2023 NFFD Judge’s Interview: Joanna Cho

With only three weeks left to submit to this year’s National Flash Fiction Day competition, we’re delighted to share an interview with Joanna Cho, our 2023 youth judge! 
Joanna Cho / 조은선 is a writer and editor. Her debut book People Person was published by Te Herenga Waka University Press in 2022.

Lola Elvy at fingers comma toes: You recently studied creative nonfiction and poetry in Wellington, and a lot of your own poetry draws heavily on real-life inspiration. Where is the line for you between fiction and reality, and how do they intersect or influence each other? Do our realities shape what we create, does what we create shape our realities, or does the truth lie somewhere in-between?

Joanna Cho: For me, the line between fiction and reality is movable and it all mixes up—ultimately, whatever serves the heart of the story will become its reality. We can draw heavily from our own experiences and call it fiction, or manipulate the truth and call it non-fiction. I find thinking categorically just stresses me out… In my own writing, some of the obviously ‘fiction’ moments are from dreams that often feel just as real as real life—so yeah, anyway, we’re all bonkers right, lol.

LE: Though your debut book People Person is a poetry collection, it also has a strong narrative style, with some stanzas or even whole pieces in prose form. In your own writing, how important is the shape, structure, or form of a story/poem on the page to your creative process? When you consider form or other stylistic choices, do you have an imagined audience in mind, or are your measures purely introspective?

JC: It’s very important! Most of People Person was written during my MA year, when I was excited to learn new forms and try them out. So I would pair up a form with an idea and play around, but often ended up breaking the form when it felt too restrictive. I find templates are useful for writer’s block because you’re forced to practise restraint (in a paradoxical way that helps me), but then at a certain point, if it gets too stuffy, it’s important to let go of self-imposed rules. I choose longer forms when I know the story will need the space and more information. All my measures are introspective; I don’t have an imagined audience in mind.

LE: What inspires you to write?

JC: I write when I’m moved by things or find things crack up, in a deep, aching way, lol. My mum, and my partner(s)—I guess the people I am the most intimate with—inspire me to write. And that must be because I see their deep human-ness, am fascinated by it, and am entangled. But I also write to think—I don’t have much of an inner monologue and find I am best able to express myself or consider things when writing, so in a way it’s also a way for me to have second chances, to get things out—and to remember, and to have fun, and sometimes to get paid, haha. :’) I don’t know, though; it’s a hobby, and I just enjoy it the way I enjoy reading.

LE: Much of your writing feels firmly centred in a particular time and place—it’s hard to imagine many of your poems occurring in a different era or physical location, as their world feels so integral. How significant do you think the immediate environment is (spatially, temporally, geographically, culturally, etc.) in influencing your writing, and what people write in general?

JC: The immediate environment influences all of my writing in the way that I think it must do for everyone, as the present is all we really know. I guess a lot of my writing is nostalgic, and that makes me think I must lack imagination (recently I listened to something about nostalgia being the death of art), but on the other hand, with what I write, the world (my world) is everything, so I’m glad you found it firmly centered!

LE: Is there a connection for you between reading and writing? What kinds of writing do you like to read yourself, and has your reading helped shape your own narrative/poetic voice?

JC: What I like to read depends on time, mood, purpose, etc.—I like reading lots of different kinds of texts and styles and don’t have a favourite book or author, but I do have things I return to, although they tend to be out of familiarity, for comfort, e.g., Living in the Maniototo by Janet Frame, or The Balloon by Donald Barthelme. Everything I read and love shapes my voice but it’s hard to say exactly, because it could be one line from something, or a general tone…

LE: As an editor, what do you look for in a story? What do you hope to see from youth writing in this competition?

JC: I look for heart (that thing you can’t pinpoint but is alive throughout the writing), and strong, tight writing with sudden swells. I’m hoping to see personality and curiosity—show me that you’re enjoying writing! :-) I’m really excited to read all the stories!

Thank you, Joanna, for taking the time to participate in this discussion. And to our youth readers: don’t forget to submit your stories by April 30! We look forward to reading them! 

February 2023 Issue Home


Camouflage – Zoe Anthony-Redman (age 23; New York, United States) 
Neolithic Revolution – Elizabeth Ayrey (age 18; Christchurch, New Zealand)
Beauty of the World – Saanvi Samal (age 09; Salt Lake City, Utah, United States)
Still Life – Ryan Agarwal (age 16; San Francisco, California, United States)
The Magikoa Woods – Ava Bogard (age 12; Murray, Kentucky, United States)
Mum’s Cooking – Christina Livermore (age 12; Wellington, Florida, United States)
Where Am I? – Nala Delgado (age 09; Bethesda, Maryland, United States)
Homes Left Behind – Savarna Yang (age 14; Dunedin, New Zealand)
Home to the Heart – Lily C. Zhang (age 12; California, United States)
The House – Yemaya Gaspard (age 17; South Florida, United States)
Contemplation – Ryan Agarwal (age 16; San Francisco, California, United States)
A Day in the Life of a Doorknob – Natalie Leuschner (age 12; Glendale, Arizona, United States)
Road Trip Villanelle – Emma Philips (age 17; Ararua, Northland, New Zealand)
Condemned Houses – Sarah-Kate Simons (age 17; Southbridge, New Zealand)
Rain – Ryan Agarwal (age 16; San Francisco, California, United States)
The Walking House – Eliah Kim (age 14; San Diego, California, United States)
Desert Drifter – William Bittner (age 17; Birmingham, Alabama, United States)

Nonfiction column

Opinion Article: ChatGPT Is a Tool for Education, Not a Threat – Ryan Chen (age 17; Mercer Island, Washington, United States)

Special: Flash fiction mentorship programme

Introduction and acknowledgements – Melanie Dixon and Jack Remiel Cottrell, project organisers
Free At Last – Angelica Sabili (age 15; Auckland, New Zealand)
Carnival Poppies – Jaedyne Mayion (age 15; Auckland, New Zealand)
Barren – Ava Porter (age 15; Auckland, New Zealand)
Flower Fields – Erin Aralar (age 15; Hauraki Plains, New Zealand)
Royal Blue – Delta Johns (age 15; Auckland, New Zealand)

Feature interview: Discussion with our newest editors

Camouflage – Zoe Anthony-Redman

Zoe Anthony-Redman is a 23-year-old artist living in New York City. She enjoys illustrating animals and nature. In her free time she likes to birdwatch and take walks in Central Park. She graduated from the School of Visual Arts in 2021.

Neolithic Revolution – Elizabeth Ayrey

The sun glances
along the earth’s arched spine
a faultline shifting, undulating
ecstatically beneath the soil.
We stagger down the slope
drunk on adrenaline. Not thinking
of the city, the skyscrapers, the dust,
only the ground rolling like the wake
of a snarling jet boat.
The hillside shines
like spun gold wheat fields
around which we used to build houses
and coliseums, and worry
about quake-proof engineering.
There is no shaking out here.
Just the rippling caress of dried grasses
when we are thrown joyfully
to the ground. Reddened earth, muddy and
The scent of new life lingers
long after the sun sets.
The fire we built to ward off predators
sputters and smoulders
under the moon’s heavy-lidded glare.
We tell ghost stories and wait
for the archaeologists to find teeth marks
in our bones.

Elizabeth Ayrey is an eighteen-year-old poet from Ōtautahi Christchurch. Her work can be found in places such as ReDraftGiven Words, and a fine line. She was a 2021 winner of the NZPS international competition.

Beauty of the World – Saanvi Samal

Landscapes are wherever I go, they can even be snow
They can be yellow or blue, everything feels new
There are very tall mountains, taller than water in a fountain
A prairie is wide open, just like a long ocean
Pink, orange and red sunsets, children play with puppets
Nighttime is dark, even in the park
Sunrise sprinkles light, time to wake up and shine bright
Yesterday is gone, don’t you cry or mourn
It is almost tomorrow
So let’s start the day all over again
Without sorrow

Saanvi Samal lives with her family in Salt Lake City, Utah, United States. She loves to dance, loves baking, art, ice skating, and above all she loves school.

Still Life – Ryan Agarwal

Ryan Agarwal has been passionate about art since he could first hold a crayon. He loves to do it during his free time and has also studied at the Artworks Fine Art Studio in San Francisco for nearly a decade. He is a sophomore at St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco where he lives with his parents and his dog Valentino.

