Send Nudes is the debut collection of short stories from a new voice in literary fiction. Saba Sams’ characters lead us through dingy nightclubs, dating apps, music festivals and their unconventional homes, and leave us reflecting on girlhood in all its complexity. The girls in these stories navigate their intense friendships, ambivalent mothers, uneasily blended families and, ultimately, their own bodies.
Did you set out to write a collection of stories about girlhood or did the connective tissue in these stories develop organically?
I didn’t set out to write a short story collection at all. I was just learning to write, and short stories felt like the best way to do that. I wrote about girlhood because that was the thing that I knew, and those were the characters that came to me. I thought I would go on to write a novel later. Actually I got very lucky, and some of my stories were seen by an editor at Bloomsbury who picked them up. That was really the point that I realised I was writing a collection.
Is there a definitive moment when girlhood becomes womanhood and did writing the stories help you reckon with your own girlhood?
I don’t think there is a definitive moment, and actually it’s exactly that precariousness that the stories are about. For me, girlhood was defined by not quite knowing what I wanted, who I was, or where I fit. That confusion could be debilitating and shameful. Writing the stories did help me reckon with it, in that I came to understand more clearly exactly what I’d been up against. Constructing the continuous swirl of family dynamics, changing bodies and societal expectation within the frame of fiction made me angry at the mess young women are raised in, but also made me impressed that I’d made it out the other side.
In Tinderloin and Snakebite your protagonists find their animal companions to be more dependable than the humans they invest in. Is this a reflection of their age or are adult relationships just as unreliable?
I think my characters who come to depend on their animal companions are learning what they want out of the relationships in their lives. Animals can offer a particularly loyal love, and I find that an interesting model to compare with humans, who so often fall short in the ways that we are capable of loving one another. Adult relationships can certainly be as unreliable as young ones, though I think there is something to be said about learning, over time, what it is that we need.
You depict female friendships that border on romantic or obsessive. Why do you think young women forge such intense relationships? And do you have any favourite literary female friendships?
It seems to me that we forge intense relationships over the course of our lives, though perhaps young women in particular are raised on a model of romance that leads them to seek out, or create, such relationships. I couldn’t answer about my favourite literary female friendships without talking about Elena Ferrante. The dark mix of jealousy and devotion that underpins Lenù and Lila’s relationship feels both true and exhilarating. I also love Berie and Sils in Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? for their breeziness and sharp humour, though the way that Berie worships Sils has those same underpinnings of obsession.
Sending nudes is empowering for the protagonist in your title story. How do young women navigate the line between empowerment and exploitation when sharing images of themselves?
I don’t know if I feel that the character in that story is empowered by sending her nude. Certainly I think there is a thrill in her sense of being seen, and that the act of taking the photo allows her to interact with her body in a way that she finds pleasurable. Neither do I feel that she is being exploited, though it’s always true that women’s desires are partly shaped by the misogynistic culture in which we live. It seems near impossible, as a heterosexual woman, to act out a sexual desire without being cornered by the narrow walls of empowerment versus exploitation. Yes, the two exist, but it is more complicated than pitting them against each other as a stark binary. The title story, for me, is about a brief moment of lightness, a rising out of these binds.
Many of your characters are self-sufficient with absent or complicated relationships with their mothers. Is there an expectation on girls to be independent where boys get more support?
I think that can be true in some families, but it very much depends. There are also times when girls are over-protected and boys get the independence. It seems a good idea to me to raise boys and girls largely the same, and I also know that the more neglectful mothers in my stories would have struggled equally had they ended up with sons. I wrote a lot of self-sufficient young women because I find the combination of naiveté and brazenness an interesting place to inhabit. A character like that can get into all sorts of sticky situations.
Are you working on a novel?
I am but it is very early days. I find the more I talk it about the less capable I feel of actually writing it, so I’m not going to give any more away.