In April of this year, the We Need Diverse Books campaign took the YA literary world by storm. Sparked by an initial Twitter exchange between Ellen Oh and Malinda Lo, the movement quickly grew to encompass a wide array of authors, librarians, publishers, bloggers, and readersâ€”a group fittingly representative of the diversity they seek to promote. We Need Diverse Books’ mission is straightforward: â€œto promote or amplify diversification efforts and increase visibility for diverse books and authors, with a goal of empowering a wide range of readers in the process.â€
So how can YA librarians actively support this campaign? Simpleâ€¦by reading more widely, by book talking and recommending diverse books, by promoting a culture of empathy, and by educating ourselves on the many layered and complex issues that accompany being both allies and agents of change.
To that end, I’ve decided to devote a monthly post to highlight author and books that truly exemplify the diversity we wish to see reflected in our literature at large. By diversity, I mean books that bring a rich, nuanced understanding of a particular viewpoint or experience to their readers; a viewpoint traditionally ignored or made invisible by the mainstream media. What this means is that while I love Cho Chang as much as the next Harry Potter fan, her presence does not qualify the series as being an example of diversity. Rather, the books I’m interested in promoting are those that move beyond mere representation (or worse, tokenism) to portraits of diverse individuals that are authentic, unique, and relatable.
That said, I can think of no better author to kick-off this series than Sara Farizan, author of If You Could Be Mine (2014 ALA Rainbow List Top 10 Title) and the upcoming Tell Me How A Crush Should Feel (out October 7th). The daughter of Iranian immigrants, Farizan grew up proud of her heritage while also fearful of what her community would think of her sexuality. Her struggle to reconcile her sexual identity and her cultural identity manifests itself in her writing and provides a compelling honesty to both her works.
The story of Farizan’s debut novel, If You Could Be Mine, beginsâ€”like so many other YA romancesâ€”with best friends falling in love. However, the best friends in question are two Iranian teenage girls named Sahar and Nasrin who face death if their love is discovered. When Nasrin finds herself engaged to be married, Sahar is heartbroken and desperate to find a way to be with her girlfriend. Since being transgender in Iran is legal (although not necessarily accepted), Sahar sees sex reassignment surgery as possibly the only way she can live with and love Nasrin openly. As Sahar is introduced to a support group for people transitioning, she begins to grapple with the fact that gender identity and sexual identity are, in fact, distinctly different. This realization and the soul-searching that ensues form the bulk of the narrative interspersed with fascinating details about life in modern-day Iran.
If You Could Be Mine is notable in that it falls so far outside the bounds of what constitutes â€œmainstreamâ€ young adult GLBTQI. Indeed, it is a direct response to the lack of diversity in what is, ironically, itself a marginalized community. As Farizan herself says in an essay for Algonquin Young Readers, â€œI began reading as much as I could about what my feelings meant and tried to find books that spoke to my experience. While there was literature about LGBT teenagers, it was limited, and almost all of the characters were white Americans. While I am American, and . . . I am technically Caucasian, I was growing tired of reading the same kinds of stories and wishing there was something else.â€ Admirably, Farizan chose to create her own solution to the problem by writing stories founded in her personal experiences that expand the boundaries of GLBTQI literature.
I would argue that what makes this novel such a necessary addition to our conversation about diverse books is the range and richness it brings to our understanding of what makes our world so diverse. It is multi-faceted in its depiction of people’s experiences and, what I loved most, this depiction is not limited to the main character. We meet Aliâ€”Sahar’s wildly charismatic, eminently likable, morally dubious gay cousin whose side story is almost as absorbing as Sahar’s. Parveen, a beautiful transsexual woman, acts as Sahar’s mentor and introduces her to a transgender support group. The radically different experiences of each member of the group illustrate quite clearly that no single individual’s story can speak for the whole and that, consequently, a multitude of narratives need to be told.
If You Could Be Mine is not without its flawsâ€”as other reviewers have noted, Sahar’s naivete can stretch belief at times and Nasrin, unfortunately, lacks the depth and likability of the other characters. Nevertheless, I can think of few other YA books that introduce the reader to an entire world of experiences that are both relatable (who here has not experienced heartbreak?) and eye-opening (was anyone else surprised and horrified by Daughter’s tale of prostitution?) Add to the mix that the book is not set in the Western world and yet remains a contemporary tale and you have a book ideally placed to challenge assumptions, encourage sensitivity, and open minds.
Sara Farizan’s second novel, Tell Me How A Crush Should Feel, falls more squarely within the conventional coming-out genre. The story follows Leila, an Iranian American junior at the upscale Armstead Academy, who has managed to largely float under the radar while at school. Blessed with two loyal and entertaining best friends, she’s content with her place in the social hierarchy despite her lack of a love life. This is largely because she likes girls and is terrified that anyone will find out; as she herself says â€œI’m not ready to announce my lady-loving inclinations as of yetâ€¦I’m already different enough at this school. I don’t need to add anything else to that.â€ Her world is abruptly turned upside down, however, when a glamorous new student named Saskia arrives. Her growing attraction for Saskia forces her to confront not only her own fears but also her perceptions and assumptions of others.
So what distinguishes this book from the many other coming-out books that exist? For one, it explores both critically and compassionately, the difficulties of coming out when part of a cultural community that deeply disapproves of homosexuality. Farizan doesn’t shy away from the fact that our identities are necessarily complex and layered and oftentimes at odds with each other. Leila has to learn how to negotiate between and eventually reconcile her identity as a loving daughter, a person of Persian descent, and a young woman coming to terms with her sexuality. The fact that she does so with humor and wit makes her all the more endearing.
Farizan also deftly incorporates details of growing up a second generation immigrant and the ways in which living in two cultures can be both comforting and frustrating, especially for teens. And as in her first novel, Farizan includes a host of well developed secondary charactersâ€”ranging from a sociopathic femme fatale to a vampire-obsessed theater tech girl to the only out gay student at the schoolâ€”whose stories challenge stereotype and embrace the belief that we all are made up of layers and longing and the desire to be heard.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this first post in the We Need Diverse Books seriesâ€¦let me know in the comments of any other authors and books you’d like me to highlight in the coming months!
~Alegria Barclay, currently reading The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters