Amy Reed is a powerhouse YA novelist. I’ve been devouring her books since her first, Beautiful, came out in 2009. (Here is my Rookie write-up of that one.) She tells stories of survival and identity in a voice that is always honest, raw, and real. Her eighth novel, The Nowhere Girls, was released on October 10th. It’s an empowering, intersectional take on rape culture starring three girls who I want to be my best friends. Personally, I think it is Amy’s best book yet and that is saying a lot!
I had the opportunity to chat with her about writing The Nowhere Girls, representation and diversity in YA, resisting the garbage idea that “boys will be boys” is human nature, and also Halloween.
STEPHANIE KUEHNERT: How would you describe The Nowhere Girls and where did the inspiration come from?
AMY REED: The Nowhere Girls is about three misfit girls who start a movement to fight the misogynist culture at their high school and get justice for one of their classmates who was raped. It’s about the dark realities of rape culture, but it is also very much about solidarity, friendship, empowerment, and hope. The idea for The Nowhere Girls started percolating shortly after I read two incredible books about rape culture in 2015, The Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith and All the Rage by Courtney Summers. The Stanford jock Brock Turner got away with raping a passed-out girl. Steubenville was still on my mind. I was doing work to heal my own trauma. I thought about all these stories and lives, and the thing they had in common was that the girls were alone. No one stuck up for them. No one believed them. The institutions that were supposed to protect them perpetuated the girls’ trauma and put them on trial. I wanted to write a book to fight that system, a book about young women reclaiming their power and creating their own system to support one another.
Yes!!! That was one of the elements I adored about this book. Another thing I loved is that the girls feel very real, and like in real life, they are diverse. Your main characters include a queer Latina teen, a girl who identifies as fat and Christian, and a teenage girl with Asperger’s. Can you speak to why it was essential to make this novel not just feminist, not just about rape culture, but intersectional?
Feminism must be intersectional, or it is part of the system that perpetuates oppression. The idea that there is one standard (i.e. white, straight, cisgender, middle-class, neurotypical, etc.) female experience is bonkers, and it erases the lives and identities and individual struggles of the majority of women in this country. My goal as a writer is to represent the world and my characters in the realest, most respectful way possible. The world is intersectional. We are not homogenous. To write a book denying or ignoring that truth is irresponsible and dishonest. The only way we are ever going to make progress as a culture is if we honor the diversity of all of our experiences, if we do the hard work of truly trying to see and hear one another. Sexism is tied to racism and classism and all other forms of oppression, and we must fight them all.
What were the challenges of writing characters from different backgrounds than your own? What approaches did you take to make sure you were being representative and avoiding stereotypes?
This is a really tricky thing, and I don’t think anyone has a perfect answer, and I certainly do not claim to have done it perfectly. It is essential for writers to do everything they can to most accurately depict the world they are writing about, and the worlds I want to write about are diverse, because my world is diverse. But of course there is the question of what stories we have the right to tell, if we are taking someone else’s place whose voice should be heard over ours. That is something I really struggled with. There are things I share with all the girls in The Nowhere Girls, but my heritage is not Mexican like Rosina’s (though my Filipino immigrant family has some parallels), nor do I have Asperger’s like Erin (though I feel connected to her through my experience as a Highly Sensitive Person and introvert who has struggled with anxiety, panic disorder, and trauma). Though their stories are not necessarily my own, these are the girls who called to me. It is them I saw from the beginning as my heroines. In the world of my story, they felt the most true. And I knew I had a huge responsibility to get them right, and that my experiences alone would not be enough to do that. So I did a lot of research. Most importantly, I used a lot of sensitivity readers.
What did you learn from your sensitivity readers of different backgrounds and how did it challenge you and/or improve the story?
