Masuma Ahuja on Growing Up, Storytelling, and GIRLHOOD
Let’s talk about girlhood. All around the world, teenage girls are going to school, making friends, dreaming big dreams. We see news headlines, but we know so little about ordinary girls’ day-to-day lives.
Girlhood, a new book from journalist Masuma Ahuja, shares those stories. It’s a thoughtful and informative project, centering the voices of thirty teens from twenty-seven countries through diary entries and photographs, with reporting and research to put their stories into context.
We’re thrilled to launch the book with a free, virtual event featuring Masuma in conversation with journalist Rainesford Stauffer. Plan to join us on February 9—you can register for the event here, and purchase your own copy of Girlhood at the bottom of this page. In the meantime, check out our exclusive Q&A with the author below!
We understand that Girlhood originated from a limited series you wrote for the Washington Post magazine, The Lily. What was the genesis of that series? Why did you decide to expand it into a book?
I dreamed up the series for The Lily during a year when I was traveling around the world reporting on women's and girls' lives. So many of the conversations I had with girls while reporting—about the books they read, their friends, the disagreements they had with their parents, the big dreams they were plotting—never made it into the stories I wrote for news organizations. Because most journalism about girls' lives around the world focuses on sexualization, victimization, or exceptional girls fighting back. There's so little out there about what day-to-day life looks like for girls in different places.
On a personal note, my own girlhood was spent between India, the US and the UK. I often existed as a translator between cultures and felt like people had very little understanding of what ordinary life—the ways we spend our days and the things we think about—looks like in different places. The series, and then this book, were an attempt to bring some of that much-needed context into the world.
As to why I decided to expand the project into a book? Because there are so many girls' stories to be told, and one series didn't feel like enough!
I wanted to create a book where girls from all over the world could see themselves and their worlds reflected back on the page, and one that could help readers everywhere explore the world through girls' eyes.
What surprised you when you were working on Girlhood?
I was constantly surprised at how often I found myself nodding along to the words a girl had written in her diary entry. I was 29/30 when putting together the book, far from my own girlhood. Still, I could see my younger and present self reflected in the words of so many girls, often living in places I had never visited—for example, when Alejandra in Argentina wrote about longing for the kind of best friendship she always saw in the movies; when Chanleakna who moved from Cambodia to Australia wrote about homesickness and loneliness of being thousands of miles from your home and family; and when Shanai, who grew up in the Bronx, wrote about her dreams for a future filled with writing and children.
How did you choose the 30 girls who participated in the book?
I tried to include a diverse and broad range of girls—we wanted the book to be inclusive but knew it could never be comprehensive of every type of girl or experience. For the most part, I was just interested in including girls who wanted to share their lives with us.
You report stories using not only words, but also photographs and unexpected or emerging media. From a storytelling perspective, what do you think are the advantages of combining media, and what draws you to new platforms?
I often start out by asking myself, "what's the best way to tell this story?"
Sometimes, seeing a photo of a girl's bedroom alongside her description of home is more powerful than just reading her words. Sometimes, hearing someone's voice as they get emotional telling a story can be more compelling than just reading their words.
I really let stories I'm trying to tell drive the mediums I use to tell them.
What’s next for the Girlhood movement?
Right now, I'm launching a new media organization for girls around the world, which is building on the book and embodies the same values as Girlhood. We're running storytelling workshops for girls to give them the tools to tell their own stories, creating a community for girls around the world to share their stories with each other, and we're also creating a media organization and platform where we'll be publishing these girls' stories and amplifying their voices.
What are you reading?
I'm always in the middle of a couple of books—right now my stack of books includes:
The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs
Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin
The Magical Language of Others by E. J. Koh
What does a teenage girl dream about in Nigeria or New York? How does she spend her days in Mongolia, the Midwest, and the Middle East?
All around the world, girls are going to school, working, dreaming up big futures—they are soccer players and surfers, ballerinas and chess champions. Yet we know so little about their daily lives.