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Excerpt: 'Big Friendship,' New Book on the Power of Pals

Two BFFs explore the rewards and challenges of forging deep, lasting bonds

spinner image authors aminatou sow and ann freedman and their latest book titled big friendship
Describe the Fauna/Simon & Schuster

When Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman met as broke twentysomethings, they gleefully bonded over their joint obsession with trashy TV and soon became besties. That led to their podcast, Call Your Girlfriend, a weekly gabfest about pop culture (and anything else that springs to mind), and now, their new book, Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close, about the life-affirming wonderfulness of fulfilling nonromantic connections like theirs. But the work also points out that a big friendship, like a big romantic relationship, requires serious maintenance if you want it to last a lifetime.

The prologue details a low point, marked by awkward silences and the authors’ frustration with each other, when they realized that “even deep, lasting friendships like ours need protection — and, sometimes, repair.”

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Many readers who have had their own highs and lows with close pals through the years are likely to relate to the experiences Sow and Friedman describe in their lively joint memoir (told from a “we” perspective but sometimes referring to each other by name, in the third person). Enjoy the first chapter of Big Friendship, about how they first met.

Chapter One: The Spark

Like any great American love story, ours began at prom. OK, actually, it was the prom episode of Gossip Girl. In 2009, like all pop-culture obsessives, we were dedicated viewers of this trashy teen soap opera set in the world of wealthy Manhattan private schools. Our mutual friend Dayo decided to host a viewing party, and we were both invited to watch the melodramatic scenes unfold from a semicircle of ratty couches in the old D.C. row house where she lived with several roommates.

Aminatou recognized a few names on the email invitation but had never met any of the other guests. It felt a little intimidating to meet up with this already-established group, but she knew that if she was going to make new friends, she had to get out of the house and be proactive about showing up to things. And she had the perfect thing to wear: a T-shirt that said “CHUCK+BLAIR,” the brattiest teen couple on the show. Her college bestie, Brittany, had made it for her.

That night Ann noticed Aminatou's shirt right away and was impressed by her level of dedication to the party theme. As Ann sipped her manhattan — a nod to the show's setting and a deliberately “chic” cocktail chosen by Dayo to match the Gossip Girl aesthetic — she noted that the snappiest rejoinders to the on-screen action seemed to be coming from Aminatou. Ann was used to spending time with people who had jobs at the intersection of media and politics, so the commentary and banter always flowed easily in her friend group. But that night Ann hung on to Aminatou's every word and laughed extra hard at all of her jokes.

"How did you two meet?” When we find ourselves at a party, our favorite icebreaker is asking a pair of friends how they know each other. Romantic couples are probably asked this question most often. But friendship origin stories are no less powerful. A look of excitement crosses friends’ faces when they're especially pleased with their own version of events. And even if they're reluctant to open up, with a little prodding people will usually confess what they thought of the other person before befriending them. We love the accounts jointly told by friends who finish each other's sentences or fill in the blanks, trading off as they tell their familiar story at a rapid-fire clip. And we love it almost as much when it's clear the friends have never been asked to reflect on this, and we get to hear their story as they're telling it for the first time.

We can learn so much about someone by the way they talk about their friends. And we can learn a lot about a friendship from a joint recounting of its beginning. Are they brand-new friends who are obsessed with each other right now? Have they known each other for decades? Did they used to be lovers? Is there some unevenness to their narratives, as if one person is more invested than the other? It's all revealed in the telling of their story.

We have told our own origin story dozens of times, and we often talk about our meet-cute like it was dumb luck. But the truth is, it may have been inevitable. Aminatou's apartment was a 15-minute walk away from Ann's. We worked a few blocks apart too. Although there is a three-year age gap between us, we were both in our mid-20s and moved in overlapping social circles. We were at the same party on the same night because we had a lot of people in common — including our friend Dayo.

Ann had been introduced to Dayo the previous year and quickly noticed her declarative opinions, easy laugh, and gorgeous handbag. It seems stupid to mention the handbag, but among her peers — all underpaid political journalists — there were only canvas tote bags and backpacks. No one had a nice leather bag. Wherever this woman was going, Ann wanted to tag along. She and Dayo soon saw each other regularly at group dinners and TV viewing nights, when they piled into the living room of a friend who had cable. Dayo was a small-talk queen with irrepressible energy who somehow managed to turn boring “How's work going?” questions into intense philosophical debates. Often, before what would invariably turn out to be a disappointing house party on a Saturday night, Ann would head to Dayo's early and arrange herself on top of a pile of rejected outfits, sipping a whiskey while Dayo finished getting dressed. “There's no skirt too short if you're wearing tights,” Dayo once trilled, slipping into a miniskirt in the depths of winter. With Dayo, Ann always felt like she should be taking notes, recording the hilarious aphorisms that dropped from her mouth.

Meanwhile, Aminatou knew Dayo from work. Or rather, she knew of Dayo. Aminatou was on staff at a think tank, often at the front desk greeting visitors, and Dayo had a fellowship there, which meant she dropped by the office only every so often. They hadn't crossed paths yet, but Aminatou had been called “Dayo” more than once. Aminatou was annoyed at the mistake, but she was dying to meet the mysterious other Black woman with the Nigerian name. When they finally got together, over bowls of ramen, they shared a knowing laugh about the doppelgänger situation — they looked nothing alike. They debated African diaspora issues. They realized they were into the same foreign movies and music. Clearly, this was going somewhere.

Oh my god, you need to meet my friend Ann, Dayo thought. A few weeks later, she sent Ann a message about organizing a Gossip Girl viewing party.

DAYO: I really really like this girl aminatou

ANN: i'm excited to meet aminatou sow. That girl knows like everyone i know, yet i haven't met her

DAYO: oh she's excellent. what's the drills with gossip girl? she's a big fan

A plan was hatched: Dayo would host and invite Aminatou. “I want to say that there is an element of ‘Oh, how nice that everything worked out,’ “ Dayo told us many years later. “But thinking through this now, there was a lot more intention to it.” She knew before we did that we needed to be in each other's lives.

It's hard to remember who we were that night at Dayo's house, before we were friends. Not only because it was a long time ago, but also because we have changed each other in countless ways, from the profound to the imperceptible. We didn't just meet each other that night. We began the process of making each other into the people we are today. Although we're self-confident enough to know that we would have been great if our paths had never converged, we cannot imagine what that alternate reality looks like. It's impossible to untangle us.

This feeling of being inextricable is a hallmark of Big Friendship. As humans, we are all thoroughly shaped by the people we know and love. Day to day, our friends influence our tastes and our moods. Long term, they can also affect how we feel about our bodies, how we spend our money, and the political views we hold. We grow in response to each other, in ways both intentional and subconscious.

Behind every meet-cute is an emotional origin story, one that answers a deeper question. Not “How did you two meet?” but “Why did you become so deeply embedded in each other's lives?”

"We met at a friend's house” is the superficial narrative we tell to strangers. But our real origin story is that we met at a time in our lives when we were both a little bit lost. We were both figuring out how to set a course for where we were hoping to go. And in each other, we found someone who already understood who we wanted to be.

From BIG FRIENDSHIP by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman. Copyright © 2020 by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.

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