Author Interviews
4:33 pm
Sat September 7, 2013

'Be Mine': Love And Identity Tangled In Tehran

How far would you go for love? In Sara Farizan's debut novel, a studious 17-year-old girl named Sahar finds herself deeply, head-over-heels in love with her childhood best friend and neighbor — another teenage girl named Nasrin.

Their story takes place in Iran, where homosexuality is illegal, making their love that much more forbidden. When Nasrin is engaged to be married to a man, Sahar is crushed. In order to openly be with Nasrin, Sahar considers gender-reassignment surgery, which is more accepted in Iran than homosexuality.

Iranian-American author Farizan, herself a lesbian, raises complicated questions about identity and acceptance in If You Could Be Mine. She speaks with NPR's Jacki Lyden about why she decided to write this story as a novel for young adults.


Interview Highlights

On cultural pride and being gay

"I was taught by my parents to be very proud of my heritage and my cultural background, and so I was always very vocal and outspoken about who I was culturally. I was proud to be Iranian, I was proud to be American. And so that was never a problem."

"The problem for me was that I realized from a very young age that I was gay, or at least had same-sex attractions that weren't going away. And I really struggled with that, and I was very closeted for about six or seven years, where I was just outside very bubbly and happy, and inside was very angry and sad and didn't feel like I could talk to anyone, based on where my parents were from. ... It's a very taboo subject in the Persian community, at least in the West, anyway."

On Sahar's consideration of gender reassignment

"I think the longer people read it, they'll see that there's a great distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation. I think Sahar realizes that, too ... through meeting other transsexual characters — some who are very confident and very happy and are actually trans, and then some who have kind of undergone the gender reassignment because they feel like it's their only option. So it brings up a lot of questions, the book, but I don't think it gives a lot of definite answers. But she really just sees it as a way to stop her girlfriend from leaving."

On deciding against using a pen name

"I think we decided that visibility's so important. ... Really the whole point of my writing was — it was helpful for me in a way. ... But also if it could help, you know, like one family or one parent or one kid who's perhaps going through a similar thing. And not necessarily in Iran, but you are in a family where you're of a different cultural background, and it's a taboo subject, and maybe it opens up people's hearts and minds a little bit to people who are not like them."

On writing for young adults

"I think it's a really strange, bizarre age that almost everyone really vividly remembers in a lot of ways — the good and the bad. And it is an issue that is happening to a lot of teenagers now. And I understand if parents don't want to get the book, and they're like, 'I don't know how I feel about that,' and I totally get that. But I don't ever want to condescend to a teenage audience. ... "

"I'm just very fascinated with teenage voices and the kind of wonder and fear and all the different, conflicting feelings that go along with that age."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden. Coming up, Janelle Monae talks about her new album, "The Electric Lady."

JACKI LYDEN, HOST: But first, an age-old question: how far would you go for love? In Sara Farizan's debut novel, a 17-year-old girl named Sahar finds herself deeply, head over heels in love with her best friend and neighbor, another teenage girl named Nasrin. Their story takes place in Iran, where homosexuality is illegal, making their love that much more forbidden.

Sahar is then confronted with a choice that forces her to contemplate just how much of her identity she can possibly give up, even for a chance at public acknowledgment of her love, all of this in a novel for young adults. Joining us now is Sara Farizan, the author of "If You Could Be Mine." Welcome, Sara. Thanks so much for being with us.

SARA FARIZAN: Oh, it's such a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

LYDEN: Sara, you are Iranian-American. And, of course, this book takes place in the capital city, Tehran, and you visited there for research. I'm curious why you wanted to set this novel in Iran at all.

FARIZAN: Well, basically, I was taught by my parents to be very proud of my heritage and my cultural background. And so I was always very vocal and outspoken about who I was culturally. You know, I was proud to be American. I was proud to be Iranian. So that was never a problem. The problem for me was that I realized from a very young age that I was gay or at least had same-sex attractions that weren't going away. And I really struggled with that. And I was very closeted for about six or seven years where I just was outside very bubbly and happy and inside was very angry and sad and didn't feel like I could talk to anyone based on where my parents were from.

And so when I was in graduate school and I was writing about these themes for teenagers, I thought about what it would be like for someone like me whose parents, let's say, never left and, you know, what their life would be like or what my life could kind of be like. And though it's fiction, it's something that's always been of great fascination to me.

