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CAS for Database

Claudia Ann Seaman Award

Abigail Li

Miami, Florida

American Heritage Plantation

Creative Nonfiction


          I watch you, a husk of a man. Little else but skin, bones, and whatever remains of musculature, so small I feel like I can hold you. There are dirt mounds and harsh words folded into your face, pressed into paper.

          I do not know how to describe a love that is not obvious; I have yet to hear you say the word. There is a language that flows between children and ancestors that has been cut out of our tongues. When we speak, a little bit of blood escapes us. A gaping wound presses itself into a knife. I have cauterized, welded the parts of myself that you have torn apart, but they are only held by slivers of skin.

          I wonder, often. I see you slumped, life seeping into the ceilings above you, your eyes vacant, bloodshot. Glimpses of your childhood, red sheets instead of windows, wool rugs shared between six siblings, the smell of burning coal. Memories of my grandfather, your father. When you guard the fields, sharp edges singe themselves into my limbs and carry me across rows of sorghum; thieves push their weights into my skull. Mandarin syllables mangled by those who were consumed by the weight of their own destitution. You sit next to a weakened flame; in its light, you glow marigold.


          When we light fireworks on the 5th of July, stars flicker and fizzle out on dewy grass. Gunpowder flares, masking the glare of street lamps. I look at you, deepened lines pushing into the sides of your mouth, your right hand holding a bag of TNT, your left a digital camera. A silent sadness, a wish that creeps into your mind and withers. Your shoes damp and uncomfortable, a wet poncho stuffed in your glovebox. Two days waiting, just so you could see me smile.

          In your mind, I am not yet sixteen. I am so much younger, smaller. I am shorter than the halfway point of your waist. I have pigtails and a yellow butterfly clip and clear blue shoes. When I speak, it is high-pitched and pure, you can hold me within your hands, swing me into your arms. I call you Daddy, not Father, and there is nothing but love in my eyes. I am precocious but never somber; I am made of light and laughter. My wrists are unscarred, my eyes are clear. This is a part of me that you can never get back, but nothing can stop you from longing.

          A flash, my bare feet jumping over the concrete, a shrill, whistling ring, a small explosion. Flares of blue and green rocketing into the clouds, smoke creeping into the oak trees. I twirl, shrieking, the bottom edge of my shirt trailing up my navel. I laugh, and the sound is carried into the wind; palm fronds rustle westward. I offer you a red firecracker and you blink, as if in a trance. You shake your head and hand me the bag, whispering have fun, softly. You push back your hair with your hands and watch me run towards the horizon, my arms outstretched.


"THESE SMALL EXPLOSIONS" will blow your mind with vivid imagery as the narrator explores her experiences with her father. You’ll be able to smell the smoke and hear the fireworks through the text, the multicolored flares dancing across the page. Different emotions will spark like flickers in the sky, from sorrow to joy.

Editorial Praise from Beth Kohl, CNF Judge:

These Small Explosions, the “flicker and fizzle” of memory, aging and literal fireworks, powerfully, poetically and highly specifically, narrates moments in the life of a child and their father. The writer ponders the difficulty of finding words or describing certain emotions while, simultaneously, creating a gorgeous, moving, restrained yet lyrical piece of writing.

In an ingenious use of metaphor, the writer establishes up front that the essay, like the narrator’s father, has “dirt mounds and harsh words folded into [your] face, pressed into paper.” There’s the sort of muck that marks the end of youthful innocence – once unscarred wrists no longer that way and a changed perception of one’s ancestors. There are also harsh words -- blood and gaping wounds, TNT and the singe of sharp edges -- that give life to this beautiful work.

The piece teems with a vivid physicality, this child and father traced through the years through specific moments and concise specificity – a wet poncho stuffed in a glovebox – as well as a sense of movement through space and time -- the child running with outstretched arms while the father, pushing back his hair, watches his child run off. Evocative, grounded, and poetic, this essay manages to be both elegiac and fully alive.

Abigail Li enjoys creating and consuming art. She also likes to play Terraria, eat tonkotsu ramen, and smoking her poor friends at Scrabble.


CNF, Runner-Up

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