Book review: Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi

Official description

Aminah Mae Safi’s Tell Me How You Really Feel is an ode to romantic comedies, following two girls on opposite sides of the social scale as they work together to make a movie and try very hard not to fall in love.

The first time Sana Khan asked out a girl–Rachel Recht–it went so badly that she never did it again. Rachel is a film buff and aspiring director, and she’s seen Carrie enough times to learn you can never trust cheerleaders (and beautiful people). Rachel was furious that Sana tried to prank her by asking her on a date.

But when it comes time for Rachel to cast her senior project, she realizes that there’s no more perfect lead than Sana–the girl she’s sneered at in the halls for the past three years. And poor Sana–she says yes. She never did really get over that first crush, even if Rachel can barely stand to be in the same room as her.

Told in alternative viewpoints and set against the backdrop of Los Angeles in the springtime, when the rainy season rolls in and the Santa Ana’s can still blow–these two girls are about to learn that in the city of dreams, anything is possible–even love.

Rating: 4.5/5


This was probably one of the best Sapphic romances I’ve read, and probably among the best romances overall. It was a quick, fun read, with interesting characters, believable motives, relatable insecurities, and stellar representation. Were the characters whiny and annoying at times? Yes they were, but would it really be a book about American teenagers if they weren’t? All in all, a pretty good read, and definitely one I’d recommend.

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The Detail

So this started off really well, and I thought it’d be just about the perfect Sapphic romance for me – representation of all kinds, sympathetic but complex characters, and an angsty but somehow wholesome enemies-to-lovers kind of plot set in a posh high school full of high-achieving types. Like a more diverse Gossip Girl meets Gilmore Girls (which the book was actually inspired by) sort of thing. But it wasn’t, not entirely – or at least, it was a lot more Gilmore than Gossip.

On the representation front, it absolutely delivered, and gave me some GREAT child-of-immigrants representation, in this case from a Persian Indian background, which frankly I’ve never read before. It was the tiny details that made it real, like the her saying it was always Persian food at home, but Indian when they dined out. It was also really nice to see a character who’d not lost or neutralised her identity as a culturally different person growing up in the West, even though she seemed to be (I think?) third-gen, and never having visited the ‘home country’ as she calls it. Sana is overall a very likeable and intelligent protagonist. She’s definitely channelling early-seasons Rory Gilmore, as was her inspiration, but without the seeds of unhealthy perfectionism and entitlement that built up to Rory’s inevitable downfall in later seasons. Sana comes across as much more balanced and grounded character than Rory, and perhaps this grounding is due, in part, to the her immigrant background.

We learn this about Sana, literally and metaphorically, through Rachel’s artistic lens. In fact, the whole story felt a lot like Rachel’s view of Sana, which was an interesting choice. At times this lens is critical, and at other times very much rose-tinted and self-deprecating for Rachel herself. It also felt like we ended up learning a lot more about Sana than we do about Rachel as a character. Or, perhaps if not more, certainly we learn about different parts of them. We learn about Rachel’s ambition and her dreams and creative aspirations – this seems to be her central driver as a character, so it makes a lot of sense that this is the focus. Her arc seems very much about that rags-to-riches claw-your-way-to-the-top sort of dream. You see that pretty starkly, especially at the start, and for a lot of the book, I’m not sure much else comes through. We learn a little about her relationship with her family, her father who she’s close to despite them having gone through hard times, and we learn about her no-nonsense boss at her part-time job, who’s a refreshing character that I liked seeing a lot. We get these little glimpses of the her background – like being part of the Mexican Jewish community (though a lot of that is told rather than shown), or that she’s ashamed of her working class roots and the way her family seems to live. We do get all that, but I feel like none of it was really addressed to the degree that it could have been, and felt somewhat unsatisfying.

Maybe it’s asking too much from what was supposed to be a cute high-school rom-com, but I don’t think it is, because the Aminah Mae Safi did a really great job with exploring Sana’s background and providing that solid reasoning for why she was who she was, and showing everything she felt about it. In contrast, we don’t see this for Rachel at all, which just seemed odd to me. The character development we get for Rachel is very much around her dreams and aspirations, around her conquering her insecurities and anxieties over working with others and giving up control, and sort of growing slowly out of her underdog mindset as she learns to trust others. Maybe this is just saying that Rachel’s background wasn’t very central to her character, or to her budding relationship with Sana. And maybe that’s true – maybe I should just let her be who she is. It’s also constantly obvious that Sana’s background, both her cultural background and her other family circumstances are absolutely central to who she is, so perhaps it was an intentional choice to explore that particularly in depth. But somehow, it just didn’t hit right for what was otherwise a very nicely developed coming-of-age high-school romance flick.

