Inter-University Writing Contest Inspires Meaningful Stories from Both CapU Winners
Megan Amato // Opinions Editor
Kaho Furukawa // Illustrator
“I wanted to make a story that conveyed a strong feeling. When people finish reading it, many [feel like they are] identified. Not everything in life is pink, and many times we do not understand what others could be going through,” said María José Peña Peña of her inspiration for her short story. “The Love and the Beggar” features a disenfranchised man who nearly gives up hope when three women visit him to remind him of the things he loves in life and motivate him to keep living.
The Long Story Short Award is a newly-founded writing contest open to university students from participating universities across the world. Two winners are selected by a jury and by public vote for first, second and third place in fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry categories. Peña, who is bunking down in her home country Colombia during the pandemic, won Public Winner for creative non-fiction and was one of two CapU first place winners. Paralegal student Dr. Neelam Batra-Verma was the second Public Winner in the fiction category for her story “The Cycle”.
“This was my first [time writing] fiction, which I weaved around a true story. Until now, my writings were journalistic based on interviews and experiences of people,” Batra-Verma said of her winning story about a young woman named Nina who is kidnapped during her Chhaupadi—a Nepalese-Hindu tradition where women are exiled from their homes once a month to a shed during menstruation—and sold into sex trafficking. “I had met a similar girl like Nina while doing an article on call girls, and she had told me about [Chhaupadi]. Nina may be [fictional], but the story can be related to many such Ninas. Chhaupadi should be abolished as it brings suffering on the poor girls.”
Batra-Verma is a seasoned writer with articles in several newspapers and publications and one book titled 1971: A War Story. “This book is based on true experiences of families of those who lost loved ones in the 1971 India-Pakistan war. While the world forgot about them, the families continued their hope that one day their loved ones will come back. I followed those families for years and wrote many articles when I was in India. But when I moved to Canada in 2002, I felt the pain of missing loved ones since I had left my entire family behind. That is when I decided to pen their pain.”
Batra-Verma’s father fostered her love of writing as a child when he encouraged her to write about the places she visited with him. She began writing professionally in university and has always been drawn to true stories that explore human-interest. “Whether it is the Black Lives Matter movement or [an] injustice being done on an individual, human interest or political…it has to touch a cord before I can put my mind and heart to it.”
Peña’s inspiration often comes from more personal sources. “I never met him, but my great-grandfather was a great poetry writer, so perhaps he could have had some influence in the blood,” Peña laughed, adding her admiration for her mother—a woman gifted with the skill of oration within her letters, songs and poems. “Every time we hear a certain song, our mind is transported to a memory, a past moment with some meaning, and we are filled with nostalgia and joy. When we see a photo of…all the cousins gathered and [we] feel that familiar warmth.”
Family, tradition and music play an important role in “The Love and the Beggar”, as they inspire memories that help carry the man through hard times. “We really need to think about all we now have, everything we’ve overcome, how far we’ve gone, to never lose the meaning of life. This beggar lost it, but by reminding him of the beauty of life, he was able to find his way again … or at least feel that love he had lost.”
Both Peña and Batra-Verma want to explore their writing capabilities as their careers grow. For Peña, writing is not a vocation, but a hobby she loves and plans to keep growing. “Do not despair if at the beginning you do not know what to write, believe me, inspiration will come,” Peña suggests, offering encouragement to aspiring writers. “You just have to connect with the space around you, go beyond a common tangible thing and think about how from something simple, a great story can be created.”
Batra-Verma, who is currently querying her second book and wants to challenge herself with a children’s book next, has a similar message. “Never think you cannot write. Write something every day, whether you like it or not, whether it’s your day’s events or just your diary.”
The Long Story Short Award comes back round this autumn, and like Peña and Batra-Verma, CapU students looking to submit their work should take inspiration from where they can find it.