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Excerpts from the works of the 2024 Whiting award winners

The winners of the 2024 Whiting Awards were announced Wednesday night. Below are excerpts from their work.

From "Janaza" by Aaliyah Bilal

I made it to the Everlasting Arms Mortuary that Friday afternoon, only to learn that I'd shown up on the wrong day for the wrong thing. Early that morning, just half an hour before my departure, I got an email from the Temple listserv my mother signed me up for years earlier, saying the man I grew up knowing as Captain Michael 2X was dead. In my haste to leave home, I must have skipped over the details. I had thought, based on the Islamic custom, that the captain would be buried the very same day. I only started to question my thinking as I walked up the block to the funeral home—a gray stone mansion at the corner of Western and Twenty-Second Street. I was brushing off my suit, wrinkled from the long drive south, and noticed that all the other men out front were dressed casual. When a grave-looking man in a kufi and a long beard, who must have been the Imam, handed me a booklet titled, "Principles of the Burial Ghusl," I realized my mistake. The first surprise in a day of odd occurrences—I learned I had shown up for the washing of the body, a full day before the actual funeral was set to occur.

I was confused and a little upset by the mix-up, and sat myself on the parlor stoop, just feet away from the small crowd of men who'd been waiting to be let inside. I pulled out a chocolate bar I had bought a few exits up the interstate, the likes of which I hadn't had in years—chocolate and peanuts mixed with caramel. I was halfway thinking I should leave, maybe head to the Crosswinds Casino another hundred miles south, but stayed put, fumbling with the pamphlet the Imam gave me. I cracked the spine and spread it flat at the gutter to a series of photographs of an actual washing. On the left-hand page, the corpse, its face and private area covered in white gauze, was bathed in a mixture of water and camphor. On the opposite page, the orifices—nostrils and ears—were packed tight with small tufts of raw cotton.

Inside the wrought iron gates of the mortuary grounds the other men stood closer to the street. I hadn't paid them any mind, until one began talking loudly about the circumstances of Captain Michael's death.

On the previous night, the captain corralled all of his and Sister Frieda's children to celebrate her birthday at the house on Euclid, where they'd lived for as long as I could remember. After all the food was out and she blew out the candles on the cake, Captain Michael stood to speak. He addressed each of their children and the grandchildren. "I know how it looks, with all the changes this family been through in recent years. I just want y'all to hear it from my mouth." His voice started to wobble. "That Sister Frieda, your mother, is the only woman that I ever..." That's when he grew dizzy. It was only the stumble that followed that alarmed anyone, but before they could react, the old man fell to the ground, never to rise again.

"From Allah we come, and to Allah we return," said the Imam, his head tilted up, speaking the words into wisps of passing clouds.

A small, younger man in a T-shirt that said G-Unit—Get Rich or Die Trying—piped in:

"Y'all don't think it's strange that a powerful brother like the captain would drop dead like that?" The crowd groaned, but he went on. "Tell me that don't sound like some CIA shit to you."

The Imam flashed him a wincing glance, and the young man raised his arms in mock surrender.

Excerpt from Temple Folk by Aaliyah Bilal. Copyright © 2023 by Aaliyah Bilal. Used by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.

From "The Church of Abundant Life" by Yoon Choi

As Jae-woo drove, Soo-ah kept expecting some change, thinking that the next street, or the next, or the next would bring her back to a vision of the future that she could comprehend. But Jae-woo, after making a few turns, pulled over at the yellow curb and killed the engine. "Now then. This is it," he said, without looking at her.

"This is what?" she asked. "Tell me. What is this?"

"Our store."

"Our store?"

"That's what I said. Our store." With deliberate action, he turned and faced her. "What, why?" He had never spoken to her this way, in such a tone. He sounded angry, but the expression on his face was incomprehensible.

