Laura is on the far left; Jenna is third from the right.
I routinely refer to my childhood friend Jenna Le, now a physician, poet, and literary translator, as the smartest person I’ve ever known. Jenna and I were both friends and rivals on the Minnesota spelling bee circuit from 1995-98, when we were 11-14 years old. Eventually we both grew up to be writers, publishing our first books — her book of poems, Six Rivers, and my YA novel, Sister Mischief — within months of each other in 2011. Jenna’s poems have also appeared in AGNI Online, Barrow Street, Bellevue Literary Review, and other publications, she has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the PEN Emerging Writers Award, and she received her B.A. in math from Harvard and her M.D. from Columbia.
Last Thursday night, in Washington, D.C., Arvind Mahankali, a 13-year-old boy from Bayside, Queens, beat 280 other contenders to win the 86th annual National Spelling Bee. The Bee is a multi-stage event that begins with classroom spell-offs in tens of thousands of elementary and junior high schools each winter, and culminates each May in a televised showdown in which contestants fidget and sweat and stammer their way toward a prize of $30,000 and national fame. On this occasion, Jenna and I mutually reflected on our bee experiences and found them to be deeply embroiled with race, class, gender, competition, achievement, and the American Dream.
JL: Hi, Laura! Thanks so much for coming up with the idea of having this conversation about spelling bees: what they mean to us personally as former spelling bee competitors and what they have to do the larger questions of language, identity, race, gender, and (dare I say it?) the American dream.
The first time my older sister Mina competed in a spelling bee, she was a fifth-grader, and I was a second-grader, sitting restlessly between my parents in the audience. It was the ’90s, and Mina and I were among a handful of nonwhite students enrolled in our ritzy suburban Minnesota elementary school. Flanked by my Vietnamese immigrant parents, I shuddered as hundreds of alien-sounding words winged over my head. “Lasagna”? A food that I, raised on rice- and fish-sauce-based dishes, had never tasted. “Yacht”? A type of boat I had never seen.
To everyone’s surprise, my sister won that bee, and the next one, and the next. My parents’ nervousness quickly gave way to hard-bitten pride. Overnight, the winning of spelling bees became a key component of our family identity, the yacht we never had. My sister’s bee victories were a tangible family asset, something my mother could use as collateral when she marched off to parent-teacher conferences, determined to convince the skeptical teachers that an Asian immigrant family was as well worth betting on as a white one.
My sister’s streak of bee triumphs culminated in a first-place finish at the 1995 Minnesota State Spelling Bee. Beaming, she appeared on TV and in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Sporting enormous glasses and an equally humongous pink bow in her hair, her face smiled benignly from the front page of Asian American Press, a free newspaper distributed in local Asian supermarkets.
At age 9, I was well aware that my parents had high hopes for me to carry on my sister’s bee-winning legacy. I resisted, though. Poring over blurrily Xeroxed lists of alphabetized words in my room all summer ignited a rankling impatience in my gut. I was a typical preadolescent, overflowing with messy emotions, and preparing for these emotionally dry and existentially meaningless contests struck me as a waste of time. I preferred to immerse myself in the dark world of Charlotte Bronte novels, reading those heartrendingly romantic dialogues again and again until my lacrimal glands spilled over. I preferred to bask in the colorful language of the movie reviews in the Star Tribune and imagine the faraway day when I would be the heroine of my own life.
My first bee was a disaster: misspelling the word “maneuver,” I shuffled back to my seat in ignominy. The following year, I stumbled on “dilute.” The year after that, the word “flourishes” undid me.
Mina, now 16, had just started applying to colleges. Watching her assemble her application, it began to dawn on me how high the stakes were. Spelling bee victories led to college acceptances, which in turn led to a new life, a life far removed from this cloistered suburban world where parents’ and teachers’ and peers’ approval meant everything. Bolstered by this secret knowledge, I rallied.
The 1998 Minnesota State Spelling Bee. Only five competitors remain on stage, including me. I approach the microphone and listen for my assigned word: “nascence.”
The word is new to me (it means “birth”). It is months before I will write my first poem and realize I was meant to be a poet. Years before I will discover the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. A decade before I will move to Manhattan and read Millay’s greatest poem, “Renascence,” for the first time.
I fumble it. It’s a clear-cut defeat, but it’s also an escape, a leap into freedom, a birth. I am born, so that I can be reborn.