LYDEN: Well, let me ask you about this. You're now 29. Your characters are much younger - they're teenagers. They're about 17. I'd like you to tell us about those characters, Sahar and Nasrin. Who are they? They're quite different from each other.

FARIZAN: They're very different. Sahar is 17 years old, and she is very studious. She wants to be a doctor. She's studying very hard for the college examination to get into Tehran University. Her mother had passed away when she was 12, and her father was despondent and kind of depressed. Very nice guy but just not very there for her, so she ends up kind of taking care of him. And so Nasrin, who is her childhood best friend - they've known each other since they were very young - kind of becomes her confidante, her whole world, in a way.

And Nasrin comes from a very well-off family, and she is not very studious. And her parents kind of want her to achieve great things, but she's not really doing that. And so she's been used to having anything she kind of wants that her parents give her, and that's who they are.

LYDEN: And then one day comes this terrible, terrible piece of information, piece of news. These two young women have been locked in this increasingly passionate, romantic, physical attachment as closeted gay teenagers, and what happens?

FARIZAN: Sahar comes to Nasrin's house because she's been invited to this party. And she doesn't know what the party's about. And the party sort of announces Nasrin's pending engagement to this young man who is going to be a doctor. And Sahar is just crushed because she kind of knew this day would sort of come because of where they're living and the kind of person Nasrin is.

LYDEN: And because Nasrin's parents wanted it so much.

FARIZAN: Yes, exactly. But she didn't realize it would happen so soon. And it's devastating for her, and she's very blindsided. So it's a pretty sad moment.

LYDEN: So then Sahar makes this really incredible decision. Tell us what it is.

FARIZAN: Sahar meets a transsexual woman by the name of Parvin(ph) at her cousin Ali's(ph) apartment at a party. And she didn't realize that this was a legal thing in Iran, that there are transsexuals and that it's a legal kind of practice, which is not to say that it's not a group that doesn't meet discrimination but that it's legal. In some cases, if you can't afford it, the government will help subsidize the money for the operation. They change your birth certificate right away, which we don't do that here in the States, which I think is kind of telling. So that she considers the idea of, OK, well, maybe if I undergo gender reassignment surgery, I can stop this pending marriage and be with Nasrin, like, legally.

LYDEN: But does she feel uncomfortable as a woman?

FARIZAN: No. And I think the longer people read it, they'll see that there's a great distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation. I think Sahar realizes that, too, as the book goes on. Because in her kind of fever dream, she thinks, oh, this is something that I can do, and then realizes, you know, through meeting other transsexual characters, some who are very confident and very happy and are actually trans, and then some who have kind of undergone the gender reassignment because they feel like it's their only option. So it's a - it brings up a lot of questions, the book, but I don't think it gives a lot of definite answers. But she really just sees it as a way to stop her girlfriend from leaving.

LYDEN: I understand that you actually considered taking a pen name when the book came out.

FARIZAN: Yes, yeah, I did. Because I didn't want, you know, my family to get any flak or any hate mail or, you know, and that's not just from Iranians. I'm talking about here in the States, you know? So I talked with them, and I said: OK, I can go under a pen name, and it can be anonymous. But then there's no kind of face to go with it. And I think we decided that visibility is so important, where I think if you can talk to someone - and for a lot of years, you know, I've been talking to someone as, like, the only Iranian person I know or Persian person I know - so now if I can talk to people as an Iranian lesbian - Iranian-American, of course.

And, really, the whole point of my writing was it was helpful for me, in a way, you know, therapeutic And I've always kind of sought solace in writing and reading, but also, if it could help, you know, like one family or one parent or one kid who's perhaps going through a similar thing, and maybe it opens up people's hearts and minds a little bit to people who are not like them.

LYDEN: Sara, why did you decide that you wanted to write this as a young adult novel?

FARIZAN: I've always been fascinated with teenagers because I think I'm, like, emotionally 17. I haven't grown up yet. But I think it's a really strange, bizarre age that almost everyone really vividly remembers in a lot of ways - the good and the bad. And it's an issue that is happening to a lot of teenagers now. And I understand if parents don't want to get the book, and they're like, I don't know how I feel about that, and I totally get that. But I don't ever want to condescend to a teenage audience. I think they're going through things as they become adults. But I'm just very fascinated with teenage voices and the kind of wonder and fear and all the different, conflicting feelings that go along with that age.

LYDEN: Sara Farizan is the author of "If You Could Be Mine." Sara, thank you so much for being with us.

FARIZAN: Oh, it's a pleasure. Thank you so much for listening to me. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.