She looked at the building that he was calling their store. There was a diamond-hatched gate drawn across the display window, which was partially obscured by old NEWPORT PLEASURE! posters in multiplicate. Beyond that, she could make out a few bare styrofoam heads. One wore a purple bandanna. A sagging green awning read: CANDY. SODA. FOOD. TOBACCO. EBT. ATM.

"Why don't you say something," Jae-woo finally said. "Why don't you speak what's on your mind."

It came to her that he was ashamed. Only then did she begin to sense the enormity of the thing she had so simply agreed to. Moving to America. Leaving her family. Starting an unknown and difficult life. Thinking it was all an adventure.

She leaned her head back on the headrest and shut her eyes. When she opened them, she clearly saw a buy-and-sell shop across the street, a parking meter wearing a brown paper bag, a barber school with blinking neon scissors: $3 HAIRCUTS. There was a pay phone on the corner, and a bundled woman in passing did a quick check of the coin-return slot.

She began to shake. He turned on the engine to run the heat.

After a moment, he said, "Park Soo-ah."

Her maiden name. A different approach. She had been Park Soo-ah in courtship and Park Soo-ah during the act of love. It had become something of a private joke between them. No, not a joke. More like a wonderful feeling of conspiracy, which sent them into smothered laughter beneath the sheets. That they had overcome such obstacles—prevailed over their families, committed light acts of betrayal—and had come together in, well, in such a way.

She felt his hand on her shoulder, touch that she had been longing for since the moment she'd arrived. But now she kept her head so rigorously turned that she felt the strain in her neck. She tried to shrug off the hand. His grip grew a little stronger, and then, with a stroking motion of the thumb, kinder.

"Let's, let's not do that," he said. "We're here together. In America. I've missed you. Haven't you missed me?"

She kept absolutely still and listened to what he had to say.

Excerpt from Skinship by Yoon Choi. Copyright © 2021 by Yoon Choi. Used by permission of Knopf Doubleday. All rights reserved.

From Public Obscenities by Shayok Misha Chowdhury

CHOTON I don't not think Indians are attractive, it's just...like doesn't it feel like incestuous or something? Like I just know too much. It's like looking at myself in a mirror. Or like...looking at my dad. You know? Like I know there will be ear hairs—

His phone buzzes. For what feels like a long time, too long maybe, CHOTON messages on Grindr. The modulation of JITESH's snoring. RAHEEM dozes.

CHOTON (reading, to himself, tickled) Purushaali gawndho?

RAHEEM opens his eyes.

RAHEEM Hm?

A pause.

CHOTON (looking up from his phone) Hm?

RAHEEM You say something?

CHOTON (having a field day) Oh I'm just like— this guy's profile just says "Wishlist," and he's like: 1) "Buke ghawno lom," so like, thick chest hair; 2) "Bawgol'er lom ebong taar shaathe purushaali gawndho" so like, armpit hair, and then I just love this "purushaali gawndho" so like...I guess like...manly musk. And then 3) this one's my favorite: "dui shawkto peshi'r maajhe shaashon kawra'r ek dawndo" which is just kind of like...genius actually, cause like... "shaashon kawra'r dawndo" is like a...like a rod to like...discipline or like...yeah like a punishing rod. Between two...strong...what is "peshi"?

CHOTON googles. RAHEEM observes him, deep in thought.

RAHEEM Do you like...

He trails off. After a moment, CHOTON looks up.

CHOTON What?

RAHEEM Oh nothing I was just...

CHOTON goes back to typing.

RAHEEM —like do you like...wish I spoke Bangla?

CHOTON looks up.

CHOTON What? You do speak Bangla.

RAHEEM Like actually though—

CHOTON (teasing) You know "begun" and "khichuri"—

RAHEEM I guess I'm just...like we just got here and already I'm like...you have this whole...like this whole other world...

CHOTON I mean...yeah. Yeah this is like...I mean this is home, you know?

CHOTON's phone dings. Incoming Grindr message.

