As early as page one, it becomes evident what kind of story young adult novel If You Could Be Mine will be. From the moment love interest Nasrin tells the protagonist, “Sahar, you will play with me because you belong to me. Only me,” the reader knows author Sara Farizan has presented us with a love story most likely doomed for tragedy. It’s a classic kind of doomed love story, the Romeo and Juliet characters who aren’t allowed to be together type of tragedy. The reason main characters Nasrin and Sahar, best friends since childhood on the brink of high school graduation and adult separation, won’t end up together? They are two lesbians living in Iran.
Farizan wastes no time introducing the central problem in her story: Nasrin and Sahar are in love but they can never be together in Iran, where homosexuality is looked upon as a sin punishable by hanging. Nasrin, eighteen-year-old daughter of wealthy parents who spoil her relentlessly, agrees to enter an arranged marriage with handsome and sophisticated doctor Reza, who is ten years her senior. Within this loveless marriage, Nasrin hopes to find some semblance of normalcy while maintaining a secret affair with her true love. Sahar, the book’s strong and relentless heroin, is determined to find a way to break up the marriage and be with Nasrin out in the open.
What the marketing around this book never mentions is that it does more than explain what it means to be a young homosexual in Iran. It digs even deeper and introduces readers to the life and culture of transgendered people living in a country where being born in the wrong body is viewed as an illness that the government will pay to change. Through her charismatic gay older cousin Ali (funny, tragic, and arguably the book’s most interesting character), Sahar is introduced to the underground gay scene in Tehran, which leads her to meet Parveen, a transgender woman who becomes her ally as she begins to seriously consider undergoing a sex change in order to be with Nasrin. Sahar naively believes that by becoming a man she can convince Nasrin’s parents to call off the marriage and allow Nasrin to marry her. As Sahar explores this drastic possibility, she begins attending a transgender support group and learns more about what kind of sacrifice she would really have to make to be with the one she loves.
If You Could Be Mine is an important addition to the LGBT YA canon. It not only features lesbians as central characters, but it is set outside of the United States and it puts the spotlight on the lesser written about transgender community. Young adult author Malinda Lo’s website presents the numbers to capture various trends in LGBT young adult literature. According to her statistics, 94 books were published in 2013 that are about LGBT issues or contain LGBT characters. Some interesting (disparaging) findings include the inequality between LGBT YA books that feature male versus female characters (there are fewer females as central characters) and the difference between the book’s cover copy and what is actually in the book. The latter attributes something interesting about If You Could Be Mine. The book is marketed as being about two young lesbians hiding their relationship in Iran, but there is no mention on any cover copy about the sub-plot exploring transgender in Iran, nor its many transgender characters.
As LGBT YA continues to break free from being perceived as either too controversial or too niche, many new writers can thank Farizan for making great strides to add a book featuring lesbians of another culture and ethnicity (giving American readers a rare glimpse into LGBT struggles in Iran) and for broadening the scope of transgender characters and issues within LGBT young adult literature. Beyond the cultural and political value of Farizan’s book, readers can thank her for writing a story that captures the immediacy of young love, the intensity of desire, and the tragedy of heartbreak. Gay or straight, man or woman, first love is a universal experience, and If You Could Be Mine presents it in a compelling and thought-provoking way.
Kait Heacock is a fiction writer from the Pacific Northwest. She recently moved to Brooklyn, New York by way of Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and websites including Portland Review, Tin House’s Open Bar blog, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Housefire, VoiceCatcher, and Citron Review. She is also a regular contributor to Portland-based feminist website PDXX Collective, for which she writes a column that focuses on sex and sexuality in literature. She is currently at work on her second young adult manuscript.