Do not let the slim form factor and thinness of this book fool you. Sara Farizan poses a thorny problem here and asks very real questions about the lengths to which one might go to be with one’s forbidden love. Ultimately a tragedy of sorts, If You Could Be Mine is nevertheless filled with promises of new beginnings. It is a reminder that, in the face of incredible oppression, people always find a way to strive to be together, to hope, to have enough. Finally, it is a story about the outsize importance we place upon gender.
Sahar and Nasrin are 17-year-old Iranian girls on the cusp of womanhood. They also might be gay—that is, they love each other and are attracted to one another, but in Iran this is illegal. Nasrin’s parents arrange her betrothal to a doctor doing his residency, starting a ticking clock for Sahar. She is determined to find a way that she can be with Nasrin. When she learns that Iran recognizes being transgender as a “medical condition” and will pay for the surgeries involved in medical transition, Sahar thinks she has hit upon the solution: she can’t be with Nasrin as a woman, but what if she were instead a man? As Sahar becomes more and more obsessed with enacting this plan, she gets involved both with trans Iranians as well as the seedy underworld her cousin, Ali, is wrapped up in.
There’s a lot to unpack here. This is a story about love, but it is also about selfishness. Farizan only gives us access to Sahar’s perspective as a narrator, so she is almost certainly unreliable in some ways. She is head-over-heels for Nasrin in a way that Nasrin might not be about her—Nasrin cares for her, but I got the impression it was in a more egoistical, “I like who I am when Sahar is around me” kind of way. Yet I don’t think it would be fair to write Nasrin off as shallow versus Sahar; we simply don’t get access to Nasrin’s thoughts or feelings beyond what Sahar reports to us.
There are so many other types of love present here as well. Sahar’s father clearly loves her, yet his love his attenuated by grief over Sahar’s mother. A significant portion of this book involves how Sahar expresses her dissatisfaction with her father while at the same time tries to understand her own role in her relationship with him. We see their relationship change as the novel progresses and as both make an effort, although in Sahar’s case she is distracted by her overall plot. Similarly, Reza loves Nasrin in an unrequited sense and perhaps more so in the way one loves the idea of a person instead of the actual person behind that idea. Finally, Ali loves Sahar as a cousin, even going so far as to offer to take her to Turkey.
The freedoms (or lack thereof) in Iran are of central importance to the novel. Sahar’s “solution” to being with Nasrin makes sense when you consider the cultural context—not just the Iranian government’s stances on being gay versus trans, but also just the very binary and gendered nature of Iranian society. We see this at every turn, from the expectations around how women dress (and how these are enforced, or the spectre of enforcement that looms over everyone) to the expectations about how men and women from different families interact. As not only a woman but a trans woman, I had a lot of complex thoughts as I read this book. Some were simply about the differences in the freedoms I have here in Canada versus in Iran. It might seem at first glance that the Iranian government’s funding of medical transition is a good thing, but it seems to me to be a poisoned chalice.
I won’t mince words: the portrayal of Sahar exploring transition and the nature of being transgender in Iran made me uncomfortable at times. I suspect it is supposed to make every reader uncomfortable, but as someone who is actually going through transition herself right now, the way Farizan bluntly discusses a lot of the medical aspects of transition was a lot. I don’t mean this as criticism but perhaps more as warning or caution for other trans people who read If You Could Be Mine.
Overall, I think Farizan does a good job of portraying trans people’s struggles sympathetically. This isn’t really a book about being trans or trans issues. Sahar is clearly cis, and her plot to transition is just that—a scheme that’s supposed to get her the life she wants; at every turn, Farizan makes it clear to us that this is in fact a huge mistake, that transition is not right for Sahar. There is a long tradition in literature of cross-dressing as a form of deception to help a protagonist achieve their goals, and in some ways this has contributed to trans people not being taken seriously. So perhaps that is also a reason for my discomfort with the book’s plot. However, that’s not what is happening here. This isn’t a farce in which Sahar dresses as a man and attempts to court Nasrin on the sly. She is exploring literal transition to being a man, to do so openly so that she can marry Nasrin in front of everyone. That’s a very different idea. And it’s the disconnect between what Sahar wants versus what is best for her as a person (acknowledging she is indeed cisgender and gay) that powers the conflict of this story.
Where the book falters, it’s usually a result of its short length and its style. There were so many places I wished that the book had gone deeper. Sahar’s plot is wild on its surface, and I wish Farizan had given it more time to unfurl and more conversations between Sahar and others, particularly Nasrin. Nasrin features very little in the last part of the book until the end; there’s an emotional moment where Nasrin understands what Sahar is proposing to do, but there isn’t much payoff in terms of what comes from that conversation.
As for the ending … without going into spoilers, this is where the book balances on a knife’s edge between tragedy and hope. I think one can read it either way; I personally prefer the tragic aspect because I think it makes for a more rewarding overall perspective on the story. But Farizan also does her best to remind us that there is hope. It is, alas, unrealistic to think Sahar and Nasrin could alone topple the homophobia that is embedded in Iranian law. But Farizan acknowledges very explicitly that making something illegal does not stamp it out, that there are a great many queer Iranians who are doing their best to flourish despite the oppression they face. And that, I will admit, is a reason for hope.
Ultimately, If You Could Be Mine was a thought-provoking novel. I wish it had gone further, tried to do a little more, been willing to claim more of my time and energy. But it doesn’t, and I’ll conclude that what it does manage to accomplish is still pretty good.