The Magikoa Woods – Ava Bogard

Today is the day. My twin sister’s and my twelfth birthday, the birthday we have been looking forward to since we were six. It is a day of adventure, too. May 1, 2021—the day Marisol and I get to go into the Magikoa Woods.
I have heard the legend a thousand times. Every time I visit my grandparents’ house, or one of my mom’s friends comes over, we are told the story of the Wishing Tree in hushed, reverent tones that dance in a child’s ear. It is said to be found in the Magikoa Woods, just half a mile north from my house. Mom has never let us travel into the woods because she doesn’t believe in the Tree, and she doesn’t want us to be disappointed when we don’t find it. But we kept nagging her to go. When we were eight, she gave in and told us she would let us go when we turned twelve. She has always hoped we would grow out of believing in the Tree, but we never have. We are determined.
The Wishing Tree grants one wish to anyone who comes. Marisol and I have had the same wish in mind for ages—I want Dad to come back. He left for Afghanistan seven years ago to fight. I can still feel the warm bear hug he gave me at the airport, trying to silence his tears. I can still see his green and brown camo uniform moving through the gate room.
Marisol and I have never told Mom our wish—we have always told her we wanted to wish for money or new makeup. We didn’t want to make her sad by telling her what we wanted most was Dad. She can’t stand seeing us missing him and being upset.
When I woke up today, just a few minutes ago, I jumped out of bed and tumbled onto Marisol’s bed. I landed on her arm, so she groaned and pushed me away. She massaged her arm and quickly realized what day it was. A humongous, excited smile spread across her face.
Now we are running down the stairs towards the kitchen. The smell of pancakes and bacon surges through my nose as I run behind Marisol. We make a sharp turn and arrive in the kitchen. We watch Mom slide pancakes onto our plates and place a giant platter of bacon in between us.
“Happy birthday,” she says with her warm, signature smile.
We wolf down our meal, excited for the day to come. Marisol and I don’t want presents for our birthday. We don’t even want a party. All we want is for Dad to come home.
After breakfast, Marisol and I slide into jeans and T-shirts, tying hoodies around our waists. It is not long before Mom woefully says goodbye and we walk out the door.
A breeze blows my long hair around. I take a hair tie from my wrist and use it to pull my hair up into a ponytail. Marisol and I face the woods, giddy and excited.
We sprint to the tree line then start walking north. We leap over logs and thorny bushes, and soggy leaves squish under our boots, mud bubbling up above the soles. The view from the inside of the woods is amazing. The trees are everywhere, overlapping each other, which makes the woods more like a forest. The sunlight becomes tinted green when it passes through the trees’ canopies, illuminating everything with a soft, chartreuse glow. Dragonflies and bees zoom through the bushes and trees, avoiding the slow, fluttering butterflies.
According to the legend, the Wishing Tree is taller and thicker than the other trees, adorned with pastel pink flowers. When you make a wish, you’re supposed to place your hand on the trunk and tell the tree your wish. Simple enough.
After about twenty minutes of walking, I spot a thick tree trunk in the distance.
 “Over there!” I yell, pointing. “Look!”
We jog to the trunk and look up at the branches. I cannot explain just how much excitement I feel when I see the trademark pastel pink flowers that bloom on every inch of every branch. We found the Wishing Tree. It really does exist.
Marisol and I exchange a meaningful, toothy smile and our eyes glimmer with childish glee. She outstretches her hand to touch the tree. I stay silent, watching her.
Marisol closes her eyes and says, “I wish for Dad to be home.”
I swear I see the tree sparkle a little. Marisol removes her hand and motions for me to make my wish. I then place my hand on the trunk and close my eyes, just as Marisol did. The bark is rough and scratchy, with tiny splinters poking my skin.
This is the moment I have always been waiting for. “I wish for Dad to be home,” I say.
I remove my hand and grin. Marisol and I bow to the tree, just as the legend instructed us to do. We begin our journey back to the house, following the same route we had taken to get to the tree. I only had one wish, and I used it for the biggest desire of my life. Now all I can do is wait.
When Marisol and I reach our house’s yard, we see a taxi pulling out of our driveway. They probably went to the wrong house. I turn the doorknob and I am surprised to see my mom hugging someone in an army uniform.
Marisol and I run up to him, our eyes flooded with tears. He encases us in one of his signature bear hugs. I breathe in his warm scent: apples and cinnamon, with a hint of pine. It is a familiar scent, one I smell when I bundle myself in his old, fleece blanket at night. Love and happiness course through me, overpowering everything else. My dad is home. My family is whole again.
Wishes do come true.

Ava Bogard lives in Murray, Kentucky, United States. She is 12 years old and attends a public middle school. At school, she participates in Academic Team, Future Business Leaders of America, and Student Council, and her favorite subjects are math and science, although she enjoys all of them. Ava has a passion for writing and art, which she shares with her best friends.

Mum’s Cooking – Christina Livermore

I came home to a new smell today
Something sweet and spicy in the same sniff
I follow the scent that leads me away
Until, I turn and suddenly go stiff
My mum is standing next to the black stove
My mind automatically thinks “Oh no.”
I run to the door and hop to the grove
But as I run, my mother yells “Don’t go!”
Immediately, I come back and sit
After I wait, my mum hands me a plate
At first, I hesitate; then I try it
Usually, it sucks, but today it tastes GREAT!
I applaud her amazing chicken bake
She looks down and mumbles, “It was a cake.”

Christina Livermore is twelve years old and lives in Wellington, Florida, United States. She wrote this sonnet about her mother’s cooking for her creative writing class.

Where Am I? – Nala Delgado

I am tired. Very tired. And sleepy. Flying for twenty-four hours is not fun. My wings are sore. They look dull green, and not as sparkly as I like them to be. It’s probably because of all that dirt in the air.
Ouch! Now my throat hurts too. I probably lost a lot of the red feathers covering my throat! This is why I didn’t want to fly with the other hummingbirds from Chicago to Mexico. Plus, my parents and I are always behind the other hummingbirds, since my little brother flies like a turtle (if they can fly).
Why do we have to fly to Mexico? I miss Chicago already. Here in Mexico, all the hummingbirds like the nectar of my favorite flower: a red tube that looks like the balloon dogs that balloon artists make in birthday parties. And there are only a few of these tube-flowers in one place. I have to muscle my beak around bigger hummingbirds to find a flower with enough nectar to eat.
In Chicago, I can feast! There are wooden houses or glass plates attached to windows and trees. People put insects and sugary seeds in them. And there is water inside that is just for birds (and greedy squirrels)! There are so many of these food heavens that all hummingbirds have their own spots so I don’t have to squeak by them for food.
Also, the spiders in Mexico scuttle around the market stalls where abuelas make tacos. I am not fast enough to catch and eat them. Chicago spiders like to sleep after they finish spinning their webs near the birdhouses. They’re easier to catch. And tastier too!
I remember arguing with my parents when they demanded that I fly with them to Mexico, but I wanted to stay in Chicago.
“Why?” I chirped angrily.
“Because it will be winter, and it gets icy cold. You will get really sick,” my mom said.
“But, I’m older! I have more feathers to keep me warm,” I insisted.
“You are coming with us!” my dad shouted!
“Nala, please come with us,” my little brother softly tweeted.
I’ll do anything for my little brother.
“Fine,” I grumpily agreed.
At least we are almost in Mexico! I can see the mountains. The calm sea. Green trees. Clay houses. Blue skies.
But wait! This can’t be! Where am I? Where is everybody? Where are my parents? My brother? Why is it cold? Freezing cold. And why does the water look gloomy and mad? Is that white powder on the grass? What happened to the green trees? An….an…and is that gray-black skyscraper the John Hancock Tower? Am I back in Chicago?
What is happening? I need to think. But, the wind. I can’t think with this frigid wind bruising my wings! And my eyes! I can’t see through this white powder.
A strong gust slams into my wings. I hear my wings crack, and I can’t move them!
I’m fa…fa…falling!
Now I understand Chicago winter and why we need to leave Chicago!
Still falling!
My beak is about to smash the pavement! I just want to see my parents and brother.
I close my eyes.
“Nala, we’re here in Iguala! Wake up, sleepy-bird!” That voice sounds like Mom.
“Nala! Nala! I know it’s tempting to continue flying while sleeping, but you may bump into a house and hurt yourself. Wake up!” That sounds like Dad.
“Wake up, farty wings.” That is definitely my little brother.
I blink. “Huh! Wha…Where am I?” I blink again.
I see mountains. The calm sea. Green trees. Clay houses. Blue skies.
But, best of all, I see Mom.
And my little brother.
I know where I am!
I am with my family.
I am home.

Nala Delgado, age nine, was introduced to writing at age 7. She is funny, weird, and friendly, but she is also shy and sensitive so don’t expect a full-on “OMG!” or loads of questions when you meet her. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland, United States, with her annoying brother, but considers Chicago home.

Homes Left Behind – Savarna Yang

Savarna Yang is fourteen and lives in Ōtepoti Dunedin, New Zealand.

Home to the Heart – Lily Zhang

Fumbling across the blank lined pages
My hands scribble for my sanity’s sake
They shake more than they have in ages
Leaving a script like something a child would make
I don’t care for how it looks
Or what my peers would think
My thoughts that have filled up entire books
Come to life with multicolored ink
Every worry, every desire
Every hope and every fear
Ideas that burn through my head like fire
Live inside my notebook here
“I disagree with what he said.”
“Why would she do such a thing?”
“My classmates are so far ahead!”
“Everybody laughs when I’m singing…”
“I think the homework’s way too long!”
“Why is he so cold to me?”
“Is it because I did something wrong?”
“What is it that I don’t see?”
“I never wanted this for anyone.”
“Why can’t they leave me be?”
“Is this topic overdone?”
“Maybe he secretly still likes me?”
Thus, I force paper to house it all
Jotted down to be analyzed and read
In an attempt to quiet the turbulent squall
Yet the chaotic thoughts still raze my head

Lily C. Zhang is a twelve-year-old living in California, United States. She likes to write and help her classmates, but taking care of her dog is her top priority. She lost access to the fantastic world of Teyvat last year, so she turned to her thoughts for magic instead.

