Illustrations by María Alconada Brooks.
Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman are no strangers to long-distance friendship. The best friends, a businesswoman living in New York City and a journalist living in Los Angeles, started their popular podcast “Call Your Girlfriend” to stay connected while living apart.
So the pandemic, in many ways, hasn’t changed the day-to-day nature of their relationship — except for the fact that they’re releasing a joint book, “Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close,” on July 14, thousands of miles away from each other.
While the two have been busy promoting the book, we wanted to take a figurative page out of their book and listen in on a phone call about what the process of writing together was like, why friendship has never felt more crucial than in the pandemic, and how talking about race is essential in their friendship as a black woman and a white woman.
We hope it was as fun for them to talk as it was for us to listen.
Ann Friedman: Hi, it’s almost pub date. Oh my gosh.
Aminatou Sow: Happy almost pub date to you. How does it feel to be a first-time book author, Ann Friedman?
Ann Friedman: I mean, I don’t even know yet. It feels good, I guess? I’m proud of the work we did together. How are you feeling?
Aminatou Sow: I feel really, really, really lucky that I get to work with you, and I feel, simultaneously, very sad that we will not be together. Because I really had just taken that for granted. It’s such a reminder that, you know, the pandemic is every single day.
Ann Friedman: I know. There have been so many articles about people missing out or canceling or postponing their weddings. And I’m like, this is our wedding that we’re missing.
Aminatou Sow: It’s our wedding. I am really looking forward to the party that we throw each other the minute we can see each other. It’ll be really fun. But in a lot of ways, I’m really glad that our book is about friendship because it is truly — friendship is the thing that is sustaining me, and I know sustaining a lot of people, through these really, really hard times.
Ann Friedman: And it’s a period of reflection for a lot of people as well. For all my sad feelings about releasing a book in a pandemic, I really hope that it hits people at a time when they are being reflective about the relationships that really matter, and can kind of serve as a permission slip for friendship being among those most important core relationships that we want to see through moments like this.
Aminatou Sow: You and I are very well-primed, I think, to handle a pandemic moment in our friendship because we have lived apart longer than we had ever lived in the same place.
I also think that the experience of having to write a book like this — which means that we’ve had an emotional forensic analysis of every pain point and everything that was hard and everything that is also good in our friendship — it’s a really peculiar kind of experience. Because we did that, I feel very secure in our friendship in a way that is not true probably of other relationships I’m in.
Ann Friedman: Writing this in one voice, there were many days when I thought we were absolute fools. I could imagine the alternate universe in which we assigned different ideas to each other and then went away and wrote alone and then just packaged it all into a book. That sounded a lot easier during the actual writing process. And now, today, I am just so profoundly grateful that we didn’t do it that way. But I did want to ask you a question.
Aminatou Sow: Yes, please do.
Ann Friedman: Now that you have a little bit of distance on it, what’s something you wish we had included in the book that we didn’t think of or didn’t prioritize during the writing process?
Aminatou Sow: Oh, that’s such a good question, because I know I want to say emphatically, yes, there are so many things I wish we had done, but those things are all other books. I am just really reminded of why we made the choice to tell the story in the way that we did, really centering it on you and me. And using that specificity as a vehicle for inviting people into a conversation about their own friendships.
There are so many kinds of pain points and stretching points in friendships that we don’t talk about, because they were not necessarily pain points and stretching points in your and my relationship. So it’s tough, because the thing that it makes me want to do is just go back. I wish that there was a world in which I could do this exercise with every single person that means the world to me.
What about for you?
Ann Friedman: I’ve have had that same feeling too, wondering what my other friendships would be like if I subjected them to the level of really thoughtful, joint scrutiny that you and I have subjected our friendship to. Like what if in my other interracial friendships, we had sat down together and really done a joint accounting of the ways race had come into play in our interpersonal dynamic. Or what if I had sat down with my oldest high school best friend to say, “Oh, you remember that period of time when things were really awkward between us because I thought you were dating someone who was really bad for you. Can we talk about what was really going on there and how I could have handled that better?”
Aminatou Sow: Oh man, I’m so glad you used the word navel-gazing, because I struggle so much with this kind of public conversation about something that feels like it should be private. And I constantly have to remind myself that it is in service of really figuring out, how are other people sharing friendship? I am submitting this friendship into the public record because a lot of the research that we did in talking to our other friends, we realized everyone is just handling it differently and everyone is whispering about things that are hard or things that are easy.
I think that part of what feels really infantilizing about friendship and particularly friendship between women is that there’s this expectation that it’s supposed to be very easy. You know, you make these friends at camp or you make friends in high school or in college. And it’s just easy, breezy friendship from there on out.
I really wish that someone had prepared me for the fact that any rewarding relationship in life requires work and requires clear communication and requires figuring out what the boundaries of your friendship are and doing that investment over and over and over again throughout the life span of the relationship.
Ann Friedman: I definitely feel that embarrassment about how much of our own friendship we expose. In part because you and I well know that there are a lot of books about what is great about friendship, and there are not too many books about the places where it is difficult. I think that I have maybe some low-level fears that people will be like, “Oh my gosh, this is a really screwed up friendship. Do you believe, like, all of the problems they have?”
