The first-time novelist shares the inspirations behindIf You Could Be Mine, a coming-of-age story set in Iran.
If You Could Be Mine is a story we haven’t seen before in YA literature. It’s a love story between two female best friends in Iran—where homosexuality is punishable by death. What inspired you to write this novel?
Growing up, I had a hard go of coming to terms with my own sexuality and a lot of that had to do with my cultural/ethnic background. My parents are originally from Iran, and while we are very much an American family, a lot of the traditional Persian culture was still a part of our day-to-day lives. For much of my childhood, because of the pride my parents had in where they were from, my Iranian heritage was never something I thought twice about and was in fact celebrated, even when that wasn't always very popular.
I spent a lot of my teenage years depressed and angry, though I presented a happy facade. I dealt with my combative feelings by writing. As I grew older and became comfortable in my own skin, I thought a lot about my teenage self and the personal demons she battled. When I went to Lesley University for my MFA in creative writing, I began to write stories I wished were on bookshelves when I was a kid. There was very little that spoke to my specific experience—which I totally understand—but there weren't even many young lesbian protagonists in literature, never mind someone with an unusual cultural background. As an adult, I wanted to write characters whose stories I would have loved as a teenage reader.
I wrote If You Could Be Mine not really thinking it would be published. I was motivated by my own curiosity about what my life could have been like if my parents met in Iran and I had grown up there. Though Sahar and I are very different, and I never had a secret girlfriend in high school, the idea was there and the characters took on a life of their own. It ended up becoming my thesis. I wrote passionately and without reservation partly because I assumed not many people would ever read my work.
You spent time in Iran, informally doing research for the book. What was it like being there, particularly given that you’re a lesbian?
It was emotional. I had visited Iran as a teenager and as a little kid, but it felt different going as an adult. There were moments where I felt very foreign, and I am sure looked out of place, especially wearing a long headscarf when I was visiting religious sites: I looked like a waddling burrito. While there was some suspicion among those I spoke with, for the most part people were very kind to me. My Farsi improved! (I don’t usually get much practice at home.) And I was able to see where my parents grew up. Visiting Iran again made me realize that I struggle with three issues: I don't feel Persian enough; I don't feel American enough; I don't feel gay enough. But I’m learning that that's okay. No one should be boxed in. Everyone has multiple identities that help shape who they are, and all those identities should be celebrated rather than diminished.
Your book is set in Iran, and helps to generate awareness of the obstacles facing LGBTQI teens and adults living there. While great strides have been made in the United States in terms of advancing gay rights, clearly there is still a long way to go. What are your hopes for the future for gay, lesbian, bi, trans, and questioning youth?
I hope for a day when being an LGBTQI person doesn't need explaining or justification; when a teen can come out to friends and family and that revelation is treated no differently than them announcing that they have brown hair or blue eyes. America has made such great strides for its LGBT citizens but still has a long way to go. Some measures I would love to see enacted include securing the same rights for LGBT citizens as for any other tax-paying citizen, ensuring an LGBT person can't be fired from the workplace based on sexual orientation, and better health care coverage (especially for our trans citizens). And making sure our schools are safe havens from bullies and providing outreach and support for homeless LGBT teenagers. Are these lofty wants? Of course. But the thing I love about America is that we are always willing to try. There are always people who try and make the country a better place for everyone.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Write about things that are important to you--even if you don’t think anyone would want to read about it. Read a lot. Some of my favorites growing up were The Color Purple by Alice Walker and Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden. I also recommend Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Set deadlines for yourself and have someone hold you accountable. And live your life! Some of the best scenes and stories come from being social and being in situations you never expected to be in.