Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman are giving people the book on friendship that they needed during a strain in their own.

By Alamin Yohannes
July 14, 2020 at 10:00 AM EDT
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Milan Zrnic; Elizabeth Spiridakis/Simon + Schuster

Let's talk about friendship!

When it comes to the occasionally complicated subject, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman are pros. After building their own deep relationship, they launched podcast Call Your Girlfriend in 2014 and have been having weekly conversations about what's happening in the world, and their lives, as well as highlighting every facet of women's humanity ever since.

Milan Zrnic

Now, they're exploring their bond in a new way with the memoir Big Friendship (out now). Going deeper into their friendship than their weekly chats allow, Friedman and Sow share struggles in their personal relationship and how they worked hard to mend their issues. They decided to write the book after noticing that there wasn't much social support for friendship when they felt the strain in their own relationship — a lack of public discussions about the complications of friendship led them to create the book they needed. "As much as we're adept at talking about [friendship], there was not a robust public conversation about how complicated friendship can be," Sow adds.

While Big Friendship gets honest about what the pair went through, their bond helped the first-time authors work together to tell their story. "Neither of us has written a book before, so we did not have our individual processes for how we do something like this," Ann shares. "But that said, we knew a lot about our dynamic as collaborators and how we kind of come to good ideas together."

Elizabeth Spiridakis/Simon + Schuster

EW spoke to the authors about thinking about friendship as an intimate bond, its political nature, their own "big" friendship, and more.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In the research and interviews you guys did, was there anything that surprised you about friendship?

AMINATOU SOW: That's a really good question. It was interesting to realize that there was not a lot of robust research about adult friendships specifically. We found some stuff about how you make a friend, a lot of it was centered around younger people, like children, frankly. Then a lot of research around how college students are saying friends with their phones, which is not really helpful when you think of college as this transitory stage of life.

There wasn't a lot of research specifically about how do you stay in close friendships, and we all know that culturally important things are studied. Understanding that really started to make us understand why we were not finding the support that we needed. Speaking for myself, at least, I was really interested in some research we found about social media and friendship. The people who reported being the most content with their social media use were people who mostly followed people that they knew personally. It sounds so elementary, but I think it really made me rethink my own relationship with social media and how many strangers are retiring versus how many people I knew personally.

To follow up, what specific areas under the umbrella of adult friends do you think we need more exploration?

ANN FRIEDMAN: Wow. How much time do you have? One area where we had hoped to find research but didn't is group dynamics and friendship. That's something I think we have often been quick to dismiss, kind of trouble between a large group of friends, as something that like maybe only happens to teen girls as opposed to something that can happen throughout life as different friends and friend groups become interconnected.

I really wish that we had been able to find some research about how people navigate conflict in those groups, how likely people are to introduce their friends to other friends, and what that says about the longevity of a friendship if you're part of a larger friend group. Many of these questions are not something we could find research about.

That's something we write about in the book. Our own strive and joy related to a large interconnected friend group, but we sort of had to rely on anecdote there.

Milan Zrnic

How do you think our relationship with and thinking about friendship would change if we thought about it as an intimate bond?

SOW: If I had grown up understanding fully that friendship is one of his most intimate relationships I could have with someone and that it was a relationship that was worth protecting, and worth taking seriously, and that society takes seriously, I think I would have made a lot of very different choices along the way. Namely, that I would have fought a lot harder for a lot of friendships I was in.

I also think that taking friendship seriously means as a society that we are really just letting human beings be really honest about the way that they want to organize their lives and there's perhaps like less pressure on marriage and parenting because you can have a world in which a lot of your needs are taken care of, completely decoupled from that pressure specifically. I wish I grew up in that world, but I did not grow up in that world.

It's been really, really interesting to spend years immersed in conversation with Ann and see the scope of what is possible and what we've lost as a result of not taking friendships seriously.

Friendship has always been political, but I think now we're talking more about looking at our own blindspots. How do you think friendship can be a tool to move conversations about political and social issues forward?

FRIEDMAN: I'm not sure I'd say it's a tool, but I will say that there is a reason we point out that friendship is a relationship that is freely chosen. Unlike a family that you're born into, with friends, people say, "Hey, this is what I want my community to look like. This is what I want my world to look like," and that is definitely political.

For most of us, it is also determined by these like factors in our world. We live in a really segregated society, for example, and so while we may feel like we are freely choosing our friends, often those things break along lines that are determined by forces much bigger than us. I would say that I have learned so much through friendships, and across every type of fundamental difference that people can have, simply because I really have like a specific and intimate knowledge and love for someone who is having an experience that's different than mine. We write in the book about all the ways that can be extremely complicated, especially for someone enjoying more societal privilege than their friend.