Excerpt from Public Obscenities by Shayok Misha Chowdhury. Copyright © 2024 by Shayok Misha Chowdhury. Used by permission of Theatre Communications Group. All rights reserved.

From "The King of Hell's Palace" by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig

Rural highway. Night. Two adult brothers walk along the shoulder. They carry flashlights and smoke cigarettes. The sound of frogs, crickets, night birds, passing cars, and wind blowing through trees fills the space.

KUAN

Don't forget to fertilize the peony fields next week. Use compost, crushed bones, and rotted manure.

WEN

I'm not good with living things.

KUAN

You overdo it. They're carefree flowers. They do better with less attention.

WEN

Remember how quiet it was during the famine?

KUAN

(-)

WEN

No birds. No bugs. No leaves to be blown by the wind. Back then I thought hell was a place without sound. It's going to be quiet like that again.

KUAN

When it's winter, don't smother them with mulch. If it's cold, cover our girls loosely with shredded bark or pine needles.

WEN

Pei-Pei put one parent in the ground already.

KUAN

You sold blood for my daughter. It's right I repay my debts to your family.

WEN

That's idiot math.

KUAN

If ants swarm the buds, don't spray them. They kill bud-eating pests, and don't hurt the plant.

A truck approaches. Kuan puts out his cigarette.

WEN

Brother---

KUAN

When fall comes, cut their stems down, level with the soil and----

WEN

Let me do it.

KUAN

Compost all remaining blossoms and petals.

WEN

Little Yi has two parents.

KUAN

When you get medicine, save it all for Little Yi. It's better to help one person live a long time than give everyone a few months.

The sound of the truck approaching. A bright light appears in the distance.

WEN

He's stubborn. He won't take more than his share.

KUAN

Put something else in your pill bottles. Take it when he gets the real thing.

WEN

Wait. Brother---

Kuan turns off his flashlight. He motions for Wen to do the same.

KUAN

I'll call out the license plate. Don't settle for less than ninety thousand.

Kuan steps onto the highway-----then is yanked back, as Wen lunges forward and pulls him to safety. The sound of the truck passing. Headlights fade. The brothers fight.

WEN

I'd rather die a death of a thousand cuts than outlive my wife. I thought I could face it but I can't. She wants me to be the strong one, but I can't be. I can't watch her die. Please don't make me shame myself. Let me be a hero. If you go, I'll wait for the next truck and follow you out of this world. Let her remember me as the man who fought for her until his last breath. Alive I'm worth nothing. Let my death buy my son medicine. Let my flesh feed our flowers. Some people have meaningful lives. Let my death have a meaning. Please, brother. Give this to me.

Kuan steps aside. Wen stands on the edge of the highway and faces the approaching truck. He tries to step onto the road. His knees buckle. His body's frozen in fear. Wen pounds on his legs with his fists.

WEN

MOVE!

KUAN

You have life in you still. This isn't your end.

Kuan steps into the blinding headlights of an oncoming truck. LOUD, LONG HONK.

KUAN

In the next life we'll be a family again.

Excerpt from The King of Hell's Palace by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig. Copyright © 2021 by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig. Used by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing PLC. All rights reserved.

"On the Night Train from Gdańsk" by Elisa Gonzalez

before I learn that in Kraków someone I love did not

kill himself

because I am on the night train from Gdańsk, I wander

carriages hunting an open seat, at last

settling for the corridor's cold floor. It's a cold October outside

this rumbling and screaming

contraption, where I'm quick to shift aside for the blond nun

I disappoint

by saying, No, I don't know where the toilet is or if it has paper,

and where I jump up

at the conductor's brusque Pani, proszę. He cups his hand like

my father beckoning for me

to surrender whatever small thing I loved, but this man needs

a second-class ticket to validate

my seat on the floor, my back against the cold wall, my hair

tangled on a screw.