I had several Mexican-American friends read an early draft of the manuscript and point out anything about Rosina and her family they found problematic. I worked very closely with a couple of incredible women with Asperger’s who were unflinching in their feedback about Erin. I will be honest, the first draft I sent them was full of problems. I was working from the prevailing stereotypes of Asperger’s that are centered on “expert” opinions and the experiences of parents of mostly male children. None of my research led me to learning about Asperger’s and Autism from the point-of-view of the people actually living with it, specifically young women. Working with sensitivity-readers was humbling, and life-changing for me as a writer. There is nothing like reading “this hurts me” in the margins of your manuscript from someone whose experience you are taking it upon yourself to represent. I still don’t know if I was the right person to do that, and there is a level of discomfort I think I’ll always have to live with as a writer with many privileges who sometimes chooses to write outside of those privileges. But I know I did everything I could think of to get it right. I know I listened. I followed my sensitivity readers’ lead. I owed it to them to get it right. I owe it to my readers. I owe it to every kid on the spectrum who might pick up my book, because when they do, I want them to see themselves in Erin and be proud; I want them to know they are respected. At the very least, writers for children must do no harm. At our very best, we can love and honor our characters in a way that makes our readers feel loved and honored. I pray I did that. And I remain open to listening, really listening, if someone tells me I failed.
You and I have chatted before about how we both came up in that Riot Grrrl era—we both love Heavens to Betsy for example. I first learned what intersectional feminism was through the flaws and failures of the Riot Grrrl movement—namely when at 16 or 17 I went to a workshop about race and class led by a bunch of white, middle-class girls. I realized quickly what was wrong and it threw me. I was a white, middle-class girl and I had a lot of thinking to do. What was your experience with feminism as a teen, especially around intersectionality or maybe the lack thereof?
I was a teen in the ‘90’s in Seattle, and I’ll be honest, intersectionality was not mentioned in my feminist circles. The Pacific Northwest, especially around Olympia where Riot Grrrl was born, is pretty white. My crew was super queer, but we were mostly white and middle class. I went to a white, liberal college in Portland that was much of the same. I spent my early twenties in San Francisco with a bunch of white queer kids with way too much dot-com money who mostly just wanted to party and weren’t really aware of their privilege. I am so inspired by how informed young people are now, how deep and complex their understanding is of social issues. I learn from them constantly. To be honest, I wasted so much of my younger years battling my own personal demons; I was too self-absorbed to see beyond my own experience, which was as a middle-class, white-passing, femme, cis, bisexual girl. As a young person, my feminism was always intersectional in terms of sexuality and gender, but it’s only pretty recently that it’s expanded beyond that. My MFA program, which really focused on consciousness and raising marginalized voices, opened my mind a lot. But the biggest thing has really been the YA community in the last few years and the tough and important conversations about social justice people are having there. It’s funny, I talk to poets and writers in the adult literary world, and they haven’t even heard of sensitivity readers. YA authors are special this way. Because we write for children, I think we feel more of responsibility for what we write and the audience we write for. We feel more of a responsibility, period. I mean, why would we even write for kids if we didn’t give a shit about shaping the world?
Rookie’s October theme is “Human Nature,” the attitude in The Nowhere Girls that the girls are fighting against is basically that “boys will be boys” is human nature when obviously it is a societal construct. Can you speak to how that attitude is damaging to all of us or maybe a bit about your own experience with that attitude? Any thoughts on how we take what the girls in your book are doing wide and make changes?
Garbage statements like “boys will be boys,” or our president’s favorite “just locker room talk” don’t give boys enough credit. As a society, we’re not challenging them to be better. They can be better. Boys have been failed by the adult men in their lives, by the media, by American culture in general; they’re doing what they’ve been taught. That doesn’t get them off the hook, of course. While the failings of our parents and previous generations are not necessarily our fault, they are absolutely our responsibility. It is up to us to break those cycles of conditioning. Boys and men have a responsibility to be better, just like white people have a responsibility to be better. Luckily, I see so many young men making an effort to be allies with women, to actively question sexism and gender roles. In my generation, I know so many hetero families in which the mom is the main breadwinner and the dad is stepping up to fulfill more duties of nurturing. I see so much progress. But there is still rape. There are still cat calls. The groper-in-chief is still our president. The manosphere is thriving online. The “men’s rights movement” is actually a thing. There is still wide misinformation about what defines consent. So we must continue to teach and educate each other. We must continue to empower ourselves and other women, and to find the inner strength to confront misogyny in ways that feel safe to us.
