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Heroes and villains: YWC 2017 finalists discuss their inspirations

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The Around DB and Life on Lantau Young Writer’s Competition 2017 challenged students to write from the point of view of a famous historical figure. Sam Agars meets the finalists.

The Around DB and Life on Lantau Young Writer’s Competition (YWC) continues to surprise each year, with local students producing articulate and considered pieces in a bid to have their work published. This year’s theme – writing from the point of view of a famous historical figure – required in-depth research and a thoughtful approach, something that was delivered in spades by the young writers, submitting entries from seven schools.

It was then up to the judges Peter Sherwood, Sharon Lesley Le Roux and Trisha Hughes, all regular Around DB contributors, to select and mentor three finalists and shape their work. Peter chose 14-year-old Sienna Bertamini from Discovery Bay International School (DBIS), Sharon selected Janice Ho, 13 and also from DBIS, and Trisha picked 13-year-old Kayla Lee from YMCA of Hong Kong Christian College.

The judges also chose three runners- up – Micah Zirkelbach, Seo Jin Park and Maika Ono, all DB residents. Micah, 13, a DBIS student, wrote from the point of view of Jesus Christ, Seo Jin, 14, a Discovery College student, Albert Einstein, and Maika Ono, 13, from Island School, Katharine Hepburn.

In the subsequent online vote, conducted on the Around DB and Life on Lantau Facebook pages, Kayla was crowned the winner of the Bookazine- sponsored competition with 284 votes, while Janice placed second with 116 votes and Sienna third, with 76 votes.

You can read the finalists’ stories here (Janice Ho: Anne Frank) and here (Sienna Bertramini: Hariett Tubman), and Kayla’s winning story here, but first let’s learn a little more about the writers and their work.

Kayla: Josef Mengele 

It was on noticing that people often write about good people that Kayla chose Josef Mengele, the SS physician, infamous for his inhumane medical experimentation on concentration camp prisoners at Auschwitz during the Second World War. Kayla, who lives in Tung Chung, has Josef grappling with what is right and wrong as he struggles with the lack of recognition for his monstrous deeds.

Kayla says she wanted to write from Josef’s point of view because “people tend to see others in only black and white. I decided to write about Josef Mengele so that I could detail the depths of the human personality.”

Writing has long been a hobby of Kayla’s and something that helps her step back from the pressures of everyday life, and she says she entered the competition for fun and to challenge herself. “I thought it would be a really good opportunity for me to improve my skills,” she says. “I love the fact that I can create new worlds out of mid air and new characters, and I can escape when I’m having real-life problems.”

Through her work with Trisha, Kayla was able to add depth to her writing, something she hopes will help her in her goal to one day have a book published.

“I really loved working with Trisha, she taught me how to delve more into the complexity of Josef Mengele,” Kayla says. “I am working on two books at the moment and I have a character who is based on Josef Mengele, my villain, and I thought it would be a good creative exercise for me to get to know my villain for my book.”

Trisha says Kayla “listened beautifully and took all of my suggestions on board”, and that she chose her story because it was different from the rest.

“For a 13-year-old I could see a lot of emotion in there,” says Trisha, the author of best-selling memoir Daughters of Nazareth and the just- published historical novel, Vikings to Virgin: The Hazards of being King. “If she can produce this now at 13, then she has got the world at her feet.”

It only took minor tweaks to enhance Kayla’s story. “Her story was good, but I knew it could be better,” Trisha says. “I knew she had it in her because she had already brought out a lot of the arrogance and the disdain of what Mengele was like.”

Janice: Anne Frank 

The holocaust theme continues in Janice’s work, with the DB resident choosing Anne Frank, one of the most well known victims of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Janice chose Anne for two reasons – her interest in the holocaust and because she was learning about her in drama class.

“The hiding part of her life really stood out to me and that is what she is well known for,” Janice says. “I don’t usually write diary entries so it was different and I really enjoyed writing it.”

Janice feels she is a better writer after working with her mentor, Sharon, calling the experience amazing. “She taught me how to drag someone into the story and how to make the reader read in Anne Frank’s voice,” Janice says.

Like Kayla, Janice finds the writing process therapeutic. “It’s probably my only way to escape from reality, and writing down my emotions really does help me calm down and release all of my stress,” she says.

Sharon, who runs creative writing workshops for kids through The Story Studio, was impressed by Janice’s original work and says that only minimal changes were needed. “Her piece was really insightful, it obviously touched her, the Anne Frank story, as she really got in character,” she says. “She was really good at showing what was happening in the house and the tensions; she was really good at showing, not telling.

“We made a little tweak about the pork that was being eaten at the end,” Sharon adds. “Obviously because of their religion they had never eaten it. It kind of made me as the reader ask, did they eat it or not? I advised Sienna to follow things through to their natural conclusion because the reader will want to know.”

Sienna: Harriet Tubman 

Sienna chose to write from the perspective of Harriet Tubman, a humanitarian famous for her work freeing slaves during the American Civil War. The young DB resident explores Harriet’s thoughts during one of her missions to release slaves, having chosen her as a follow-up to a Year 7 project.

“In Year 7, I did a similar topic on her because we had to choose someone that we thought was a hero,” Sienna says. “I chose Harriet Tubman and I did a lot of research into her.”

It’s clear that Sienna gained a lot from working with her mentor Peter, the author of 15 books and a former South China Morning Post columnist. “What I took out of it the most was that to really connect with the reader, you have to understand who you are writing about,” Sienna says. “I had to really research into what Harriet Tubman did and try to connect with how she felt, therefore the reader could feel that same way. Peter really showed me how to do that and gave me some really great tips.”

Peter chose Sienna’s piece not because he initially thought it was the best, but because he felt it showed great promise. “Sienna showed she could feel what her subject was experiencing,” he says. “She was able to colour her story with the atmosphere of the situation. She is naturally curious and I thought she had the potential to improve her story further.”

For Sienna, the process has only been a positive one: “The main benefit for me was that overall my writing has improved, especially when I’m writing in historical context. I just find it relaxing, putting words down on paper. Usually everything is muddled together in my mind, but by putting it down on paper, it’s a place for other people to see it. I really like what writing can do.”

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