I recently had the pleasure of chatting with author Aminah Mae Safi about the upcoming release of her debut YA novel, Not The Girls You’re Looking For. We talked feminism, wonderfully messy friendships, and her character-driven writing process (among many other things).
Not The Girls You’re Looking For is the messy, heartwarming, relatable story of Lulu Saad, whose life kind of falls apart thanks to a series of ever-worsening mishaps during Ramadan. But in spite of everything, she’s determined to put her life—and her friendships—back together again. It’s a story for every girl who’s ever felt in-between and every friend who’s ever messed up but been determined to set things right again. Most of all, it’s a ode to the intricacies of female friendship and teenage girldom.
One of my favorite aspects of this book is the friendships between Lulu and her three best friends. I love that friendship is at the center of the story, even more so than their various romantic entanglements. Their love and loyalty for each other runs so deep, but their friendship is still messy and imperfect—and I feel like we don’t get to see much of those kinds of nuanced and heartfelt female friendships in media. Can you talk a little about why showing that was so important to you?
Thank you! I think fundamentally, we don’t get enough women in media in general. So that’s probably part of the problem.
But I wanted to write a story about friendship from the beginning. It’s so central to young women’s lives—has been so central to my own life—that I wanted to write a story that honored friendships as I had known them and as I had seen them.
Part of the risk in there being so little representation of female friendships in any media is that the urge to overcorrect and show shining, perfect friendships is so strong. It’s almost like, if you’re going to get the space to write about a group of women being friends, you want to show the best kind of friendship possible.
But real friendships are messy. They are full of hurt. And the ones that survive are the ones that learn to move beyond the hurt, to find ways of seeking and giving forgiveness from one another. As soon as I started writing these girls, I knew I wanted to write about the moment where the reader looks at them and wonders why are these girls even friends? So that, throughout the course of the story—if this reader actually stuck around and trusted me—I could say here, this is why.
Lulu and her friends are imperfect, yes. They are flawed and their relationships with one another often brings those flaws into strong relief. They also get to see one another clearly and still love one another. That is, to me, the definition of true love.
How much did you draw on your own teenage experiences while writing about Lulu?
The best part about setting Not The Girls You’re Looking For in the place where I grew up was getting to use all of my favorite teenage haunts. The weird dive-y coffee bar, the music venue on the edge of downtown, the beignet shop nearby school. There were so many places that my friends and I ran around as teenagers—places that seemed almost acceptable to our parents on the outside, but belonged to us on the inside. They were the kind of places you could get into a little bit of trouble in.
These were fun spaces to revisit with Lulu and to hand over to her on her own terms. And let her get into more than a little bit of trouble in.
I hope I did the city of Houston justice, because, it will always be the place that shaped me and made me who I am. That beignet shop has, unfortunately, been closed now for over a decade. I still miss the granitas.
Lulu and the other characters in your book get the chance to screw up—to make really monumental mistakes—but then to learn, grow, and recover from them. I think that’s very representative of the teen experience (and human experience in general). Was it especially important to you to give your characters that chance?
Yes! It was so important to give all of these characters the chance to screw up, the chance to move beyond those screw ups. One of the worst parts of being a teenage girl in my opinion is that the world tells you there’s so little room for error. One mistake and that’s it; that’s who you are for life.
So I wanted to write a story not just about making monumental mistakes, but that there is life beyond a monumental mistake. That life is, essentially, figuring out how to live with yourself after you’ve hurt someone you care about and how to make amends with them. I wanted to write a story that showed that there is a world beyond any mistake you make, if you can find the courage to face it.
You’ve mentioned before that character is one of the most fundamental aspects of storytelling for you. Did you find that the characters changed or shaped your perception of what this story would be as you were writing it?
Always. I have to stay open to what my characters are trying to tell me, what they want to show me. I call my first draft “Draft Zero” because it is always a mess. It’s just me, hanging out with my characters, trying to listen as they try to communicate with me. Anytime I try to strong-arm them into a particular plot, the character ends up winning in the end.
So I just go with it. Lulu’s romantic interest screws up pretty spectacularly in his few opening scenes, and I kept worrying that he might not be able to come back from that. I had to just go with it and accept that if he couldn’t get there, they wouldn’t get there. You kind of have to take your characters as they are, and hope you can prod them into growth.
There are so many great fiction and pop culture references in this book. (And can I just say, as a geek myself, I really appreciated all of them—particularly the title reference to Star Wars. I loved getting to the quote referencing it in the book.) Are there any movies, books, art, etc. that have particularly influenced you as a writer? Or with Not The Girls You’re Looking For specifically?
In general? Jane Austen. I’m a Janeite to my core. I’ve also got a soft spot for The Fast and the Furious franchise.
With Not the Girls You’re Looking For? There were the Bennet sisters from Pride and Prejudice and the March sisters from Little Women. I love the way friends are like sisters and are constantly setting up their identities and senses of selves in opposition to each other.
There was Star Wars and playing with the idea of who a geek girl could be.
There was Melina Marchetta’s Saving Francesca, which is a phenomenal book about growing up and screwing up and friendship and love and family.
Mean Girls because I always wanted a story of those last ten minutes—the part where all of the hurt is being undone, rather than done.