The House – Yemaya Gaspard

My daughter shut the car door, not hard enough to be a slam, but hard enough to make the car rattle a bit. On most days after soccer practice, she didn’t want to talk. I figured she was beating herself up about whatever small mistakes she made on the field, but I could never be sure, so I left her to her own thoughts and rarely ever said a word.
“Are we going to the house?” She asked, a grumble hidden in her voice. I was caught by surprise that she said anything at all.
“Where else would we go, Mila?” I replied, almost jokingly. I saw her shrug before sighing and turning to stare out the window, tracing her fingers against the raindrops from the inside. I took her question as an invitation for conversation.
“So how was practice?”
“Fine. Only blocked four out of the five goals.”
“But that’s great!”
“Dad. Only four. Not great. Disappointing.”
“If you say so.” We didn’t talk for a bit, and the only thing breaking the silence was the rainfall.
“The next game is the 11th, Saturday.” It sounded like an invitation, but you never know with Mila.
“Wow. I’m off of work that day.”
“I know, Dad.”
I smiled at the stoplight and turned to look at her.
“Do you want me to come?” I tried to hold in the excitement, besides letting the smile form on my lips. I looked at her with hopeful eyes for one last second before pressing on the gas when the light turned green.
“If you want, you can come,” she said. I noticed her fingers return to the raindrop-covered window.
“Okay, great. Maryssa and I can come cheer you on.”
“Nevermind, actually. Maybe go to the next one. My playing’s not as good as I want it to be anyway.”
She was quiet for the rest of the car ride, and I decided not to push. A few minutes later, we arrived at the house, and she stormed through the puddles walking in. That night, I tried knocking on her door, but there was no answer. I assumed she was asleep, so I left her alone.
The next morning, she knocked on my door saying, “Grandma’s here. I’m gonna leave. See you later.”
I didn’t get a chance to answer before I heard her footsteps on the stairs, so I gave my mom a call.
“Hey, mom. Thanks for bringing her to school. I’ll pick her up,” I said over the phone.
“I thought Millie was,” my mom replied.
Millie is my ex-wife, Mila’s mother. I don’t think Mila liked the back and forth—it seemed like she felt like she was on a carousel, never knowing where it would stop. We were freshly divorced, so everyone was still adjusting, especially Mila. It had only been a few months since we actually started living apart, but emotionally, we’d been divorced for longer.
“Oh. I just thought since her game’s Saturday—”
“Hi, lovebug. How’s my favorite eighth grader on this fine Friday?” I heard her say.
“I’m good, Grandma.” Mila’s voice was muffled through the phone speaker.
“Dave, uh, I’ll talk to you later. I’m sure Millie’ll get her, though. Bye.” I imagined my mom clicking the “hang up” button before I tried texting Millie to confirm the plan. No response. For hours. So all I could do was hope she was okay, and better yet, hope she was able to pick Mila up from practice.
I didn’t find out until I went to the game the next day.
Mila wasn’t playing goalie today, but she was a defender, and she did an amazing job. Maybe I was biased, as her father, because everything she did was amazing. I couldn’t stop being proud of her.
At halftime, Mila and her teammates walked to the bench, dipping their hands in the ice cooler, pulling out water bottles. Millie rushed over to give Mila her reusable bottle instead of whatever plastic the cooler had. I didn’t even notice that she was a few rows below me in the bleachers, and I wondered if she noticed I was above her. I got up to go talk to Mila when I was greeted with a lip-lined smile. It was Maryssa.
“David, dear, hello!” She pulled me in for a pretty rough hug.
“Maryssa, hi. I’m sitting up there,” I gestured toward my row before trying to move out of her way and get to my daughter.
“Oh, but where are you going?”
“Just to say hi to Mila.” I kept walking, but I felt her warmth behind me. I approached Mila and Millie, wearing a pre-printed smile, but Mila looked up at me with disappointed eyes, and my smile faded.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, even looking to Millie for an answer.
“After this, do you wanna get some ice cream, Mimi?” Maryssa interrupted, placing her hand on Mila’s shoulder.
“I told you I don’t like it when you call me that,” Mila replied, looking to her mother with a call for help painted in her eyes.
“Mila, I have something in the car for you. Let’s go.” Millie looked me in the eye for the first time in months, but it wasn’t anything good. I hated how similar their eyes were, Millie and Mila. I couldn’t look in the eyes of one without thinking of the other.
I returned back to my seat, cheering for Mila at every moment, trying not to be that one embarrassing dad. An hour passed before her team won, and the eighth grade girls all huddled together, cheering with bright smiles.
I wiped sweat off my forehead before running off the bleachers to congratulate my daughter, but her mom beat me to it. I heard Maryssa’s heels crunching on the grass not too far behind me.
“You did so good, baby!” Millie pushed a strand of Mila’s blond hair back and wiped the sweat off her pale forehead. It appears that she got the sweat glands from me, and her eyes from her mother, because despite the hot Arizona sun, Millie didn’t sweat a drop. Her baby blue sundress was dry, and she smelled like daisies. I wish I could have said the same for myself.
“Thanks, mommy. Can we go home?”
My heart dropped. I hadn’t heard that word come from Mila’s mouth in months. She never said it. Not with me. She would only say house.
“Your father’s or mine?” Millie asked, side-eying me.
“If you come with me and your father,” Maryssa interjected, “we can get that ice cream we talked about.”
We didn’t talk. You did,” Mila answered before turning to her mother. “Mom, I wanna go home with you. Can I visit dad’s house next weekend?”
“Why don’t you wanna come home?” I asked. I didn’t know what the answer would be.
“I do want to go home. With mom. I’ll go to your house another time.”
“My house? It’s yours too.”
“Sure, Dad. Is your girlfriend going with you?”
“Probably not,” I replied. I could feel Maryssa looking at me, but I tried to ignore the strain her eyes put on me.
“Dave, I think we’ll go.” Millie said to me. “Enjoy all of that,” she gestured toward Maryssa, who walked away to talk to the soccer moms.
“No, Mill, wait. I want to talk to Mila.” I grabbed her arm. Her face contorted with a confused look.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Millie replied.
“Dad, your house isn’t a home. It hasn’t been since Mom left. It’s empty. It’s quiet. Except for Maryssa, who talks too loud and too much.”
“But—” I began.
“Let her speak,” Millie said.
“Not that I want Maryssa there, either, but she’s the only life in that house. It’s not a home. A home has two parents and me, and I don’t have that. I can’t have that since you left my mom for Maryssa.”
“Mila!” Millie exclaimed, and her cheeks flushed. Mila walked toward the parking lot, and only Millie and I stayed, staring at where Mila stood before.
After a few moments, Millie said, “I think we’ll leave. Bye, Dave.”
Mila’s words rang—no, banged—in my head.
I don’t have that. I can’t have that.
I stood on the soccer field, alone, before driving back to my house. It wasn’t a home. Not for Mila. And without her, it wasn’t a home for me either.

Yemaya Gaspard is a seventeen-year-old creator in South Florida, United States, who has been writing since she was in kindergarten. She loves to capture her own stories, the stories of others, and the fictional stories of characters she creates.

Contemplation – Ryan Agarwal

Ryan Agarwal has been passionate about art since he could first hold a crayon. He loves to do it during his free time and has also studied at the Artworks Fine Art Studio in San Francisco for nearly a decade. He is a sophomore at St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco where he lives with his parents and his dog Valentino.

A Day in the Life of a Doorknob – Natalie Leuschner

A creak we hear from the doorknob that’s near
It’s good friends with door, who makes it less bored
The Stinky Hands make the doorknob shudder with fear
The poor old knob hates its job, it feels so ignored
But when the most frightening thing appears
The doorknob feels fear and trepidation
For the unwashed hands have now reappeared
The doorknob can’t escape the situation
As the hands approach, it accepts defeat
But all of the sudden, someone says: “Hello!”
Then the other person stops their feet!
The doorknob holds its breath waiting to know
The stranger leaves, and the danger is gone
The doorknob sleeps peacefully until dawn

Natalie Leuschner is a twelve-year-old sixth grader who plays soccer, violin, and loves to bake. She two has siblings, an older brother and older sister.

Road Trip Villanelle – Emma Philips

To return home you first must leave
We spent our summer falling off the map
And sometimes I wonder if our adventures were make believe
Into the world we set forth, young and naive
Our ute packed with Queen CDs and sandwiches in plastic wrap
To return home you first must leave
Over mountains and across plateaus our path did weave
We walked the longest swing bridge to cross a river filled gap
And sometimes I wonder if our adventures were make believe
From traveling there was no reprieve
Ever onwards we wandered, through blistering heat and thunderclap
To return home, you first must leave
And on one darkening silent eve
Round a bend comes a familiar tree and we hear our dog’s welcome home yap
And sometimes I wonder if our adventures were make believe
For those past days of exploration we do not grieve
For our realm of dairy farms and Kauri trees is no trap
To return home you first must leave
And sometimes I wonder if our adventures were make believe

Emma Philips is seventeen years old and lives in Ararua, Northland, New Zealand. Previously she has been shortlisted in the National Flash Fiction Day youth competition and won the 2022 Smart Alex writing competition run by the Turnbull Library. When not writing she can be found reading, drawing, or helping out on the farm.

Condemned Houses – Sarah-Kate Simons

so much can depend
variegated wallpaper
in the back of an antiquated
chanced on by
an explorer
in muddy gumboots.