LG: While there seems to have been, resultant of Mina’s success, an expectation that you would both participate in and succeed at bees, I remember my entrance to them as much less inevitable. At the beginning, in 5th grade, I remember being surprised to discover I was good at spelling. I wasn’t studying, but I kept winning — first the class, then the school, then I placed at the district level and went to regionals (where Mina thoroughly trounced me — that was the year she went to nationals). I was shocked to have made it that far. Unlike you, books were my only siblings, but like you, I loved Gothic novels; Jane Eyre, that lost and lonely only child, has saved my life once or twice. For me, the bees were entirely involved with my obsession with reading — I drilled on the word lists some, but halfheartedly, and I think whatever spelling talent I had was just derived from reading and reading and collecting all the new words I could find. As a combined result of books and bees, there’s a lot of words I knew how to define and spell without having any idea how to pronounce them, and in that way, I think the bees quite literally helped me to find my voice.
For me, the bees represented a similar moment of feeling visible for the first time, which I wasn’t sure how to feel about then. When I went to the regional bee, my elementary school put a notice about it on the sign outside, and driving by it on my way to school every day was simultaneously the proudest and most embarrassed I’ve ever felt. My identity had suddenly been cast for me — Smart Girl — in a way that guaranteed my placement on an elite track that eventually led to a lot of good things, but that also guaranteed a social alienation that, accompanied by my glasses and braces and gangly exploding limbs, definitely threw me off for a number of years.
There is so much in the connection you draw from bees to college that I relate to. This was a primary concern of my novel Sister Mischief — the exalting of college as the great escape, the destination where we could all suddenly, miraculously be free to be you and me, and the resultant positioning of achievement itself as escape. It reminds me of the root of the word “ecstasy,” the Greek ekstasis, which literally means to stand outside oneself. That was how I felt every time I spelled a word right — I got high off the absence of the bell. For a moment, I would stand outside myself in that moment of victory. Then, later, it was how I felt when I got into Columbia. When I published my first book. Winning is a drug; it’s how you learn to claw your way up, however you can.
That said, to hear your first-generation perspective on the significance of the bees is fascinating to me, because for that reason alone the bees’ stakes were higher for you than for me, full stop. There’s just no arguing that point — to your family, to your establishment of identity, to your future, the bees carried an onus that I simply didn’t have to carry, and that feels important to acknowledge here.
That’s a poignant thing to consider when you stand back and look at it — that in all my 12- and 13-year old ignorance, stressing about the next bee, I really had no idea both that the bees didn’t matter as much for me as they did for you, Mina, and every other first-generation kid, and that, due to my parents’ native English-speaking, I had a natural advantage in the lexicon of their competition. That feels like an allegory for how white and Asian kids integrate and relate to each other at large, and to extend it, I’d venture that the Asian American dominance of spelling bees is a dramatic mode of assimilation — a new way to claim the English language, a silver bullet for the college application, an article in the paper. The bee is an emblem of fluency, of literacy, and of tenacity.
So I guess in all these ways, I see spelling bees as this deeply rich microcosm of what America’s stratified, unequal achievement culture is, and a barometer of where the melting pot is at — there’s a really naked kind of competition within bees, and one I find almost grotesquely synecdochic of the American Dream. Gatsby’s on the tips of everyone’s tongues right now, so I’ll ask you this way — do you think the bees are a green light at the end of the dock? Do you think they’re a false flash of promise, or one that panned out for you? Don’t you think you would have gotten into Harvard without them, or do you really think they affected your family’s path in the way they’ve tended to believe?
Also, not to harp on the race point, Jenna, but I’d actually love to hear a little about how your parents came to Minnesota, and Edina specifically (the predominantly white, affluent, first-ring suburb of Minneapolis in which we both grew up, not coincidentally the home of the best public school system in the state).
JL: First, thank you for bringing up the topic of etymologies! I grew up in the no-man’s-land between two languages, English (that kleptomaniac bastard child of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French) and Vietnamese (part of the Mon-Khmer language family). So I was always vaguely conscious that etymologies were something worth caring about. It was only when I started competing in the bees that etymologies became a life-or-death matter: being ignorant that “flourish” and “fluorine” have different roots and therefore different spellings caused me to flub my 1997 spelling bee chances, for example. Since then, etymologies are constantly on my mind, and they play a critical role in my present-day work as a poet. Maybe I should thank the spelling bees for that!
“Achievement = escape”: what a neat way of phrasing the traditional conceptualization of the American dream. On their surface, the events that led to my parents settling in Edina, Minnesota, embody and ratify that traditional conceptualization. My parents were Vietnam War refugees: along with millions of others, they fled their country when North Vietnamese troops stormed the South Vietnamese stronghold of Saigon in 1975.
My parents had one trait many refugees didn’t: they were college-educated. Not only that, they had marketable math and science skills. Because of this, my dad was offered a job in Minnesota. And because their experiences had reinforced their faith in the power of education, my parents chose to resettle in the suburb of Edina so that their children could be educated in Edina’s reputedly excellent public schools.