On my knees I prop The Selfishness of Others. Przepraszam,

I say to everyone angry

at my body's inconvenience, everyone who passes, including

the nun, who returns

rubbing germs between her palms. Forgive me, that I have

a body—a thought I've had many times.

My father, who hated my body, asks me to stand—no, it's the

conductor talking, again,

as if we're new to each other, as I've greeted people whose

nakedness I regret touching. Forgive

the weakness of the mind confronting the shames of the body.

I thank the conductor, I cover my face with The Selfishness

of Others, I close my eyes.

This is before. I am telling a story of before. Before I learned to

purchase first-class tickets,

to choose trains from this millennium, not this creaking and

wailing artifact

where an old woman raps the conductor's shin with her cane as

she berates him for the lurch, the crush,

assigning him sole responsibility for all of Poland's trains, which

he refuses.

Forgive me for the sins of others—that's not something people

say if they can help it.

This is before again. Before the nun disembarking at a town

I recall only as fluorescence

and the screech of brakes gives me her window seat, for nothing

I have done.

The world becomes perfect in its repetition of vanishing: flash

of light, then dark, again and again,

signs of people I'll never meet. Many years before I arrived

in Poland

I pictured myself wandering alone, away from my father's

house, not realizing

—I was a child, and children are the most hopeful narcissists—

that wandering happens alongside others. What else didn't I

know? That I would love

places glimpsed through dirty glass, that now fondly I think of

the couple splitting

a ham sandwich, mayonnaise-smeared, beside me, and how

suspiciously they regarded my hands.

That I'd love that stupid sandwich; the dry, overheated air; the

blushing ugliness of faces, such as mine.

The window's chill against my cheek—even that, despite its

comfort.

The conductor who once again checks my ticket. When I was

young, I believed that one loves only

what deserves love. Forgive me, Father, I said, that I am hateful.

Glow of towns with names invisible

passed by in a wheezing and roaring beast. Memory of childhood

is a history of error—

so I think on the night train from Gdańsk to Kraków, believing

I am experienced enough

in the daedal web of selfishness and love to pack the book away.

Forgive me,

he said, for even thinking about it. I thought about it before I

thought about you finding my dead body.

What else could I do but thank him? What else don't I know I've

been spared?

By others, by the faults of memory ... The conductor taps my

shoulder and the sandwich-eaters

call out in Polish then English to wake me: Przepraszam, this is

your station.

Down the platform a dark-haired stranger approaches, listening

to her own music. Ticket in hand. Did she take my place?

I've wondered since.

I wondered—forgive me—even as he was talking, confessing

as much as he thought I could bear.

Excerpt from Grand Tour by Elisa Gonzalez. Copyright © 2023 by Elisa Gonzalez. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All rights reserved.

"Conjecture on the nature of inconvenience" by Taylor Johnson

If I pull the hanged man's card on new year's eve, then I am telling on myself.

If the body is said to be either or , then I am telling on myself.

If the body is said to be either or , then there is a liminality unaccounted

for.

If there is an unaccounted liminality, then there is a dispossession.

If there is a body dispossessed, then there is a hole in the language.

If there is a hole in the language, then I am slipping through, stealing away.

If I am slipping, then I'm not on my way anywhere.

If I'm not on my way anywhere, then I can be a kind of futility.

If I am futile, then I am a fugitive against the idea of linear movement.

If I am against movement, then I am against passing for.

If I am passing, then I am a boy.

If I am a boy, then I am holding something stolen.

If I'm assumed to be holding something stolen, then I am in an elevator in new

york.

If I'm in an elevator in new york, then I am about to look down the throat of a

gun.

If the gun doesn't speak, then I'm s̶t̶i̶l̶l̶ h̶e̶r̶e̶ lucky.

If I'm lucky, then she wasn't crying when she called the cops on me.

If the neighbor called the cops on me, then I never saw her that morning.

If she never saw me, then I am a theory of myself.