I actually rather loved it overall, which is probably why I was disappointed, because I think it had so much potential to further explore her relationship with her father, and her other non-work-related insecurities, such as the body image issues that seemed to be only glancingly mentioned. We are not told how she gets over these things, or whether she does, they’re just sort of there, but that is fine (or so I tell myself), because we are works in progress, and I suppose we should allow the characters we read about to be the same. We see Rachel work through her control issues and learn to rely on people and open herself up slowly, and it’s sweet and heart-warming. That’s good enough. That can absolutely be good enough. In the bits of her life that happen off the page, we can hope that Rachel continues to grow and confront her fears and insecurities with Sana hopefully by her side.

Speaking of Sana, this book is really a shining example of a character study with Sana as its captivating subject. I think that’s really the beating heart of this narrative, and I think that’s why we as the readers very much fall in love with and are charmed by peeling back the layers of this ‘perfect’ girl and all the roiling chaos beneath it. It’s very much the notion of duck paddling frantically underwater, and I think we’re seeing a lot more of these stories these days, exploring the idea of the contrasting reality hidden behind the scenes.

This idea is central to Sana’s character, and something the book constantly explores – the cost of maintaining this illusion of perfection, and that the person herself is almost lost to the illusion. As we move through the narrative, we follow her as she finds her way back to her truth. We see this through Sana in the main narrative, as well as through Helen in the parallel narrative of Rachel’s graduation film retelling the story of Helen of Troy (or Helen of Sparta). It’s a bit on the nose in terms of exploration of character, because you literally hear Sana telling Rachel what it’s like to be ‘perfect’ through her comments in favour of Helen, and then you see Rachel realising that this what Sana experiences herself. But still, I have to say I really enjoyed the way it was executed and, if you don’t overthink things like I do, you can pretty much read the whole film project as a charming bonding moment between the two girls that establishes their characters and helps develop their relationship.

As a side note, I’ll admit that Sana’s observations of Helen and ‘classics’ were generally very valid points, like the almost lack of agency assumed of Helen. This perspective was something that really didn’t occur to me, and was not mentioned or taught to me when I myself was studying classics at a school that was in fact quite like the one in this book, and very much full of posh high-achievers. It is very true that we did indeed study the more heteronormative male figures in the epics far more than the female ones. In fact, I distinctly remember, one of my exam questions was to write an essay about whether Paris or Patroclus (who’s not particularly heteronormative but let’s go with the general argument) had a greater impact on the events of Iliad. I can’t remember who I argued for, possibly Patroclus just to be contrary? But having read this, it did make me wonder whether perhaps the more interesting question would have been whether Helen or Paris had more of an impact, because in the act of running away and triggering the events they often seem to be treated as one unit, at least in popular culture. Either way, it certainly gave me something to think about, as well as being a nice kind of familiar for someone who’d studied the classics as well as having had a phase of being well into Greek myths.

In case you were wondering, I was definitely more of an outsider than a posh high-achiever at school, and was absolutely equally desperate as Rachel is in the book to get into a good college. Whether that did good in the long-term is another question, but it was certainly a fascinating reprieve from reality to go there and experience that kind of high-pressure environment where extreme achievement was just the norm. I could definitely understand why Rachel’s insecurities might flare up at that kind of school and why she’d feel the pressure that ended up showing up mostly as badly channelled angst.

As a downside, I did feel like there was a lot of rather stereotypical teen filmmaker angst – but maybe that’s the point? That they’re teenagers after all, and that teenagers are dramatic? I’m not sure. I’m probably reading this book 10 years too late to fully appreciate that, because most of the time all I felt was the need to grab these characters by the shoulders and shake some sense and self-belief into them. But well, maybe that’s too harsh.

Angst aside, their relationship itself was rather cute, and I definitely enjoyed seeing them grow together. I have to say it was pretty refreshing to have the perfect cheerleader character being the one who was very much out and proud, and seeing her be the bold daring part of the pairing was just nice? I think it’s something I’ve not seen or read before, so it felt kind of fresh to me, even though when I think of it, it probably shouldn’t have been.

I think in the end, that’s what I’ll remember this book for – the great representation and an unusual combination of archetypes, other than being generally a good time. As a queer Indian person myself, that kind of positive confident representation is something I’d have loved to have when I was growing up in a western country as a child of immigrants, and a first-gen immigrant myself. It made my heart happy to read it now as an adult too, but I think it’s something I needed to see as a kid, something that would’ve done me good had I seen it then. I’m honestly so glad that more of these books exist today, because what can I say? Representation is important.

first blog jitters, the judgement of the internet, and doing your own thinking

I think what stops most of us today is the judgement of the internet. Or rather, fear of the judgement of the internet. Somewhere along the way, what used to be a comforting act of talking to anonymous strangers online and not having any of it really matter has become fearing the judgement of said anonymous strangers. There are a lot reasons for this.

