Image credit: DF / Public Seminar. Source image: Author.
Feeling seen can be a transformative experience. As a Lebanese girl, I never found myself, my mother, or my sister in any of the novels I grew up with. It was only when I was 22, and stumbled on Iman Hariri-Kia’s debut novel, A Hundred Other Girls (Sourcebooks, 2022) that I finally found a fictional character I could relate to. A prolific writer with a roster of work spanning Vogue, Bustle, and Elite Daily, Hariri-Kia’s writing covered just about everything, from quarantine dating to the perils of adulthood. But more importantly, I was moved by her experiences as an Iranian American woman struggling to find an ounce of representation in the world she now works in. With A Hundred Other Girls, she has finally created what she, and many Middle Eastern girls, have longed for. You can check out A Hundred Other Girls on GoodReads, and Hariri-Kia’s portfolio is here.
Yasmeen Hamadeh: Let’s start with a summary of A Hundred Other Girls.
Iman Hariri-Kia: A Hundred Other Girls is what I like to call an adult coming-of-age novel. It follows the journey of a young Middle Eastern woman who has recently graduated from college. She gets the opportunity of a lifetime working for a culture magazine that she’s loved since childhood, but when she arrives, she quickly realizes that all is not as it appears as a reader. There’s a larger, internal turf war between the old-school elitist print team, and the new school, woke but for the wrong reasons digital team that’s focused on getting that next scoop and hitting those clickbait identity angles. And Noora, the protagonist, quickly gets caught in the middle as she tries to navigate what’s best for her.
It’s an exploration of what it means to have a dream job, and whether dream jobs truly exist. It looks at the rise of digital media and the decline of the publishing industry. It’s a celebration of sisterhood, family, and found family. It’s a hard, navel-gazing examination of identity politics, what it’s like to exploit your identity for profit, and whether there’s a true distinction between representation and tokenization.
Hamadeh: What was the writing process like, and why publish it now?
Hariri-Kia: It was important to me that the main character of my novel be Middle Eastern. I grew up reading a lot of contemporary and realistic fiction, but I never really saw myself in any of the narrators that I loved.
It was also important to me to make sure that the characters were all very diverse. I wanted to create true representation in the book, one that didn’t feel exploitative or like virtue signaling in any way. I wanted my depiction of the industry to be a true reflection of how I know New York to be. So often we tell New York’s story in a way that isn’t intersectional and global, or zoomed out enough.
As someone who was born and raised in New York, I really wanted to show the many different sides of the city and its cultures.
I wanted to write this book for many years and started doing it in my head with my first industry job. I had an epiphany: there hadn’t really been an update about what it’s like to work in the world of New York media since The Devil Wears Prada (Lauren Weisberger, 2003). So much has changed since then, and there’s still a lot of intrigue about what happens behind closed doors.
So, I wanted to take different outsiders coming into the industry, put them in a room, and follow the ways in which they interact, fight to do what’s right, and fight to make an impact.
Hamadeh: I really love it that your characters are Middle Eastern, and that they aren’t victimized. So often, our stories boil down to some form of oppression or war, and global audiences forget who we are outside of politics.
Hariri-Kia: This really gets at the question of how to write between tokenization and representation. It’s hard to find contemporary examples of Middle Eastern characters whose storylines aren’t dependent on some cultural or religious trauma. And when their trauma isn’t exploited for plot, they’re cast as villains in someone else’s story. Why can’t people from marginalized communities just live their lives and exist in these spaces?
A Hundred Other Girls points out the hypocrisy in media, but it also gives you a totally annoying but lovable main character who isn’t constantly talking about the fact that she’s Middle Eastern. Even though it informs who she is, it doesn’t change the fact that she has big aspirations, makes mistakes, and takes risks.
And when I think about what kind of writer I want to be, I think explicitly that I would love to tell the stories of different Middle Eastern women navigating different spaces and life adventures, because I don’t think it’s enough to have just one character like this. I think this approach should be something that’s normalized by all writers of color, because you would never ask “Why is a white author only writing books from a white perspective?”
And although this is my first novel, I’ve been a journalist and a writer for many years, and I’ve written a lot of personal essays about a myriad of things. Doing that work and writing all those essays was as important as creating fictitious heroines who are Middle Eastern. Showing real first-generation Middle Eastern Americans moving throughout the world, with the same horrible and wonderful human experiences as everybody else, is vital.
This is the type of representation I was looking for when I was young. This is what I wish I had found when I opened up the centerfolds of magazines. There’s a value in telling stories, and there will always be at least one person who’ll walk away from those stories feeling changed.
