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Tahira Chloe Mahdi always wanted to write a novel, but she thought her main source of material was too uninteresting. “I’ve kept a diary since I was 8 years old—that’s how long I’ve wanted to write,” says Mahdi, now 25. “But one day I read over them and said, ‘I’m boring! No one wants to read this!’”

After an adventurous stint at Morgan State University, however, Mahdi decided maybe her life was more exciting than she’d thought. “I wanted to write a book about things that happened to me and my girlfriends in college,” she says. “I combined everyone into one character”—Na’Imah El-Amin, the young Prince George’s County woman who anchors Mahdi’s self-published novel God Laughs, Too: Incidents in the Life of a Black Chick. In the pages of the book—a kind of modern, urban take on Judy Blume—Na’Imah seeks advice from God on subjects such as sex, drugs, and friendship. “A lot of it, about 50 percent, is autobiographical,” Mahdi says. “The situations are real, but what happens in the situations are not.”

Mahdi began working on the book in earnest in July 1999. “It took me until July of 2000 to write enough to say I had a book,” she says, and it wasn’t until a few months later that she really understood how committed she was to the project. That October, in a scene that became crucial to the book, Mahdi discovered that her boyfriend was cheating on her—and found the other woman on his front porch, talking trash to a friend over a cell phone. “I’m going through that incident, and I’m not thinking about the guy,” she says. “I’m thinking, If I can get out without getting beat up, I can use this as the ending for the book.”

Cheating boyfriends aren’t the only things Mahdi and Na’Imah have in common. Both grew up in the Washington area, both paid their dues at local radio stations (Mahdi was a programming assistant at WPGC-FM), and both write for Take Me Out to the Go-Go magazine. (Mahdi’s friend and editor Kevin “Kato” Hammond makes a cameo appearance in the book.)

Despite the author’s assurances about merging and fictionalizing the college adventures of a circle of friends, readers tend to assume that the stories in the book are Mahdi’s—particularly the more salacious ones. “Every time I do a reading, people want to know, ‘Who’s the celebrity you slept with?’” she says, referring to Na’Imah’s tryst with a superstar. The truth isn’t too scandalous: “I knew people in radio who acted like groupies,” the author explains, “and I wanted that to be a part of the story.”

“Story” is a term Mahdi uses loosely. “I was reading book reviews that talked about story structure and character development—I was not trying to write like that,” Mahdi says. “Life is not a story; there’s no beginning, no end. I didn’t think it was fair—and Na’Imah didn’t think it was fair, for that matter—to her life to tell one story from beginning to end.” Instead, she explains in an author’s note, “God Laughs…is written as a series of incidents intended to initiate discussions about issues in young Black women’s lives.”

If the book makes enough money, Mahdi has another project in the works: Becoming Queen of the Universe, a nonfiction advice book, could be ready by September. She says the survival-guide tone of the second book, with its tips on everything from breaking up with a boyfriend to dealing with annoying co-workers, should speak to a wide range of women. But as with God Laughs, her primary goal is still seeing members of her own peer group through hard times.

“I have friends who beat themselves up because of guys they had sex with or drugs they did; they think they’re horrible people, or that the world is ending,” she says. “But everyone did the same things. I wanted to show that there is life after you smoke weed at a party—to show them that they’re not alone, and life goes on.” —Sarah Godfrey