Here are a few of them:

  • The safety of anonymity is becoming less safe, because online identities are becoming more ‘real’ in many ways, and people are increasingly creating less of a distinction between their online and offline personas. This is not the abstracted anonymous internet of the early 2000s and 2010s. This is real people moving online in a way we’ve not seen before. The online and offline worlds are somewhat melding, as more of our lives move online (remote work, online shopping, on-demand entertainment, digital communication etc.), which means our lives online suddenly hold a lot more weight.
  • The cult of authenticity – this is sort of the opposite of the first point in that it’s about evaluating and valuing the truthfulness and transparency of someone’s online identity without actually knowing all of them – a very weird concept, when you think about it. All the same, it’s fast becoming a prerequisite to be internet-famous or even internet-acceptable.
  • The sense that we are ‘broadcasting’ and the concept of people as brands– this is the idea that even an invisible sense of an audience changes the way we present ourselves, because we know there is potential that people could be watching, even if we’re not yet internet famous. This isn’t something most of us would typically get to do in real life, so the cost is somewhat higher. If you want to become a notable personality on the internet, this is another skill you need to develop, while still trying to come across as authentic. Add this to the idea that we’re constantly told to ‘brand ourselves’ on social media, and you quickly start to lose the sense of who the person is underneath their online persona.
  • The timelessness of the internet – a blessing and a curse, as with much about the internet, because it artificially gives everything you put out there more weight, because content lives forever and it can always be dug up and ‘rediscovered’, while also reducing the value of all content because it all lives forever with everything that will be created after it. Of course, most of it will rot in a datacentre somewhere never to be seen even the first time round (because it’s increasingly harder to get people to pay attention).
  • The artificial immortality of being online – related to the last point, it can be scary to acknowledge that if you put something online, it will live forever. Increasingly, the internet is becoming a repository for the knowledge and experience of all humanity, a sort of shared consciousness, a shared memory of human experience that is more than the sum of its parts and will live on far longer than any of us will. That can be somewhat intimidating to contribute to when you think about it.
  • The very nonhuman, unintuitive nature of the online world – this sort of shared everlasting archive of knowledge and experience isn’t something that’s very natural to us. It’s not something we evolved to cope with, because frankly, humans are not used to mattering so much, or at least, I don’t think we can process mattering that much or living forever, or creating stuff that lives forever. Sure, we have ambitions and fantasies of significance, but these are goals to aspire to rather than experiences we’re well-equipped to deal with. The psychological implications of living with this artificial shared consciousness are not yet well understood, and can definitely be overwhelming when you think about it.

This isn’t an exhaustive list by any measure, but it gives you a start in thinking about all the very good reasons that might stop one uploading things onto the internet. It just all seems so loaded now, no longer the simple ‘just putting things out there to share’ kind of vibe that used to be there before. There’s certainly a lot more judgement online these days, and it is a good thing and a bad thing – good because it does indeed improve the quality of the content overall, or so I believe, and bad because the barrier to entry is much higher for all the reasons we’ve just talked about.

I can really argue it both ways, both good and bad, but in fact I dislike even that concept because everything is subjective and there are far more ways to argue it than just a cursory positive or negative spin. I think it far better to accept that this is the nuanced reality of our world these days, and go into it with caution, but try not to be paralysingly terrified by it.

Reason I mention that is because I more or less am and have been paralysingly terrified by all the prospects of all the things that could happen if I wrote a thing and put it on the internet. It sounds very silly when I put it like that, but give me and hour and I bet I can convince you like I convinced myself (if I haven’t already in the intro to this blog). It’s frankly got to the point where the things that are real risks and the things that are purely mental anxieties are rather difficult to separate out, so it is now a mass of entanglement that won’t go away until I stare in the face and prepare to do battle. Ignoring it doesn’t really work.

Of course, it is entirely possible that the real problem here is that I am an overthinker, who is still somewhat convinced of the good of overthinking, but is now trying to find some semblance of balance. If I got over this, I’m sure the internet of today could be that same nostalgic place of yore where people were really just meaningless anonymous strangers and their opinions didn’t matter. I’m sure it could be that place of yore where the ‘risks’, real and imaginary, were fewer by many orders of magnitude. I’m sure it could be whatever I imagined it to be, if I didn’t want to see it for what it is, if seeing it for what it is was so terrifying. Unfortunately, and rather inconveniently, I try to see things as they are.

