Young Writer Now in the Company of Warhol, Capote, Plath

Friday, June 01, 2012

Each year, the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers recognizes the talents of young students across the country. The organizations top winners receive the coveted gold medal award along with a $10,000 scholarship. This year, 17-year-old writer Yan Zhang was one of the 15 students chosen for the award. Past winners of the contest include Andy Warhol, Sylvia Plath, Truman Capote and Joyce Carol Oates.

Ms. Zhang's story, "The Art of Layers," is republished below with permission from the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers.

People in China live in layers. Photos are displayed in their frames in layers. Western-style wedding pictures, complete with wide white dress and gentleman’s tuxedo, share a frame with one’s pig-tailed children (or is it one’s self? It becomes difficult to remember which layer is which). If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the Chinese make their frames hold several thousand. We are very thrifty.

Suitcases and boxes full of nothing are stacked in layers that overflow from every corner of the house. This one was a gift from the relatives from America, and that one was the suitcase taken on the train when we came to the city for the first time. This one once held quilted cotton jackets and thick woolen socks, and that one now contains bottles of pungent fish-oil pills that are supposed to be good for arthritis. No one has the courage to throw them away.

People also live stacked like suitcases. My mother’s old home perches on the thin ramparts of many accumulated ceilings, and we can hear their inhabitants’ activities late into night. Stories of marital strife, of clattery mah-jongg games, of heavy iron pans and plucked chickens are brought to us by the water pipes which run from dwelling to dwelling. And since we have no respect for privacy, the contents of our layers flow into each other easily. Laundry left to dry drips onto the balcony of the next floor. Dirt is tracked inside. Doors left open.

Of course, this is necessary, because how else would one house one billion people but in layers? And how else would one hold memories but in safe, cocooned layers so if some are stripped off by another revolution, or another perilous flight, the others are left intact? Layers are like the cotton jackets and underwear that the Chinese make their children and parents wear in winter. They keep one warm, but can be quickly adjusted.

So it must be necessary that my grandfather dies in layers. It must be necessary that cancer slowly strips his life. He had trouble getting out of bed one day, and then he started staying in bed all day. At first he had to go to the bathroom frequently. Now he cannot urinate without help. Yet throughout it all he remained unaware—or unwilling to admit—that slowly but surely he was being stripped bare.

Or so I’ve heard. I’ve never seen him since we found out he was sick. There are too many layers separating us. Layers of money, of thousands of miles, and the relentless plodding of everyday obligations are only briefly penetrated by fuzzy moments of video on the webcam. But watching the faint faces of my family through the grainy “live-feed” is like watching a television drama. It is never, ever enough.

When my grandfather came to visit two years ago, he was already sick, but none of us knew. He cooked dinner, made our beds, and smoked his cigarettes outside (but never failed to trail the smoke inside again). He sat at the dining table for hours, folding magazines and newspapers into neat little boxes meant for holding chicken bones and wads of food too tough to chew. When my grandfather left, he left those boxes. They are now stacked together in a cupboard in tidy collapsible layers, which can be pulled at the corners to bloom into shape. None of us has the courage to throw them away.

Guests:

Yan Zhang

Produced by:

Zachary Dinerstein and Arwa Gunja

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