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This Is What Makes Us Girls

This Is What Makes Us Girls

Amy Zhang, 19, on her new YA novel and the tricky parts of growing up.

Just two years after Amy Zhang released her cult favorite debut novel Falling into Place, the YA writer-slash-college student has returned with an equally irresistible, equally heart-wrenching tale. This Is Where the World Ends follows the slightly nerdy Micah and the spontaneous, artsy Janie, two childhood friends whose close—but secretive—high school friendship turns especially complicated after one night goes horribly awry. Adolescence is impossibly complex; but if there's anyone who can put the feelings of a teenage girl onto a page, it's Amy. Read her essay below, then add her latest novel to your bookshelf.

No one likes a teenage girl. Between the ages of ten and twenty, she can’t like anything—if she likes Starbucks and Uggs, she’s basic; if she likes to read poetry and wear beat-up Docs, she’s a hipster. If she wears makeup she’s shallow; if she doesn’t she’s a slob. If she follows politics she’s in over her head, and if she doesn’t she’s ignorant. If she has a Pinterest wedding board and is family-oriented, she’s subservient and behind the times; if she plans to stay single and not have children, she’s just too young to know what she wants. If she wants to wait to have sex she’s a prude; if she doesn’t she’s a slut.

The first thing we teach girls is shame. We teach them to apologize. We tell them to justify, and when we teach them to justify, we tell them that their opinion inherently and by default lacks legitimacy. And so between ten and twenty, we teach girls to be afraid of their own opinions, to keep their preferences quiet, to be ashamed of how they feel. That’s sexist and heteronormative and really stupid, but more than that it’s incredibly dangerous, because when a woman between ten and twenty is beginning to explore her sexuality, she forgets that she has the ability to say no.

“The first thing we teach girls is shame. We teach them to apologize.”

This was the idea that inspired Janie, the main character of This Is Where the World Ends. Janie is frivolous and flighty; she likes drawing on her arms and exploring and cutting fairy tales into feathers; she carries rocks in one pocket and a match and a marker in the other; she’s manipulative and unapologetic; she’s jealous and possessive and vulnerable; she wants to be loved and admired and everyone’s manic pixie dream girl. And Janie gets raped.

She doesn’t tell anyone because she doesn’t think anyone will listen. She looks at fairy tales and realizes that there are only two narratives available to women: damsel or villainess, and since it’s too late for her to be a damsel, she might as well get a start on being a villainess. I wrote This Is Where the World Ends in my freshman year of college, which is when they throw campus rape statistics at you like confetti. I wrote it following a time when I laughed at myself for listening to One Direction and Taylor Swift. I wrote it when my eleven-year-old sister wouldn’t buy a planner she liked because it was “too girly.”

I wrote it during a time when I was realizing that I was not familiar enough with my own sexuality to understand consent. I wrote it with the realization that I had struggled to say the word “no” my entire life. Writing Janie let me explore these feelings of shame. It made me ask myself why I was embarrassed to like kale chips and yoga, to Instagram my food, to read The New Yorker, to take selfies in public, to be in a sorority, to like Star Wars, to know every word to Justin Bieber’s new album, to spend more than ten minutes on my makeup, to watch Game of Thrones. It helped me begin to realize that my desires and feelings and likes and dislikes are valid. My choices are mine to make, not to justify. I hope readers will take away a similar message.

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