But this is the thing, I can tell myself whatever I want to about the internet, but the nature of it won’t actually change, and neither will the fact that all of those things I’ve just said are really excuses to justify my inaction.They’re all excuses, and they’re the face of what Steven Pressfield calls Resistance in his landmark book the War of Art (great read, by the way, do have a try of it). On the internet, there are a thousand reasons to not feel good enough, which are mostly in your head, and there are real and valid dangers to putting things out there that could be used against you, which is very much not in your head. And yet, should you stop creating? Or in fact, never even start?

Perhaps this should have been titled ‘The Struggle to get this blog out Against All Odds even though it was the First One and No One Will Even Read It’. All of which is true. I write this in full knowledge that no one will probably look at this for a very long time, if ever, and to be honest, that helps a bit. Humans aren’t made to be ‘broadcasting’ all the time, especially not without years of practice getting used to what that means. For now at least, I can take comfort in the fact that my audience is mostly imaginary.

Even to this imaginary audience though, there is often the expectation to ‘share your message’ in all its fully formed glory. At this point that phrase is practically a joke to me, overused as it is by personal development youtubers and feminine energy manifestation campaigns. It’s almost scammy sounding and I can’t take it seriously. Because it’s supposed to sound encouraging isn’t it? Share your message! Share your message and they will come! Get traffic to your blog! Earn passive income! Buy my course! There you see the true motivation behind such words, and it’s sort of poisoned the language for me. When people talk about ‘sharing the message’, they rarely talk about the message itself, and are far more interested in selling you whatever product around this message – sounds like the message almost isn’t important huh? Is that the real message?

Thing is, humans are more complicated than just the one message and I rather resent that we can be reduced to marketable tidbits for the convenience of social media saleability. I do resent it. I don’t want to be that. It’s so at odds with the whole process of creation isn’t it? It’s the commodification of creation, to serve profit. Blasphemy, I say!

All judgement aside, it’s pretty hard sometimes to escape all of this background noise that’s telling you to present fully-formed insights as value, without giving enough value to the process of processing to get to those insights. That’s what I want to get to here – the process. Because it’s interesting to me, and also because I think that’s actually where the value comes from. The value comes from showing your workings and having reasons for the things you think, puzzled-out, processed, self-originated reasons. When you have those reasons and you share them, it is altogether much more convincing than presenting whatever Instagram clickable sponsored post you’ve suddenly come up with. Because sometimes, it takes more than a social media slider to get the point across.

More space is needed for this process and processing out in the open– we need to give it the time of day that it deserves, literally and metaphorically. Certainly, that comes at the cost of other things, like aforementioned social media and entertainment, or any other forms of instant gratification that you can think of. Certainly it takes time and effort to get into the habit of doing that sort of thinking, and it will probably hurt a bit in the beginning, but the reward is this: you get to reclaim your mind and think your thoughts for yourself.

I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of trying to convince you it’s important to have your own thoughts, I think that much should be self-evident. If you still need convincing, suffice it to say that you won’t be so easy to manipulate anymore and that it’s much more freeing living that way as well as saving time, effort and money. It’ll take a long time to uncover and ‘reprogram’ all the social conditioning that’s happened over the years, but there’s still hope. Don’t get me wrong, not all of this is even a bad thing, it’s part of what lets us have a functioning society on a large scale, but there are other things that aren’t necessarily that beneficial to us in any intrinsic or social sense. There are beliefs and desires that are intentionally installed for profit or pliability – those are the ones you try and get rid of in your social un-engineering efforts.

I’d like to concentrate on exactly that thinking process here and hopefully eventually lead to some social un-engineering along the way. I think it’s important to iterate in public as well – leading by example and all that. Sure, sometimes that means looking a bit stupid as I figure it out, but who cares right? There needs to be far more tolerance of that brand of looking stupid and more freedom to make those mistakes and change your mind as you learn more.

It’s about creating a culture of elevating intellectual rigour, respecting the fact that it takes time, and understanding that it’s a good thing to change our minds as we learn more. People will disagree, and that’s fine, as long as they have reasons for why. They might get annoyed, or offended, or start spewing insults, but that’s fine too, because what do I care? I’m just a person on the internet trying to do my work, trying to nudge people to use their time to take a break and think a little more. This is about finding our own opinions, through intentional focused thought, not about absorbing and reacting to the opinions of others (though sometimes that too, in moderation). It’s about learning to build trust in our own opinions because the thought process that produced them is that bulletproof and being okay with changing our mind if we’re still learning until it gets to be that bulletproof.

At the end of the day, it’s about striving towards intellectual rigour. So let’s do that, shall we? Let’s think together.