Langston Hughes award winners wrote about bees, racism

photo by: Contributed photos

Kate Lorenz, left, and Tracey Lien, right, are the winners of the 2020 Langston Hughes Creative Writing Awards.

The winners of this year’s Langston Hughes Creative Writing Awards wrote about the decline of bees and experiencing racism while growing up in Australia.

Kate Lorenz, the events coordinator for the Lied Center, won the fiction writing contest for her short story “Beekeeping,” and Tracey Lien, a former journalist who is now a student in the University of Kansas’ Master of Fine Arts program, won the poetry contest for her piece, “(Expletive) off, we’re full.”

Lorenz said “Beekeeping” was the one of the three fiction pieces she submitted that the judges said won her the honor.

“It is a terrifying thought, that all the bees are dying. Quickly, too,” Lorenz opened her short story.

She said she was interested and concerned when the first reports came out about the global decline of bees. Lorenz wrote about the phenomenon while weaving in a story of a vanishing romantic relationship.

This is an excerpt of her piece:

“You live two thousand, three hundred and twenty-eight miles away from me. I used to try to count that high while I was falling asleep, to verbalize the impossible farness of it, and to keep from calling too late or at all. Now it makes me hopeful, because maybe things aren’t so dire where you are, bee-speaking. But my father’s colleague knows a beekeeper who lives in South Africa, and things aren’t looking good. I forget that there are places farther from me than where you are.”

Lorenz said she was “thrilled” to win this year, after having submitted pieces in previous years.

Lien’s poem, “(Expletive) off, we’re full,” is about her experience growing up in Australia, a country she said “has this really dark past, and even a dark present when it comes to race.” Lien was born in Australia and is of Vietnamese-Chinese descent.

“You grow up in a country that talks about giving everyone a fair go … and yet at the same time your experience can be quite traumatic,” she said.

The poem’s title are words Lien saw on television, written in Sharpie on a man’s stomach during the 2005 Cronulla riots, a civil conflict in a suburb of Sydney between Anglo-Australians and youths of Middle-Eastern appearance.

This is an excerpt of her piece:

“To hear Aussie-Aussie-Aussie and instinctively chant Oi-Oi-Oi! To eat lamingtons and Anzac biccies. To eat pork floss and fish sauce and chicken feet. To know the mother tongue. To move to another suburb, for another school, because the pre-school teacher said there were too many Asians at this one; that you’d develop an Asian accent; that a new environment was the only way to cleanse the tongue. To be Asian yourself.”

Both writers felt honored to have won the award named after the famous writer. Hughes was a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance whose work often covered aspects of black life in America from the ’20s through the ’60s. Hughes spent most of his childhood in Lawrence.

Lien said that when she read Hughes’ work, she was drawn to his “poetry and prose that tries to represent people who are usually underrepresented.

“To win an award associated with someone who has written with such compassion is a good feeling,” she said.

Lorenz said she believes the Langston Hughes award is an aspirational recognition for many Lawrence writers.

“He’s been a favorite writer of mine for forever,” she said, noting that it “feels surreal to have our names mentioned in the same sentence.”

The Langston Hughes Creative Writing Awards are given out annually with a prize of $500 to each winner. Lorenz and Lien will be honored at an awards ceremony on Feb. 1, Langston Hughes’ birthday. It will take place at 7 p.m. in the Lawrence Arts Center’s large gallery and is free and open to the public.

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