Sarah Kay: Bringing Together Cultures with Storytelling

Posted by Kaavya Lakshmanan & filed under People to Watch.

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What makes Sarah Kay such a dynamic, interesting, and intriguing person? Perhaps it’s her colourful upbringing. Or her poems. Or the compelling way in which she delivers those poems. Or the fact that she has performed at the very prestigious Tribeca Fim Festival. Whatever our reason for being fascinated with her, there’s no denying that hers is a name that has been heard all over the globe.

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Sarah was born in New York to a mixed family: a Japanese-American mother and a Jewish-American father. In an interview with Asia Society, Sarah talks about her experience growing up in New York in a biracial family, and how her background was shaped by Japanese-American culture. “I do believe that Japanese-American culture is different from Japanese culture,” she said. “Being biracial didn’t feel alien or weird.” Her sense of pride in her cultural background was evident in her usage of the term hapa to refer to herself, a Hawaiian word which means half.

Sarah attended an international school in New York where she was surrounded by people from all walks of life and had a truly international education experience. From a young age, she enjoyed storytelling, and was fascinated by African folktales, Native American Trickster stories, and Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer.

Sarah’s Accomplishments

Sarah started to perform poetry at the tender age of 14, when she joined the Bowery Poetry Club, one of the most celebrated Spoken Word clubs in New York. At the age of 18, she joined the Poetry Slam Team at the Bowery Poetry Club and competed in a National Poetry Slam competition in Austin, Texas, where she was the only teenager to compete.

In 2007, Sarah entered the glitzy world of television for the sixth season of Russell Simmons‘ HBO series Def Poetry Jam, performing her poem “Hands”. Sarah’s many works have been highlighted on CNN, the Washington Post, and On Being. She founded Project V.O.I.C.E., an “international movement that celebrates and inspires youth self-expression through Spoken Word Poetry”. She told CNN that Project V.O.I.C.E. “aims to entertain, educate, and inspire self-expression through spoken word poetry”. Through interactive workshops, this project teaches basic writing elements and examines the different works of Spoken Word Poetry artists.

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Sarah has not only toured across the U.S., she’s also been across the globe, bringing together people from countries such as India, Nepal, and Singapore. Her first visit to India, through the organization Students of the World, inspired her to write her poem “Peacocks“.

During her third visit to India, Sarah taught at the Oberi International School and the American School of Bombay, also giving performances of some of her works. She celebrated World Poetry Day in Mumbai with a show which had 450 attendees.

In Nepal, Sarah taught at nine schools in Kathmandu, empowering young writers to “build a community around the art form“.

Why I’m Inspired

I don’t think you need to be a poet or a literary genius or even a huge fan of poetry in order to appreciate Sarah’s accomplishments and works. I am personally fascinated by Sarah because of her cultural background, the internationality of her projects, and how much she’s accomplished at a young age.

The fact that Sarah is Japanese-American and is inspired by her mixed cultural background is something many of us can draw inspiration from. As someone with a mixed cultural background myself, I can appreciate Sarah’s emphasis on the importance of her biracial identity. Sarah goes one step further by drawing inspiration from different cultures. As a world traveller, she’s brought together many cultures through the universality of storytelling. What distinguishes us as human beings is our ability to communicate, to use words and mould them into a story – whether it’s gossiping with our friends to writing a short story. It is through this shared commonality that Sarah brings together so many diverse cultures.

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As if that weren’t enough of a reason to be inspired by Sarah, she founded Project V.O.I.C.E. at the age of sixteen! I’m sure many of us can be thoroughly impressed by that.

For a full list of Sarah’s poems, check out her official website, where you can also find videos, event dates, and more!


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