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Four Prep Students Muse on Identity at Archer Literature&... Conference
Student writing in notebook

Four Prep seniors presented their essays and projects from their English classes alongside students from local LA schools at the 14th Annual Literature &... Conference. Hosted by the Archer School, the conference spotlights high school students’ original, creative works that infuse music, art, and culture into their engagements with literary works.  

Isabel Pan shared “Ni de aquí, ni de allá,” a ghost story she penned for Dr. Tyke O’Brien’s Ghost Stories course. 

Dri deFaria presented her essay “Twisters of Great Reality: Examining Writers, Perception, and Storytelling through the Legacy of Joan Didion” that she wrote for Austin Roy’s course on Didion.  

Stiles White and Owen Sussman discussed their essay, “Man-Size in Marble: Presentiments of Evil” that they cowrote for Ghost Stories. 

The four students’ individual works blended the creative, personal, and academic. After presenting their projects alongside their peers at the conference, the students fielded questions from the audience about their writing processes and their identities as writers and creators. 

Processing the Self through Art and Literature 

Both deFaria and Pan were part of the “Seeking the Story” panel, presenting their works alongside other students exploring self and identity through art, creative writing, and more.  

As deFaria describes it, her essay came out of a “meta” musing on how we engage with trauma in literature and in our own writing. “I started thinking about Joan Didion’s career as a whole and how she, in a sort of Frida Kahlo self-portrait way, made her career about writing her perceptions and her self, how she viewed the world, and how her trauma produced her most successful work, The Year of Magical Thinking, about the trauma of losing her husband,” deFaria says. “Didion also wrote about the trauma of losing her daughter in Blue Nights. This was a source of income, popularity, and success for her in the literary world.” 

This prompted deFaria to hold up a mirror to her own exhibition of trauma in her writings and in the larger context of how trauma is often lauded in the literary world or college essays. “I synthesized Didion’s life and mine in the essay. I pondered the relationship I had to Joan Didion, how I was learning to be a writer through her, and pondered questions of, ‘so what does that really mean? How can I live my life peacefully knowing that misfortune serves me?’” 

O’Brien’s Ghost Stories curriculum aims to expand conceptions of the ghost genre beyond the Western Eurocentric canon, exploring stories and narratives from around the world and closer to home, encouraging students to take inspiration from these and their own cultures to create their ghost stories.  

For her final project for the Ghost Stories class, Pan knew she wanted to write her own ghost story based on her community, particularly where she grew up in Rosemead. “I wanted to write something very much LA,” Pan says. 

Already an accomplished visual artist, Pan’s story evoked themes from a recent painting she’d completed—a self-portrait of Pan as a baby “payaso.” Payaso, which translates to clown, is a common phrase and symbol within Chicano art and gang culture, where clowns with tears represent the concept of “smile now, cry later.” Pan’s ghost story centers around a haunting at a family party, using the lens of the uncanny to investigate generational trauma, family and community love, sacrifice within immigrant families, mental health, and the struggle immigrants and second-generation children face of not being American enough and not being enough of your parents’ culture. “The haunter is female, but she’s not an evil spirit – she's an idea of what is lost when you come into the construct of the American dream, what is sacrificed, and what it takes to really find yourself in that space,” Pan says.  

Sussman and White tackled the 1887 gothic ghost story Man-Size in Marble by Edith Nesbit. Well-known as a children’s book author, Nesbit’s story centers on a couple haunted by ghosts who supposedly murder the wife. While not as captivated by the story when they first read it, both Sussman and White speculated whether the ghosts really were the murderers of the wife. They argue in their essay that these ghosts are representatives of the patriarchy who possess the husband, who in fact kills the wife, positing a more feminist reading of the story. The duo presented their essay together, sitting on a panel with other writers who also took a feminist approach. 

The Archer Lit&… Conference website features more information about students’ projects.