It’s a good day when you scan The New York Times and spot a piece written by a Girls Write Now mentee alum. We applaud the recent publications of Romaissaa Benzizoune, who graduated from the program in June and is starting her freshman year at New York University. During the past two years, Romaissaa’s writing took shape — and flight — as she honed her skills alongside her mentor, Robin Willig. Now the world is taking notice. Roxane Gay published her piece on The Toast after spotting her talent at a Girls Write Now CHAPTERS reading and Lena Dunham excerpted her poem, “Exactly Like A White Girl” on the bookmark that was included in Is It Evil Not To Be Sure?, with all profits of Lena’s book going to Girls Write Now. Romaissaa’s recent accomplishment? The New York Times just published her opinion piece, “At the Beach in my Burkini.” How does she feel? Girls Write Now’s Senior Communications Editor Molly MacDermot asked Romaissaa to share the inner workings of a newly published writer.
I was completely nonchalant about pitching to The New York Times because I didn’t actually think that anything would come of it. I had written a reaction piece to the burkini bans just as they were making international headlines and my decision to pitch it — and to The New York Times, of all places — was truly an impulsive one. You can write the most powerful piece in the world — a piece that can change perspectives, contribute to a global debate, maybe even shift tectonic plates —but if it stays in your Google Drive it’s kind of irrelevant. Of course it will be relevant, maybe even essential, to you, but it won’t contribute to larger social change.
My decision to pitch was also fueled by indignation. There were articles all over the internet written by non-Muslim (namely: white) men who spoke on behalf of Muslim women about the burkini bans. But didn’t my perspective matter, too? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to read a burkini piece written by someone who actually wore the burkini?
When I first received the email reply from a Times editor saying that she was interested in pursuing my piece, I was extremely nervous. The potential risks and rewards were high. If my final piece wasn’t great, I could be rejected by my editor and miss the chance of a lifetime, or I could face the world’s criticism after being published. (I’m sure that I did anyway, but my devoted mentor Robin made sure that I did not read any internet comments. She instead picked out a few inspiring ones that I treasure deeply.) If the piece was great, I could impact an audience of millions.
I had to get out of my head and escape the “Oh my God, this piece is going to The New York Times” mindset in order to be productive. I had to remind myself that I have done this before–have written, pitched, edited, published–and that I was fully capable of getting the job done. In other words, I had to forget the Times label and focus on doing for this piece what I would do for any other: making it the best that I possibly could.
Seeing my piece online, oddly enough, was more thrilling than seeing it in print. This is probably because the piece ran digitally first, and because I read most of my news online in general. Seeing my byline in that specific Times byline font was one of the most exciting parts of it all, coming second only to the outpouring of support from Girls Write Now, my Hunter College High School community, and perfect strangers worldwide who were affected by my writing.