This is a story I like telling because it’s the story of my family, but I sometimes need to remind myself that it’s the idiosyncratic story of one individual family, and it doesn’t speak to the experiences to many families that were not so lucky as mine: families of all races and ethnicities that are failed every day by the American dream. Being involved in spelling bees as a kid, I got to meet some kids from different backgrounds — kids who’d been subjected to poverty and flat-out racism and all kinds of travails that made them stronger — and that’s probably the most important thing I took away from the whole bee experience.
And yet: writing my first poem when I was 13, going away to math camp when I was 15: those events shaped my life’s trajectory more profoundly than the bees did. I guess I’m more of a Nick Carraway than a Jay Gatsby? I guess you and I both are, being Minnesotans.
I’d love to hear more about how you personally experienced the bees, Laura. We were both born and raised in Edina, but I didn’t really meet you until 10th-grade gym class. I remember seeing this super-tall girl walking around the locker rooms and thinking, “Hey, isn’t that the girl I was always running into in the spelling bees?”
LG: It’s endlessly intriguing to me how two people can remember the same experiences so differently. I’d remembered and kept an eye on you ever since the bees, so your reappearance in high school wasn’t a surprise for me. The way I remember you from high school, after the bees, is a mixture of awe and envy — I could have killed you in AP English for all the 99s you scored on those blue books. I wanted to be the best one in that class so badly, and that role was stalwartly occupied by you. But I could never really be mad about that, because you deserved it, and because I liked and respected — like and respect — you too much. There it is again, that unique blend of competition and camaraderie. I’m developing an overarching theory that women should be less apologetic about their competitive impulses — if we can keep those impulses away from bitterness and destruction, they’re tremendous motivators. Which is to say: it’s always been my privilege even to bat in your league. You keep me striving.
I have a vivid memory I wanted to share with you — when I got knocked out of the regional competition that Mina won (we were in 5th grade, she in 8th, I think I placed 5th or 6th in that bee), I was completely distraught and burst into tears — again, the intense emotionality, the sheer adrenaline of that silent moment before the judge beeped your answer wrong, or said “That is correct.” The word was “gubernatorial,” which I stupidly spelled with a “gouber”; I’d never found it in any of my books before and was completely stumped. Anyway, as I made my way into the audience, your parents came up and comforted and complimented me, and it meant the world to me — I had been so in awe of you and Mina, and at that point we’d all seen each other at so many bees, and that moment made me feel like there was some weird and lovely niche community of us, the awkward clever spellers and the people who produced us, that we were competing against each other but also in it together.
It’s also worth noting that after 5th grade, I had two years of losing bees before I had another winning year, and I was absolutely mortified by losing. With each year I lost, the stakes for winning the next year were raised. We competed at the same state bee in 8th grade, didn’t we? I think I placed 11th that year you placed 5th, and I remember crying harder after that knocking-out than any other one. Once I recovered, I was proud of how I’d placed, but the way it felt when the bottom fell out of that adrenaline surge, and realizing the bees were all over for me — it was painful.
Okay, HOW is it POSSIBLE that we have not brought gender into this yet?! Honestly — I don’t even remember the boys from bees. I only remember noticing the other girls. Did you feel particularly pitted against other girls in the swath of competitors, or what was the gendered aspect of this experience for you? Also, do you feel like there were actually more girls in competition, or is this totally a distortion of my addled memory? (Note: Jenna has ascertained that the competitors in the 2013 Scripps Howard national spelling bee are 52% female and 48% male.)
JL: Well, first, I want to address your theory about competitiveness. I think you’re absolutely correct that spelling bees ultimately amount to a distillation of the idea of competitiveness in its purest (and therefore, from a certain perspective, its silliest) form. Competitiveness in America has such a tangled history. On the one hand, the theory of capitalism, which shaped 20th-century history so profoundly in both my parents’ native Asia and the western world, argues that competitiveness is a force for good. Many of the social phenomena around us, things we take for granted, like the U.S. News and World Report prestige rankings of colleges, have this assumption at their root. And yet, we both know competitiveness can sometimes be destructive: the pain of losing spelling bees taught us so.
In my life, I’ve been involved in quite a few subcultures that are lopsided, gender-wise. The “mathlete” subculture, which more or less consumed my life between the ages of 13 and 21 (I was an undergrad math major before heading to med school), was heavily male-dominated, for instance. In contrast, the gender breakdown of the spelling bees was roughly 50:50, as I recall it. But I’ve noticed that Minnesota women speak with a loudness and confidence virtually unique to their kind, and I wonder if this contributed to your impression that Minnesota females had a more salient presence at the bees than their male counterparts.