If I am an unsubstantiated claim, then I am a figment of her anxiety.

If I am a figment, then my death would be inconsequential.

If I didn't die, then she will send me flowers apologising for her inconvenience.

If I was already an inconvenience to the language, then she is right.

If she is right, then there is an elsewhere to which I belong.

If there is an elsewhere, then there is a clearing in the woods.

If there are woods, then there is a ground that abstains ruin.

If there is a ground, then there are bodies beneath it.

If the bodies know my name, then I am said to be protected.

If I am spoken for, then I could've died a number of times.

If I am still here, then I am speaking for the dirt.

If there is dirt, then there is my mouth wet and ripe with questions.

Excerpt from Inheritance by Taylor Johnson. Copyright © 2020 by Taylor Johnson. Used by permission of Alice James Books. All rights reserved.

From "Small Wonders" by Gothataone Moeng

From where she stood at the door, she could see her unmade bed, the duvet gathered in peculiar mountains and valleys. Mma-Tirelo looked up and down at Phetso's clothes, the leggings and crop top that left parts of her body exposed.

"I am here to collect my brother's clothes," Mma-Tirelo said.

Phetso led her to the bedroom. She watched as Mma-Tirelo ran her fingers through all the shirts Leungo had bought for his job at the accounting firm that he had worked for since his graduation. Mma-Tirelo pushed a bedside table in front of the closet and climbed up to remove the two suitcases from the top. Phetso, unable to breathe, turned around and walked into the bathroom. She locked herself in and sat on the toilet seat. She listened to the staccato of Mma-Tirelo's shoes, moving with the certainty of her duty and responsibility, between the closet and the suitcases flung open on the bed. She imagined her collecting all of Leungo's clothes: the jeans, the chinos, the T-shirts, the socks rolled into the bedside drawers. She imagined her stuffing the clothes in the suitcases without pausing to savor the vestiges of his scent. Phetso's throat was raw. She wept. Every time Mma-Tirelo called out to her, she flushed the toilet. She felt the seat vibrate under her and its noise fill her ears. A knock on the door. She stopped sniffling.

"Phetso," Mma-Tirelo said. Phetso did not answer.

"I know you hear me talking to you," Mma-Tirelo said. Still Phetso kept quiet. She felt silly, a child, and regretted locking herself in.

"Okay. I am leaving," Mma-Tirelo said.

Phetso opened the door.

"I have never seen behavior like this," Mma-Tirelo said. She was breathing loudly, wiping at a sweat mustache with her hand.

"Sorry," Phetso said, chastened.

"You are not the only person who misses him," Mma-Tirelo said.

"We miss him too."

No one could miss him as much as I do, Phetso thought.

"I am leaving tomorrow," Mma-Tirelo said. "Five a.m. I thought we could leave together. You spend the night in Mochudi and we leave first thing in the morning."

"I have to go to work."

"You didn't ask for days off?"

"I have work I need to finish," she said, but even she heard the starkness of her lie.

"I can take the bus on Friday," she said.

Excerpt from Call and Response by Gothataone Moeng. Copyright © 2023 by Gothataone Moeng. Used by permission of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved.

"Colonialism" by Charif Shanahan

At intersections I knew to look both ways

As she had taught me

As she had known to look both ways

At the port of arrival—

Not to Ellis Island or to JFK

But to the white blanket of my father

Then back to her mother and away—

So that when the single summer we returned

To the land she had left

And the four of us—she, myself,

My two tanned brothers—

Stood below the open Casablanca sun

Waiting on a thinly grassed divider

For a sliver to form

Within the traffic—

The air smart and nearly visible as

Neighbor boys pointed down

From windows—Mrikani!—mrikani!—and I

Dashed through the exhaust of four lanes

Not exactly a highway

But still too wide to be crossing—

And without a crosswalk, no less—

She rushed to the other side

And slapped my backside hard: Elash, mon fils? Why

Would you do that to me?