Hamadeh: Another aspect of identity you tap into is that diasporic experience of being from two opposite sides of the world at the same time.
Hariri-Kia: What’s so difficult about growing up between cultures is that you feel like your identity is fragmented, and you need to be different versions of yourself with different groups of people. You’re never whole anywhere. It’s an experience that’s specific to diaspora, children of immigrants, or anyone coming from a different cultural background that never fully assimilates. You’re constantly feeling like you’re not giving enough of yourself.
When you’re with your family, you’re insecure because you feel like you’re speaking your language with an accent, al lahja, as you’d say in Farsi. And when you’re with your peers, you feel like the food that you eat at home is embarrassing, or you don’t know certain customs, or you don’t belong in the same clubs as your friends’ parents do. You’re always trying to overcompensate.
That’s why representation is so important because it’s the closest that we can feel to being validated in our whole unfragmented identities.
Hamadeh: How do we include that representation in the industry organically without falling into the trap of tokenizing characters?
Hariri-Kia: We elevate the voices of young creatives from different backgrounds and ask them to weigh in, report on different issues that have nothing to do with their race or cultural background.
If they want to tell a story connected to their race or cultural background, that’s wonderful, please give them the opportunity. If you want to tap a Black female writer for a Black History Month piece that you think she would kill, that’s great.
But don’t just tap her to write during Black History Month. Tap her to write about sex, relationships, politics, art, movies. People of color have more to offer and talk about than just their experiences as people of color.
True representation is having people from all marginalized backgrounds weigh in on Love Island, or 90 Day Fiancé, or abortion rights. Ask them how they feel about things outside of their cultural experience, and give them an elevated platform to explore their opinions and beliefs. It’s so easy nowadays for diversity to be seen as this virtue-signaling spearhead. My biggest piece of advice, if you feel like that’s happening to you, is to seek out community and see if you can make an impact.
Hamadeh: While A Hundred Other Girls explores identity, it also simultaneously explores our changing media landscape. Is it still fair to ask if print media is dying?
Hariri-Kia: The question isn’t “Is print dying?”; the question is “Will we be able to keep print alive?”.
And it all comes down to how publications make money. Will we be able to find a way around ads, subscribers, and print sales? How can we create a system where storytellers are directly celebrated and compensated for their work? How are we going to be able to sustain ourselves when there is so much information, but not as much of an incentive to pay for our information?
These are questions I think about all the time, but I don’t necessarily have the answers yet.
That said, the same thing was said about the book publishing industry and there was a huge printed book revival. People thought that electronic books would take over publishing, but it hasn’t happened. There would need to be the same amount of investment in preserving print media from the media world, as there has been for the world of books and their readers.
Hamadeh: Returning to other pressing contemporary issues you address: you described the team in A Hundred Other Girls as “woke for the wrong reasons.” Can you elaborate on what that means in our real-time media industry?
Hariri-Kia: I’ve seen publications struggle to create room for representation, and instead ending up tokenizing and exploiting identity for clicks. There’s something icky about disguising exploitation as opportunity, and it puts writers of color, or marginalized writers, in this niche box where they have to sell themselves out or tap into their trauma in order to collect a check. I think that it’s something a lot of publications struggle with, and I think they’d struggle less if they employed more people of color who advocated against those strategies and knew how to handle situations like that with a bit more care.
Hamadeh: How should we handle these situations?
Hariri-Kia: Draw boundaries right off the bat and advocate for yourself. If you’re a freelance writer, don’t run. I know that it’s exciting to get someone interested in your work, but do not write a story without signing a statement of work. When you get the statement of work, read it carefully. Don’t be afraid to push back on the fine print. Make sure there’s a kill fee. Make sure there’s something in there that protects your best interests as a writer. I wish I had known that earlier on in my career.
But look out for yourself because it’s not everyone else’s job, so they won’t.
Hamadeh: When looking at the entire spectrum of your work, what’s the main thing you want to tell your readers?
Hariri-Kia: Something that I think about all the time is that growing up is not linear. We are constantly evolving into new versions of ourselves. We’re coming of age, and not just from the age of 13 to 18. I think that there’s this narrative that we get one big puberty and then we’re supposed to figure it all out, but the secret is, that never happens. We’re all constantly growing up and coming of age.
And I think that as someone who grew up reading and loving Y/A, I want to get it across to readers that if that’s how you feel and if you’re looking for characters who reflect that in adult literature, you’re not alone and you’re welcome here.
Yasmeen Hamadeh is a writer and journalist in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA Program at The New School for Social Research.
Iman Hariri-Kia is an Iranian American writer, editor, and author born and based in New York City.