Aminatou Sow: Part of never having had a precise vocabulary or precise labels or even just a way of talking about friendship that takes it seriously as a relationship that adults can have that is rewarding and that contributes to the well-being of people and society — it really compounds all of the weird feelings I have about talking about it.
Ann Friedman: I know we talked earlier about releasing this book in a moment of a pandemic, but I think also about how strained and how stretched a lot of people are feeling as caregivers or with their own mental health or whatever, you name it. I feel like there are stressors happening right now and being able to say, we are still going to advocate that you make sometimes difficult investments in friendship at a time when a lot of people already feel overloaded, or we’re going to say, we think it is essential that you have hard conversations about race and racism’s effect on your friendship. We are essentially adding something to people’s plates.
Aminatou Sow: I definitely have those feelings as well. I think you’re touching on something that I think about a lot. In the book, we write about this concept of the four burners of life, where health is one burner, work is one burner, your family is one burner and your friends are one burner.
Ann Friedman: Life as a stove, right?
Aminatou Sow: Right, the metaphor of life as a stove. Even after doing all that work, it’s very telling that I feel ambivalent about saying, “Okay, the friend burner is the one that should be tended to right now.”
But I think it’s worth talking about, because for a lot of us, our family structure and our life structure really is around friendship. I am someone where my friends are my family. And that has been true for a really, really, really long time. Even as I am comfortable saying the words “chosen family” and I understand that concept, I still have some residual hesitance about saying this is how my life is organized: My friends are at the center of my life and the other burners are the ones that struggle because this is the one that I front-load.
Ann Friedman: As much as that metaphor was helpful in writing the book, I also know that there’s a reason why we took issue with it, which is that life doesn’t separate so easily into these different categories. And you and I know from so many years of long-distance friendship that keeping a friendship healthy doesn’t always mean making a huge investment like going away for a weekend or, you know, God forbid someone has to sign up for therapy like we did to really deeply repair it.
Often friendship looks like just making a kind of small daily effort to say, hey, I’m here and here’s what’s going on with me in this moment and doing that in a spirit of openness and intention.
Aminatou Sow: I agree with you about the rewards of it and the joys of it. And I also think so much about how a lot of my feelings about the role of friendship in my life really boil down to the fact that we live in a deeply paternalistic society. I just yearn to live in a world where we let adults make adult decisions about things they want to do for themselves and how they want to organize their lives.
Ann Friedman: Wow, radical. Just let adult be adults. Radical.
Aminatou Sow: [Laughs] But you know, just thinking about like, who do you want to be your 401(k) recipient? Who do you want to be the person who can make end-of-life decisions for you? Who do you want to be the person that you can apply with a loan for the bank to buy a house?
If you want that person to be your spouse, great for you. If you want that person to be your best friend, then let’s talk about it, because I think that as a society, we suffer so much from this narrow understanding of how people want to be bonded.
Ann Friedman: I keep thinking about a therapist who we interviewed for the book who made a comment about how we have this idea that the goal of adulthood is independence, that you are fully standing on your own, not needing anything from anyone.
In reality, when you look at wellness, like how you are striving as a human being, the marker of that is interdependence. That makes me want to throw away the stove altogether, because the stove is not about interdependence. It feels much less about well-being and much more about keeping up.
I think this idea of interdependence as a hallmark of adulthood is the first place my mind went to when you invoked the patriarchy because, yeah, it’s about making you think that you only need your family unit.
Aminatou Sow: Wow, Ann, are you saying that patriarchy and capitalism are scams that work together to oppress everyone?
Ann Friedman: I know, I’m really blowing your mind. Like you do not have the Internet. I know. I’m really educating you.
Aminatou Sow: White hetero patriarchy as a force of evil is really a new concept to me.
Ann Friedman: [Laughs] All joking aside — honestly, that’s probably not going to translate to the written word that we were joking about that — but all joking aside, I am excited for this book about friendship to kind of Trojan horse some of these ideas into the world.
There was an editor who said to me, “Oh, we’re only interested in hard news right now.” Like friendship wasn’t hard news or something crucial. And I’ve been thinking about how our book is about something that might be perceived as cute or superficial. But a lot of what’s happening in the background in terms of how we prioritize our friendships has to do with these huge systemic problems that you and I both want to solve.
Aminatou Sow: Well, I am here to remind you that friendship has teeth, friendship has edge, friendship is a site of politics. Friendship is the place where we are able to have more imagination and more freedom for how we want to organize our lives and how we want to organize society.
I am just really excited that we can contribute this tiny thing to the canon of friendship writing and hope that so many people will take it and run because there are so many more books that can be written about friendship. Like friendships between people who are not women. Friendships between people who are not just white and black. Friendships between people who are not centered around American life. I remain really hopeful that this is it will be an opportunity to hear so much more about how other people are living.
Ann Friedman: I can’t wait to read all of those books. I want every single one of them.