Excerpt from Trace Evidence by Charif Shanahan. Copyright © 2023 by Charif Shanahan. Used by permission of Tin House. All rights reserved.

"Self-Determination with the Question of Race" by Charif Shanahan

In the razorblade tiny, coarse curls gather,

Coarser in summer. I let my body tan

In California and say Maybe now.

Shara asks what it means to be seen and she is

Exactly right. I laugh. Most days I quietly fight:

I refuse your stale gaze, your arrogant pity.

Don't you know you're implicated, too.

I take my coffee black, I brush my teeth,

The hair on my dying scalp, I try to love

Other Black men because the world.

If Mary and her lamb. If Allah. If you.

If latitude and longitude. If the trees,

Once emptied, stood upright again.

Some of us don't even see how we see.

I take nothing from you when I say I am.

Once, I wrote on a napkin, I just want to live—

And it startled me, true as it was.

From a distance Safia takes my hand.

Al-asmarani, I see you, my brother. After

Giving my lover head, I wipe my mouth

With my shirt sleeve, like a child.

If there is a question. If it is how much

Blood. From the monkey bars, a child

Hangs by his knees, face flush, counting

The coins on the playground rubber,

Then climbs to the top of the slide and looks

Directly into the sun. If you need me to

Measure or pour. Since there is a question.

If you need me. If you need an I that is yours.

From Solito by Javier Zamora

It's dawn—indigo like when Mom left. Mali kisses me awake and I have to get ready. The roosters crow, La Bonita barks, the birds sing, the world is waking up. The stars turn off one by one.

To shower, I pull water from a well with a bucket. Grandpa already showered. Abuelita dries me off. Mali irons my clothes. The outfit has been picked out: a nice dress shirt, dark blue. Dark-blue jeans. A black belt. Black dress shoes.

Next to the hard-boiled eggs, avocado, queso duro, and tortillas, a black backpack. Even the brand name has been crossed out. Inside it: a dark T-shirt, black pants, two pairs of underwear, an extra pair of shoes, the plastic toothbrush, a comb, soccer shorts, Colgate toothpaste, a bar of Palmolive soap, Head & Shoulders shampoo, and another dark-blue, short-sleeved dress shirt. There's a notebook, Bic pens, pencils, and the assignments my teachers gave me.

"Everything has to be dark colors," Mali explains. "Don Dago's orders."

I eat, and Grandpa waits by the door, holding my black backpack and his own regular one. He looks at his watch.

Abuelita combs my hair. Mali kneels in front of me to button my shirt. She tucks it in. Kisses my forehead.

Lupe is here, the earliest I've seen her come visit. She hugs me, kisses me, wishes me luck. Julia is sleeping in Abuelita's bed between two pillows to keep her from falling.

Abuelita kisses me, kneels to hug me. Then Mali and Abuelita hug me at the same time. Only now, I cry. This is it. The thing I wanted to happen, but it's happening so fast.

"Te queremos mucho, Chepito. Te cuid.s. Que Dios te bendiga, here, everywhere, always. We'll be waiting for you. Praying you'll make it there safely, Javiercito." Their voices almost in unison, soft, breaking with every word, tears running down their round faces. I can't stop crying.

Then they make the cross over my forehead, over my head, over my entire body. Wiping my tears with their hands.

Grandpa grabs my arm. Walks me past the door. "Don't look back," he says. But I do. I see Abuelita and Mali in the middle of the door, holding each other, Lupe has a hand on each of their shoulders.

"Come on," Grandpa says. And we walk.

Excerpt from Solito: A Memoir by Javier Zamora, copyright © 2022 by Javier Zamora. Used by permission of Hogarth Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

"To Abuelita Neli" by Javier Zamora

This is my 14th time pressing roses in fake passports

for each year I haven't climbed marañón trees. I'm sorry

I've lied about where I was born. Today, this country

chose its first black president. Maybe he changes things.

