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Girl talk: The Young Writers Competition 2018 finalists

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The 2018 Young Writers Competition asked participants to gaze into the future – and a Lantau dystopia gazed back. Elizabeth Kerr chats with the three finalists.

Whoever it was that suggested teens are a carefree lot, without worldly problems and with nary a deep thought in their heads, clearly haven’t been paying attention. While their peers march on Washington DC to affect policy, Lantau secondary school students are making their thoughts known too in the Around DB and Life on Lantau Young Writers Competition. This year’s finalists, 14-yearolds Eleanor Lambert and Kayla Adara Lee, and Serena Wong, 13, thankfully don’t have to worry about guns in their schools, but they do have to contend with rapid changes to their environment.

The prompt for the island-wide competition was Lantau life in 2030+, and a distinctly dystopian tone emerged from all three finalists. They represent just three of the stories submitted from students ranging from 11 to 17 years old, from Discovery College (DC), Discovery Bay International School (DBIS), YMCA of Hong Kong Christian College (YHKCC), and farther flung Island School, West Island School and Singapore International School – the best response to the contest to date.

After mentors and judges Trisha Hughes, Sharon Le Roux and Peter Sherwood worked their magic, this year’s winner of HK$1,000 to splash around at Bookazine turned out to be Kayla Adara Lee (read her story on page 35), though all three young women prove the future is in good hands, no matter what we do to it.

The thinker

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Kayla Adara Lee works very hard at self-awareness. A YHKCC student born in Hong Kong to Malaysian and Indonesian parents, Kayla started writing at around six years old (about dinosaurs, when she wanted to be an archaeologist) and reading before she talked. “I was one of those kids whose parents were worried about me,” she says with a laugh. Given her history, it’s no surprise Kayla’s a repeat competitor who won last year – for her story written from the point of view of the Angel of Death, Joseph Mengele.

That’s heady stuff for anyone but Kayla puts considerable thought into quite a bit. She makes room for LGBT characters in her writing; she’s got no time for Chuck Palahniuk’s privileged white guy angst, though she’s enjoying Invisible Monsters; she’s got less time for fantasy love triangles; she can’t fathom JK Rowling’s ‘Asian’ Cho Chang and considering Harry Potter’s abusive backstory, she’s baffled that JK waffled on condemning the casting of Johnny Depp in the Fantastic Beasts series. She’s 14.

Kayla’s spare, symbolic story is acall to action, in which there may still be time to save a futuristic Lantau that has fallen victim to commerce. As former South China Morning Post columnist and mentor Peter Sherwood noted, we are driving life extinct, rapidly, and the teens sense it. “Kayla’s piece reflected deeply on what the future might hold for our tiny island. She wrote in a prose-poetry style, not heavy-handed or bluntly obvious. I think that approach is quite effective.”

Kayla says Peter’s greatest contribution was to character work and spotting clichés, and she is confident she’s a better writer now than she was a year ago, with her “cringe-worthy red hair and Black Parade t-shirt” (her words), though she’s still fond of My Chemical Romance. And Fall Out Boy. “Last year I was trying too hard for that 18th century, one sentence per page thing,” she says. “I was really emo back then; I was seeing things in black and white. My outlook has changed and I’ve learnt to see things from different perspectives.” Is Kayla planning on entering next year’s contest? “I’m going to keep entering until I’m old enough to become a mentor.” Fourteen.

The prodigy

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Tung Chung native DC student Serena Wong is clearly punching above her weight when it comes to school, but she somehow finds time to be a Marvel devotee (“Wonder Woman was okay,” she shrugs) and, since seeing The Greatest Showman, she says she’s learnt to appreciate musicals. A reader like Eleanor and Kayla, Serena rejects rigid genre dedication, though she’ll cop to favouring sci-fi, fantasy and thrillers, like Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer, if she has to pick. Diary-type books classified as ‘Life’ in the school library, are out – “It’s typical teenaged girl stuff and I find it really boring” – and ultimately, she prefers sci-fi movies to literature.

Serena’s Dust-esque entry into the competition started as a compulsory assignment, with submission up to her. It pivots on a Lantau where everyone lives underground because the outside world is toxic – and the cynical reaction to the people’s demands to go out.

“I was thinking about what was technically possible in 10 years, and about the main problem in Lantau, which is air pollution,” Serena explains. “I didn’t want it to sound too unrealistic, so no travelling to other planets, but if air pollution is really bad, what do you do?”

It worked, according to her mentor, author Trisha Hughes: “What made Serena’s story stand out for me was her vivid portrayal of what could be a realistic future for us all. Her emotions and descriptions were beautifully written and I could feel the sorrow emanating from the words she wrote.”

The final product was the result of Serena’s constant questioning and listening, which paid off in a better story than when she started. “I love that Trisha is an author. I didn’t really understand the concept of writing, and she taught me flow, how to say things differently. She didn’t change the story at all, but it’s a better story now than when I first submitted it.” Spoken like a true wonder woman.

The enigma

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Eleanor Lambert is hard to pin down. “I didn’t realise there were so many people to talk to afterwards,” says the DBIS student, flustered at the battery of profile interviews and photo shoots required of a finalist. It’s Easter weekend, and Eleanor is celebrating her birthday weekend with dinner, a junk trip and a jaunt to Thailand for a family wedding.

The Hong Kong native and lifetime Discovery Bay resident has a loose, relaxed attitude that belies the content of her story, a dual timeline piece about a girl who grows up on the beach only to see it fade into history at the expense of progress. Like many 14-year-olds, Eleanor can’t explain everything that motivates her at this very moment; she entered the contest as an offshoot of a writing class, she enjoys writing because she enjoys reading – from young adult writer David Arnold to Charlotte Brontë. She’s fond of math and art, and is interested in architecture long term, but only partially sees the connection among the three. She does, however, recognise the generational connection that inspired her story.

“I basically took problems that we’re having today, like littering and pollution, and looked a few years into the future. I don’t think things will change,” Eleanor says. “I think of the girl as a really depressing version of me.”

Envisaging an environment under attack is something Eleanor shares with her peers, and though her story is melancholy, it’s not depressing. “I don’t think life will be really bad in the future but… we’re filling up our landfills,” she says. “I’m sure great things will happen too, but this isn’t going to change.”

Eleanor’s mentor, Sharon Le Roux of The Story Studio, agrees. “The story isn’t apocalyptic. It’s only a span of 18 years, which I feel is enough time for a big change, but not an apocalypse. Hence, this story feels real.” Together, they found the perfect amount of tension – “Every story needs conflict, or else it’s not a story,” remarks Sharon – for the reflective tale, one Eleanor thinks is better for her mentor’s input. Ultimately, Eleanor puts the proverbial game above winning: “The process was rewarding enough.”

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This year’s Young Writers Competition saw the mentors pick finalists Eleanor Lambert, 14, DBIS, Kayla Adara Lee, 14, YHKCC, and Serena Wong, 13, DC, and runners-up Renee Tan, 13, DC, Harsh Varde, 13, DC, and Cherry Tam, 14, YHKCC. The top three stories were then posted on the Around DB and Life on Lantau Facebook page for an online vote, April 17 to 22. Kayla placed first with 299 votes, Serena second with 83 votes, and Eleanor third with 57 votes. Our thanks go to competition sponsors Bookazine for providing the prizes – HK$1,000, HK$500 and HK$200 book vouchers – and to DBIS for hosting the prizegiving on April 24 at the Globe Theatre.

Images: Baljit Gidwani – www.evoqueportraits.com

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