many are about her father.
June 26: I don’t know what my father’s voice sounds like, and that really bothers me.
She carries her father’s Honduran passport everywhere she goes. He was 20 when he married Daniela’s mother, who was 18; they divorced when Daniela was a toddler. He was 26 when he died after falling asleep behind the wheel of his car, exhausted by a long shift at his second job.
“I feel like writing about him helps me to understand why he left, or who he was,” Daniela says. “I’m trying to understand what being a Latina is. ... I feel like he was supposed to teach me these things.”
She holds fast to her few faint recollections: the way he carried her on his shoulders, the phantom tug of his fingers braiding her hair. In her poem “Orchid,” she mourns what she didn’t witness:
To my stranger, with a voice I don’t remember,
and an accent I never caught,
and grit that swam the Rio Grande naked with clothes in hand above his head.
“I’m going to have to keep writing poems about him,” she says. “As I find myself, I find him.”
Oct. 7: I just want to see Toni Morrison walking down a street. Writing in her head.
On a frigid winter Sunday in Adams Morgan, Daniela sits at a long wooden table in the apartment owned by her godparents, Hank Leland and Bobbie Spalter-Roth. They’ve lived in this stately space, with its golden walls and tall library shelves crammed with books, since 1975. Daniela’s grandmother — Nancy Shia, a photographer — lives one floor below. Daniela spends much of her time here, doing homework, watching old Humphrey Bogart movies, editing her poems.
Leland and Spalter-Roth take Daniela on trips with them to the seaside in Florida and to art museums. They helped her edit “The Quarry” in a hotel room in Philadelphia. When they found out it had won the contest, Spalter-Roth says, “it was like heaven.”
Today, the trio is going over one of Daniela’s new pieces, about a girl battling an eating disorder: all she ate was rice cake/condensed down to her last raw rib. They begin with Daniela reading the poem, and because she is trying lately to write without self-editing, it is the first time she has heard her own lines aloud.
Her voice changes slightly when she recites a poem — she sounds older, somehow, and stronger.
She halts abruptly at a particular word: “joggling.” It’s not a word, but she has made it one, in a line describing the popping joints of the anorexic girl’s hand.
“Does that make sense?” Daniela asks uncertainly. “Joggling — like the bones rolling around in her hand?”
Leland is emphatic: “Yes! If it’s not a word, it should be a word,” he says. “Joggling. It’s a little past jiggling. But before you get to juggling.” They all laugh.
Daniela keeps reading, stopping occasionally at an imperfect word or an awkward turn of phrase, “Oh, I don’t want that” — her voice replaced by the sound of a pen scratching paper.
Her godparents keep their feedback focused on clarity, accessibility, grammar and spelling. Spalter-Roth is a retired sociologist who says she is more accustomed to science writing, and Leland is also retired, a researcher with a particular fondness for the Beat poets. The couple recently gave Daniela a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” because “her writing is sort of like Ginsberg,” Spalter-Roth says.
Daniela says she is enamored with the frantic madness of Ginsberg’s work, the riotous blur of curses and exclamations and vivid images.
“Crazy mind,” she says. “I don’t know if I have a crazy mind, but — would that be such a bad thing?”
June 23: I can’t imagine dying old. I think it’ll be young, I think I’ll have to do things faster in my lifetime than others.
Daniela is sitting in her grandmother’s living room on a Friday night, thinking about college. She’s only a sophomore, but already the future looms. She thinks she might take a year off first, travel, go to Honduras. She wants to learn more about where she’s from before she decides just where she’s going.
For now, there’s still the reality of midterm exams, and two more years of high school, more writing competition deadlines scrawled on the calendar. The “brilliant career” foreshadowed by Charles feels like a distant chapter in a story she is only beginning to write.
Already, she is acutely aware of the way her life has been shaped by human connection: the relationships she has and those she doesn’t quite know how to make, the ones she’s lost and those she’s discovered in the writing of strangers.
“As humans, we need to try to understand how we live, why we live that way, why we don’t look at things longer,” she says. “I want somebody to read my work and then think about it.”
She shrugs, smiles slightly. “Maybe there’s a way that people can understand me through my writing,” she says. “And who doesn’t want to be understood?”
Caitlin Gibson is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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