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'Girls Write Now' anthology showcases essays by young women from New York City and Long Island

For two decades, the after-school writing program has helped high schoolers find their voices.

"Girls Write Now: Two Decades of True Stories from Young Female Voices" (Tin House, October 2018) Photo Credit: Tin House

In her essay “Flying Bullets," writer E. Alfaro of Long Island recalls her family’s forced migration to the United States from El Salvador, where gang violence and gunfire shuttered innocent families inside their homes.

“We weren’t so much searching for the American dream as we were trying to escape a nightmare,’’ writes Alfaro, whose essay is included in a new anthology, "Girls Write Now: Two Decades of True Stories from Young Female Voices" (Tin House, 320 pp., $16.95 paper).

The book’s 116 essays were written by high school girls who participated in the Manhattan-based after-school program Girls Write Now. For 20 years, the writing program has inspired teenage girls from across the city and Long Island to explore their writing talents and tell their coming-of-age stories.

The essays share narratives such as the tribulations of identity when straddling dueling heritages, a mother’s life lesson of self-determination that teaches a daughter to dream, and a young girl’s loving reflection that she sees through the eyes of her father.

“I have my father’s eyes … Eyes that share love and experiences that will last forever,’’ writes Kiara Kerina-Rendina in “Four Eyes,’’ written in 2013 when she was student at Millennium Brooklyn High School.

A humorous tone threads through one story, where a teenage Korean-American girl tries to decipher her cultural allegiance.

“Despite the fact that I looked Korean, around my cousins, I felt like an alien," writes Esther Kim, in "Is This America?’’ "Maybe my Asian friends were right when they teased me about being a 'Twinkie' — yellow on the outside, white on the inside." Kim wrote the piece when she was a student at Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington.

Now 28, she said her quest for self-identity started when the family moved from Bayside, Queens, to Port Washington.

“I was 10 when we moved from Bayside to Port Washington," she said in a recent telephone interview. "It was much more suburban. All those grassy fields and Coach bags — it was quite startling,’’ she said with a laugh. “There was a lot to figure out.’’

Today, she finds herself studying Korean literature at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies. “As a 28-year-old, 20-year-old and a 10-year-old you still have the same questions,’’ reflects Kim, who wants to translate contemporary Korean literature into English. She was a volunteer mentor for Girls Write Now from 2015 to 2017.

For writer Fanta Camara, it took writing the essay “Inspiration from My Mother’’ to appreciate her mother’s triumph in becoming a nurse when teenage girls in their native Guinea, in West Africa, were often pulled out of school to get married.

“My mother was a very smart girl … But her parents took her out of school to get her married to my father … she was never given the chance to choose between her education and marriage,’’ writes Camara, who participated in the program when she was a student at the Bronx International High School.

Camara, a sociologist, said that as a teenager, “I didn’t know that my mother’s life touched me and that she was always in the back of my mind.’’

Masie Cochran, the book’s editor, called the collection “a window into a teenage girl’s mind. These girls are unbridled." She adds that high school guidance counselors who worry that their students may not be inspired to go on to college should have them read the book. “It’s amazing — 100 percent of these students go on to college,’’ Cochran said.

‘’College was supposed to get me out of here,’’ writes Danni Green of Manhattan in the opening story, "Dear Kanye, January 14" from 2012. Green writes of being unable to complete the college financial aid application because her mother’s partner, who lived in their home, wouldn’t reveal his income.

“Shawn raises his voice, shows his ignorance … he calls me stupid. Says I shouldn’t be trying to get money from the government,’’ writes a frustrated Green. In an author bio at the end of the essay, readers learn that Green went on to attend Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon.

Interspersed throughout the book are inspirational quotes and observations by women writers including Roxane Gay, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Gloria Steinem, Lena Dunham and Mia Alvar.

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