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When Sara Farizan presented early drafts of her young-adult novels at writing workshops, her fellow graduate students at Lesley University often responded with a stunned “Huh.” The YA genre tends to be dominated by wizards and trolls, but here was Farizan writing about gay teenage sexual angst. Her 2013 debut novel, If You Could Be Mine, centers on Sahar, an Iranian teenager who considers desperate measures—including sex reassignment surgery—to try to stop her true love’s arranged marriage. Farizan, born in the United States to Iranian parents, figured the book would sell on the fringes. Instead, it quickly landed on several “best YA reading” lists and snagged a Lambda Literary Award.
Her new novel, Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel, takes place closer to home. Out October 7, it is set in a waspy prep school, not unlike the one Farizan attended as a closeted teen in Massachusetts (“pre-Ellen,” she notes). “I had this outgoing personality, and I was class president, but inside, I was going to my car to cry.”
Farizan’s stories, as full of gossip as any school cafeteria, are nonetheless funny and frank. They deal with uncomfortable issues—and not just for “girls named Emily or Annie.” For that matter, Farizan thinks her fellow YA authors could do better at appealing to kids of all stripes. “Not that Harry isn’t great,” she says. “But if Ron and Hermione had been some other identity—black, Latina, gay—I think that would have made a huge difference.”
Mother Jones: You’ve said: “I write books I wish I had as a teenager.” Can you elaborate?
Sara Farizan: My first crush, as early as age 5, was Gadget the Mouse from Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers. It didn’t bother me that she was animated, or a mouse; it bothered me that she was female. I had these inclinations, and was really terrified by them. This was pre-Ellen of course, and given the culture my parents are from—where a husband and wife is very important, and kids, and then those kids grow up to be doctors hopefully—I spent a lot of years in this silent fear and anger. As a teenager, I had this outgoing personality, and I was class president and doing all kinds of things; but inside was going to my car to cry. I had no problems explaining to people what my Iranian heritage meant, and trying to be a good representative. What did worry me was that I was secretly gay.
MJ: What were you reading at the time?
SF: There were LGBT-oriented books for teens by Julie Anne Peters, and Nancy Garden’s Annie on My Mind. I normally got those from my town library rather than my school. But there wasn’t anything about someone of a different background, you know. They were all girls named Emily and Annie. While those books were really helpful to me, there was a disconnect in that the only LGBT books that I had read about in school were concerning very of-European-descent people.
MJ: You started your books as graduate school projects. Did you think they’d become more than that?
SF: I really didn’t see them ever being published, based on what they’re about. Everyone in the “Writing for Young People” track was writing trolls and wizards, and, um, not LGBT people of color, certainly. I thought perhaps they were too niche. I didn’t anticipate that all of this would have happened—that I’d be speaking to you, for one.
MJ: There are a lot of doctors in your books, and I see that your father was a surgeon. Did you feel pressure to go that route?
SF: No, but I think it was a profession that was understood. It’s one that’s really lofty and prestigious. I think for a lot of Persian parents in the States, being a doctor was the gold standard. There’s this comedian, Amir K, who does an impression of his dad, who’s like, “What do you mean you want to be a comedian? You can be a lawyer, you can be a doctor, you can open up a bank.” And Amir’s like, “Dad, you can’t just go around opening up banks.” See video below. My sister and I have gone very media-related routes. My parents are really wonderful about it, but it’s not something they knew anything about. It’s all very new territory for them.
MJ: Is your book, If You Could Be Mine, banned in Iran?
SF: I don’t know that they know about it. I don’t Google myself. I don’t look myself up. One, because I’m a fragile flower. And two, it’s going to mess up anything I want to write in the future.
MJ: You paint a very believable portrait of life in Iran. Did you live there for a time?
SF: I’ve been there. I have the passport stamps. I worry about being exploitative because I’m a Westerner. But for me it was very important, being a member of the LGBT community and dealing with that kind if frustration and isolation, to imagine what it would be like growing up in the country my parents are from.
MJ: The idea of transexualism plays a big role in the new book—though it seems pretty evident that Sahar is not trans. But I was surprised to learn that transgender Iranians can get subsidies for gender reassignment surgeries, and that they have more government protections than homosexuals.