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Girlhood Around The World, And In St. Louis, Is Focus Of New Diary-Based Book

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Provided / Kassy Cho
Masuma Ahuja is a freelance journalist. She previously worked as national digital editor at the Washington Post, which first published the diaries that later formed the basis for Ahuja's new book, "Girlhood."

In 2018, the Washington Post published an online series that felt new and totally different. “Girlhood Around the World” lets girls describe their life without a filter. With diary excerpts and photos, teens in Afghanistan, Congo, Cambodia and even, yes, St. Louis let us look into their bedrooms and hear their voices as they discuss their hopes, their fears and their friendships.

Now that series has become a book, aimed at kids ages 12 and older. In “Girlhood: Teens Around the World in Their Own Voices,” writer Masuma Ahuja presents diary excerpts from 30 girls in 27 different countries. A journalist who originally conceived the series for the Lily, a Post platform, Ahuja also provides a bit of context on the bigger issues that often go unexamined in the girls’ quotidian reports.

“I was really curious about what life looked like beyond the headlines and beyond the stories that we get to watch on the news,” Ahuja explained on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air. “We tend to get headlines of horror and the most awful things that are happening in different places. And we never get to sit with people in the ordinary moments of their lives. And life looks like life everywhere, right? People have friends, and they get into fights with their friends. And they also at the same time have big dreams.”

That includes Halima, the diarist in Afghanistan. “She loves Celine Dion, which is not a thing I would have ever expected,” Ahuja said. “Her belting out ‘My Heart Will Go On’ is a thing that I relate to from my teenage years, a long time ago.”

Others’ details suggest less idyllic girlhoods; some frankly mention living in violent neighborhoods, going without food or enjoying TV “if there is electricity.” But Ahuja lets the diarists speak for themselves. And the one thing they all seem to share is hope — in their futures and their ability to face any challenge.

That includes Emilly, a 19-year-old who grew up in a Brazilian favela and now finds herself married with a young daughter of her own. In one diary entry, Emilly notes her fear that she wouldn’t be able to take care of her baby, writing how she pushed through and now feels up to the challenge.

“I can manage,” Emilly concludes in her diary. “I learnt everything is a question about being able to control our emotional and psychological health, and everything will work out.”

Asked about that entry, Ahuja admitted: “I don't think it's really that simple. But I think there's a lot of power in the fact that she decided she was going to take control of the situation to the best of her ability. Because she couldn't control the circumstances she lived within, but she could control how she responded to them. And there's so much power in that.

“Of course, life would be very different for her if she lived somewhere else. If she had more opportunities, if she could stay in school while she was pregnant and had her daughter, all of those things would make life a lot easier for her. But I take a lot of solace in the fact that there are girls like her who are faced with difficult circumstances and still manage to tackle them head on.”

Ahuja will discuss the book at a virtual event with the St. Louis County Library next week. She explained on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air that she’ll be joined by Sophie, the St. Louis teen featured in the book (and also the original newspaper series).

Ahuja said she found Sophie through a personal connection: “a friend of mine who used to babysit her when she was a kid. And Sophie now is a freshman at the University of Missouri. It’s like we got to watch her grow up a little bit through her high school years.”

Related Event

What: Masuma Ahuja discusses “Girlhood Around the World”

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 18

Where: Facebook Live

Girls or former girls: What stands out looking back at your girlhood? Tweet us (@STLonAir), send an email to talk@stlpublicradio.org or share your thoughts via our St. Louis on the Air Facebook group, and help inform our coverage.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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