A Mask for the Queen of Shards

When one wins the Writers of the Future contest, you get flown to Los Angeles, USA (all expenses paid) to experience one week of workshops and talks with published writers and other publishing professionals. You also have to write a short story in 24 hours.

During these 24 hours, with cameras following you for much of the way, your entire batch of winners will also be given objects by the workshop facilitators that may or may not inspire your story. Your batch is then taken to a library in LA, where you do research for a few hours on any topic of your choice. And you must also—to the great chagrin of mothers and introverts everywhere—talk to a stranger.

This activity is all to enforce that you need to do these things if you want to become a serious writer, and I don’t disagree—but interviewing a random stranger on the street about their life story is just not done in the Philippines unless you’re a journalist. And I wasn’t a journalist anymore in 2018, which is around the time of my batch of WOTF winners.

I am also not someone whose normal writing process includes ideating and finishing a short story in 24 hours. It’s different in journalism—you’ve already got the story, you just have to sequence it accordingly. Even so, despite suffocating in my panic, I still had to do it.

I’ll admit that I cheated a little here. I skipped talking to a stranger that day, but only because I had already spoken to one a few days before. His name was Cerulean, he was a Black man, and he offered me an empty seat next to him at a very full In-N-Out just off Hollywood Boulevard. Considering that I had my arms full of a large burger, fries, and a drink, and that I’d been trying to figure out how to use a fire hydrant outside the restaurant as a table, I obliged.

Cerulean told me that he came to Hollywood to write scripts. I told him what I was in LA to do, and he seemed very interested. I wrote down some details in his notebook and invited him to the book launch later that week. He didn’t attend, but that’s okay. I enjoyed the pleasant conversation and borrowed his name for Cerulean, the gentle young prince in this story.

When under pressure, I tend to reach for what I know—in this case, fairy tales. “A Mask for the Queen of Shards” is the kind of fairy tale I always wanted to write: it’s got a love story between a gentle young man and a headstrong young woman, a test of artistic skill, and two antagonists—both women, one of whom has a slyness about her that I have been told I’m good at writing (in fact, I think Emerald is Saha from “Song of the Mango” if Saha had a little more power and was born into privilege). It’s also got visually interesting elements in the event that it’s ever illustrated—the shape of the opulent mosaic mask of the Queen of Shards was inspired by my own object, which was a thimble, and by my research into mosaics at the library. It was also at the library where I read up on poisonous plants such as nightshade.

I didn’t have a chance to explore it in the story, but the concept was that each character had color names and that the families they were born into also had color names. Apricot’s father’s name is Saffron, for example, though I never mention it in the text.

“A Mask for the Queen of Shards” was one of two stories chosen for workshopping the next day. It divided my class in that they weren’t sure who was the real protagonist of the story: Apricot or Emerald. In the intervening years, I’ve become comfortable with the answer “both.” They are both the protagonists of their own stories; their lives just happened to intersect in this story.

As of this writing, I have yet to sell this story to any magazine. It will be original to my collection Song of the Mango and Other New Myths.