The Confines of Creative Nonfiction in Primary School by Tiffany Dong

During the summer before the beginning of my first entrance to high school and the Creative Writing department, I signed up to a program called SQUID (Summer Quarantine Undertaking Impulsive Developed). The program consisted of multiple writing workshops: Poetry, Performance, Playwriting, Nonfiction, Autobiography, and Fiction. When signing up for classes, out of all them nonfiction initially hadn’t quite piqued my interest. In primary school, it was undoubtedly the most boring genre to read for any third or fifth-grade student. The nonfiction books given were always the ones made by National Geographic and that they only ever listed details and facts about the penguins in Antarctica. There were only covers with largely font titles of “Lions” or “Parakeets” and nothing that ever caught my attention the way fiction titles have— nothing like the “Magic Tree House” or the “Harry Potter” book titles and covers would. 

It was not until 7th grade in English class when we were first assigned to read “The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind,” an autobiography about William Kamkwamba who was the first to use a windmill to produce electrical energy in Africa. I remember reading ahead while the class was following along to the teacher’s read aloud because I was simply aching to know more: Was the windmill invention a success? Did it fail? Spoiler Alert, It was a success. I mean why else would it be made into a biography? Either way, when I was taken through the narrative of Willaim Kamkwamba, from the beginning where he is struggling to buy rice for his family back home and the build-up moment to when he was asked to fly out to America– I couldn’t believe it was a biography, nonfiction narrative book. It felt like fiction because it never dawned on me how one can explicitly define every moment that has happened in their life, other than the reason that it could have all been possibly made up. That’s when I was first introduced to the world of nonfiction narratives. 

In Nonfiction SQUID class, we were first assigned to read “The Sentence is a Lonely Place” by Gary Lutz and some of James Baldwin’s essays. While reading through the essays I found myself underlining and highlighting every line. Each thought the author had, every emotion that processed through them in the narrative. I wanted to know more about their story, and even though I didn’t know them personally, it felt like I could resonate with them as if we were simply engaging in a friendly conversation about existential crises. Younger me would’ve loved this, learning about slavery or racism, about the journey of how one pieced their identity together in the first perspective. In primary and secondary school, we were taught about essays: research papers and analytical work. We were never taught about the other kinds of essays, the ones that picked at the author’s thoughts and monologue, the ones that offered the reader a set of lenses to see the same world through a different eye. While currently closing up the Fiction unit, I learned that storytelling can come in many various forms, and it’s not always fiction or fantasy, where those two worlds are unreachable or unattainable in a literal sense. Stories can oftentimes happen closer to us or around us more than we expected. 

Tiffany Dong, Class of ’24

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