Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Complicated Identities: Sara Farizan's TELL ME AGAIN HOW A CRUSH SHOULD FEEL

Sara Farizan's debut novel, If You Could Be Mine, was set in modern-day Iran. Her sophomore effort, Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel, shifts to contemporary New England, but continues to explore the difficulties and triumphs of adolescence, especially when that adolescence includes figuring out a nontraditional sexual identity.

Everyone tells high school junior Leila Azadi that she should feel flattered by, and pretty because of, the crush her best friend Greg harbors for her. But Leila only feels "not yet assembled" (12). Last summer, at a Global Young Leaders of the Futures camp, Leila met Anastasia, who both lectured here about class privilege and kissed her silly. Though Anastasia quickly moved on, crushing on a fellow camper named Nick, Leila's experience has her realizing that she's different, and not just because her parents emigrated from Iran. Leila not only doesn't want to make out with Greg; she doesn't want to make out with any guy.

Not yet ready to "announce my lady-loving inclinations as yet," Leila can't help but feel slightly estranged from her small, private WASP schoolmates (3). At least, until transfer student Saskia arrives. Sophisticated, well-traveled Saskia, with one Dutch parent and one Brazilian one, gets the race thing: unlike Leila's friends Greg (who is African-American) and Tess (who is white): "people see basic white or black when they look at them. It's the ambiguity that throws people; they want to know which box to put you in" (41). She also loves the work of Persian poet Rumi, appreciates Leila's humor, and is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Most mind-blowing for Leila, Saskia seems to like holding Leila's hand. Could Leila's love life be taking a unexpected turn toward the amazing?

Two things in particular stuck out for me when reading Tell Me Again. First, while Leila's ethnicity is not the focus of the story, Farizan does not simply stick a Persian face on an otherwise white character. Leila is a second-generation immigrant, surrounded by parents and adult family friends who are invested in the culture and values of their homeland, a connection to which Leila often has difficulty relating. Whether making fun of her dad's singing of Persian songs from the 80's, wryly observing how the tradition of tarof  (offering something to someone even if you don't mean it) can backfire when used with American kids, or expressing frustration with her surgeon father's high expectations and narrow views ("I mean, do you want to be an actor? That's not a real job. Only drug addicts and gays are actors. you don't want to hang out with those people, do you?" [77]), Leila is embedded within a specific culture, a culture which both constructs and influences the choices she can envision making.

Leila is particularly worried about her sexual identity, given the conservative views of her Iranian father, and the way another boy in their ex-pat community was banished, both from his home and from the community itself, after he announced his attraction to boys. But Papa Azadi's views are not the only ones to which Leila is exposed. Nor is Leila the only gay character in Farizan's story, the second thing which I appreciated while reading. We have out-of-the-closet schoolmate Tomas, who conforms in many ways to gay male stereotypes while simultaneously pointing to the limits of such stereotypes:

You girls have it way easier.... Two hot girls in high school? No problem, definitely encouraged by my straight male counterparts. However a gay guy—even one as handsome as myself? Not as cool. Double standards. High school breeds them. God, I can't wait until college. (148-49)

And we have the three girls who work backstage on the school's production of Shakespeare's gender-bending play Twelfth Night, who are "for sure gay"—"They are all vegan, they all listen to feminist folk music by the likes of Erin McKeown, and they all work on tech stuff" (51). Leila tells us "I have to give them credit—they're very much themselves, and that's not always easy. But I look at them and I just don't know if we'd get along. And shouldn't we as part of the lesbian tribe?" (51). How much of being a lesbian is being part of a "tribe," a group with similar values and traditions? Is sexual identity the same as ethnic identity?

Despite being a lesbian, Leila doesn't feel much of a connection to the tech girls (perhaps, because the three turn out to be not so attracted to other women as rumor, or stereotype, would have it?). She's far more drawn to the gorgeous but cagey Saskia, who kisses Leila one day, but then starts dating Greg the next.

Is Saskia gay? Bi? Just a tease? Greg can't help her figure it out, nor can Tess, who, despite sharing Leila's disinterest in the things teenaged girls are supposed to be interested in," is woefully lacking when it comes to gaydar (21). Leila discovers that help can come from surprising, expected directions, and that she's not the only one with multiple, sometimes conflicting, identities.

Tell Me Again How a
Crush Should Feel
Algonquin, 2014

1 comment:

  1. Nice summary! I've put this on my (very long) list of books to look for.