And finally, Leslye Headland’s Bachelorette which is just this bananas dark comedy around an immensely screwed up set of four women who were high school friends, on the eve of one of them getting married. It’s like if the Mean Girls never learned to pull that poison out of their bodies. It is not a teenage film, but it was so raw and I wanted to capture the rawness Headland had in that film and put it onto the page.
You also have a short story coming out in We Need Diverse Book’s upcoming anthology, Fresh Ink. How different was the process of writing that story from writing a full-length novel like Not The Girls You’re Looking For?
On the good side, a short story is so much faster to draft and to edit. It’s so satisfying when you’re working on longer projects to get through a short story, simply because it’s shorter. You’re just on a much more condensed timeline, in the best way. Also, you can see the whole structure of a short story so much more easily. You don’t get lost in the middle of your story in the same way you do in a full-length novel.
On the more difficult end, you have no words to spare in a short story. No extraneous passages about the weather or the car wooshing down the road or the feeling of humidity in your hair. Every word counts. Every sentence has to be driving the story forward, in one way or another. I do like that full-length novels have those moments where a character can sit and process what’s happened to them. You just don’t get that in a short story, unless the entire short story is about introspection.
There are so many great lines in this book, but one quote that particularly stood out to me was:
“No. I was running by the boys to check them out. But Brian assumed the reverse. Boys are the subject; I’m the direct object…It might seem like a technicality to you, but I like being the subject of my own sentences.”
That’s such a powerful line and really representative of a lot of the feminist undertones of the book. Can you talk a little more about that?
Oh, man. I wanted to write a book about girls who push against the boundaries of girlhood. Girls who engaged in risky behavior. Girls who made the first move. Girls who steadfastly love one another in a way few elements of pop culture portray. This is, largely, because there’s usually only one girl on the team (if any) in most big pieces of pop culture. You literally cannot show female friendship when there’s only one woman in the story.
For so many women—in the past and still—we have been objects. Not just in the obvious ways, of women literally used to be property. But in the more subtle things—the way we’re supposed to look, the way we’re supposed to experience our bodies, our sense of self, sex, everything. We’re taught so often that how others perceive us is more important than how we live in our own bodies and in our own life.
The thing is—most girls know this.
Women often forget all of the programming that was done to them in their childhood, but girls are so close to it. They feel how unfair it is—to be told what a girl is and what she isn’t, what she can be and what she can’t.
So much of that line to me was Lulu’s frustration with being shoved into the framework of how to behave as a girl and her need to push against that. She knows the world isn’t fair to girls. She just doesn’t quite know how to make it more fair, either for herself or anyone she cares about.
I think ultimately it’s this—Lulu isn’t angry she’s a girl, she’s furious that a girl is perceived as less than. I think she and all her friends have to contend with this inequality one way or another in the story.
One of Lulu’s biggest struggles in the book is her feelings of in betweenness, being in between Arab and American culture, in between childhood and adulthood, in-between who she is and who she wants to be. Was that something you knew you wanted to be a major theme of the book from the get-go?
It was. The first thing I knew I wanted to do with Lulu’s story was write a book about not having to pick between one side of culture or the other. I wanted to write about a girl who was culturally bilingual—who was code switching so often and so effortlessly that she almost doesn’t notice she’s doing it.
I grew up with multiple cultures in my home—in fact, my own mother is Mexican and German, so I’m even more ethnically mixed than Lulu—and so often the message I was getting was that I was either one or the other. It was the Bush years and much of the messaging was—you’re either American or you’re Muslim. You’re either white and you assimilate or you’re Arab and you reject assimilation.
But my lived reality was so in between. I just never saw that—rarely in books, never in movies, never on TV. So I set out to tell a story that honored that so much of the American experience really is living in between. It’s not always easy, seeing the world from multiple points of view. But it is a gift that I’ve been given and I think it’s a gift many people have, that they’ve been taught not to appreciate.
Not the Girls You’re Looking For is, ultimately, my celebration of being in between.
What do you hope people will take away from Not The Girls You’re Looking For?
Forgive me if I’ve said this before, but—you are not your worst days. You are not your worst self. You can always dust yourself off and keep going. It does take courage, to look at the terrible things you’ve done and decide to do something about them, to decide to do better. But that’s the place in life where growth happens.
I also hope that I’ve helped provide windows and mirrors. I hope that people can come to the work and see versions of themselves in these girls, in all of these characters. I hope that readers can also gain insight into people whose experiences are nothing like their own. I don’t mind if you don’t like these girls at the end of the story, but I do hope that you understand them and what makes them tick.
What’s one piece of writing—or life—advice you’d give to your younger self?
Probably a combination of “Believe in yourself, kid” and “You don’t have to have it all figured out right away.”
Believing in yourself isn’t just the ego thing of believing you’re great no matter what. It’s about believing that if you’re not where you want to be, you can work to get there. Creative work is such a process and being patient with that process can be frustrating. Being patient with yourself as you build skills and talent sometimes feels like the worst. But if you believe you can, you usually can get there in the end.
And not having everything figured out is because learning about yourself and learning about life is a process. It’s meant to be a struggle, it’s meant to take time. You’re meant to screw up. I still need this reminder. I should probably put up a Post-it of this somewhere in my office, to be honest.