These gender assumptions can be internalized to the point of violence. As a young teen, I didn’t even know I had a right to say no to sex. No one taught me about consent. And now, at age 38, I still have PTSD from the experiences that came from that ignorance, and I most likely will for the rest of my life. I don’t want any girl to have to go through that. And if she does, I want her to know she’s not alone, that she can talk about it. I want her to know there is a community to support her. I think that’s where our greatest power lies, and what I tried to get across in The Nowhere Girls—that together, supporting one another, we are invincible. We are not only a powerful force for societal change, but a force for our own healing.
You’re also editing an anthology called Our Stories, Our Voices about growing up female in America. This came about in response to the election. Can you talk a little about this book? What it has been like assembling these stories and how it will feel to get them out there?
It’s a collection of personal essays by a ton of incredible YA authors, including Brandy Colbert, Julie Murphy, Somaiya Daud, Nina LaCour, Anna-Marie McLemore, Maurene Goo, Ellen Hopkins, and many more, about our diverse experiences growing up female in America. It’s scheduled to come out in the summer of 2018. I felt so lost and powerless after the election, and I needed to do something to reclaim my power. I thought of all the teens who, with the new racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-immigrant president, were getting the message that their lives don’t matter. I wanted to create a book to resist that message. We are twenty-one women telling our stories of injustice and empowerment, and I hope readers see themselves in our stories, that they will feel honored and less alone, that they will also learn about lives unlike their own and ultimately realize that we are all in this together, and that solidarity is our greatest source of strength and tool of resistance. Our stories matter, our lives matter, and our voices will not be silenced.
I was not prepared for how emotionally taxing it would be to edit this anthology. I spent my days reading the most vulnerable and raw experiences of my friends, and then I had to critique them. I cried a lot working on this project. But my heart opened up so much. I was constantly moved and inspired, and I feel so honored that these women trusted me with their stories, and I hope I did them justice.
You have written so many incredible books, beginning with Beautiful. They’ve all had such a huge impact on me as a reader and a writer and I think that’s because at their core, they are about survival—sometimes survival in spite of your best, most self-destructive efforts—and that is a topic very close to my heart due to my own life experiences. I’m guessing it is similar for you since it plays out throughout your work. Can you speak to why stories of survival are so important for you to tell?
I care about stories of survival because I’m a survivor. As a teen, I felt so alone in my struggles, and when I started writing around age thirteen it was because I had a desperate need to tell my story, to be heard, even though I rarely shared my writing. Just getting it on paper made my existence feel more solid. Valid. Now, so many years later, that core drive for storytelling hasn’t changed much. Though the stories I write are no longer my own, they are still about teens who are dealing with way more than they should have to, as I did. They are about teens surviving sexual assault and addiction and mental illness, as I did. I write stories about teens like I was, teens who maybe have to worry about things beyond romance or grades or getting into college, who deserve to have their stories honored, who need to know they can survive too.
We are also talking about aspects of our own nature in October. For example, when I was a teenager, I really let certain aspects of myself drive and shape everything—my depression or my anger for example—so I felt like I couldn’t be anything but the sad girl or the angry girl. Did you have a specific idea about who you were or what your nature was as a teen? How did you learn from or defy that?
That was me too. The sad girl, the angry girl. The wounded girl. I cherished my wounds. I was attached to the idea that they made me deeper than other people, deeper than the kids I presumed had blissful, easy lives. I needed to turn that pain into something I could be proud of. But I was also the smart girl. The opinionated girl. I liked to describe myself in high school as a hybrid punk/hippie/activist Lisa Simpson. I thought I was very original. In retrospect, I probably wasn’t. But that identity was really important to me. It was my armor. It helped me feel safe.
As I’ve grown, I’m learning there is a difference between reacting to the outside world and responding to your own internal truth. I’ve spent a lot of my life defining myself in defiance of others’ expectations or labels, and I’ve placed a lot of my feelings of self-worth in this identity as an outsider, a rebel. But what I’m realizing is that for one to define oneself as a rebel is still putting “normal” in the middle. It’s still centering others in our definitions of ourselves. I don’t want to do that anymore. The only center I want is myself. It’s really hard work. I still really care what people think about me. I have a fragile ego. But the more I practice trying to find my center, and the stillness there, the more I can find refuge and peace in the middle of all the world’s madness. ♦