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The Lafayette

The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

Shirley Liu ’23 wins H. MacKnight Black Poetry Prize

Shirley Liu ’23 got the inspiration for ‘Ode to My Local Nail Salon’ while getting a manicure. (Photo courtesy of Rob Young ’14)

What do manicures and mother-daughter relationships have in common? Shirley Liu ’23 has the answer in the form of an award-winning poem.

Liu won the H. MacKnight Black Poetry Prize — an award given annually in a senior-only poetry contest — with their poem entitled “Ode to My Local Nail Salon,” presenting the poem at the H. MacKnight Black commencement reading last Thursday.

Fayth Wisehart ’23 won an honorable mention for her poem, “the perils of thinking (and farming).”

Liu found inspiration for their poem while getting their nails done.

“As I was getting my nails done, the person who was doing my nails was mumbling things under her breath … and then I realized she had on a Bluetooth earbud and she was probably talking to a family member,” Liu said. “And it just reminded me so much of how my mom would call me during work and stuff. I saw the parallels so clearly that I had to pull up my notes app and immediately write down the idea.”

After writing fragments over time, Liu fully wrote the poem the night before the submission deadline. 

“I had a lot of fragments in my notes app. But putting it together, that was kind of difficult,” Liu said. “It’s a very conversational, straightforward poem, so that made it easier to write.”

Award-winning poet Aria Aber, who judged this year’s contest, found Liu’s writing to be heartfelt and full of conviction.

“The confidence in the poet’s voice surprised me,” Aber wrote in an email. “Every line brims with a rare sincerity and dedication to the seen world, reminding me of Marie Howe and Li-Young Lee. I could feel the writer’s dedication to the craft – this is a young poet who takes writing seriously, and knows how much there is at stake.”

Liu’s mother was in the audience at last week’s reading.

“It was complicated because her English … it’s not super fluent. I was a bit worried that she wouldn’t understand the gist of it,” Liu said. “But I think subconsciously, while I was writing the poem, I was thinking about that because I used very straightforward language, very simple language. And as I was up there reading it, I sort of was like, ‘Oh, this is actually pretty understandable to someone who has English as their second language.'”

Liu said their poem is a tribute to their mother and to older Asian women who they find are taken for granted on a daily basis. Liu cited the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings, which claimed the lives of eight people, including six women of Asian descent.

“I want people to really rethink their interactions — that’s someone’s mother, who probably is working this job so that they can provide for their child, or they’re someone’s aunt, and they’re sending home money to a different country, to their family,” Liu said. “So, just to really see each person that you interact with as human beings, and especially older Asian women, because I think I connected it with the Atlanta spa shootings. Because, you know, that’s a clear case of someone who didn’t see them as a full human being.”

Disclaimer: Managing Editor Shirley Liu ‘23 did not contribute writing or reporting.



“Ode to My Local Nail Salon”
by Shirley Liu


Whenever I feel homesick,
I get my nails done because
that lemon-fresh question,
“What color you want?”
sterile and sour at the same time,
reminds me of my mom. Hot tea
or water? Half duck or whole?
Fried rice is two dollars extra.
Okay, if you don’t like the price,
McDonald’s is across the street.
You will find no toothy customer
service smiles here.


As the woman trims my jagged, bitten
down nails, she mumbles mouthfuls of
Vietnamese under her breath, secretive
asides meant for her bluetooth earbuds.
I wonder if she’s talking to a daughter
who goes to college four hours away.
I wonder if she drives her daughter
back home every five weeks to get her
braces tightened, an eight hour round trip,
then works a 12 hour shift the very next day
and doesn’t even ask for a thank you.
I wonder if she savors this once a week
phone call like a dried plum
tucked in her cheek, sweet and salty
and tough-skinned, because her daughter
doesn’t call nearly as much as she should.
The first time I called my mom for
a purpose other than asking her to
do something for me, I had just learned
about the Atlanta spa shootings.
I told her to please be safe at work,
when what I really wanted to say was
please quit your job.
I want the woman lacquering my nails
with a viridescent polish the color of
snow pea leaves to quit her job too.
I don’t know when spas and massage
parlors and Chinese restaurants became
shooting ranges, but I do know that I want
this woman who reminds me so much
of my mom to escape and find refuge.
I want her daughter to call her more often.
Most of all, I want to live in a world where
I don’t call my mom everyday just because
I’m terrified that each conversation might
be our last.


The woman squeezes cuticle oil
on my nail beds, rubs sweet-smelling
lotion all over my cracked hands,
and she asks me if I like the nails.
I tell her that they’re perfect and
tip her ten dollars. On the car ride back,
I send a picture of my manicure to my mom.
She says that I waste too much money
on useless things. I say that I love her.

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Kristen Vincent, Assistant Culture Editor

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