Sarah-Kate Simons is a writer from rural Canterbury, New Zealand. She is widely published in journals and anthologies. She has been shortlisted and placed in many writing competitions locally and internationally, and was a judge for the 2022 New Zealand Poetry Society competition. Her hobbies include ballet, art, and verbal sparring matches with her characters.

Rain – Ryan Agarwal

Ryan Agarwal has been passionate about art since he could first hold a crayon. He loves to do it during his free time and has also studied at the Artworks Fine Art Studio in San Francisco for nearly a decade. He is a sophomore at St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco where he lives with his parents and his dog Valentino.

The Walking House – Eliah Kim

Yes, there is a walking house
It’s not as comfy as others
Or as big
But it’s a house
A walking house
Said walking house
Carries its weight, with legs
Unlike anything you’ve seen
These legs are small
Smaller than yours
The house’s legs are smaller than yours
Do you have big feet?
Of course the house can’t balance
With one pair of legs
So it has twenty
Twenty pairs of legs
Each taking step by step
Runs and walks
Just like you and me
However, there’s a catch
The house has legs
The legs are small
The legs have a catch
If one leg goes down
The other does too
One leg goes down
The other does too
The house can’t walk
What will it do?
The house is normal
The house is normal
It doesn’t like to be
It wants to be free
Venture the world
With what used to be the house’s legs
The house doesn’t have legs
The house is normal
The house feels sad
The house is lonely
The house has guests
The house has guests
The guests are human
The house is surprised
The house welcomes them in
A father, mother, and two kids
The father, mother, and two kids
Are called a family
The family love the house
The house loves the family
The house enjoys being normal
The house… is happy

Eliah Kim has grown up in San Diego most of his life as a tennis player and an anime lover.

Desert Drifter – William Bittner

Some people really couldn’t care less about who you are: man or woman, young or old, black or white. These are the people that keep the world from spinning off its axis. These are the people—or, perhaps, person—that slide out of the bathtub faucet and make themselves at home.
More accurate than “person” might be “creature”, though no one knows for sure. In Melinda Alvarez’s case, it really did slide out of the faucet. There she was in her windowless bathroom, freshly naked, the door locked and the AC clogged with dust bunnies that could keep a space station pressurized. What did she turn around and see in the bathtub? A pile of neon jackets in a head-splitting array of colors. A beard like a barbed wire fence spilled over them from beneath a tilted Stetson. They got into a little contest, her screaming, it drowning her out with a sudden bout of snoring.
By the time the neighbors came to investigate, the creature had quit the apartment. All that remained was Melinda, faint on the floor. Sweat puddled around her. She told paramedics there had been a man in her bathtub, but when the police showed up before any evidence did, she decided she didn’t believe her story either.
The local news, at least, tossed her a bone. They ran a lunchtime story the next day, the kind that’s really just white noise for nervous dogs left inside on hot days while their owners run to the grocery store. It was sandwiched between a profile of a local centenarian who came third in the national Scrabble tournament and the announcement of an ice cream parlor opening up on Parson Street. It was the middle of a southwestern July. Ice cream got a stronger response.
The next next day, Mayor Richard Alvarez (no relation to Ms. Melinda Alvarez) took to Twitter to address the residents of Placeholder, Arizona (also known as Placeholder, New Mexico—the border cut the city into the shape of a headless deer and a roughly equal deerless head). In a proud, tearless speech, he regaled the previous night’s intrusion into his home. Upon hearing a strange noise from downstairs, the Mayor kissed his sleeping wife, grabbed his 1994 Division II Championship bat, and snaked through the house with the precision of a Navy SEAL. A flipped lightswitch revealed a wild vagabond rummaging through the fridge. Fortunately for all involved, the figure fled. This frightening incident will not interfere with the Mayor’s campaign nor distract him from his continued dedication to serving his constituents.
Within a week, two dozen reports had come in. Streetwalker Liche Alvarez (again, no relation) tripped on her heels and skinned her knee while running away from a client’s car. The creature had been sleeping in his backseat. He didn’t see it, bystanders didn’t see it, the police didn’t see it, but it was there, she swears it was there, she saw it and she ran away, he killed that person, she could see the body, why does no one believe her?
Marcus Sweaty (who actually was distantly related to both Melinda and Richard Alvarez) was an HVAC artisan on his way to the Big City when he plowed into a sedan. The creature had opened his hood and climbed out of the engine in the middle of rush hour traffic, blinding him to the Honda Accord whose rear he was rapidly approaching. The damage was pretty bad, but he knows a guy who’ll fix it for cheap even without insurance. He can always buff out the scratches and dents on his own and his grandson is coming next weekend and he needs to teach him to work on an engine, so he might not even need to do that if the boy still has a good pair of hands and a bit of sense in his head like his grandpa.
They started calling the creature the Desert Drifter, on account of its roaming from red-rock house to sun-stained car and everywhere in between. It never did anything to justify a more intimidating name. An investigative team from Phoenix concluded that it was a living ghost. A team put together by the local ranchers at Sammy’s Bar to the tune of stale ale and jukebox rocking agreed. Windows stayed shut, doors stayed locked, eyes stayed open and guns stayed loaded. The creature appeared all the same.
Each time it slipped through a window or out of an ice machine, its garish garb took on different patterns. The only constant was its beard. The investigation went nowhere, with Sweaty claiming to see ectoplasm on a neighbor’s wall, which turned out to be an AC leak that drew his attention away immediately. Jake Zonnie, a reclusive fundamentalist from the reservation, knew for a fact it was a modern-day Diyin Dine’é, angered and on the loose. Spencer Wells, smelling a demon and in need of a stroll, set out for the Gila Valley Temple on foot, a Bible and a Book of Mormon in hand.
The first real lead, the pin that set off the snare and almost snagged the rabbit by the foot, came from Miss Karen Alvarez.
Miss Karen Alvarez (no relation to the other Alvarezes) was known in town as “that crazy old bat,” and folks liked it that way. When a baseball flew over Miss Karen Alvarez’s fence, as far as the kids were concerned, it ceased to exist. Her property was a snug thing. The roof of her house hung over the plywood fence so that no sunlight got in except for a single corner where a garden grew. Bored teenagers in last period joked that it wasn’t that no one knew if she was alive; no one knew who knew. They tried to wrap their pot-addled heads around that until the bell rang. Placeholder Farm and City Credit Union must have been too scared to call in her mortgage, because she never left for work or got welfare in the mail but somehow kept the house.
It was in that house that the Drifter next appeared. Beard treacherous as usual, it snuck into the house while she was working in the garden, pampering peppers that made the most delicious mole. A burning stench ambushed her as she finished up on the patio and pulled off her rubber boots. A look through the faded screen door revealed the Drifter lounging in the sink, reading a flier from the fridge as his hat sizzled on the stovetop. For the first time in local memory, Karen fled her fortress, ran with one boot all the way to the fire station, and, remembering the logo on the flier the Drifter was reading, told them with the foresight of a grandmother where it was headed next.
The Placeholder Catholic High School gym was the site of an all-out war. Daniel Alvarez and Luna Alvarez (their same last name fortunately a coincidence) were intrepid vanguards, forging ahead into the trench-crossed Ardennes of their sexuality as their tongues crashed in great airbursts. This was the awkward scene the Drifter stumbled onto. Rather, slid onto, as it unscrewed the air conditioning grate with its fingernails and slunk down the wall, cushioned by rising sound waves as the grate crashed and quivered on the floor.
The lovebirds turned. The Drifter let himself break in two and be absorbed by their disbelieving eyes. From there, he strolled to their brainstems and slid down them like fire poles before jumping through the thinnest skin where bony, youthful backs were accentuated by vertebrae, and helicoptered to the gym floor, wiry beards becoming wings. From both Luna and Daniel sprung a brand-new drifter. They turned to face each other as a reflection faces itself in a second mirror.
Before the confused Alvarezes could turn around and scream, the doors burst open and floodlights bounded in, police, sheriffs, troopers, marshalls, and every other shade of uniform following on their heels. They reached the teens before the light did, and they were knocked off their feet for the second time that night. One shepherded Luna into the arms of her grandmother, Miss Karen Alvarez. One shepherded Daniel into her glare.
The officers surrounded the Drifter and its clone in a circle of tasers. The Drifters were tranquil statues. A lieutenant wanted their layers off to sniff out weapons. The officers’ arms unbuttoned, unzipped, grabbed and pulled at linen and memories of satin and hats and scarves until their muscles burned and the clothes pile was taller than the Drifters. At last, a pair of gray sweatshirts were removed and the Drifters’ forms voided from reality, their clothing falling limply as stale air slid out from where their bodies should have been.
Up above, sharing drinks with its newborn brother, the Drifter made a toast to beginnings. The pair looked down through heaven and chuckled, not maliciously, but contentedly, happy with the knowledge that Placeholder, Arizona (also known as Placeholder, New Mexico) made a little less sense than before.

William Bittner is a high school senior from Birmingham, Alabama, United States. He enjoys writing absurdist essays and short stories. He has been published in Parallax, Crashtest, Paper Crane, and others, and has been recognized by the Alabama Writers’ Forum.