I've told Mom I don't want to have to choose to get married.

You understand. Abuelita, I can't go back and return.

There's no path to papers. I've got nothing left but dreams

where I'm: the parakeet nest on the flor de fuego,

the paper boats we made when streets flooded,

or toys I buried by the foxtail ferns. Do you know

the ferns I mean? The ones we planted the first birthday

without my parents. I'll never be a citizen. I'll never

scrub clothes with pumice stones over the big cement tub

under the almond trees. Last time you called, you said

my old friends think that now I'm from some town

between this bay and our estero. And that I'm a coconut:

brown on the outside, white inside. Abuelita, please

forgive me, but tell them they don't know shit.

Javier Zamora, "To Abuelita Neli" from Unaccompanied. Copyright © 2016 by Javier Zamora. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Copper Canyon Press.

From "The Subject" by Ada Zhang

Granny Tan was short and wide, with brown skin that was crumpled all over but nowhere so much as her face. Her hair was like a rain cloud, white at the top and dark near the scalp. She kept it in a tight bun that frizzed from the humidity that was particularly bad that summer, small hairs springing from her head like the whiskers on a roused cat. She left every morning in a pair of pink Adidas slides, holding a broom in one hand and a dustpan in the other. She picked up napkins, MetroCards, chip bags scuttling around on the street, as well as trash stuck inside our fence, candy wrappers and other miscellaneous scraps woven into the silver fishnet, paper cups jammed into the holes, suspended in the shapes of diamonds. She wore gloves and a surgical mask while she worked. Afternoons she went out in tennis shoes, collecting bottles and cans from our neighbors' trash and carting them to the redemption center on Maple Avenue, a twenty-five-minute walk away.

She ignored me, not out of rudeness or even indifference but because she had her routine and wouldn't let anyone disturb it. Contrary to my apprehension around living with someone much older, she wasn't fussy about the apartment, nor did she try to assert her dominance over what had previously been her space. She didn't own the house but had rented it for twelve years, first with her daughter and then with her grandson. I didn't know any of this when I moved in. I learned it in the months following, when I interviewed her for the project that would turn into my senior thesis.

"Is the landlord paying you for the work you do?" I finally asked on our first real night together. I'd been in Flushing for six weeks. I was conducting the first of our many interviews.

She scoffed. "Na li, na li. I just have nothing else to do. I'm old."

"Shouldn't old people rest?" I had heard the neighbors advising Granny Tan to take it easy, but at this she laughed, a hoarse wail that fell quickly into a cough, and I worried I had somehow offended her. She cleared her throat, then leaned forward so her chin was nearly touching my phone resting between us on the table. "It's recording, right?" She lifted her head so that our eyes met. I told her that it was, and that she didn't need to be so close for it to catch the sound, but she just hunched lower.

"Listen to me, ah, young people. Don't spend your time wisely, as many will try and tell you. Wisdom is for people like me, who are old, who are trying to make up in utility what we've lost in time. Be frivolous while your body and spirit can keep up." She nodded and smiled, as though affirming herself. Through the open windows, the vague melody of Mandarin drifted in from our neighbor's CCTV.

I wanted to know what Granny Tan was like when she was young. Instead I asked what picking up other people's garbage had to do with wisdom.

"It's a wise way to use one's time, don't you think?" She leaned back in her chair, a peeling leather office chair on wheels, which made her look strangely official. "Time slows when you're by yourself. It gets harder to feel useful."

I was just thinking that she wasn't by herself when she asked, "Why do you paint?"

"It's a way of using my time too, I guess." I was hoping to win her favor.

"Do you enjoy it?"

"It's my passion," I said.

"Then perhaps it's frivolous as well."

Excerpt from The Sorrows of Others by Ada Zhang. Copyright © 2023 by Ada Zhang. Used by permission of A Public Space. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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