Yasmin Belkhyr uses prose to try to find her footing.
Not in a tragic way that lacks confidence, but eloquently crafting poetry and short stories that attempt to sort out how this Moroccan-born Astoria-native feels at home in both countries, but like an outsider as well.
These compelling musings have garnered her about a dozen national awards coming with thousands of dollars in scholarships and prize money.
Belkhyr, 16, a junior at the Garden School in Jackson Heights, was recognized in the Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards in New York City’s regional competition for 11 pieces ranging from poetry to personal essays and short fiction. Six of those works went on to place nationally — four gold medals and two silver. These honors — won in the past century by Zac Posen, Andy Warhol, Sylvia Plath, and more recently “Girls” writer and director Lena Dunham — were whittled down from 230,000 submissions.
She placed second in the Princeton University writing competition, winning $250; and third out of 500 submissions in the Sierra Nevada College Poetry competition, winning a $500 prize and a $20,000 scholarship if she chooses to attend in two years. She received an honorable mention for her short story and a merit award for her poetry from the National Young Arts Foundation and was a finalist in the Norman Mailer High School and College Writing Awards.
More impressive still she wrote all of these in the last year.
“I’ve always been surrounded by literature,” Belkhyr said. She lives with her parents, a tax accountant and teacher; her grandfather, a retired United Nations employee; and her little brother. And although they aren’t writers, she said, they all support her and encouraged her to read and that’s how she began to write.
Her bi-yearly trips to Morocco, the bright-colored clothes and the smells of the markets, only inspired and pushed her further.
And the Moroccan children.
“I need to stop writing about these children,” Belkhyr writes in a poem, “who keep 20 cent lollipops in their mouths until the candy embeds itself into their back molars, who kick around deflated soccer balls and scratch at the pink dots of mosquito bites on their sun-whipped shoulders and ashy legs, who laugh too loudly and beg too freely, too easily, but I can’t because they haunt me, these kids, ghosts that trickle into my dreams, slip in like smoke and cling to the back of my eyes until all I can see is everything they don’t have.”
She said that when she visits her aunts and grandparents that she looks at these kids and thinks “that could have been me.”
Besides the poverty and the children, she writes of how beautiful the country is, how each city seems like its own country with its own tick on a scale between conservative and modern as well as culture and geography.
She writes about how she fits into this world. Belkhyr speaks Arabic, but not like a native and her dress and attitude are clearly American to a Moroccan.
“A few of the poems are about the different people I have to be,” she said. “My father says I’m lost — trying to still figure it out.
“It’s a personal choice. I want to be in Morocco.”
In the future she plans to continue to write. She has a short story about a sister and her bipolar brother in the works and is busy jump-starting her very own literary journal, the “Winter Tangerine Review.” Nine editors were narrowed down from 150 applications and submissions for print close on May 1.