Nonfiction column

Opinion Article: ChatGPT Is a Tool for Education, Not a Threat – Ryan Chen

ChatGPT is on track to become one of the most popular applications in history, reaching 100 million users just two months after its release. The chatbot uses artificial intelligence to generate text based on prompts. The resulting text is convincingly human—causing consternation amongst educators, who worry that students could be using ChatGPT to cheat. In response, school districts in New York City and Seattle, among others, have banned the usage of ChatGPT on school networks and devices.
But ChatGPT doesn’t mean human-generated text will necessarily become obsolete. In fact, ChatGPT itself is trained on vast quantities of human-generated text. Its writing style seems convincing, but it’s currently incapable of generating true, original knowledge. The CEO of OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, acknowledged this himself last December, tweeting that ChatGPT was “incredibly limited”.
ChatGPT may be able to generate a high school-level essay on, say, the themes of Romeo and Juliet that looks convincing at first glance. But a closer read will likely show an inability to back up arguments with specific textual references, circular reasoning that doesn’t actually make sense, and perhaps even plagiarism. (All issues that plague human writing as well—so maybe it’s unsurprising that our AI reflection picked it up.)
Limited or not, AI-generated language isn’t going away any time soon—it’s the home of the future. In fact, it’s already used in everyday applications like auto-generating text suggestions for emails. Its accessibility and efficiency, combined with improvements in computing, mean that the role of generative AI will only increase. Students must understand this technology and how to best apply it.
Therefore, some educators are taking the route of critically assessing what ChatGPT can do and how they can incorporate it into their classrooms, instead of the extremes of completely banning ChatGPT or wholeheartedly embracing it. For example, Marilyn Ramirez, a high school English teacher in New York City, says she isn’t worried about ChatGPT. She compared it to Google Translate, which her non-native-English-speaking students use in her classes: an important tool, but with limitations. Another high school English teacher, Kelly Gibson in rural Oregon, told her students to use ChatGPT to generate an essay analysing a text—and then take it apart and improve it.
Taking ChatGPT’s text as a starting point for outlines, ideas, prompts, lesson plans, and more, for students to respond to, is common among educators who use ChatGPT. This can also help address writer’s block, which is very challenging for students for whom writing is not their strong suit. ChatGPT can be used to generate text about whatever the writer is stuck on, providing scaffolding for their arguments and a starting point to look at the topic from a fresh perspective and glean insights.
ChatGPT also has a “regenerate response” function, where it can create new text for the same prompt from scratch. By providing multiple answers to the same question, students can identify the strongest elements, consider the bot’s arguments, and respond to what it says, honing their discernment skills and making the writing process seem less intimidating.
And while this may change as language learning models become more powerful, currently, ChatGPT’s database of accumulated knowledge is limited. The tool can’t do Internet searches and scrape the resulting information, so it has limited knowledge of world events after 2021. But it still has a broad base of information and can be used to provide a wealth of examples to students. Students can build on that by connecting the information they get from ChatGPT to real-world examples they’ve pulled from the news and personal experience—information ChatGPT can’t access. By functioning as a powerful search engine, or a writer’s version of a calculator, ChatGPT can be a home base of knowledge and resources for students to expound upon in their own, personal way.
As ChatGPT gets stronger, society must adapt with it, not against it. Like ChatGPT’s “regenerate response”, educators must continually reassess their standards and rules to keep up with AI. As large language models (LLMs) advance, the chatbot may very well “graduate” from writing high school and undergraduate papers to generating hypotheses, designing experiments, and even synthesising new information. ChatGPT’s texts have already been criticised for inaccuracies. While ChatGPT will likely become more reliable with time, this underscores the need for multiple forms of verification, much like peer review.
But unlike individual researchers, ChatGPT as a whole can’t be held accountable for saying something inaccurate or plagiarising another person’s work. Therefore, researchers and students should be transparent about how they used AI language generators throughout the process and disclose whether it was used to partially come up with ideas, revise, or write the piece. Educators should also explore LLMs beyond just ChatGPT to provide different points of comparison. Tech companies could do their part to improve LLMs as a pedagogical tool by being more transparent about the database and code used to build them.
Ultimately, ChatGPT and other forms of artificial intelligence are strongest when paired with a person. This isn’t a new revelation; the 1991 paper “Partners in Cognition: Extending Human Intelligence with Intelligent Technologies” discussed the benefits of “intellectual partnerships” between humans and machines. This includes effects with the technology (advancements in collective knowledge, or scholarship) and effects of the technology (advancements in individual knowledge, or education). Currently, LLMs like ChatGPT are better suited for the latter because of their unprecedented ability to digest and see patterns in written text.
That also means humans aren’t going anywhere, as the ultimate originators of the information powering ChatGPT. But ChatGPT and similar tools are here to stay too, and they should be regarded more as exciting new challenges, not potential threats. Instead of demonising it, let’s learn how to use artificial intelligence—intelligently.

Ryan Chen is a junior at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, United States, and has a passion for journalism. His writing on homelessness received a Silver Key at the Scholastic Art and Writing awards. In his free time, he loves to read, watch football, and play cards with his friends.

Special: Flash fiction mentorship programme

Introduction and acknowledgements

These stories come from students mentored as part of a year-long project to bring flash fiction to schools across the country. Funded by the Mātātuhi Foundation, we offered workshops free to schools either outside major centres, or below decile six in the cities. These workshops were then followed by a series of mentorships to hone students’ stories for publication—we are delighted to share some of these stories below in this special feature at fingers comma toes.

We aimed to deliver eight workshops and mentor five students, but when we put out the call more than thirty schools applied.

Between five writers, we ran thirteen workshops in schools in Northland, Auckland, Waikato, Coromandel, Bay of Plenty, Wairarapa, Tasman, Canterbury, North Otago, Central Otago, and Southland. We were also able to provide mentoring to ten students. This publication features work from several of these students.

We would like to thank the Mātātuhi Foundation, who provided funding for the workshops and mentoring, and the NZATE, who offered further funding to cover some of the transportation costs. Of course, the project would not have been possible without the hard work of all the writers, teachers, and mentors:

Lynda Scott Araya

Paul Clark

Lola Elvy

Michelle Elvy

Ronnie Karadjova

Kate Mahony

Anna Scaife

Catherine Trundle

We would particularly like to thank Lola Elvy for not only bringing her experience to the project and being one of the mentors, but also giving our students space in fingers comma toes.

This issue is dedicated to Paul Clark, who passed away at the end of May. Paul’s contribution to the project in its early stages helped us get it off the ground, and his passion for teaching radiated through our many Zoom calls.

Thank you to teachers and students for contributing to this project.

Mel Dixon and Jack Remiel Cottrell, project organisers

Free At Last – Angelica Sabili

If the heart is the strongest muscle, then why is it so easy to break?
Life used to be beautiful. On monsoon mornings, I held her hand, so she didn’t slip at the bus stop. And then we never let go. This girl—bubbly, beautiful, lovely—was someone I knew would grow old with me forever, I thought.
“Wake up, bro. Just move on and you’ll find someone better than her,” they all told me. I knew I was just letting everyone down.
“Hey, Alden, you are my top student, but I’m wondering why you have been failing exams. Not turning in your homework, not interested in any school activities. How can I help you? You can talk to me,” Miss Valmonte said.
I wanted to excel but I didn’t have the energy even to be fatigued. The shadows of nightfall seemed more sombre, my mornings less buoyant, and I couldn’t even imagine the possibility of me getting out of bed. One minute it was an outburst of anger, next thing, tears would start flooding my eyes. It’s all my fault. What’s the point? You are just a nobody, worthless, and nobody in this world deserves you. Those were the words that kept repeating. Thinking of her made me tremble and have trouble focusing clearly on anything. I thought I was healing and moving on. The truth is, I was feeling depressed.
Recognising that I was depressed was essential to get the right help. I started dealing with my emotion and shared how I feel with someone I trusted—my whānau. My family helped and provided me with their aroha, comfort, respect, and concern. On days when I felt really down, as if I couldn’t get out of bed, physical activities helped boost my energy levels. Every day, I set small goals and accomplished them. I started to listen to music, spent time with nature, and had a wonderful time with my whānau. I opened my eyes and allowed the people I shut out of my life back again.
Two years have passed ever since you decided to leave me. Now, I’m finally free! Everything is clear! It’s incredible!  It feels like I’m wearing a new pair of shiny glasses. You see, that must be the significance of tears. To clean our eyes for us to reveal that we weren’t meant for each other. I realised that everyone was right. Starting this day, you are a learning memory to help me move on. Starting this day, I won’t be crying because of you. Starting this day, I won’t rush myself to give every effort to follow you because you left me. I promise myself that starting this day I will not allow my world to revolve around you. Because I’m free at last.

Angelica Sabili is a year-ten student and attends Waitākere College in Auckland, New Zealand.

