Published by Algonquin Young Readers on August 20, 2013
Pages: 256 pages
Amazon • Indiebound • Barnes & Noble • Goodreads
In this stunning debut, a young Iranian American writer pulls back the curtain on one of the most hidden corners of a much-talked-about culture.
Seventeen-year-old Sahar has been in love with her best friend, Nasrin, since they were six. They’ve shared stolen kisses and romantic promises. But Iran is a dangerous place for two girls in love—Sahar and Nasrin could be beaten, imprisoned, even executed if their relationship came to light.
So they carry on in secret—until Nasrin’s parents announce that they’ve arranged for her marriage. Nasrin tries to persuade Sahar that they can go on as they had before, only now with new comforts provided by the decent, well-to-do doctor Nasrin will marry. But Sahar dreams of loving Nasrin exclusively—and openly.
Then Sahar discovers what seems like the perfect solution. In Iran, homosexuality may be a crime, but to be a man trapped in a woman’s body is seen as nature’s mistake, and sex reassignment is legal and accessible. As a man, Sahar could be the one to marry Nasrin. Sahar will never be able to love the one she wants in the body she wants to be loved in without risking her life. Is saving her love worth sacrificing her true self?
I should start by saying that I’m glad that this book exists. There aren’t enough young adult novels that deal with LGBTQ subjects, and there certainly aren’t enough that deal with those subjects in the Middle East (or anywhere that isn’t contemporary America, to be honest). Sara Farizan’s If You Could Be Mine – about a same-sex relationship between two Iranian teenagers – goes a long way towards filling the gap. I wish books like this had existed while I was growing up. That said, however, I really wanted more from this novel.
Here’s the premise: Sahar and her best friend, Nasrin, have been in love since they were children. In addition to this, Nasrin’s family functions as Sahar’s adoptive family: Sahar’s mother died when she was young, and her grieving father, though physically present, has pretty much been an absentee parent ever since. So, on top of loving Nasrin, Sahar is also really invested in being part of Nasrin’s family. When Nasrin becomes engaged to a (straight, male) doctor, my sympathies were totally with Sahar: she’s not only losing Nasrin but Nasrin’s family, too.
In response to this, Sahar concocts a plan. She decides to transition from female to male and have sex reassignment surgery – which is legal and funded by the Iranian government – so that she and Nasrin can be together.
What I liked about the book: first off, I liked that it wasn’t a coming-out story and thought the questions the story raised were interesting. (Whether they’re answered – or how they’re answered – is another thing entirely, though.) Additionally, Sahar and Nasrin’s relationship was well-written; I thought it was an emotionally accurate portrayal of what it can feel like to be in love when you’re a teenager, i.e., obsessive and all-encompassing. (Sahar states, for example, that she “could never leave Nasrin. Even if she’s leaving me, I can’t leave her.”)
I also liked the way that Sahar – as much as she mourns and rages against Nasrin’s decision to marry someone who isn’t her – ultimately comes to terms with that decision and doesn’t shy away from any of its complications. Nasrin is selfish and self-centered and classist and petty, but Sahar loves her, and I believe it; Sahar never pretends Nasrin is anything other than who she is, and Sahar loves her for it. View Spoiler »Despite all this, Sahar realizes that she can’t continue in a relationship that is toxic (Nasrin holds all the cards, and it’s not great for Sahar) and dangerous (after Nasrin’s marriage, their relationship if it were to continue, would be queer AND adulterous). She says: “I would hold her hand forever if I could. But I can’t. So I let go. I love her, and I have to let go.” She’s not quite there yet by the novel’s end, but she realizes she has to try. « Hide Spoiler
What I didn’t like about the book: settle in, you all, because I have lots of feels about this.
