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Austin Peay State University student Valeria Méndez publishes Spanish-Language Short Story in Literary Journal

Austin Peay State University - APSUClarksville, TN – It sounds like the setup to a joke – what happens when you combine surrealist artist Salvador Dalí with pop star Billie Eilish? For Austin Peay State University (APSU) foreign languages student Valeria Méndez, the answer is a publishable, Spanish-language short story.

Méndez, a surprised smile still curling her lips, recently recalled the day last semester when she wrote her strange tale. That afternoon, Dr. Ozzie Di Paolo Harrison, professor of Spanish, showed the students in his Advanced Spanish Composition Class Dalí’s famous painting, “Swans Reflecting Elephants.” He then asked them to write a short story based on the surreal image.
 
“So, I saw the painting, and then I got up and went to the bathroom, and while I was walking, I just got all of the story in my head,” she said. “When I got out of the bathroom, I said, ‘I have the end of the story!’ I started thinking what to write and I started writing it.”
 
That night, Méndez went home to finish working on a story about a man having nightmares about his deceased daughter. To help set a sad mood for her writing, she put on Billie Eilish’s “When The Party’s Over.”

“Music is one of the most important parts; I can write when I’m quiet, but if there’s music, especially sad music, I can just go,” she said. “And I’m not a fan of Billie Eilish, but I know she sings slow and sad. When I heard the song, I thought, ‘Wow it’s so sad.’ I had that same song on replay.”

Méndez finished a four-page story, inspired by both Dalí and Eilish. Then she emailed it to Di Paolo Harrison, a notoriously strict grader.

“When I first read it, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is awesome,’” Di Paolo Harrison said. “I said, ‘Why don’t we try to do something with it?’”

For the next few days, Méndez reworked parts of the story, based on her professor’s recommendations. They went back and forth over each sentence, with him asking her to be more vivid in her descriptions or tighten up the wording.

“We had to work really quickly,” she said. “He helped me make it more professional because he’s a writer.”

With the story almost finished, Di Paolo Harrison began looking for literary journals that published Spanish-language short fiction. He soon found “Azahares Literary Magazine,” a journal published by the University of Arkansas.

“They said they published in Spanish and English, related to Hispanic issues,” Di Paolo Harrison said. “The problem was that the short story was amazing but it didn’t have anything Hispanic. I said we need to adjust this story to make it fit this journal. I said, ‘How about including something related to immigration and all the perils of immigration we’re experiencing today?’”

Méndez’s story morphed into a tale about a man whose daughter died while attempting to immigrate to the United States. With that final change, she sent it off to the journal. It was her first short story.

“I love to read, and I feel like I always have stories in my head, but I don’t think I can make that,” she said.


Di Paolo Harrison, knowing how difficult it is for professional writers to get published, tried to temper her expectations. After all, she was only a sophomore.

“I told her, ‘You know chances are it’s not going to get accepted, but if it doesn’t, we’ll find something else, we’ll listen to what they say and we’ll fix it,’” he said.

The semester ended, and without classes to occupy her life, Méndez stopped checking her email. Then in January, she looked to see if she’d missed anything and found an old message from the journal.

“I was like, ‘Oh wait, I got accepted!’” she said.

A print issue of the journal will come out this spring. That’s when it will feel real to Méndez. For Di Paolo Harrison, the project fulfilled a long-held dream of his.

“In all the years that I’ve been teaching, I have always wanted to do this,” he said. “But I could never find a student that was willing. Some had the ability, but they didn’t have the dedication. And sometimes when you point out so many things to fix in a text, the student gets frustrated. She was very receptive about it. Instead of taking it like most people would take, no, she just kept going and going and going. She is an amazing student.”

For more information on foreign languages at Austin Peay State University, visit https://www.apsu.edu/langlit/foreignlanguages/.

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