Carnival Poppies – Jaedyne Mayion

“Benny-boy! Ya still got those drinks?” Baz called out.
“Oh course, Bazzy!” Ben handed out mini champagne bottles.
“Guys! I got the cotton candy! Thanks, Miguel!” Lance rushed towards them, waving the candy victoriously.
“Lance, those are mine! Give them back!” Miguel tried to catch Lance but Lance skillfully avoided his grasp.
“Miguel, stop chasing Lance. You’re causing a scene.” Allen sipped his champagne.
“But Mom—” Miguel slapped his hand over his mouth.
“What was that, Miguel?” Allen raised an eyebrow.
He’s so dead, everyone thought.
“N-nothing, Allen!” Miguel hid feebly behind Lance, who glared at him.
“That’s what I thought. Lance, pass around the cotton candy, please,”
As the cotton candy was passed around, conversation gradually increased.
“How’s the cotton candy, Kevin?” Allen asked the youngest of the group.
“Good as always, sir! Super sweet and fluffy!” the sixteen-year-old eagerly replied.
“That’s great to hear!” he softly smiled.
“Baz’s got the best shot out of all of us, he should go!” Miguel handed the pebbles to him. Baz aimed at the stacked cans some distance away.
PING! The first one fell. PING! Another down. Ping! The last one followed.
“Crikey! You have some great aim, good sir! Here is your prize!” the stall owner declared, dramatically presenting Baz with a purple plushie.
“Why thank you, Madam Macie!” Baz snickered while doing a curtsy.
“I’ve told you, it’s Mac!” The group exploded into fits of laughter.
“Oh come on, Mac! We’re just joking!” Lance slapped him on the back. “Isn’t that right, Kev?”
“Y-yeah! W-we’re j-just j-joking!” Kevin wheezed.
“See?” Lance grinned.
“Wow, so convincing,” Mac rolled his eyes.
“Oh, don’t be like that, Mac! Loosen up! Live a little!” Baz laughed.
“Hey, sarge! Care to join our little carnival?” Ben offered the weary sergeant a bottle.
Ammunition acted as plushies. Coconut oat biscuits were pretend cotton candy. Rationed water was illusive champagne. For a moment, the raging battlefield was a carnival fantasy.
“What would I do without you eight?” the sergeant sighed, taking a swig of water.
“Probably die, sir!” came a reply.
“Oh shut it, Jack!” he yelled back.
“Haha, you know I was joking, sir!” Jack shot him a cheeky grin before playfully tackling Lance to the ground.
“Ahh, sibling love.” Mac pretended to wipe away a tear while Kevin giggled at the sight of Lance and Jack wrestling on the ground.
“Jack, Lance, cut it out.” The sergeant rubbed his temples. “I swear, y’all are giving me wrinkles fifty years early.”
The echoing gunshots stopped abruptly.
That’s seven minutes too soon. What happened to the barrage? This isn’t good. thought the sergeant.
“It’s time, boys,” the sergeant declared.
“Oh, don’t be sad, sarge! We ain’t gonna die!” Kevin smiled innocently.
“Heh, then I’ll see you later, okay, kid?” He ruffled Kevin’s hair.
“Sir yes sir!” Kevin saluted.
“Form up, men!” the sergeant commanded.
“Yes sir!” they replied in unison.
“SOLDIERS, ADVANCE!” the sergeant yelled, his voice cracking a bit.
Beside the trench, eight poppies grew.

Jaedyne Mayion is a year-ten student and attends Waitākere College in Auckland, New Zealand.

Barren – Ava Porter

Barren. That was how to describe what lay before Lucy. The sky stretched out dark and ominous and the cobwebs suspended between the carnival rides glimmered in the moonlight. It was deserted, and the creepy feeling made Lucy shiver. The Ferris wheel creaked, and that’s when it started. Lightning cracked right beside her, purple winged creatures came flying at her from nowhere, small fluffy clouds rocketed towards her. An invisible force yanked her over and pulled at her feet, dragging her across the hay floor. Lucy tried to scream, but nothing came out.
Lucy sat bolt upright in her bed. She had broken out in a cold sweat like she did every morning after waking from the same dream. But despite the horrors of the night, it was like heaven compared to the day ahead.
Lucy managed to get to school and find her friends. They messed around while they waited for the bell and for the shortest time she felt alright. She would usually sit in the corner, watching rather than taking part. She would mull over her thoughts, praying that no one could see beyond her solemn outer shell. But today Lucy joined in, talked, laughed along with the other. The cloud full of failure, anxiety, and depression that usually lurked over her dispersed as she was distracted from all her worries with the laughter and chatter of her friends. But when the bell rang the cloud surely returned, as Lucy faced what she had to do next. She pushed her way through the stampede in the corridor, her head dropped low. Lucy reached her destination and tentatively pushed the door open.
“Hey, Lucy,” a sweet-voiced woman said from behind the desk.
“Hi, Miss Eagle,” Lucy whispered, nerves flooding her body.
“Take a seat,” Miss Eagle said, smiling kindly and gesturing to the seat opposite her. Lucy closed the door firmly behind her and sat down. She gripped the armrests tightly and her knee started jiggling hastily.
“So, let’s talk through this, okay, Lucy?” Miss Eagle said in a kind, reassuring tone, starting what was sure to be a difficult conversation. Miss eagle had a vibe about her, one of confidence and trust. Lucy took a deep breath. It was worth a shot. She nodded.
That night, like every night, Lucy was back at the carnival. The desertedness was still creepy, and the lack of life sent shivers up Lucy’s spine. She knew it was coming but it terrified her all the same when the lightning hit the ground centimetres from her bare feet. It terrified her when the screeching winged creatures came rocketing at her from all directions. It terrified her when the icy mist swept her hair into knots and gave her goosebumps all over. It was hell. As she hit the ground, as she felt the unseen force grab her ankle, as she was dragged across the rough, disgusting earth. Lucy opened her mouth wide, wanting desperately to release her pent-up feelings through a loud scream. And she did. Not a proper scream, just a quiet, timid scream, a scream that was a baby wanting to grow. Lucy had never been able to scream before in this dream. While her mouth was letting out the small scream, her eyes glinted with relief and hope. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.

Ava Porter is a year-ten student and attends Waitākere College in Auckland, New Zealand.

Flower Fields – Erin Aralar

May 13, 1881
Spring neared its demise.
Dominic trod through the emerald-dazzled forest. He hadn’t visited for a year. He couldn’t bring himself to return. Dominic still hadn’t processed everything.
Golden rays shone through the tall canopies, giving plants their ‘glowing aura’. He frequented this place because of its solitude; with admirers always flocking him, the forest offered  asylum. He never understood why people were so vain; all he had was his striking appearance. Other than that, he was no different than the average man.
“Watch your step!” a soft voice exclaimed.
The sole of Dominic’s shoe hovered over a flower. As he stepped aside, he turned to talk to the stranger. Dominic had never been bewitched by someone so beautiful. Her dark, wavy hair increased her crimson lips’ intensity. He found it challenging to look away from her doll-like, cerulean eyes as they gazed into his. The cool tones in her eyes juxtaposed the warmth she radiated.
“I apologise for that, Miss. May I ask for your name?”
“Angelica Fields.”
“It’s a pleasure meeting you, Miss Fields,” he said with a pleasant grin.
“With all due respect, don’t you remember me, Mr. Flores?”
            Had they met before? He thought long and hard, but Dominic shook his head. Though Angelica kept a smile on her face, her eyes, full of sorrow, left his.
“How unfortunate. Sorry for the intrusion. We shall part ways.”
Dominic couldn’t take his eyes away from her. As she was walking away, she turned her head over her shoulder and stole a glance—their eyes met once again. As her figure faded away, he longed for another encounter.
A few days later
Dominic braced himself in fear of his devotees as he entered the grand hall. Though it was unlikely, he hoped to see Angelica here… And there she was, the chandelier shining upon her. She wore a burgundy velvet dress, which intensified the blue in her eyes.
He approached Angelica. “May I have this dance?” Gasps echoed through the room. As Dominic’s fans grieved, she smiled widely at his request.
“I would be overjoyed, Mr. Flores.”
“Please, call me Dominic.”
“Then I wish you’d call me Angelica, Dominic.”
The moments which flew by turned into minutes, then hours. They waltzed the night away, gliding across the ballroom. Though Dominic had only met her once, it felt as if they’d danced together their whole lives. As the moon reached its peak, they walked hand-in-hand through the garden.
Her hands feel a little cold, he thought.
Angelica laughed, and Dominic heard the sound of bells. He thought about her bashful smile, her flushed cheeks, her beautiful blue eyes… He was the happiest he’d ever been.
Dominic felt something hard hit his boot.
Below him stood a grave stone.
It read:
Sacred to the Memory of
Angelica Fields
12th of May 1856-13th of May 1880
Lover to Dominic Flores
The cold sensation in his hand disappeared .
He turned to his side.
Nothing was there.

Erin Aralar attends Hauraki Plains College in Waikato, New Zealand.

Royal Blue – Delta Johns

Diana stared deeply at the blank canvas in front of her. She hummed her favourite song and tapped the beat on the floor with her foot. She began dipping her paintbrush into her paint which was a rich royal blue colour. She then splashed the paint into the centre of her canvas and began flicking her wrist at the paint in an awkward yet artistic way. Stuck in her own world. She stared hard at what she had created. “Not good enough, the judges will hate this,” she muttered under her breath. She sighed and ripped off the paper. She started again, dipping her paintbrush into the rich royal blue, but to her surprise, she was running out of paint. She brought the last of the paint to the paper, but the minute the two things touched, Diana knew something was wrong.

Before she realised, wet droplets coursed down her cheeks. She wiped her cheeks in confusion. Her tears were not the normal colour, they were royal blue. Was she becoming demented? First crying for no reason and now her tears were royal blue. She rubbed her eyes and gazed at her clock: 12:42, already past midnight. She must be just tired. Maybe she should go to bed and buy more paint in the morning. As she started packing up her stuff, she noticed her paintbrush was royal blue, not brown. She looked around and saw all her art supplies that she had touched were royal blue too. Panic flooded through her. She looked down. Her body was royal blue. She screamed as the floor came closer to her. Her body had become all mushy like mashed potatoes. She then began feeling all wet and sticky and before she knew it she was on the ground.

