Dina Peone is a true Wunderkind of Writing. Not only is she editor and founder of the Cliffhanger., she also publishes poems, stories, and autobiographical works online and in print. Essentially she writes prose at the same pace as others her age post status updates.
When I first met Dina, I was simply struck by the humbleness that radiated from her. She seems content, maybe because everything in her life appears to be in place right now. She’s set to graduate this spring and come fall will be embarking on her most exciting adventure yet; to the “land of literary dreams,” also known as Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa.
Dina is one of ten selected from over one thousand applicants to attend the prestigious Nonfiction Writing Program. A scholarly haven set in a landscape of corn stalks. When speaking to Dina, you can tell exactly why she was selected. She tells stories with cleverness, with this sense of narrative maturity, at a level that probably even the most accomplished adults will never manage to reach. At the same time,she bursts with youthful curiosity that makes her find excitement in even the simplest of things. Perhaps that´s also the secret to her writing.
She tells me about her childhood. Her parents used to own a karaoke business. In fact, it was through chanting to classics like “Great Balls of Fire” paired with seeing the words light up on a screen, that taught her to read. She took an interest in poetry in third grade, which led her to journaling and carrying a pocket-sized dictionary.
Her writing, which is mostly autobiographical; tells her own story, whilst simultaneously having the ability to reflect the mindset of any young person in today’s day and age. Contrary to popular belief, writing about a young person or people for that matter is quite difficult. All too often these types of treatises seem bloodless and measured, reduced to some perceived superficiality of the people being portrayed. A lack of decisiveness on the writer’s behalf, who wants to make some kind of commentary without really having anything to say. But not Dina. She is authentic and doesn’t shy away from the dark places that trace through everyone’s mind.
There´s a line in one of the essays on her blog, that pretty much sums up the reason behind the foolhardiness state in which the young live their lives: “Our fear is reduced with all the perks of cinematic surrealism.” In her writing, Dina looks behind the facade and gives an accurate account of life because she sees it with the vulnerability that is directly affixed to it. She herself has one of the most remarkable life stories on this campus.
She was 16 when, on April 21, 2005, her house caught fire from a candle. As a result, 68 percent of her body was burned to the third degree. She was in a coma for almost three months and had two fingers amputated from her dominant hand. Later, she was “bedridden for about four months,” one of which she was awake. It took her a year to relearn everything from “walking to talking to feeding herself.” Her mother and sister acted as her hands throughout that year.
Since then she´s had over twenty reconstructive surgeries in which her range of motion has only been very moderately improved. All of this did not keep her from going back to high school one year after her injury. There she was taunted by her classmates. She realized she was “on a very different mental plane than them, having almost died.” Still she pulled through and got her GED in 2007.
She had more surgeries, made art, and wrote until 2011 when she started her two-year degree at SUNY Ulster. She graduated with a 4.0 GPA and received numerous scholarships including the “President´s Award for the Pursuit of Excellence in Academics.” Then, she came to Sarah Lawrence on merit-based scholarships alone.
“Although I haven’t had the full experience, being a transfer student,” she says,she believes she has made the most of her time at SLC and feels “privileged to have been part of this spirited community.” When she first arrived she “wrote like a lunatic,” but “gradually” her writing moved from “florid to concise, vague to visceral, sloppy to self-conscious.” It was in Mary Morris`classroom that she came to “understand the limits and habits of her process” and where she “found her voice.”
If she could assign an image to her feelings about SLC it would be an “overflowing chalice.”
About to graduate, she´s ready to harness her strengths, to “take what has overflowed and drink elsewhere.” Since, “Nothing spills!” she jokes. She is grateful to have come here and is almost reluctant to criticize the school that has given her so much.
When asked if there is anything she would like to change about the writing program, she says she would like to, “add one writing course that is reserved for serious students only... for writers who plan to publish and live, financially or figuratively, off their words.”
Currently very involved on campus, Dina is the Publication Space Manager, a nonfiction editor of The Sarah Lawrence Review, contributor of feature articles to the Phoenix and a Right-to-Write workshop facilitator for the Mommy Reads program. She will be reading at the Poetry Festival and featured as the Student Profile in the next issue of Sarah Lawrence Magazine. She recently revived the Undergraduate Student Reading Series and is hosting them solo. And as if that wasn’t impressive enough she was also granted the “Allan and Whitney Blake Manings Scholarship for Creative Writing” by SLC last summer.
When I ask about her role models or writers that inspire her she names “Jillian Weise,” author of "The Amputee's Guide to Sex." Dina met her at the Poetry Festival last year and “expressed her appreciation for her work.”
Dina recounts that Jillian told her that it was important to have role models “She was right, and it’s indispensable,” Dina adds. Above all others, though, Dina is moved by SLC and Iowa Writers’ Workshop alumna Lucy Grealy, author of the memoir, Autobiography of a Face.
Dina will soon be off to the University of Iowa, with a full scholarship, where she will be teaching Rhetoric to undergraduates and finishing her memoir. Dina will go on to do incredible things. She´s certainly not going to be a person that wakes up ten years from now and finds herself in a mundane job that contributes neither to self-enhancement nor to bettering the world around her. No, Dina will have won a Pulitzer prize, she will be working at more than one college and will be living in a beautiful, old house. Somewhere quiet, where she can write uninterrupted. Somewhere near a body of water.
by Jennifer Sperber ’18