Yasmeen Khan is a teen writer and student from Spring, Texas. She was born in 2004. Her work has been recognized by the National YoungArts Foundation, The Adroit Prizes, Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, Texas Book Festival, and Montgomery County Women’s Center. She has work published or forthcoming in Peach Magazine, Sooth Swarm Journal, L'Éphémère Review, Body Without Organs, and Bitter Melon Magazine. Yasmeen currently serves as a prose reader for Bitter Melon Magazine. In the past, she studied fiction under Angie Sijun Lou as part of The Adroit Journal’s Summer Mentorship Program.
When I was a girl, my mother was always on the phone. I played hide and go seek with the neighborhood boys. I hid in bushes, in cupboards, my limbs contorting around my body like cobwebs. Hours would pass and no one would find me. I was the missing girl plastered on every stop sign down Main Street. I was a specter. A saint. My first field trip was to an art museum. Saint Lucy served her eyes to me on a platter, knife still in her hand. My own lemonade hair glinting back in the blade. I watched Yulia Lipnitskaya skate in the Sochi Olympics. I traced figure eights around my father’s absence, my short-program set to my mother screaming into the landline. I watched movies in my mother’s bedroom, cross-legged on the untouched side of the bed. I wanted to be an actress. I wanted wrists that smelled like watermelons and teeth as white as a nuclear flash. I tried to make absence into a kind of beauty. Cities leveled within seconds. Saint Lucy’s empty sockets. In my dreams, I saw my father in the park, buying Italian ice in a polo as yellow as joy. In my dreams, the phone rang and rang and rang. I liked to think of prayer as a kind of missed call. My first role was as Ophelia in my high school’s production of Hamlet. I stared into the stage lights until flowers bloomed at the edges of my vision. Whiter than Hiroshima. Whiter than snow. I once loved a boy for an entire year without touching him. I once loved a boy who could figure skate, who spun in the air like sugar. I once loved a boy who never picked up my calls. Nowadays, he pays to see my face in movie theaters. I can’t win hide and go seek anymore. Skinny journalists in scaly black dresses open the cupboard and ask me about my childhood. I tell them this: Once, I was watching a movie on my mother’s bed and she muted the TV to call Lucy, my father’s secretary. I heard her voice from her bathroom–you fucking whore, I’m going to claw your eyes out—and watched the women in the movie smile, their silent bodies barreling towards me.
First published by Sooth Swarm Journal
A Conversation Between Yasmeen Khan and Courtney Felle
1. Hi Yasmeen, thanks for talking with us today! “Movie Stars” vacillates between the speaker’s own identity and the surroundings and situations that helped mold her identity, leaving her almost passive amidst the world’s swirling activity. Can you speak to the interactions between speaker and setting here?
Thanks for having me! In many of my short stories, I find myself examining the dichotomy between real women and mythical women—in this case: figure skaters, saints, Shakespearean heroines, movie stars, and mothers. The narrator’s coming of age is shaped by this landscape of mythic figures that surrounds her. She comes to define herself through juxtaposing her identity against these women, both real and imagined, whose lives she was witness to in her childhood.
2. In crafting setting, you emphasize small details in the speaker’s life, such as playing Ophelia and staring “into the stage lights until flowers bloomed at the edges of my vision. Whiter than Hiroshima. Whiter than snow.” Later, this morphs into her watching “skinny journalists in scaly black dresses” ask interview questions. How do the colors present—white, black, and the yellow of “lemonade hair” or “Italian ice”—act as larger symbols?
I was told once that my writing seems to spring from a base note of euphoria. At the time, this observation surprised me, but the more I think about it, the more I find it to be true: I’d like to believe that even the tiniest details in our lives have this heady, cinematic importance, even if we’re unaware of it. The importance of color in this piece is reflective of that belief. I tried to treat this story as something as visual as film. Each color in this piece is an important component to the anatomy of the scene, the anatomy of the memory.
