On the cliff-edge of womanhood: Interview with Saba Sams

Jayna Rohslau discusses sex, female friendships and the language of desire with author Saba Sams

In a literary world of flowery prose and glamorised problems, the writing of Saba Sams stands out for its unflinching depiction of young women. In particular, her 2022 collection of short stories, Send Nudes, hones in on her female character’s relationships with their bodies, sex lives, and each other in such an honest and detailed way that they seem to leap off the page. Trinity News was fortunately granted an interview by Sams, who thoughtfully answered questions pertaining to sex, the superficiality of dating apps, the turbulence of adolescence, and much more. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

“In Send Nudes, I noticed your depiction of sex tends to be quite candid. ‘The sex hadn’t gone how I’d imagined, but it had gone,’ says Gracie, the protagonist of Tinderloin. This reflection comes after she loses her virginity. As Gracie notes, movies and TV shows make the first time seem like it should be far more pivotal. How do you feel about the way the media depicts sex, and are you attempting to dispel this portrayal in your stories?”

“I like the use of the word ‘candid’ here,” Sams explained. “I think lots of portrayals of sex in our culture could do with a good dose of candidness: sometimes it hurts, sometimes it’s boring, sometimes you don’t know if you wanted it, and so on. Sex is a real thing that real people do, and the media finds it strangely easy to forget that. Still, I don’t think I succeed in being candid every time I write about sex – often my characters are the kind of people who lie to themselves about their experiences, as well as everyone else – but Gracie is very frank, and I love her for that.”

Trinity News prompted: “What aspect do you find most challenging when writing about sex in such a brutallly honest manner?”

“I think it’s easy to hold back for fear of cringing myself out,” answered the writer. “A teacher I had once wrote ‘more!’ in the margin next to a sex scene of mine. I try to really go for it now, and remind myself that I can always cut back later.”

“What reactions have you had to the high concentration of sex featured in the book and did you face any drawbacks or obstacles in the publishing process?”

Sams answered: “I’ve been lucky in this regard. My editor and agent are both young women who understand what I’m trying to do. There are various family members that I asked not to read my book, but they all ignored me and went ahead with it anyway. I think reading about real sex from the perspective of young women probably did them some good.”

Trinity News questioned: “Obviously, romantic and sexual relationships play a central role in your stories. Moreover, you highlight the importance of female friendships and familial connections: from a foster mother and her children in Flying Kite to a girl and her older sister’s friend in Blue4eva. The latter set of relationships often seems adversely affected by the former. Does this mirror your experience of real life, and which element was more difficult to write about?”

“I don’t know if I agree that the latter set of relationships are adversely affected by the former, or at least that wasn’t my intention with the book,” responded Sams. “I think I’m more interested in the blurred line between sex and friendship, between jealousy and desire. Sometimes the effect of one thing on the other is detrimental, but other times the outcome is positive, even necessary.”

“One of the stories that resonated with me most was Snakebite, in which an insecure young woman becomes friends and occasional lovers with a far more uninhibited party girl. Like many of us, Meg views partying with her friend Lara as a way of transgressing a far more mundane reality. At the same time, their relationship is adversely affected by the men who are drawn to Lara and trade drugs for sex.” Trinity News asked: “Do you think that partaking in party culture can be a form of rebellion, or does it entrench women deeper in the patriarchal status quo?”

The writer responded that: “Absolutely I think partying can be a form of rebellion, but it’s also true that patriarchy seeps into everything like a sickness. It takes working hard and working together to keep our spaces clean, and this goes for anywhere – not just a club.”

“Throughout your work, sex and food are intentionally juxtaposed. In Overnight, the character Maxine envisions herself ‘as a nut cracked open’ in the aftermath of assault. In Here Alone, Emily, who has been led on to make an ex-girlfriend jealous, relishes the sensation of spaghetti sauce dripping down her chin. The list of parallels goes on.” Trinity News asked: “What was your intent in continuously highlighting these elements? Are there any overt similarities between sex and food?”

Sams responded that: “Often, I feel that writers don’t like to admit that they didn’t think too hard about something, that certain details make their way into a book for no reason other than because the writer likes writing about them. This is true for me when it comes to food. I like to cook and I like to eat, so food shows up in my stories all the time. Of course food is pleasurable, food is gross, food is sexy. But the reason it’s in there is just because I think about it a lot when I’m thinking about the world. There’s not much more to it than that.”