“Ma’am? Ma’am, are you alright?” said the cashier.
Diana’s eyes suddenly flicked open, “Uh…y-yes, sorry.”
“So is this all for today?” the cashier said impatiently.
Diana then brought her gaze to the two cans of royal blue paint. She began breaking out into a cold sweat. “Actually, I don’t want to purchase these, thanks.”
“Okay, well, hurry up. I have a big line of customers behind you.”
Diana then turned to leave the shop. Behind her, a long line of fellow art students were each holding two tins of royal blue paint.

Delta Johns is a year-ten student and attends Waitākere College in Auckland, New Zealand.

Feature interview: Discussion with our newest editors

Introducing our newest editors at fingers comma toes
Thomas Charles Cairncross | contributing editor since 2022
Joy Tong (童诗佳) | contributing editor since 2022
Hannah Scovell-Lightfoot | arts editor starting 2023

Lola Elvy at fingers comma toes: What inspires you to create? What kinds of things do you like to create, and why?

Joy Tong: It’s hard to say! I’m inspired by lots of things, but lately, it’s been other pieces of art (a good song, a cool painting, an insightful piece of writing by somebody else). If I’m ever in a creative block, writing or creating something as a response to another work usually helps me to get back in the flow. In general, I tend to focus on very personal, specific topics—I find that pieces that dig deep into someone’s self actually resonate powerfully with their readers. I’m most struck by unique voices that arise from exploring the inherent power and political nature of personal stories. My go-to form is poetry or short prose, which really lets me hone in on a specific moment or feeling, and continue from there, letting me unpack and understand ideas in ways I haven’t before. I also enjoy experimenting in the playground of language and structure, seeing how words sit on a page, the kinds of images they create, or the way they sound aloud.

Thomas Cairncross: Silly ideas inspire me. When you sit with the people you are comfortable with, and you joke, you build on the ideas of your companions, those are the ideas that inspire me, those are the seeds which grow and get scribbled into the journals or onto scraps of paper —doomed to be placed somewhere safe, then probably lost.

Seeing a billboard, or reading something, that makes you stop and think Huh—that inspires me. For example, I was wandering through town, and saw a business named Lennox Bathrooms and thought that would be a wonderful name for a D&D (Dungeons and Dragons) character, and from there came a personality and a whole backstory.

I like to create. But most of the stuff that I create never makes it to pen and paper, and of those that do, even less is crafted into something readable. My creativity lies in brainstorming, spinning an idea out of bits and bobs, adding and refining as time goes by, and while there may not be any lasting records of this process, it’s a fun process! Sometimes the process is the most enjoyable part of the story.

Hannah Scovell-Lightfoot: I feel inspired to create quite simply by the emotional experiences I have as a human. Pain, more than any other feeling, is a big catalyst for my creativity—I’ll create a dance out of it, or a rather tragic painting or sing it to a minor key. At the other end of the spectrum, I love to laugh. I find myself and all of us quite amusing which inspires me to create comedic characters and skits that often make fun of how seriously we can take ourselves and encourages us to lighten up a wee bit. Sometimes I press record on video and see what character comes out of me.

LE: Let’s talk about reading—what do you like to read and why? How does what you read affect what you write?

TC: As part of my study, I just read The Brimstone journals by Ron Koertge, to and with a class of sixteen-year-olds. I enjoyed it because of the variety and authentic feeling of the voices within the text, and found it quite worrying as someone who is entering into education. Texts like The Brimstone journals can help readers to understand the individuality of characters and how they mesh together to create a complex and human narrative.

Science fiction holds a place in my soul. On reading Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan, I was reminded of how a different world can be so odd, of how imagination can fly and take an idea to a place very strange. After reading Voltaire’s Micromégas  I saw how our own mundane world can seem outlandish from afar.

I like to read and write pieces that take me from my desk, and drop me deep into the narrative, within the workings of the author. Also, pieces that are just plain weird—experimenting and getting things wrong sometimes are valuable experiences for a writer in the process of finding something quite cool.

HSL: I enjoy a range of reading. At the moment I’m reading (again) Inquire Within, a spoken word poetry book by IN-Q. I like it because it is heartfelt and moving and true to life while not leaving me feeling hopeless about where we’re all headed, as some writing does! I also enjoy reading books like The Little Prince, novels that are succinct and offer timeless wisdom. What I read affects my writing in the way that I usually feel inspired to journal about what I have read. I find journalling a great creative outlet because I can get everything that’s rattling around my head out and in front of me. As I put words to my experiences and feelings, I often access greater clarity around the respective situation. Sometimes what I’m writing about morphs into a poem or a rap. I usually have some kind of bio-hacking health book on the go, as I am fascinated by the human body and how I can optimise my own to be as functioning and vibrant as it can.

JT: It’s been harder to actually read for enjoyment in between all the exams and assignments, unfortunately. I’ve always had a rather eclectic taste in reading: my adolescence was filled with fantasy and historical fiction (which taught me lots about narrative devices and plot), I love a good poetry collection (Ocean Vuong, Sylvia Plath, Nina Mingya Powles, and Grace Nichols are favourites), and recently, I’ve been reading bell hooks’ All About Love: New Visions (amazing so far, would highly recommend). The media I consume, books or otherwise, plays a big part in my own style. This isn’t only at the language level, where I am constantly trying to learn new ways to imbue words with meaning, but also to look at how certain tropes or views work. Being cognisant of things I like or don’t like, as well as why I feel that way, is an important way for me to develop my own writing.

LE: What do you look for in others’ work—in a story, essay, or poem, or in painting, photography, or other visual art—when you’re reading or seeing with an editor’s eye?

HSL: In visual art I look for content that speaks to the heart. I enjoy seeing pictures and photos that genuinely capture a person or people. For example, a painting of the face of an old woman in whose eyes can be seen an entire life of experience and resulting wisdom. Or simply a candid photo of two friends laughing. I appreciate the skill and time and energy taken in creating visual art, regardless of whether it personally reaches me, so I look for that, too. For example, Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory is not one I’d hang on my walls because it disturbs me; however, his work does move something uncomfortable in me, which speaks to the power of his style and his skill as an artist.

JT: A well-paced storyline that compels me to keep reading, a turn of phrase that makes me see or think about something in a new way, usage of figurative language that evokes a fresh, vivid image—I love anything that surprises me. The elements I look for will vary based on genre, but if I am engaged throughout the piece or perhaps there is some kind of underlying, thoughtful development, I’ll probably be a fan. I’m swayed by creative, intentional explorations of language or syntax—in other words, clichés or vagueness don’t usually click for me.

TC: When reading poetry and prose, one of the first things that stands out to me is, how does this piece sound when it is read aloud?

A big part of storytelling is in the telling, so the voice of the text is important. I say the voice of the text rather than the voice of the author, as an author may write differently depending on the day, mood, or topic of their subject piece. But the voice of the text should be relatively consistent, or at least make sense within the narrative.

So, when I read a poem that has structure, and with word choice that allows me to read it aloud without tongue twisters, then I feel I can relax and fall under the author’s spell.

When I read prose that sounds like it’s being read to me by a friend, I feel comforted as if lazing by a campfire. Or perhaps the narrative voice is eerie and provoking, and I feel anxious or spooked.

When I read essays, or non-fiction, there’s more impact when the topic is thoroughly broken down and made relevant to the context and to me. Explanations are important with this genre of writing, and writing with the idea of explaining your subject out loud is a nifty wee tool to have.

Writing about yourself is quite hard. It forces introspection, which can be somewhat confronting. But this is a good activity, and a positive process. As writers, creators, and people, it’s important to ask ourselves who we are, now and again.

Also, as writers, don’t forget the key rules: Break all the rules, experiment with writing, and have fun.

LE: When it comes to your professional lives, you’re each pursuing different goals: Thomas, a Master’s of Teaching at the University of Otago, after finishing your Bachelor’s in English and Classical Studies; Joy, a degree in Biomedical Engineering and Chemistry at Duke University, with a special focus in healthcare; and Hannah, a year-long theatre programme in Christchurch. What motivates you each in your studies or draws you to these particular fields?

TC: Stories are something I’ve always held dear, whether it was hearing the myths of Loki and other gods, or my Dad’s science fiction collection. Books, stories, and tales have always been there nurturing me. Through stories we can experience and live lives that reach to the edges of imagination. Through stories we can learn: Aesop’s fables are wonderful; The Tortoise and the Hare is nearly universal, and gives the valuable lesson of persistence! Stories are how we discover the exploits of our Whānau, our family, and how we form bonds with the people around us.

And through all that, stories allow us to pass our passions, our voices, and dreams on and into the world around us.

I like learning, and I like learning with people. One of the aspects of teaching is to be constantly learning with and for your students. If I can learn some stories with my students, well, that sounds rather fun to me.

The name English is a bit of a misnomer. Rather than teaching the English language, I aim to teach stories and foster the ability for students to think critically, and to express themselves, their ideas and thoughts. With English, I want to show how brilliant and expansive the world is (perhaps by showcasing some of the works submitted to fingers comma toes) and to challenge the students to question and create in the space around them.

