Junior English major publishes his debut book of poetry, “The Happiest People Cry the Hardest.”
By Priya Kumar ’09, Between the Columns
Published Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Whether musing about the transience of goals or the logic of emotion, Sohayl Vafai’s 18-year-old mind has wrapped itself around concepts that others take a lifetime to realize. He speaks deliberately, but punctuates his conversations with guffaws that suggest he knows there’s still a lot left to figure out.
The junior English major has published his observations so far in a debut book of poetry, “The Happiest People Cry the Hardest.” He describes the collection, published by iUniverse and illustrated with abstract drawings by his aunt, Guita Vafai, as an “emotional outlook on life.”
“I wanted to include something from every part of the emotional spectrum because that’s what life is,” Sohayl Vafai says. His favorite type of poetry “has a punch, keeps your reader flipping from one page to the next, even if they find themselves horrified,” he says with a laugh.
Vafai’s mentor, area poet Silvana Straw, helped him edit and compile the volume. She met Vafai five years ago when both enrolled in a poetry workshop at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Md.
“What was remarkable to me was that someone so young had such a rich emotional landscape and he was already expressing that through such vivid imagery,” Straw says. “There’s a rawness and a vulnerability in the poetry, and he’s not afraid to share that.”
Vafai lives in the present but his appreciation for self-reflection and deeper thought are reminiscent of a different era, says Guita Vafai. Sohayl’s playful imagination and sense of humor lead to spontaneity and sparks of creativity, but she says his focus and discipline allow him to capture that inspiration and channel it into a product.
As a child, Vafai convinced his two older brothers to join him in acting out plays for the family. In third grade, he drew a map of a fantastical world called “Arf Arf Land.” He appointed himself president, created badges representing a variety of cabinet positions for his friends and organized recess activities for his constituents.
After Vafai finished eighth grade, his parents decided to home-school him, as they had his brothers. Though initially unsure about the idea, Vafai stuck with it. He’s grateful he did, for that isolation “set the stage for reflection,” he says. Writing was his outlet to explore his identity, and his essays turned into poetry. “I think that’s when my poetry flourished,” he says.
He enrolled in workshops at The Writer’s Center, where he worked with Straw and renowned poet Ruben Jackson. Harkening back to his childhood productions, Vafai has performed at the Kennedy Center and the Atlas Performing Arts Center. In 2008, Vafai was a finalist in the D.C. Youth Poetry Slam Team and performed in the Brave New Voices 11th Annual International Youth Poetry Slam Festival, which HBO produced and aired.
Meanwhile, Vafai earned his high school diploma in two and a half years and concurrently enrolled at Montgomery College, where at age 16 he became the youngest vice president of its student senate.
Vafai’s engagement continued when he arrived at Maryland last fall. He was the first to receive a grant from the English department to bring a Washington, D.C., slam poet to campus. He performed at a show by multimedia poet John G. Rives, who appeared on four seasons of HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam.” Vafai, who joined the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House this year, also headlined an event for TerPoets, the campus open mic group.
Last fall, Vafai enjoyed a literature class he took with English Professor Christina Walter. He based one of the poems in his book on one they examined in class, “Cities,” by Hilda Doolittle. Walter praised Vafai’s dedication to step beyond writing poetry and compile and publish a volume.
“I have had many good students at UMD,” wrote Walter in an e-mail. “Far less often have I had students who don’t simply excel in college as they find it, but who seek out opportunities to make their college experience the best it can be for them. …I think that Sohayl is one of those students and I think that he’ll do great things in the future.”
Vafai is interning for MaryPIRG and will have a spring legislative internship through the English department’s Maryland General Assembly Program. Beyond college, he considers studying intellectual property law. Whatever career path he takes, he says, creative expression will always be important.
“I think more than anything you have to give yourself time to figure out who you are,” he says.
Priya Kumar is coordinator for the university’s Federal Semester program.
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