You’re not really supposed to ask fiction writers if their stories are autobiographical. Many writers have expressed their frustration with the question of how true-to-life their stories are because, in the end, it doesn’t matter if it’s real or not.
The issue of authorship is something I couldn’t get off my mind while I was reading The Girls Club Journal: Beauty Unmasked, an anthology of short stories written by teenagers, mostly from Newark. For some reason, I paid a lot of attention to their biographies as I went through the book. Seeing how the writers got into writing or what they plan to do after high school added to the content of their stories.
This group of seven teenagers were Write to Lead interns for Butterfly Dreamz, a Newark-based organization that works to empower teenage girls. The paid internship consisted of six weeks of writing, publishing, and marketing their book. The founder, Joy Lindsay, told me, “We chose to write fictional stories because it is a fun and creative way for girls to express themselves, share their voice, and develop their communication, critical thinking, and leadership skills. It also requires them to examine their own truth, challenge their assumptions and beliefs, and exercise empathy for the characters they create.” Fiction has a way of telling the truth, but it seems like the genre offered these writers the freedom to decide what the truth is.
Beauty Unmasked isn’t just an anthology of short stories either. The stories are punctuated by letters from professional woman writers. The book’s format is also very physically interactive. Each section has guiding questions, and every story has its own discussion questions that relate to its situation. Half of the book consists of lined pages for the reader to write on with quotations from writers like bell hooks and Zadie Smith. It’s a text that could be used at home or in schools for people of all genders and ages. Beauty Unmasked effectively imagines life from outside of the book, which makes it both theoretical and practical. At the book launch, about twenty-five young women sat around a table at the Springfield Branch Library. The writers read from their stories and spoke about their writing process. Chelsea Ebinum mentioned that her story is about a girl who struggles with a speech impediment. She said the narrator “Thinks she’s different.” Ebinum added that, “People—I—have doubts in my mind,” and she wrote the story to address those doubts. That clarification showed how much overlap there is in the book between fiction and non-fiction. Other writers, like Assata Al’Sincere, agreed with that sentiment. She said her story, “Heart to Heart,” was based on her own relationship with her mother. Sadia Scott wisely said that she didn’t necessarily want everything associated with her name, so she threw it all on a fictionalized character named Shayla.
At the same time, I liked hearing what Maya Shipmon had to say about her story, which dealt with teen love and insecurity—things she called “girl stuff.” Her story, “A Higher Me,” involved teen pregnancy, and, when Lindsay asked about her inspiration, she said that she didn’t know where it came from. Allowing the story to be wholly contrived or not having clear origins is part of the power of fiction. You can reveal everything without having to reveal anything. A story doesn’t have to be true to be real.
Confidence was a major factor in these stories. In Ebinum’s story, “Different But Not Silenced,” the narrator’s speech impediment exhibits moments of comfort—and sometimes doesn’t. Her stuttering is at its worst when she’s uncomfortable. But when she’s alone talking to herself, or with a close friend, or confidently confronting a bully, she doesn’t stutter at all. Other personal insecurities revolved around dating. The inconsistent intentions of teenage boys proved to be rightfully confusing for a few of these characters. In “My Skin” by Genique Turner, the narrator asks herself questions like, “So what do he want from me? I don’t know who he be kissing up on when he behind closed doors. Do he look at them how he looked at me? Kiss them how he just kissed me?” Her uncertainty here reflects an uncomfortable lack of control over things that are outside her own self.
Familial relationships also proved to be trying. There were a number of missing mothers who had lasting effects on the plot. In “Running with Belief” by Oyinwonuola Fasasi, the narrator lives with her father, but recalls a time when her mother told her before bed, “’I believe in you so much, Arden. So much.’” Aminata Touray’s narrator, after being abused by her drunk father, lays on the floor thinking, “[F]or just a second, I imagine my mother reading her poetry as I become sleepier.”
But not all the missing mothers are thought of so fondly. Al’Sincere’s character, Sanaa, struggles to connect with her mother, especially after her mother stops speaking to her when she’s in trouble. Ny’asia’s personal saga in “A Higher Me” begins with, “I was six months old when my mother left me on the steps of my father’s house. When I turned one year old, my father dropped me off at my aunt’s house and never came back to pick me up… all my life, nobody wanted me, nobody loved me.” But the story ends with her becoming a single mother who, if nothing else, can give her child the gift of being wanted.
An overarching theme I noticed throughout the book was quick resolutions. In these stories that show what happens before a big opportunity, like a college acceptance, often one conversation or one rejection was enough to change a person’s unfavorable actions. For example, Scott’s character talks to god at the end of her story saying, “[I]t’s been forty-eight days since you saved my life. Thirty-one days that I’ve been cured, and forty-nine days of Jackson not smoking.” This sort of neat and tidy ending reflects how successfully getting out is a part of the fantasy in this book.
But the book isn’t the end of the project. Near the end of the book launch, Lindsay announced the winner of their poetry contest and encouraged everyone to keep writing and to keep growing their networks. The mentorship and attention that these writers are getting allows for continuing self-guided exploration.