[Note from Frolic: We are so excited to welcome Masuma Ahuja to the site today. She’s talking all things journals. Take it away, Masuma!]
“When I was studying in China, I used to hate my unchanging life and that I could see what my life would be in the next ten years: I would attend a second-rate university, get second-rate work, and then be a good wife and mother, playing mahjong with neighbors. So at that time my dream was to live abroad. The many possibilities there inspired me to pursue the beauty of life,” Ruoxiao, then 18, wrote in a journal entry.
Thousands of miles away, Varvara, also 18, wrote in her journal entries, “I used to count the minutes [until] when I [could] leave this ad nauseum calm province, but now I understand that life is not only an eternal race for unattainable ideals and round-the-clock revelry, but also a time of contemplation and reflection.”
Ruoxiao and Varvara are two of the 30 girls from around the world featured in GIRLHOOD. The book is a portrait of what life looks like for girls around the world, in their own voices and words.
Reading Ruoxiao’s and Varavara’s words written separately and translated from Mandarin and Russian felt like reading a page out of my own teenage journals, like they must have had a conversation with each other and my own 18-year-old self and shared notes.
Even though I have never been to China or Russia, and even though my own girlhood looked vastly different from Ruoxiao’s and Varvara’s, I caught glimpses of myself in their words and found myself nodding along as I read their hopes and fears.
This was often my experience in putting together this book.
I’m a journalist, and this book was born out of a simple question I set out to explore: what does life look like for ordinary girls around the world?
My own girlhood was spent across three continents, and I spent much of those years as a translator between cultures and worlds.
So when I started reporting about girls’ lives around the world, I wanted to tell the kinds of stories I wish had existed in media coverage when I grew up — stories that explained what ordinary girls’ lives looked like, beyond stereotypes and single stories. Stories that might help us break free of our limited understandings and of stereotypes of people in other places, and stories that would help girls everywhere feel seen on the page.
In news coverage, when telling the stories of girls, we almost exclusively write about sexualization, victimization, and of exceptional girls fighting back. But the vast in between these two extremes — horror and exceptionalism — is where most girls’ lives exist, often touching on some part of the broader themes on either end of this spectrum.
But I was curious — what does a 16-year-old girl dream about and spend her evenings doing while living in the limbo of a refugee camp? What does a teenage girl worry about and gossip with her friends about in Missouri, in Mongolia, in Mumbai?
These aren’t the types of stories we read about in the news or watch on TV, but these were stories that I was drawn to.
These questions led to a series I wrote for The Lily about 12 girls in 10 different countries, which this book is based on.
Girlhood features 30 girls from 27 different countries. The best way to understand what girls’ lives look like is to ask them. So that’s what I did. Each girl shared diary entries (or sometimes, texts at the end of the day) with me. I wanted to give girls space to tell their own stories the way they wanted to.
While so much of each girl’s life was specific to her family, her community, and her circumstances, so much was also universal: the books they love, the shows they watch, the types of conversations they have with their friends, the big all-consuming dreams that they want to pursue, the loneliness they felt of not being understood. And what I found, while putting the book together, was how much more they have in common, and we all have in common, than I would have suspected.
While Varvara and Ruoxiao wrote about a longing for adventure, to be out in the world meeting new people, doing exciting things, living big lives, many other girls wrote about leaving home and moving to new cities or countries and adjusting to the homesickness and loneliness of being far away from their families.
Wherever they were, whether in Cambodia or the Congo, the girls in this book all shared an optimism for their futures, a sense of being at the very beginning and knowing that so much more was going to come their way.
About the Author:
Masuma Ahuja is a freelance journalist reporting on gender, migration and human rights. She was previously a producer at CNN and national digital editor at the Washington Post. She uses words, photos and emerging media to report and tell stories about gender, migration and the impact of politics of people. Her projects have ranged from long-form stories to sending disposable cameras to women around the world to document their days to crowdsourcing voice mails from Americans about the impact of the 2016 election on their lives. She was part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014.
Girlhood, Edited by Masuma Ahuja, out now!
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. We often hear about challenges and catastrophes in the news, and about exceptional girls who make headlines. But even though the health, education, and success of girls so often determines the future of a community, we don’t know more about what life is like for the ordinary girls, the ones living outside the headlines.
From the Americas to Europe to Africa to Asia to the South Pacific, the thirty teens from twenty-seven countries in Girlhood share their own stories of growing up through diary entries and photographs, and the girls’ stories are put in context with reporting and research that helps us understand the circumstances and communities they live in. This full-color, exuberantly designed volume is a portrait of ordinary girlhood around the world, and of the world, as seen through girls’ eyes.