By Jed Ngalande
“I never thought of this as a single protagonist book; there were always just too many stories I wanted to tell,” Emily Layden ’11 said at a Thursday event discussing her book “All Girls.” Featuring an all-girl cast of protagonists and set in an all-girls boarding school, Layden’s book centers around young girls’ struggles against sexual violence and institutional repression of those crimes.
Layden said her inspiration for the novel came from spending the bulk of her twenties teaching at various all-girls boarding schools. “I started working on this novel, writing it from 5 to 6 a.m. every morning before going to teach, because I wanted to write about the tremendous wisdom, brilliance and empathy of teenage girls, which I was witnessing every day,” Layden said.
Layden was joined in conversation by fellow Stanford alum Lauren Victoria Clark ’20. Clark discussed the impact “All Girls” had on her, a novel that she said had “varying perspectives of women” with “levels of nuance that we don’t often see.” Clark made special note of the character Chloe looking to fairytale movies as a guide to romance, to which Clark said growing girls generally are “taught about the performance of romance more so than the actual logistics.”
Layden agreed with this point, saying “girls in particular think of sex as performative, and that it’s more about acting than about any kind of personal agency.”
One of Clark’s favorite aspects of “All Girls” was the “female way of thinking” in which Layden narrated the characters’ thoughts about their own bodies and appearance. Clark said, “I’m used to reading about female bodies, characters and beauty through the lens of the male gaze.” Layden responded by saying that women, even writers, “are conditioned to the male gaze and writing.” Layden further noted that “we don’t often see stories about female sexuality told or created by women” — something she hopes to change.
When Layden was asked if she wanted men to read her book, she said, “It is essential that men consume women’s stories — that’s the only way that we’re going to move the culture.” However, she said she believed it would be “an uphill battle.” She said that while girls were taught from a young age to consume stories about boys, “boys are not similarly conditioned.”
However, Layden hopes her book and other stories like it will “start to dissolve the barriers that exist around which type of story is for which type of people.”