If You Could Be Mine by Sarah Farizan
Two years ago, Malinda Lo, whom I consider a sort of personal saint of queer young adult fiction, crunched some numbers that revealed a lot about the young adult world. First, only one percent of young adult novels feature queer characters. Of that one percent, fifty percent focuses on queer cisgendered boys, twenty-five percent focuses on queer cisgendered girls, eight percent focuses on multiple queer characters, and a scant four percent focuses on transgendered and/or genderqueer characters. Obviously, this information is two years out of date, but it reflects the landscape that made me snatch up If You Could Be Mine as soon as I saw on NetGalley. And this information doesn’t even cover ethnic representation in young adult fiction, which was also a motivating factor for me.
If You Could Be Mine follows Sahar, a seventeen year old girl in Tehran. Sahar is smart and motivated, but her greatest weakness is her greatest secret: her love for her best friend, Nasrin. In Iran, where being homosexual is a crime, Sahar and Nasrin struggle to keep their relationship under the radar. Even so, Sahar nurses fantasies of them being together for the rest of their lives. But when Nasrin’s parents arrange for her to marry a young (male) doctor, Sahar’s world crumbles. When her gay cousin invites her to a party to lift her spirits, she meets Parveen, a trans woman, and discovers that being transgendered isn’t illegal in Iran—in fact, the state will fund your transition. Desperate to be with Nasrin at any cost, Sahar begins pursuing transitioning, even though she identifies whole-heartedly as female. But will it be enough to make Nasrin take their relationship seriously?
In terms of representation, If You Could Be Mine is an absolute treasure trove. All fiction should be diverse, of course, but in young adult fiction, it’s especially necessary. That’s why representation is so, so important. When you’re young, you literally cannot conceive of something you’ve never encountered before. I imagine the whole realizing I was queer phase would have been greatly compressed had I watched Xena: Warrior Princess religiously as a child, instead of absorbing, via some bizarre and undoubtedly squid-like process of osmosis, alien, heteronormative ideas about women only being in competition with one another. If You Could Be Mine features Muslim women of color struggling with their sexual orientations and their gender identities in a society filled with toxic ideas and legislation about both things. In a landscape where fleshed out depictions of trans characters are few and far between, If You Could Be Mine boasts a community of them trying to navigate life.
And yet… If You Could Be Mine feels a little basic. I suspect this might be another saturation thing. For people who didn’t grow up reading super-generic boys’ love manga, The Song of Achilles is a breath of fresh air. For people totally outside the queer community (as loosely as that can be defined), If You Could Be Mine will be illuminating. But I was stuck on gender representation; how could a novel with that at its heart, pitting gender identity against sexual identity, have a heroine so casually subscribe to rigid gender roles? Well, I know why, and it’s the same reason that Farizan makes sure she includes a homophobic trans character: these people are just as much a product of their society as everybody else. It makes total sense for a closeted, surly, and emotionally compromised Iranian young woman to think that. But since Sahar feels a bit flat as a character, her biases come off less as her own and more as the worldview the reader should be subscribing to.
But I would much rather live in a world where flat characterization was my biggest problem instead of, you know, having to decipher from vague cover copy whether or not a book actually features queer characters or not. (Cass knows what I’m talking about.) It’s easy to see why Sahar loves the fickle, sharp Nasrin and it’s heartbreaking to watch Sahar slowly realize that their relationship is actually kind of awful for her. To go back to representation, it’s not like Sahar has anything to compare it to. The novel does touch on the death of Sahar’s mother and how that’s affected her father, but it’s cleared up with a single fight. The heart of this novel is this relationship.
It’s a fast, breezy read. I blasted through it in a matter of hours after a reading drought, which made me feel eight kinds of powerful. I hope its accessibility translates into success. I want to see books like this succeed, even if it has some rough spots.
Bottom line: If You Could Be Mine is a treasure trove of YA representation, which is something we absolutely need. The protagonist is a pretty flat character, though, but I’d like to live in a world where that was my biggest problem.
I read this book on NetGalley.
If You Could Be Mine will be released tomorrow.