Annika Inampudi ’21 & Lily Sternlieb ’24 Win NCTE Writing Awards


by Annika Inampudi


The evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane once said that God has an inordinate fondness for two things: stars and beetles. Which I guess is true, because one in four living things on this planet is a beetle. At least, that was what the camp counselor says when she shows me the white bucket that she’d been lugging behind her like something treasured. It’s the middle of July, the oversweet summer air sinking into our skin, and we are hiking to the pond. 

“Wanna see?” she asks me, tapping the side of the pail with her hand, smiling as if she were revealing a secret. When I look inside the container, I almost want to close my eyes. An entire bucket filled to the brim with jumbled insects and crawling things, tripping over themselves in a claustrophobic pilgrimage, one over the other over the other. Like someone put the ground into a citrus reamer and this bucket was filled with the juice that was squeezed out. The life sitting just below a plastic lid, taking the shape of the container that caged it. The camp counselor smiles. “Stick your hand in and see what comes out.”

Everything around us is pulsating with that terrifying aliveness of the mid-summer forest. The steady hum of cicadas infiltrating our ears, the constant rotation of the bugs in their hidden cage, churning just below our noses. Nothing around our little camp but the congested throb of the forest air. The camp counselor reaches in and hands me something small and beetle-like, and it crawls across my wrist, dancing up my forearms. I am at once enthralled and grossed out by the small living thing sitting on my skin. Something in me wants to keep it forever, fascinated by the moment I became something a little less human and more insectine, its legs still faint against my wrist. The residue of its creaturehood clings against my body. The second it flies away, I want it back. 

I want to re-become all of it, suspend myself in formaldehyde, preserve it forever—the sheen of sweat covering the counselor’s face, the bucket squirming underneath her. This was it: I was eight years old and the world was crawling across my fingers, my body ghost-like in the anchored forest, silent in the summer air.

There are two things that populate the bulk of our known world: stars and beetles. And I write because I want to hold them in my hands, over and over again. 


I’m the girl with washing machine hands. Wringing in the cafeteria line, after class, fingers tumbling one over the other. Knuckle over palm. Hands rubbed red-raw, skin cracking and peeling off like stale orange rind on a kitchen counter. I’m the girl with obsession bleeding from her calluses. Fingers knobby and littered with healed-over scars. My hands are like rocky hillsides, like the hikers that climb them. I’m the girl that turns her hands so much they’re heaving.

The first thing my father taught me was that your brain is like a glass of orange juice. Too much information, and pulp spills over the sides, names that you’ll never get back, birthdays that you’ll never remember. My brain’s been overflowing for a long time now. An ocean in a glass of orange juice. This is me at my worst, hours after my bedtime, everything around me tinted with the gray softness of insomniac vision. My brain is both extra-hyper and extra-mushed, and thinking is like trying to open an over-ripe banana. Trying really hard not to squeeze all the fruit out. There’s nothing awake but the muted slash of the passing cars from outside my window and the thoughts in my head, pulp and all. 

So I write, and it’s like the aftermath of an avalanche, when the earth forgets the horror and everything is just white snow, untainted and encompassing. Writing pours my brain out onto the page. I write to empty myself, to lose those intrusive, midnight thoughts. I write to calm my brain, to keep my hands from moving so far off my body that they forget their home. 


She had resolved never again to belong to another than herself. I read the line in the text, over and over again, whispering it underneath my breath like a mantra. Everything around me was unearthly and magical. Suddenly, I had turned from a girl sitting on a balcony to a melancholic housewife in New Orleans, standing on the edge of the water. We were worlds apart, Edna Pontillier and I, but somehow, her visceral awakening felt so close to home. I sat there, crouched between two houseplants, the soft rustling of the wind in my ears, turning the pages under the hazy early morning light, entirely enraptured by the words on the page. This is what good writing could do to you. Utterly enrapture. 

After that, I was obsessed. I would read whole chapters aloud to my mom in the car, the two of us sitting in the dark, bonding over the truthfulness of the words. In a time when I felt that I had no control over my future, that I was hurtling into a space that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in, The Awakening felt like a small bit of reassurance. 

To show their migration routes to the young, old lobsters grab young ones by the claw and lead them along the right path, much like humans holding hands. That’s what this story meant to me: the gentle passing down of experience from old to young. A small statement, pushed out into the world: here’s what I went through and here’s how I dealt with it. And even generations later, words can still pierce. It’s comforting, the thought that the love, shame and pride that was felt hundreds of years ago is the same love, shame and pride that I feel now. Writing has a funny way of bringing you intergenerational comfort. We’re not alone in the vast, mysterious universe! I like to think that maybe Edna Pontillier is standing beside me, holding my hand from centuries ago, showing me the way home.  

She had resolved never again to belong to another than herself. Dizzy and excited by the words on the page, I ran into my bedroom and scrawled the line on a piece of paper with a sharpie marker and grabbed some tape from a drawer. My heart was pounding with the fervor of reading a new book, with the spring air caught between my ears, with the thick ocean scent emanating from the book. I was utterly overwhelmed with feeling, and I needed to find some sort of outlet. Walking into my bathroom, I stuck the quote straight onto my mirror. Perfect, I thought, a reminder for the day. 

So this is why I write: for legacy, for understanding, for foreverness. Every morning, I wake up to brush my teeth, and I look at the quote in the bathroom mirror, a strong but gentle reminder of the people standing behind the mirror glass. Characters from all around the world, quietly screaming their words into my ears. We’re listening, we’re listening, we’re listening.

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