Las Vegas Sun

June 18, 2019

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Las Vegas Academy student wins prestigious writing award

For Ariana Smith, poetry isn’t just cathartic — it’s activism.

The daughter of an African-American father and Filipina mother, the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts senior uses her work to address her own identity as a gay woman with a mixed ethnic background.

“That idea of coming from an immigrant family … it’s interesting how it kind of confronts my African-American identity,” she said. “Being enslaved and brought here unwillingly as well as conquering the American dream is an interesting dynamic on both sides of my family.”

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Ariana Smith

Smith is one of the gold recipients of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, which is the nation’s longest-running scholarship recognition program. Past notable recipients include Truman Capote, Stephen King and Sylvia Plath.

Smith is one of 16 high school students nationwide selected for this accolade, which includes a $10,000 scholarship, a weeklong celebration in New York City culminating with an event in Carnegie Hall on June 6.

“I remember feeling like it felt good to get my words out on the page,” Smith said. “Feelings of vulnerability … they are hard to feel in the world, but when you force yourself, it can be therapeutic.”

Smith writes on the violence against queer and trans people of color.

“Black queer people are killed all over the world,” she said. “Their victimhood is not portrayed. People don’t see justice.”

In her poem “Sisterhood,” Smith quotes an African proverb: “When your sister is your hairdresser, you need no mirror.”

Smith said the proverb resonates with her because of the freedom she feels in being “surrounded by other black women.”

“A few years ago, I was really thinking about the idea of black women and how we connect with each other,” she said. “I didn’t really have a lot of black girls as friends. It was on my mind a lot.”

Smith said black women are often portrayed in media as caricatures without complex identities. She said she ponders that complexity when she thinks about her own black, queer identity.

“Your identity is all of you, not just some parts,” she said. “I feel like making space being both black and queer … it’s a complicated dynamic.”

LGBT spaces, she said, are often white-centric, even though LGBT Pride is built off “black people and black trans women.” She said black culture and tradition can also be limiting for queer identities.

“I like to use art as a form of activism and art as a form of protest,” she said, adding that in today’s political climate, “art serves as a radical act.”

“A black person writing about love is a radical act,” she said. “I’m constantly hit with certain things I can’t control. They can be painful things. You can still come out of it and have love for people around you.”

Smith is the vice president of her school’s Black Student Union. She plans on studying film and social justice after she graduates high school.