“In Blue4eva, we see how a family has been changed in the wake of infidelity and remarriage,” Trinity News continued. “Why did you choose the character of Stella to narrate, a twelve-year old who doesn’t fully grasp the reality of the situation, as opposed to her older sister Jasmine who does?”

“Stella’s right on the cliff-edge of womanhood, about to be pushed off, and she’s trying to work out how to be. This makes her particularly observant, which is helpful for me as the writer of the story. I like how she pays attention – and makes me pay attention – to the detail of certain characters and the ways they relate to one another,” Sams illuminated. “At the same time, so much of what she learns is wrong or confused, because of society or immaturity or both. I was thinking a lot about the way we become who we are. The distance between Stella and the reader, in terms of insight, was an interesting gap to play in.”

Trinity News prompted: “‘In school, Stella’s not one of the pretty girls,’ ‘She knew that she wasn’t a beautiful woman, but sexy felt like something not far off.’ The language of desire is crucial to your characters’ sense of identity. Why have you chosen to write about young women who don’t fit typical beauty standards?”

“Most of the time I’m drawing on real life, and that means writing real women. Interestingly though, I do think these women could perhaps fit typical beauty standards, but they just don’t feel like they do,” revealed Sams. “This is as truthful an idea to me as the idea that they aren’t conventionally beautiful in the first place. We can’t ever see ourselves from the perspective of the rest of the world, and playing with that truth is something fiction can do in a way that film can’t, because a reader can only ever imagine the character in their head.”

Trinity News continued: “I was struck by the ending of The Mothers and the Girls. When the would-be love interest, River, refuses to choose between the two nameless girls, they react violently by jumping off a trapeze platform. What was your thought process behind this moment, and how was it informed by your understanding of adolescent desire?”

The writer answered: “Finishing that story took me ages. I just couldn’t wrap it up. It’s definitely my bravest ending, and I’m still not quite sure it works. I knew I wanted something wild, something unexpected, because the world of the story allowed for that, being a music festival, and also because there was something so feral about those girls. It was a situation where writing the story taught me about the characters, and by the end I couldn’t nail down a scene that really felt like them. I think the trapeze scene speaks to adolescent desire because of how over-dramatic it is – River cannot be the be-all and end-all, until he is – but also because there’s something unifying about it: the girls come together after being pushed apart.”

“In the titular story of the collection, the unnamed female protagonist starts a conversation with an anonymous stranger over an app. It is sexually charged from the beginning, as he asks for her ‘asl- age sex location’ and for what she is wearing. In order to fuel his imagination, she lies and tells him she is wearing red lingerie,” Trinity News recounted. “Moreover, in Tinderloin, the sixteen-year-old protagonist uses someone else’s picture. Do you think dating apps are inherently negative in their superficiality? Also, did you write your characters as fundamentally dishonest or do their online lies reflect a greater societal norm?”

Sams explained: “I think this comes back again to body image, to our inability to see ourselves truthfully and about the anxieties that creates. Everyone is lying, in some sense, on social media and dating apps. It’s not easy to connect in the world we live in, so we are forced to seek out relationships via technology, where we can project an image of ourselves that suits us in the hopes of attracting others. The inherently negative thing here, for me, is that somebody profits from this superficiality, from this loneliness, and in the same fold our anxieties are fed in order to generate such profit. I think probably my characters are both fundamentally dishonest and also reflecting a greater societal norm – like all of us online.”

Trinity News questioned the author: “What takeaways do you want the reader to come away with after reading Send Nudes?”

“This feels like a big question to me, and I’m not sure I can come up with an answer. I wrote short stories because I loved the form, because they fit into my life at the time, and I wrote about young women characters because I felt I understood them, because I hadn’t read enough who were feral and contrary and brazen. I wasn’t thinking about the reader so much as I was thinking about entertaining myself on the page.”

And finally: “What are some themes you plan on exploring in the future?”

“I’m writing a novel at the moment, and for a long time my protagonist was a young woman. I felt like I knew how to do that; it had worked in Send Nudes, and I guess I was afraid to stray away from something that I knew I could do,” Sams revealed. “But recently I’ve flipped the perspective in the story and started speaking from an older character. It’s been really freeing. I like considering the ways that previous relationships, jobs and experiences have influenced a person. With an older character, there’s so much more backstory to play with.”

Send Nudes by Saba Sams was published by Bloomsbury in January. It can be purchased for £11.99 on Amazon UK or £13.49 from The Guardian Bookshop or your local retailer.