Classical Studies is typically a foray into the Ancient Greek and Roman societies, including art and mythology. I would love to broaden that to include some ancient science, and bring in the Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures. The wider the scope, the better the framework of our understanding.

But at the end of the day, rather than teaching English and Classical studies, I want to teach students.

JT: I’ve always enjoyed science and engineering for how it lets me tinker with things, and also slowly start to understand how the world around me works—particularly how we function as humans. I’m interested in pharmaceuticals, particularly the science and technology of actually delivering therapeutics to different bodily targets. There are so many things we still don’t understand about ourselves, and I enjoy the interdisciplinary nature of tackling this challenge. Healthcare research really excites me, but it also has very clear deficiencies. In a field that is often unethical, male-dominated, and doesn’t include the experiences or voices of people of colour, there is a need to make sure that our work actually serves underrepresented communities. While I don’t necessarily know how to address that yet, it’s an important guiding principle in how I approach advocacy and research.

HSL: I’ve always has a passion for acting. When I was little I’d put on shows for anyone who’d watch, often (forcefully) bringing my younger brother on board for involuntary collaboration. As mentioned previously, I have always liked to make up various characters that are comedic in nature. Playing these characters feels very natural and there’s an essence of doing it that just feels “right”. I took drama in high school to explore more of my natural enthusiasm for acting, and, having taken a few years off academic study, I am inspired now to explore this passion and see where it leads!

LE: How does your main area of work/study apply to your creative work, either solo or in the community (with fingers comma toes or  elsewhere)? Are there any overlaps?

HSL: Just as theatre comes alive through the witnessing presence of an audience, so does any other kind of art. With this awareness, importance is placed on the visual aspect of whatever is being shared and can be applied to other creative works such as paintings or photography. In theatre I look for acting that is believable and has a sense of soul, and I look for this same essence in visual art.

TC: As an editor, a climber, and a teacher, I find joy and meaning in supporting people pursuing their passions. fingers comma toes has given me the fantastic opportunity to read through and review the work of young writers. In my stint as an editor, I have seen work from writers as young as eight, and as old as twenty-one, and in that medley there have been works that warmed my soul, and those that pulled me through chilling narratives. And through those literary adventures, my joy is in the reading and the writing of comments which may help the authors in growing into more confident and competent creators; and with each submission it seems I have more to learn than I have to teach.

As a climber, it’s my privilege to see new climbers enter the game, to see them tackle difficulties, and to coach them through. I’ve taken part in assisting a couple introductory courses, designed to give people their first contact with outdoor rock climbing, and the range of people I’ve met, and seeing the elation on their faces as they overcome the next hurdle, is sublime.

And as a fledgling teacher, well, it’s pretty much the same as my philosophies as an editor and a climber!

But how does all that work with my creative process? My creativity is not something that comes from nowhere, it’s sparked by the people and happenings around. The creativity that I value is not necessarily my own, I quite value working with the creativity of others.

JT: I’ve actually played around with incorporating scientific ideas and vocabulary into creative writing—the unexpected ideas and contrasts are fun to work with. I’ve written poems about a rat dissection, or a short story that included bits and pieces of a biology course. The analytical and creative frameworks learned in science/engineering are also skills that translate well into writing and editing. In the end, science isn’t inherently uncreative. There are still plenty of moments, whether it be an in-class experience or an entire paradigm, that offer something to build upon.

On a slightly different note: in our current age, where anyone on the internet is a self-proclaimed expert (we all know someone who diagnoses themselves or others with random websites), I think it’s increasingly important that the STEM community learns how to be empathetic, trustworthy, and clear communicators. This might not fall into the creative side of writing, but it certainly demands a thoughtful use of language to make research more accessible.

LE: Joy, apart from working with fingers comma toes, you are also Associate Editor for your university journal The Archive, and a musician. Tell us a few words about your roles in your creative community—how do these creative endeavours of yours intertwine? What’s special about these different creative communities that excites you?

JT: To the consternation of my parents, I’ve always had divided passions and spent too much time on all of them. In the writing community, being both a writer and editor has helped me grow in both roles. It’s an honour to read a wide variety of voices and subject matter, and be inspired by stylistic approaches and devices that I’ve never seen before. Music has been a big part of my life, as someone who grew up as a pianist and took up voice later on. I’m currently part of an a cappella group on campus, and throughout earlier years I’ve always been part of some choir, orchestra, or other ensemble. These experiences inspired much of my earlier poetry, and lots of my imagery was rooted in music. I particularly love opportunities where groups get to share their love for different arts and support one another. This year, I’m the Events Chair for Duke’s Asian Students’ Association, and a highlight of this role has been creating space, in the form of showcases or festivals, to celebrate student artists. I think what consistently draws me into these creative communities is the drive to create something meaningful together and the love for our craft—whether it be a moving performance, a powerful collection of writing, or a striking piece of visual art. Creativity in all forms can tell transformative stories, and (at the risk of being cliché) is integral to being human.

LE: Hannah, before the COVID-19 pandemic, you were travelling frequently. How did travelling influence your sense of creative community? How does creativity create community, both within and across cultural boundaries, and how does this sense of community change when travelling? 

HSL: When I was travelling, I felt more belonging to the web of life.  Music jamming was an experience that really highlighted to me the way that creativity can traverse our personal differences, and even identity. Music offers an opportunity for people from all walks of life to come together and find a collective groove where everyone speaks the same language. Despite not even talking to some of the people I played with, I felt deeply connected and part of a community during the musical exchange, if only for a fleeting collection of moments.

Life itself is act of creativity. Because of its direct relationship with existence, I believe creativity is actually what creates community in the first place and has the power to establish connection that transcends differing personal histories because of its primal nature. Travelling revealed to me that deep down, no matter where we’re from, we all want to be seen and feel connected to others. Creativity is something we all are capable of that can beautifully fulfill this need, no matter our cultural boundaries.

LE: Thomas, you’re very active in the climbing community in Otago. Tell us about this—how did you start, and what is it about this activity that particularly excites you? In general, do you find having a connection to the natural world fuels your creativity?

TC: I’ve been climbing for about eight years now, with some gaps for injuries and the business of life. Starting on plastic holds and wooden walls, and then dipping my toes into the terror of outdoor rock.

My first time climbing rock was panic. After navigating through that panic and returning to the ground, I was hooked.

Climbing can be seen as an individual sport: one where you puzzle and struggle your way up a piece of rock. But climbing is also a social activity; you work with your buddies to make sure everyone gets to their personal goal, and to do it safely.

When I moved to Dunedin, to start my studies at the University of Otago, I was thrilled to meet a thriving outdoor climbing community.

After climbing with one group for a wee while, I was invited to climb with the Alpine club, on their social Tuesday nights. The people at these nights were more mature, more sociable, and more my speed. After a while climbing with the Alpine club, I started to help out with the organisation and safety. Making sure everyone gets home safely is important.

Sliding your hands along a rock face, trying to find a pocket, a ridge, or bump to carry you upwards. Shifting your position multiple times per hold, to hang onto balance. And working systematically up or along, climbing becomes a dance of one. Yet the people around are also dancing, they listen to the rock with you, they encourage, and you respond. Climbing challenges you to look outside of yourself, to examine your surroundings, and work out how you fit in with them. Climbing helps you to reflect on your own workings, how you move, how you think, and how you feel. Through climbing (for me, anyway) there’s a sense of freedom, and creativity can show itself there too.

Thomas Charles Cairncross is a tinkerer of words and stories, following a wandering path of working with friends, peers, and strangers in the pursuit of shenanigans and teaching. He enjoys stumbling up rocks and the occasional pleasant chat with the physiotherapist. With science and speculative fiction stored deeply in the memory banks, Thomas is on the lookout for investments.

Joy Tong (童诗佳) is a writer, musician and professional cat-petter from Tāmaki Makaurau, currently pursuing a Biomedical Engineering and Chemistry double major at Duke University. Balancing her passion for STEM is her tendency to explore inexplicable thoughts with poetry and short stories. On campus, she serves as Associate Editor for the university literary journal, The Archive. Her works are published in LandfallMayhemStarling, and Signals, as well as A Clear Dawn, an anthology of New Zealand-Asian voices.

Hannah Scovell-Lightfoot takes great delight in climbing trees, the barefoot existence, asking questions, rollerskating, and bearing herself to the rollercoaster ride of being alive. She most commonly finds herself floor-sitting doodling, organic shop perusing, improving her already rather extensive morning routine, having passionate conversations, journalling, hitchhiking, and engaging in satiric banter.

Thank you, Thomas, Joy, and Hannah, for participating in this discussionand thank you, our audience, for reading. Wishing you an exciting, creativity-filled 2023 from our team at fingers comma toes

Podcast: Mr. Bear’s Violet Hour Saloon – The kids are alright

fingers comma toes has been featured this month in a podcast with Mr. Bear’s Violet Hour Saloon / The Secret Lives of Stuffed Animals in their episode The kids are alright. The podcast includes music paired with stories and poems from international writers four to sixteen years old. Contributors from fingers comma toes‘ pages include E Wen Wong, Harry Waddington, Josephine Parker, Joshua Persico, Lauren Sanders, Lucy Jessep, and Tom Nalder.

The podcast can be listened to or downloaded at secretlives.podbean.com. Many thanks to our contributors featured here for sharing their work, and to Mr. Bear for including us in this project! We hope you enjoy!