If You Could Be Mine is a story we haven’t seen before in YA literature. It’s a love story between two female best friends in Iran—where homosexuality is punishable by death. What inspired you to write this novel?
Growing up, I had a hard go of coming to terms with my own sexuality and a lot of that had to do with my cultural/ethnic background. My parents are originally from Iran, and while we are very much an American family, a lot of the traditional Persian culture was still a part of our day-to-day lives. For much of my childhood, because of the pride my parents had in where they were from, my Iranian heritage was never something I thought twice about and was in fact celebrated, even when that wasn't always very popular.
I spent a lot of my teenage years depressed and angry, though I presented a happy facade. I dealt with my combative feelings by writing. As I grew older and became comfortable in my own skin, I thought a lot about my teenage self and the personal demons she battled. When I went to Lesley University for my MFA in creative writing, I began to write stories I wished were on bookshelves when I was a kid. There was very little that spoke to my specific experience—which I totally understand—but there weren't even many young lesbian protagonists in literature, never mind someone with an unusual cultural background. As an adult, I wanted to write characters whose stories I would have loved as a teenage reader.
I wrote If You Could Be Mine not really thinking it would be published. I was motivated by my own curiosity about what my life could have been like if my parents met in Iran and I had grown up there. Though Sahar and I are very different, and I never had a secret girlfriend in high school, the idea was there and the characters took on a life of their own. It ended up becoming my thesis. I wrote passionately and without reservation partly because I assumed not many people would ever read my work.
You spent time in Iran, informally doing research for the book. What was it like being there, particularly given that you’re a lesbian?
It was emotional. I had visited Iran as a teenager and as a little kid, but it felt different going as an adult. There were moments where I felt very foreign, and I am sure looked out of place, especially wearing a long headscarf when I was visiting religious sites: I looked like a waddling burrito. While there was some suspicion among those I spoke with, for the most part people were very kind to me. My Farsi improved! (I don’t usually get much practice at home.) And I was able to see where my parents grew up. Visiting Iran again made me realize that I struggle with three issues: I don't feel Persian enough; I don't feel American enough; I don't feel gay enough. But I’m learning that that's okay. No one should be boxed in. Everyone has multiple identities that help shape who they are, and all those identities should be celebrated rather than diminished.