Could Ron Anahaw be the next J.K. Rowling?
Anahaw, a high school senior at the George Washington Carver Center for Arts & Technology in Towson, has won a national portfolio gold medal — and $10,000 — in the prestigious Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, funded by Scholastic Inc., best known as publisher of Rowling's famed Harry Potter series.
Anahaw will be honored June 11 at Carnegie Hall in New York, and will be published in a book of work by the writing award winners.
Writing has been an evolution for Anahaw, 17, of Nottingham, who is American and whose parents are from the Philippines. He said he could write before he could speak. His parents tried to teach him to speak English and Tagalog, the predominant language of their homeland, but, he said, "I couldn't handle it. I ended up not speaking until I was 4 years old," and that was after speech therapy.
In the meantime, he wrote instead of talking and discovered a knack for it, "so I started writing little stories."
As a sixth-grader, Anahaw attempted his first novel, "in which wolves with wings solved crimes across time and space," he said.
Was it any good?
"Maybe the concept, but the writing was atrocious," he said. After 100 pages, "it was too tiring and I stopped."
In eighth grade, he entered a middle school writing competition with a poem he was really proud of, called "Leo the Lion," a musing on the constellation Leo, with words like "mendacious," meaning dishonest, and "aphotic," a part of a lake or ocean with little or no sunlight and in which photosynthesis cannot occur.
"I thought a big vocabulary equated to good writing," he said, adding that the poem was not well-received.
Then, as a junior at Carver, Anahaw entered the annual Scholastic competition as a literary arts class assignment. His short story about a piece of chocolate that extols its own virtues — but ends up being eaten by a sea gull — won a regional gold medal in the humor category.
This year, he entered again and submitted a portfolio that included two poems, a nonfiction work about his relationship with his father, a play called "Molting," about a boy who spends his life in various waiting rooms, and two fiction pieces, one about a girl drowning, called "Breathe," and the other a whimsical tutorial on how to get a first date.
In "How to Do First Dates," he advises:
"Bring several pounds of washcloths. Hide them. You're prone to sweat and she's got skin like a glossy leaf. Don't be a cliche. When you compliment her, which is a must, stray from things like 'You're pretty,' or 'You're beautiful' or 'My god, you're so hot, damn, girl.' That last one got you slapped. Hard. Your dignity faded faster than the mark on your face. Say things like 'Your hips are the ocean's curves,' or 'Your eyes have stolen the stars tonight,' or 'Te amo. Tu tienes mi corazon.'(Chicks dig Spanish.) Wait — scratch all that. Too creepy. Dial it down. Wait till you're married to say any of that. 'You look nice tonight,' that'll do just fine."
"That seems to be a fan favorite," Anahaw said.
In his poem "Four More Years," he reflects on visiting his grandmother in the Philippines every four years.
"Lola (Tagalog for grandmother),
I miss the warm waters
of the Philippines, gray
and thick against my body.
I miss your jutting bones,
like islands underneath
your wrinkled, brown skin.
I miss the thin, sharp winds
of monsoon season and how I could feel
my chest pound in unison with those storms.
I miss the cries of your goat at dawn."
Anahaw said he submitted a varied portfolio of his work, because, "I wanted to show that I had a lot of tools under my belt, and I wanted to show that I had a light side as well as a serious side."
But, he said, "I didn't expect to win. I thought my classmates' work was much stronger."
When Anahaw got a message from Scholastic officials asking him to phone them back, he assumed the worst.
"I was really worried: Did they think I had plagiarized something?"
No, they assured him, he had won one of 16 gold portfolio medals in the competition and a $10,000 cash award.
"That really rang my ears, getting $10,000," he said.
The money will be used for tuition at one of six colleges that accepted him, although he admitted, "I wouldn't mind having it as pocket money."
He's leaning toward Bennington College, a small liberal arts school in Vermont with a good creative writing program, although he is interested in a journalism career and is also considering larger universities, including Temple University in Philadelphia, American University in Washington, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
He said his dad, Renaldo Anahaw, a bank teller, and his mom, Anna Lizza Anahaw, a factory worker, are thrilled, not only with his financial good fortune, but that "Scholastic has validated my writing," he said.
He said he has also been getting congratulatory texts and Facebook messages from friends and classmates — at least one asking if he'll buy dinner. Carver Principal Karen Steele announced his win over the public address system at school, he said.
Anahaw is among the cream of the crop of 303,000 applicants in the juried competition for students in the seventh through 12th grades, said Virginia McEnerney, executive director of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. The program was founded by Scholastic Inc., in 1923, and turned over to the nonprofit Alliance for Young Artists and Writers in the 1990s, with Scholastic still the major funder, McEnerney said.
Past gold medal winners include artist Andy Warhol, photographer Richard Avedon, novelists John Updike and Bernard Malumud, and Lena Dunham, the creator, writer and star of the HBO series "Girls."
"It's a big deal to win," McEnerney said. "You've achieved something very significant for a high school student. You really have to be an accomplished writer. They [the judges] are looking for a kid who has something to say."
"This is a tremendous achievement," said Suzanne Supplee, chair of the Carver literary arts department and a mentor to Anahaw. She said no literary arts student at the school has ever won a Scholastic portfolio medal, although Anahaw's friend, Lisa Su, a Carver graduate, won a portfolio medal in the arts as a senior last year. Su is now at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design.
Supplee said she sees a lot of talented writers in the literary arts program, but that Anahaw is the rare writer who is mature beyond his years, with a unique voice, a unique perspective on the world, the ability to blend humor and poignancy and the moxey to address subject matter and themes that make other young writers uncomfortable.
When told that Anahaw said he didn't expect to win, Supplee said, "That's because he's humble. I think he sells himself short."
Plenty to say
Anahaw said he tries to write for about two hours a day, usually around other people, partly so he can get feedback, and partly because company tempers his "nervous energy" when he's alone.
He feels he has plenty left to say and plans to self-publish a collection of his short stories soon.
"I want to do what I love," he said. "I couldn't imagine doing anything else."
But first things first: He said he has to decide on a college and make a tuition deposit by May 1.
He certainly has money for a deposit now.
"Most definitely," he said. "A $10,000 deposit."