On Oct. 17, 2023, Emily Zhou’s debut short story collection “Girlfriends” hit bookstore shelves to a reception that, while relatively quiet, has been overwhelmingly positive. That night, Zhou kicked off her book tour in Ann Arbor’s Literati Bookstore with an intimate reading of one of the collection’s short stories, titled “Performance.” The story follows college senior Lara as she navigates interpersonal relationships, sex work and her senior thesis at our very own University of Michigan.
Beginning her tour in Ann Arbor makes sense on the part of Zhou and her publishers, seeing as more than half of the stories in “Girlfriends” take place here.
“I feel really great about starting my tour in Ann Arbor,” Zhou said in an interview with The Michigan Daily after the event. “I haven’t been back here in two years, (so) it really does feel like it’s come full circle.”
Zhou, a U-M alum and former Michigan Daily Arts writer, discussed how her time here shaped her writing and, consequently, the stories in her collection.
Zhou said she started writing after someone told her to apply for The Daily. She said, “I covered music for two years (and) was the Summer Managing Arts Editor. … I think just having the quick turnaround and writing a lot turned me into a writer.”
It was during her time as an undergraduate, she said, that she began to work on several of the short stories that would later make it into the book.
“Girlfriends” is a collection of seven short stories that individually follow transgender women as they explore the full spectrum of what life has to offer them, from college parties to first sexual experiences to post-graduation crises and everything in between. The stories are especially compelling because they grapple with the challenges of having to discover or rediscover oneself during early adulthood after everyone around you seems to have already found themselves and their respective paths in life. The vibrant, rich collection takes readers from the suburbs of Ann Arbor to the boroughs of New York City, following a diverse cast of women who, while sharing the identity of being transgender, are entirely singular in their hopes, struggles and experiences.
Zhou explained that she didn’t expect the editors of LittlePuss Press to show interest in her stories when she submitted them as a partial manuscript after her friends pushed her to do so. When they did express interest, she felt pressure to meet a high standard, which led to a lot of revising and second-guessing throughout the editing process. At this time, Zhou said, she found she had to start taking herself, and her stories, more seriously.
Despite any doubts Zhou felt during the process of refining and publishing her stories, her voice remains clear and strong throughout the collection, in which she brings seven startlingly authentic voices to life. It was easy to forget while reading that these were not real people and experiences.
Perhaps one of the many reasons why Zhou’s characters feel so real is because she loosely drew inspiration from some of the people in her own life.
“I feel like I did start writing people who are familiar to me,” Zhou explained. “(But) I feel like, a lot of the (time), the characters would just reveal themselves to me through the course of writing. By the end of it, (they’d) become real people.”
Regardless of how they came to be, the protagonists in “Girlfriends” prove Zhou as an emerging expert in the art of character building.
The collection is a phenomenal debut. Its digestible and incredibly intimate prose coupled with impressive character development and worldbuilding establish Zhou as an author to look out for. While she may choose to begin every story with the same premise of transgender (and mostly white) women entering early adulthood, Zhou manages to take each story in a different direction, making every protagonist and the situations they find themselves in feel fresh and unique with each story. This is absolutely a collection worth checking out.