First and foremost: I feel like the novel avoids engaging with the questions that it asks (i.e., what might it mean for Sahar to choose to transition?). The novel seems to feel that transitioning for Sahar is a mistake. Sahar is introduced to an Iranian trans community but realizes quickly that she is fundamentally different from its members. Sahar’s friend Parveen, who is trans, discourages her, says, “I think this is a mistake for you, Sahar. You are not going to benefit from this the way a transsexual would. But you’ve made up your mind.” Finally, our only in-text example of a gay person (who isn’t trans) who transitions (albeit under coercion) is decidedly negative: Maryam is a heroin addict who “hates herself … and maybe everyone else in the world” and is “bitter, depressed, and stuck.” And so the novel’s perspective seems to be: people who aren’t trans shouldn’t transition. Ok.
Spoilery spoilers under the cut. What follows was one of my main problems with the book.View Spoiler »Despite this, Sahar herself never seems to actually not choose to transition. Sahar’s planned-for transition is stopped not by Sahar, but by circumstance and by other people. Sahar is stopped by: learning that hormones and surgery will take more time than she realized, learning that she needs her father’s permission, having her cousin Ali interrupt her at the precise moment she’s about to receive hormones, and finally, going in for a consult and learning that Nasrin’s intended, Reza, is one of her physicians. During this consultation over her surgical options, Sahar notices that various parts of her body are “not happy with this plan” (an indication that maybe she’s not down but it’s never explicitly stated) and she faints. Upon awakening, Reza appears with a cup of water to revive her and recognizes her, saying, “Does your father know you’re here?” It is only at this point – when Reza finds her at the clinic and asks if her father knows – that Sahar thinks, “The jig is up. I start to cry. … I thought I could do it. Now what will I do?”
As a reader, I wanted Sahar to make a choice. The novel avoids having Sahar actually make a decision; this is compounded by the fact it is already a foregone conclusion that Sahar cannot make any life-changing decisions for Nasrin, because Nasrin is selfish and vain. In a novel that is sensitive to the ways in which women are constrained in Iranian society (one character notes that she has, “switched one prison for another … my body for my country”), I was bothered by a narrative structure that never lets Sahar choose for herself on this matter. « Hide Spoiler
I had other quibbles with the book, too; although Parveen is a good friend to Sahar, I had some issues with the way the trans community is portrayed in the novel. Sahar, contemplating transitioning, worries that she will end up like some of the transmen she’s met – whom she characterizes as “sad little boys who got in way over their head,” because she doesn’t think they pass. Additionally, there’s a weird way in which Sahar assumes that biology is destiny; a transman who passes is “meant to be a boy” because he is “flat chested, but also has small hips,” but Sahar herself has a large chest and wide hips. She thinks, “The mirror seems pretty convinced that I was meant to be a girl.” And I know that this is Sahar’s perspective but this was still weird and gross to me; one person isn’t “meant to be” trans any more than another based on the width of their hips or the size of their chest.
Finally, on a technical level, I thought the novel was mixed. Farizan’s prose can be absolutely beautiful in places – I think she’s a wonderful writer and again want to emphasize how compelling I found Sahar’s narrative voice to be. On the other hand, though, I didn’t feel like the minor characters were as internally consistent – I kept on wondering if specific actions or speeches made sense with what we knew of a given character. (A good example of this: Sahar’s father, after five years of neglect, begs Sahar not to leave him and promises he’ll be a better father. Stuff has happened – her cousin’s been shot! Sahar’s obviously dealing with some serious stuff and starts missing school! – but I never felt like I understood why he was responding in the specific ways he responded. And his was not the only character whose actions I was surprised by and/or confused by. I’m looking at you, Nasrin’s mom.)
In closing: I liked the book, but I wanted more from it. However, I do think it’s a worthwhile read – I imagine that my response is going to be … fairly specific to how I roll as a reader – and your readerly experience may be totally different. Additionally, this is Farizan’s first book, and I do think it has a lot of potential; I would happily pick up something she writes in the future (and not just because I want more books for queer kids of Middle Eastern descent, although I DO). I think she’s a good writer, and I think the book raises many interesting questions – I’m just not sure it answers them particularly well.
Has anyone else read this? If so, what’d you think?