I do think that it's less a tool than it is an opportunity. That's how I sort of see it. It's often one that I have been surprised by. No one picks their friends for political reasons; we choose our friends because we sense a similarity in them and it's sameness. That is where I get really excited about the potential in friendship. If we are able to connect with people who in some ways, in some fundamental ways, are very, very different in terms of how they are treated by the world at large, but we can connect based on what we've identified as the sameness and then talk about those differences within the friendship. That feels powerful to me, and it feels like there's a lot of potential there.

Shine Theory has blown up into a huge thing. How do you guys maintain your relationships with its original meaning?

SOW: We've had to be really, really clear about the definition of Shine Theory and enforcing that with people, but most institutions and organizations that want to use it as a cute shorthand for women's empowerment events that they're doing at their companies.

Going back to your question about the political nature of friendship, Shine Theory is also very political. It is about a long-term investment in building power in the relationships that you have, with the people and the relationships that you have. We have tried to model what it is. We maintain a website that is very clear about what it is. We're also really heartened that people who practice Shine Theory do that on their own. Who wants something that is so significant to them to just be reduced to a marketing tool? Nobody wants that. We do some of that work, but a lot of other people do that work on behalf of Shine Theory as well.

Jorge Riva

Another current friendship topic is how people can support and learn from their black friends without making them do emotional labor. Would you guys mind sharing how you do navigate that throughout your friendship?

FRIEDMAN: One thing I hope people take away from [the] chapter in the book is that there is no such thing as an interracial friendship that is untouched by race and racism. Which is to say, a sentiment that I have heard other white people in my life express a lot, and I have felt at various times is, "Can't we just relate to each other as people?" That's often how the phrase comes up. Or, "Can't we just be friends to each other that we are without bringing race into the equation?"

What I really hope people take from our chapter is that race is in the equation. That's very much wishful thinking. It's not something that you can just remove from your friendship because you wish it weren't affecting it. A line that we really tried to walk is explaining how it does show up even in a friendship where you have a very strong connection based on similarities you feel. Racial difference and the racism of the wider world is going to affect it. Being aware of that fact, that none of us can escape it, and no friendships can escape it, in this imperfect world we all now inhabit has been something very important for me personally to acknowledge and to reckon with and try to address in an ongoing way in my friendships with people of other races.

Do you think sharing this much of your private friendship will impact your public one, or your podcast moving forward? If so, how?

SOW: I guess we'll find out. [Laughs]

Part of why the book was so necessary to explore these ideas is that for one, it's not easy to talk about the stuff on the podcast. It was also just not a format that worked, we were really trying to get a joint truth of what our relationship was. I think for people who have been listening to the podcast for a long time, there's probably a part of them that will think, "Oh, why were they keeping this from us?" The truth is that we weren't keeping anything from anyone. Our friendship has always had a public component and a private component.

We really had to muddle through a lot of the stuff that was painful in our relationship. The only reason that we can share it publicly at all is that we have worked through it individually, and we have worked through it together in therapy, and, again, we have worked through it in writing the book. Part of writing the book in one voice is that there was the absolute safety of arriving at this conclusion together. The spoiler really is we're still friends, we're still very much big friends. That stuff is far away, and it's not a source of pain anymore, which I think both of us have always been really conscious of only sharing things publicly that have been resolved privately. All of the stories in the book are very carefully selected anecdotes that illustrate the larger points that we're making. It's not true that everything that's in this book is also everything that's true about our lives, and nothing else is happening. I think that's the exercise most people are engaged in when they're writing a memoir.

Milan Zrnic

What do you hope readers take away from your novel?

SOW: I hope that people take away that friendship is really hard and rewarding. I hope that when they read it, it sparks them to think about the friendships they have and think about other friendships that are perhaps not active right now. And, to get permission to pick up the phone or email those people and talk about it. But mostly, I hope that it makes a lot of people feel less alone about the strife they are feeling about their relationships.

FRIEDMAN: I would just say that our other great hope for this book is that it is an opening for difficult and necessary conversations between people who are friends and want to stay friends. While it would be amazing if people read the book and our experiences resonated with them, I think we are even more excited by the idea that the book just suggests like, "Hey, maybe there's more here that we should be talking about in our own friendship." Excited that people may take it as the prompt to whatever feels hard or whatever feels worth celebrating in their own friendships is what happens next after they read it.

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