Local teen poet reads her feelings in downtown Visalia

Redwood High sophomore Donya Hassanshahi joins First Friday Art Walk as spotlight reader for her poetry anthology The Fairy Without Wings

VISALIA – As downtown Visalia’s First Friday Art Walk returns to showcase local artwork, 15-year-old Donya Hassanshahi is being featured as a keynote speaker for her first publication.

Starting at 6 p.m. at The Book Nook, located at 114 W Main Street Suite 102, Hassanshahi will be presenting and reading select pieces from her anthology The Fairy Without Wings. The book, published in January, is a collection of poems centering on Hassanshahi’s journey through her adolescent years, which she experienced amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I really try to evoke the feeling that in growing up, there’s obstacles,” Hassanshahi said. “And in order to overcome those obstacles, you need to feel, you need to take the time to get to know yourself better and you need to take the time to reflect.”

The origin of Hassanshahi’s book started when she was 13-years-old, amidst the beginnings of the pandemic’s economic and societal shutdown. Left with spare time on her hands and a need to pursue an artistic outlet, she decided she would follow up on a childhood dream to write a book that started in second grade. She said the roots of her interest in poetry sparked in third grade, but she didn’t pursue the art form until semi-recently.

“I didn’t really become interested in it until eighth grade, which was during COVID, so in September of 2020,” Hassanshahi said. “That’s really when I started writing, but I didn’t know I wanted to publish a book until late 2021.”

For Hassanshahi, expressing herself through her poetry was therapeutic for a time where she felt she wasn’t in the best mental capacity. Although she received and valued support from her loved ones through her struggles with anxious feelings, as an independent person, she forged her own path towards healing and found it in the form of poetry.

“When I reflect back on that, I still remember the feelings that I felt while writing it, but I feel that I look at it now with a new perception,” Hassanshahi said.

Although she tried her hand at writing short stories, Hassanshahi said that form of writing didn’t bring her the same relief as the condensed, interpretive language of poetry did. The Fairy Without Wings consists of 85 poems, her chosen best from over 100 that she initially wrote, all of which she edited herself. She also designed the front and back of her book’s cover. Even though she’s picked up a few writing techniques from other poems she’s read, as well as learned from the occasional poetry lesson in English classes, Hassanshahi ultimately taught herself how to write poetry.

“Most of the words that I use are very vague, so people can take it as it is, and read it and perceive it the way that they desire, and how it could fit into their lives,” Hassanshahi said.

Much of Hassanshahi’s poems are written in freestyle, but on occasion, she wrote a poem with a more structured format. She said one of her poems follows an alphabetical order by stanza, with the first letter of the first line starting with “A” and the lines after starting with each following letter.

“I always remind myself that there’s 26 letters in the alphabet,” Hassanshahi said. “And out of those 26 letters, you can make hundreds of thousands of words with that.”

For a unique part of her writing process that helps tie her work together, Hassanshahi said she typically writes the title of her poem first and lets the rest of her writing follow that. Even if the title doesn’t connect exactly, for her writing process, she said she always corresponds the title to her writing in whatever way she can think of.

“I try to make it like a little puzzle,” Hassanshahi said. “I make things harder for myself.”

To get her book published, Hassanshahi said it was an approximate six-month process to make everything come together. In the summer of 2022, she said she began her search for a publisher until she found an establishment in Philadelphia. After working through the contracting deals with the company as well as about six rounds of self-editing before she was satisfied with her work, the anthology was ready to go by January.

For the reader’s biggest takeaway from her book, Hassanshahi said she doesn’t wish for people to feel pity for her as they read it. She said she would prefer that people empathize and sympathize with her situation, for them to find a spot in her writing where they can understand that they aren’t alone if they have experienced similar thoughts or feelings of anxiety or depression as she has.

“I want people to be able to resonate with my words for it to be applicable in their own lives on the daily,” Hassanshahi said. “Maybe telling themselves like, ‘it’s okay not to be okay, it’s okay to have these feelings’.”

For herself, Hassanshahi said the process of writing her poems, getting them together in an anthology and getting her work published taught her a lot about herself. She said it taught her about her own level of self-discipline, and in a joking manner, she said it proved to herself that she could accomplish a feat like this despite her procrastination. Most importantly, however, she said it taught her the benefits of being well rounded and well versed amongst different societies and personalities, whether they be in the adult or teenage world.

“I’ve just learned to gauge people’s personality in a better light, and that everyone has a different take away from things,” Hassanshahi said. “My perception of something is not equivalent to another person’s perception.”

At the basis of everything that brought her to this point, Hassanshahi said she is most appreciative of her mom and baba, or her father, who encouraged her to write and pursue her aspirations. She is also appreciative of her daylee, or her uncle, who has also inspired her to write from a young age. The words “baba” and “daylee” are both Farsi terms, a language rooted in Persian-culture.

Although born in Manhattan, New York, Hassanshahi was raised in Visalia from the time when she was eight years old. On becoming a published poet and being from a smaller community like Visalia, she hopes her story will inspire others to follow and achieve their own aspirations.

“You just have to trust your gut, you have to trust your intuition. You have to trust yourself, ultimately, because it’s your work and you have to be proud of it,” Hassanshahi said. “If you don’t have the confidence, and you don’t have the self respect, nobody else is gonna see that potential.”

According to Hassanshahi, she yielded herself the opportunity of being a keynote speaker for the Visalia Arts Consortium’s First Friday Art Walk for March almost by accident. She said she approached The Book Nook in hopes of getting the bookstore to support a local author, and instead was given the opportunity to present her anthology in a more formal manner.

Along with her reading of selected poems, Hassanshahi will be part of a moderated interview during the event so she can share her story and highlight her inspirations for her writings. She will also be signing copies of her book for any residents interested in picking one up.

“Donya is an exceptional example of the stories we love to see throughout the San Joaquin Valley: someone who is fearlessly pursuing her dreams,” Family HealthCare Network president and CEO Kerry Hydash said via news release.

Hassanshahi’s anthology is available online through Barnes & Noble, Amazon, RoseDog Books and at The Book Nook in downtown Visalia. The Book Nook is owned and operated as a division of Family HealthCare Network and officially opened its doors in October. It serves as the latest addition to the healthcare network’s literacy initiative, which aims to increase literacy rates in Visalia as well as surrounding communities.

According to Family HealthCare Network communications specialist Joshua Robinson, The Book Nook has copies of Hassanshahi’s anthology available at the bookstore and more will be ordered if they sell out. He said the plan is to carry the book as a part of The Book Nook’s general inventory going forward.

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