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Meet the 2019 Sophie Kerr Finalists!
- What was the book from your childhood that has influenced you the most?
- Of all the texts you have studied at Washington College, which has had the most powerful impact on you?
- Who are your literary or intellectual influences?
- What are your plans for after graduation?
Probably A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket.
María Irene Fornés’s Fefu and Her Friends really blew open my ideas about theatre.
I would say that my influences are Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison.
I plan to write a lot, of course. I’m also interested in possibly working in theater as a playwright or dramaturg.
Mai Nguyen Do
One of the first books I read that I resonated with is Rice without Rain by Minfong Ho. The book follows seventeen-year-old Jinda, who lives with her family in rural Thailand, a place where rice farming sustains nearly everyone’s lives. However, as the book’s title suggests, the rice fields have lacked rain, and outsiders begin to plant the seeds of revolution within the minds of young people like Jinda. Although Rice without Rain is a work of fiction, the book reminded me of my grandmother’s rice fields in rural Vietnam, and the contrasts between urban students and rural families that Ho highlights were incredibly similar to the urban-rural divides between my own family members. Most importantly, Ho’s work demonstrated that my family’s story as Vietnamese Americans and as people from rural Southeast Asia was worth sharing. Ultimately, reading Rice without Rain inspired me to be less timid about sharing my family’s history and experiences.
Melissa Deckman assigned Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American Cityfor State and Local Politics, a political science class I took with her during my junior year. The book follows the lives of several families in Milwaukee, Wisconsin who are working to pay their landlords during the 2008 recession. The content of Desmond’s book is already a painful read, but the way Desmond structures the stories of these struggling tenants – a single mother trying to raise her children on $20 a month after rent, a nurse struggling heroin addiction, a man who’s lost his legs and has a neighborhood of boys to supervise – before the backdrop of research and the deeply racist and classist historical context of United States housing policy presents a heartbreaking, vivid description of not the exception, but the norm for working class and poor America.
My literary mentor and friend, Lao American poet and National Endowment for the Arts fellow Bryan Thao Worra, has really helped me navigate what it means to be a Southeast Asian American poet, what it means to will myself into several worlds which demand my silence, whether it’s the broader Asian American literary community or the political circles of California. I’m also supported and inspired by Sokunthary Svay, a Khmer poet from the Bronx and jayy dodd, a fellow Platypus Press poet from Los Angeles.
After graduation, I’ll be pursuing a doctoral degree in political science at the University of California, Riverside.
I picked up Black Beauty when I was about seven years old, around the same time that I began riding horses. My first copy was a hardcover distributed by Simon and Schuster; there’s an image on the front of a horse trotting through snow. I felt very drawn to it. There was something about Sewell’s style that kept me coming back to this book—come to think of it, the cover of my original copy has actually fallen off. Though I haven’t had the chance to read it in some time, I still remember the beautiful tenderness of Sewell’s writing. The book really made me rethink the way I engaged with others and the world around me.
I benefitted hugely from reading the poetry of Marianne Moore, who was the subject my English SCE. Over the last few months I have familiarized myself with her aesthetic, and her style remains in many ways a comfort to me. Her work gives me clear sense of what it means for a poem to succeed. When I read good poetry, it always feels controlled in some way, and this is magnified in Moore a great extent. In addition to a being a strong literary influence of mine, she has been my psychic mainstay. When aiming to understand Moore and her poetic sensibility, reading her silences can be just as informative as the text on the page; in my thesis I dug into the revisions of a poem called “Those Various Scalpels,” and as I compared different versions of the piece I began to take note of the many intricacies of her revision process. Her method still resonates with me, and it has undoubtedly informed my approach to writing poetry.
I was sixteen when I was introduced to Emerson and Thoreau, who became prominent philosophical influences of mine. In my Humanities class we were tasked with reading the essay “Self-Reliance” as well as several selections from Both texts stirred something inside of me—there is a line in “Self-Reliance” in which Emerson tells the reader “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” The transcendentalist movement as a whole really spoke to me and spurred me to pursue my purpose despite my own fears.
After graduation I will return to Baltimore for some time to focus on my craft. I began performing live music last summer, and I have never felt more energized and fulfilled than in the moments after giving a solid performance. I am also interested in the prospect of graduate school and pursuing a career in academia. I am still in the process of choosing which discipline to pursue professionally, as I will be graduating Washington College with degrees in both English and music. While I look into various potential programs, I will continue to write and search for more live performance opportunities.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as I identified with the passivity of the title character, and it was an early foray into engaging with art by questionable artists.
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Walter Benjamin.
My cat, Kirby.
I’ll be attending Rutgers Newark’s MFA for poetry.
My parents recognized my voracious reading habits early on and gifted me a collector’s edition of classic novels as a child. They were beautifully illustrated, bound in different colors, and had gold ribbon bookmarks. My favorites were The Secret Garden and Heidi. I think that in pouring over those books again and again, I first realized that reading could be more than just entertainment, but an aesthetic and sensory experience.
I think that Denise Duhamel’s Blowout came to me at a time when I was really thinking about girlhood, and that collection of poetry taught me that about the joyfulness in girlhood that often goes unseen and uncelebrated. That has definitely impacted the subject matter I choose to engage with and the style of my writing. Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red is also just one of my favorite books, and one that got me excited about reading and writing poetry. Coincidentally, I read both of these books in Dr. Hall’s Living Writers: Poetry class.
Anne Carson, Robin Coste Lewis, bell hooks, and Judith Butler have all inspired me to think deeply, question, and write.
After graduation, I plan to spend the next year exploring different avenues of art and finding what I am truly passionate about. I then plan to attend graduate school.
My mom has a beautiful blue and gold embroidered collection of Edgar Allen Poe’s poems from the early 1900’s that first interested me.
Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight.
Jean Rhys, Cathy Linh Che, Anne Carson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip K. Dick.
I will be moving to DC and interning at the National Portrait Gallery. Afterwards, I will be hopefully going on to a Masters or MFA program in the future while working as an academic librarian.