Sara Farizan’s latest, Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel, is a contemporary novel set on the East Coast and again revolving around a queer Iranian character. In this case, though, the heroine is struggling less with being gay under a repressive regime, and more with figuring out her sexuality in a contemporary US setting while also reconciling herself with her conservative parents. Can she explore who she is, and become the woman she’s destined to be, while retaining the love and support of her parents?
On the one hand, this is a tremendously relatable story that speaks to the experiences of many queer teens. Leila lives somewhat on the fringes of her stuck-up private school, along with her brainiac friend Tess, getting by but never really fitting in. That changes when a new girl comes to school, Leila develops a massive crush, and the plot explodes as she understands on a deeper level that she’s gay, and wishing those feelings would go away won’t magically make that happen.
Like a lot of gay teens, Leila is worried about the consequences of being outed at school, fearing bullying, mockery, and abuse. For an illustration, she only has to look at the experiences of Tomas, an out gay student who struggles for acceptance – though Tomas, in his self-centred way, argues that Leila has it easy because for lesbians, social acceptance is more straightforward (so to speak). Under his metric, being leered at by straight guys rather than being beaten up by them should make her feel privileged, and the abuse hurled at lesbians by homophobic straight girls isn’t as bad as what gay boys encounter. His attempt at the Oppression Olympics only serves to further remind her of the dangers of being out to both herself and anyone she dates as she struggles for a place in her school’s complicated and cutthroat social environment.
But for Leila, there’s an added layer of complexity thanks to living in a conservative Persian family. Her father already acts like she’s a letdown because of her poor marks and the slim possibility of going into medical school like her perfect sister. Her mother seems to only want what’s best for her, but doesn’t recognise that Leila is growing into her own person. Leila, meanwhile, is surrounded by warnings about the dangers of not conforming in the tight, judgmental Persian community – the family who kicked out their gay son, the expectation that she’ll be marrying a man and having children with him.
These are struggles that speak to the unique experience of being part of the Persian diaspora, living in a culture that may not be as familiar to many gay US teens. Yet, Farizan make them intimate and accessible through her writing and Leila herself, creating a richer depth of cultural and social understanding even as she’s writing a sort of defiant exploration for gay teens.
This is most definitely an issue book, but Farizan hasn’t let that get in the way of her storytelling. Her sharp, original voice brings something sorely needed to the YA canon, and her skills as an author weave characters, setting, and plot together with a high degree of skill. Her contemporary explorations of the struggles faced by gay teens are painful and sharp, but speak to an acute necessity. As Leila fights for acceptance, the thoughts and experiences she has speak to larger feelings on the part of other gay teens living her experience out in the real world. The consequences, too, also speak to a complexity of experience that’s refreshing and needed. While Leila learns many things about herself over the course of the book, she’s also surprised by her parents, her sister, and her friends, all of whom defy her expectations.
I’m often hesitant about queer YA that makes it seem as though coming out will be all unicorns and rainbows, with no negative consequences and everything working out just fine. Conversely, though, I’m just as irritated by fiction that’s unrelentingly dour, painting being queer and young as a tragedy that will only result in heartbreak and misery for everyone. While both experiences may be true for some queer teens, neither is really a totally accurate reflection of the complexities of the real world.
This is something Farizan captures well in this text, where Leila experiences a rough, jostled, unexpected ride as she navigates the world, but it’s not one that can be painted in simplistic, dualistic terms. No, she’s not unilaterally welcomed and supported when she comes out. The school doesn’t throw a celebratory Pride assembly and her parents don’t paint the house rainbow. But she’s not beaten and left to die in an alley, either. She is, like so many gay teens, faced with a world in which coming out is complicated.
This truth of experience speaks to a reality that many gay teens can connect with. More importantly, it speaks to the pressing questions that are lingering in the minds of many closeted teens. While some may have gay peers to look to, and others can analyse their environment for insight, reading about the experiences of a queer teen can be both acutely necessary and enlightening, can help to reduce some of the fear and answer some of the questions that seem unanswerable.
What will happen when I come out? How will my parents react? What will my friends do? While this varies, of course, by individual, Farizan’s story is one that’s ultimately empowering, and not in a sweet, saccharine, ‘everything will be okay’ kind of way. She’s frank about the fallout of coming out, but also about the amazing things you can discover about yourself and other people.