Book Review: If You Could Be Mine, Sara Farizan

Sarah Farizan’s If You Could Be Mine is a short but complex and fascinating read set in modern-day Iran, where two young women face the end of their relationship as one’s parents arrange a marriage for her and the other is left behind. In a nation where homosexuality is strictly taboo and illegal, Sahar and Nasrin have been living a life of danger, but Nasrin’s impending marriage comes with its own risks, along with the fracture of a deep sexual friendship that Sahar isn’t ready to say goodbye to, because she’s deeply emotionally attached to her friend.

Nasrin claims the relationship can continue in secret just as it always has, but Sahar wants to live openly, and thus is faced with the conundrum so many LGBQ people face in countries with repressive attitudes about sexuality. Living as who she is could be dangerous, but suppressing her identity could come at a high emotional cost. Nasrin doesn’t seem to understand how much this means to her, and she also doesn’t comprehend the serious risks of remaining in a sexual relationship with a woman after her marriage.

Unfortunately, If You Could Be Mine was saddled with an awful writeup:

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?

After reading that, I had no intention of reading the book; I didn’t need to read a text making light of the trans experience, and making it seem like transition is easy and a clear solution to a situation like this one. I was definitely not interested in reading a book about the complex intersections of gender and sexuality from an author who apparently couldn’t respect them.

But I had fallen into a classic trap (mea culpa). I had forgotten that authors don’t write their promo materials, and thus when my friend Emily gave me a copy, I decided to (tentatively) give it a try. I initially read with cringing fear, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Then I read with interest. Then I read because it was good, because no matter what that flap copy says, this is not a book about how transitioning is easy and comes with no costs, and is a fantastic solution to a situation like this. While it is very much a book about gender and identity, these topics are covered with nuance, elegance, and grace, a far cry from the clunky situation I was expecting.

Yes, Sahar does encounter and entertain the idea that she could transition to be with Nasrin. And yes, she indulges a brief fantasy of doing so. She joins a support group, tries to get hormones, pushes to get surgical transition completed as quickly as possible so she can intervene before the wedding. But ultimately, she learns a lot about herself and gender in the process; and she learns that transitioning is not a solution to sorrow, to being torn apart from your loved one, to being unable to be with the woman you want to love openly.

At her support group, she’s not encouraged to transition. Just the contrary; the others are suspicious of her because they suspect she might be on the bring of a potentially horrific mistake driven by love and panic. One of the women in the group actually did transition in order to be with the man she loved, and, predictably, things didn’t work out for her. Others caution Sahar against the course of action she wants to pursue, pushing her to look before she leaps, pointing out that gender is a complex issue and that if she’s not a man, she’ll spend her life in misery pretending to be one just so she can live openly with Nasrin. They tell her about the pain and hardship associated with surgery, what she can expect from hormones, and all the other things she would need to know to prepare for transition if she was serious, and she starts to realise not only that this is not simple, but that this is not a good choice for her.

This is a narrative of hardship and sorrow and love and heartbreak, and the high cost of living in a country where you are persecuted for your sexuality. As Sahar pursues a solution to a situation she ultimately begins to understand is beyond resolution, she learns a great deal about herself, her nation, her culture, and the people around her; the complex underground movement in Iran and beyond, and the high prices people are sometimes forced to pay to be themselves, play a critical role in this text.

For a slim volume, If You Could Be Mine packs quite a punch, and it should definitely be part of the larger conversation about gender, sexuality, and lived experiences. For me as a reader in the US, it was an important view of life outside my own experiences, and a stark testimony to the ways in which social and cultural reform sometimes trickle and spasm in peculiar ways. This is a raw, rough, harsh book, which is exactly as it should be, since it is about raw, rough, harsh lives made worse by a repressive government and a cruel society.