Fifty Square Feet Within
by Erika Yip
Issue #63 • August 18th, 2020•Buy Now!
Edited by Patrick Ryan
Mama is a fabric that has been worn and torn and stretched into near nothingness. She works two jobs—a waitress at Yiu Wah Café by day, and a cleaning lady at the Hong Kong Museum of History by night—and we never have time to spend together. To the rest of my Sheung Wan world, we are mother and daughter, bound so tightly by our surroundings that our relationship has become somewhat of a sacred vigil to our caged home community. Ma is always busy. When I return from school, she is at work; when she is home from work, I am at school. There is no magic. There is rarely conversation. There is simply silence and providing. Providing and silence.
Dinner is the only meal Mama and I share. Every evening, we crouch into the public hallway and walk into the shared kitchen where dinner will be served. This is the mixture I have grown used to: the revolting combination of kitchen and bathroom, toilet and uncooked meat, toothbrushes and noodles. A ring of dirty towels hangs on the ceiling, a chandelier above our heads. I look at Mama and smile, thanking her for preparing dinner. I feel sympathy for my single Ma but I am afraid of the words that might come from my mouth. We each sit on fold-up chairs bought from the Japanese dollar store down the road and clasp onto our plastic chopsticks. We pick up each bite with caution, silently consuming each and every grain of rice.
I am a senior at Milton Academy, a boarding school in Boston, Massachusetts. I live far away from my home in Hong Kong. I first fell in love with writing in a creative writing class I took sophomore year. Since then, I have produced works that revolve around cultural assimilation and childhood nostalgia. I write to feel calm, and to show myself that vulnerability is not always negative. On campus, I am the editor-in-chief of Magus Mabus, a student art and literary magazine. I hope to use writing as a way to build unexpected bridges between people with different experiences.
Patrick Ryan on Fifty Square Feet Within
Erika Yip’s “Fifty Square Feet Within” is a story that gripped me from the beginning with its quiet, claustrophobic atmosphere and then held me at the edge of my seat right up till the end. Tian is a teen girl living with her mom in the Sheung Wan area of Hong Kong. They share extremely cramped quarters in a subdivided apartment, and her mother works long hours at two different jobs to pay for their food and lodging.
Because of her mother’s work hours and her own school schedule, Tian usually only sees her mother for the duration of a single meal a day: dinner. But one evening her mom doesn’t come home. And Tian has to figure out what to do next.
“Fifty Square Feet Within” reads like a mystery. It builds suspense as Tian takes matters into her own hands, and it conjures a feeling of claustrophobia that it maintains even when she steps out of her confined living space and ventures out into the larger world. Erika Yip’s story is one of the winners of our Teen Writing Contest, and we’re excited to be putting it into your hands. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
Q&A by Patrick Ryan
PR: Where did the idea for this story come from?
EY: Housing shortage has always been a very prevalent issue in Hong Kong. With overpopulation and overpriced rent, most people can’t afford a real home. As a result, landlords divide flats into smaller “homes” for people to rent. They either separate the spaces with cages or temporary walls. Inspiration for this story started with a community service visit to one of these so-called “caged-homes.” Immediately I thought, more people need to hear about this issue. I wanted something that brought this problem to the page with a fresher voice— not just another article filled with data and facts. I used a very universal idea, the bond between mother and daughter, as a starting point for a very crucial social issue.
PR: I was so impressed with the handling of time in the story. Was it always your intention to fit the action into these specific hours? Were you ever tempted to extend the story to the next day?
EY: I’ve always wanted the story to happen from dusk until dawn. Something about this time of the night makes the whole experience much more mythical. Nightlife in Hong Kong goes into the early hours, and I wanted the protagonist to experience the exoticism of the wealthy as she walks past the clubs and bars. As she rides the ferry, the neon lights reflecting against the harbor makes the city more euphoric. When she arrives at the museum, I feel like her journey feels beautifully haunting because it occurs in the middle of the night.
PR: There is a well-executed (and unsettling) sense of claustrophobia in “Fifty Square Feet Within.” Even when the action moves outside, there’s a feeling of claustrophobia. How did you accomplish that?
EY: Hong Kong is a very cluttered city. I wanted to emphasize the sense of claustrophobia in both indoor and outdoor spaces so that the reader really feels the suffocation of the city. In order to write about the airless nature of Hong Kong, I first had to step outside of my house. Every time you step out, especially during the summer, you can feel the tightening humidity in the air and the thousands of people honing into you on the streets. I used a lot of sensory tools and words in the story, such as the grip of the humidity, or the feeling of walls closing in on you to really convey that suffocation.
PR: Finish this sentence in just one word—the word you think best captures it: “This story is about __________.”
PR: What did you do when you found out you were one of our Teen Writing Contest Winners? Was there any celebrating?
EY: I was super, super excited! This is the first time I’ve ever written a piece of short fiction, since I usually stick to poetry and other shorter genres. It feels like a brand new portal of longer fiction has opened up to me. It’s also amazing that the sentiments of Hong Kong will be shared with an international crowd. I immediately told my creative writing teacher, the one who has helped me immensely with writing, and she gave me a special shout-out at an all-school assembly!
PR: What are you working on now?
EY: Since I’ve been in quarantine back home in Hong Kong, I’ve been reading a lot of Chinese poetry by poets like Li Bai or Du Fu. To be honest, they’re very hard for me to understand (my Chinese is a little rusty). I’ve been slowly trying to translate them into English in hopes of staying more connected to my culture.
PR: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
EY: Growing up, my mom always told me to focus on the little things. She’s not a writer, nor was she talking about writing when she gave me this advice, but these words have tremendously helped improve my writing. When you’re observing something or trying to get inspiration for a story, it always helps to focus on the details. You could be looking at something as small as a box of tissues on your desk, or something as large as the view after a long hike—paying attention to detail will never fail you. Never cease to ask questions, as well: How did this object come to be? Where has it been before me? It not only builds on the realism of the speaker’s perspective, but it also helps form a deeper emotional connection between you and the reader.