3. You play with environmental imagery as well, juxtaposing “wrists that smelled like watermelons,” a softer and more natural simile, with “teeth as white as a nuclear flash,” a man-made horror. This reminded me of your essay “The Flowers” in our eighth issue, in which gifted flowers “rot and fume like flesh,” “pass away quietly,” and sit “pink… in a vase on the table,” loved because they are dying or dead. How does your writing relate to the natural world it and its speakers exist within?
It’s funny you say that, as I’ve never considered the placement of environmental motifs in my work. I tend to focus more on manmade institutions (think religion, or high school). That’s the joy of publishing your work—others will point out features in your writing that you never would have noticed otherwise.
4. Both “Movie Stars” and “The Flowers” keep readers suspended in an impending loss of innocence, one which cannot be stopped but still isn’t fully present yet. In “The Flowers,” the cafe becomes a literal “purgatory,” filled with “all the lovely things you never truly said goodbye to.” In “Movie Stars,” the speaker “hid in bushes, in cupboards, my limbs contorting… like cobwebs” for hours and “once loved a boy for an entire year without touching him,” fashioning “absence into a kind of beauty.” How does this aching anticipation define your speakers and their stories?
Growing up—especially as a woman—is defined by innocence and its absence. The loss of innocence is something that’s simultaneously craved and feared. There’s a sense of losing purity but gaining power. My characters want to find out what’s on the other side of adolescence, but they cling to the innocence of early childhood. They’re afraid of monumental change. They want to construct narratives from their memories because it’s how they make sense of their lives. They refuse to give in to entropy when there’s so little stability in adolescence to begin with. When you’re a teenager, everything moves so fast: to my speakers, it’s both terrifying and wonderfully exhilarating.
5. Claude Debussy, invoked often in “The Flowers,” once said, “I wish to sing of my interior visions with the naive candour of a child.” In their aching anticipation, these pieces seem to create a certain fulfillment of that song: replaying earlier childhood moments and reexamining them without ignoring how it actually felt to live within them. Do you think this is a perspective afforded more easily to a teenage writer, between youth and adulthood? How does teenagedom saturate time and its passage in your writing?
For sure! Being a teen means seeing magic everywhere. Everyday images and emotions are interlaced with this prophetic quality: is it mundane, or is it an omen? My fixation with imagery in my stories stems from this questioning.
6. What emotions, images, or stylistic quirks would you consider a hallmark of your writing, a facet you keep including or repeating?
Myths, water, power, shame, innocence, fragmented narratives, confessions, holiness in commercialized spaces, anachronism, blurred lines within female friendships, an insistent focus on lighting, static, desire, unanswered phone calls, lyricism, imagery, flowers, impressionism.
7. In your bio, you mention studying fiction under Angie Sijun Lou as part of The Adroit Journal’s Summer Mentorship Program. What did you find most useful, and most surprising, about working with an older writing mentor? What advice do you have for other young writers who might be seeking guidance, through a formal program like The Adroit Journal’s or from adults in their daily lives?
Working with a mentor revolutionized my work. I can’t recommend it enough! There’s so much joy in finding a community around an otherwise solitary act—it’s an experience that’s both humbling and validating. Mentorship gave me the opportunity to exchange ideas about literature, to have my writing critiqued in a nonjudgmental, caring environment, and to develop more confidence in my own work.
I’d encourage every young writer to seek out mentorship. They won’t always be successful—I was rejected from a separate mentorship program before getting accepted into The Adroit Journal’s—but they shouldn’t let that discourage them. The growth your work experiences under mentorship is worth it. I’d love to mentor young writers once I’ve garnered more experience for myself. The gift of mentorship is one I’d like to pay forward.
8. What comes next?
Recently, I’ve been trying to write across other genres. I’m working on a script about Joan of Arc and an essay on salvation. Both of these works are part of a larger portfolio I’m working on that focuses on femininity across mythical and contemporary landscapes. I’m having fun with finding the ways separate pieces of work can flow together on a thematic level. I’m constantly trying to push myself through my work, and I can’t wait to see where the experimentation takes me.