LG: I, too, have often found myself the woman in a man’s world, and never more than working in film. (Sidebar: Especially as, like you, the daughter of a woman in science, I’ve always felt as though I somehow betrayed feminism by not being better at math and science. I was good, maybe even better than I thought I was, but I had to TRY, and I didn’t much like that.) I like your analysis of the gender breakdown in the bees, and feel conspicuously identified by your characterization of Minnesota women here. I think that loud confidence you name is embroiled with that singularly Midwestern friendliness that Minnesota is known for — my mother and I both pride ourselves, derivatively of this quality, on being able to talk to anyone. Minnesota women are loud, confident, and most of all, chatty. I’ve never shaken that quality, and it confused the hell out of people when I first moved to New York — the hostile looks I would get as I instinctively made small talk in elevators! I was so oblivious, so naive, but I find that quality to be an asset now — it really disarms the coastal folk.
Since you’ve detailed your family’s role in all this so beautifully, perhaps my own ought to find some relevance here. My mother’s path was very similar to my own in many ways — she grew up in Fargo, even more a place that no one leaves than Minneapolis, and she was a bee kid too. I don’t remember exactly how she placed — somehow I remember she didn’t do quite as well as I eventually did — but she described it to me as a formative experience, and took a lot of pride in my replicating it. Her Midwestern experience was one of getting out by working her way up, too, and her departure from Fargo to Wellesley College, where she became part of that hallowed Seven Sisters 1960s generation that included Madeleine Albright, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Nora Ephron, was the first time she’d ever traveled by plane. So that paradigm was pret-a-porter for me, that way in which the Midwest becomes a kind of farm league that you swing your way out of if you’ve got the chops, and the bees had already been reified as a key part of it. That American Dream aspect, again.
There’s a passage in Gatsby that always makes me choke up a little in its resonance, that I think describes the immigrant experience so truly. When I say “immigrant” here, I mean it in a regional, class-based, and cultural way, too — not just geographical migration itself, but also class mobility.
I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all — Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.
That’s who I am and who I always will be — subtly unadaptable to anywhere but that cold place where people chat so warmly. You can swing your way out of the farm leagues, so to speak, but you can’t actually acquire native understanding of anywhere but the place you knew as a child. So looking back, I think the bees were the beginning of something rich and wild and wonderful for me, but also something bittersweet — the idea that through talent, you can ascend to someplace where you can live for years but will never truly belong. That’s an allegory for both your family and mine, and for both you and me.
JL: So true. My whole life, I’ve been drawn to quotations like Theodor Adorno’s “It is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home” and Ezra Pound’s “What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage.” The idea that one can and should dissociate oneself from one’s native turf, coupled with the related idea that the voluntary servitude of love can be an adequate replacement for the knotty bonds of heredity: my poems often flirt with these ideas, these attractive, seductive, quintessentially American ideas. It’s a strong undercurrent in my book, Six Rivers, as well as in the new poems I’m working on now. In the end, however, we can’t escape that harsh truth: we will never fully belong.
Our discussion of female moxie reminds me of a word I think I first encountered in a spelling bee, a word that is virtually obsolete now: “adventuress.” This word, as I’m sure you already know, was once used to label social climbers — female social climbers, in particular. Think about the implications: not so long ago, women like our mothers who tried to improve their social station, women who surged forward to claim their share of the American dream, were slapped with this derogatory label. Isn’t that staggering? And isn’t it a fine thing that spelling bees preserve our country’s social history by never letting us forget that words like this were once in common usage?
By the way, if you haven’t yet, you need to watch the 2002 documentary Spellbound, which profiles eight kids who competed in the 1999 national spelling bee. It’s hilarious: one of the kids who attended the summer math camp I worked at in college (Harry A.) features prominently in it, and he’s a great comedic talent. There’s a somber side to it, too: I recently read an article that investigates what those eight kids are up to now, and it said one of them later struggled with a teen pregnancy while another died in his 20s.
LG: OMG of course I’ve seen Spellbound, have we not ever talked about that film? That would be remarkable. My college friends made me go see it in theaters with them and sat next to me the whole time snickering, “DORK. D-O-R-K,” and then later that night — I think it was that night — we ended up at a gay piano bar in the Village and heard a very rotund tenor with the most heartbreakingly beautiful Broadway voice sing Radiohead’s “Exit Music (for a film).” It was one of those nights.
I looked up the article you mentioned and it made me very much want to go back and watch the film again. It’s probably one of my favorite docs of all time. What that movie captures that I love, and that we’re noting here, is the way the bees built a kind of community and haven for all of us terribly awkward smart kids, the way it allowed us to find others like us. It’s a competitive community, but as in any gathering of outcasts, a deeply bonded one, too.
JL: Yes, exactly. I love that entire genre of documentaries, by the way; I was also riveted by the documentaries about the national Scrabble championship (Word Wars) and the national crossword puzzle championship (Wordplay). I considered watching the one about the Tetris nationals, but decided I had to draw the line somewhere.
Even if you’ve already seen the outstanding documentary Wordplay, you’ll still want to check out this Atlantic article on how Will Shortz makes his New York Times crossword puzzles.