Tag Archives: Middle Eastern Characters

The Never Forgotten Regret

By Amber Lough

lough-theblindwishWe all have regrets. Some are small, such as eating that extra slice or two of pie. Some are medium, such as slipping $20 from our parents’ wallet. And some are gargantuan. I don’t need to list those for you, because those are the ones that never leave the echo chamber of your mind. Those are the ones that cycle, fore and back, in your consciousness. Rarely forgiven. Never forgotten.

I wrote The Blind Wish when I was going through a period of my life in which I was making one of those gargantuan mistakes. I will not say what that was, but I will admit that it affected how I wrote and the themes that weighed on me every day when I sat down to write. It filtered into my plotting, into my drafts, and like a virus, worked its way into each building block of that novel—each word.

To say writing that novel was “hard” is like saying that climbing Mt. Everest requires “a bit of extra mountain gear.” I was crackling along the edges and all I wanted was to give up. Give up the book, give up a writing career, give up my friends, family, and give up my life.

I was halfway through writing the first draft when I checked myself into a mental health hospital. And that was before I made my biggest regret. Or was it? Sometimes, when we look back at an awful decision, we wonder: which step was the wrong one? When did I cross that line? Was there a moment when I should have turned another way?

If I had a time machine, when would I go back and make that correction?

And if I did, would I have learned anything?

That’s one of the main themes in The Blind Wish, and it’s there for a reason. In both of my Jinni Wars books, one of the characters is impulsive. She acts before she thinks. She is self-centered. She is the darker part of us built for survival. (Or maybe that’s just me.)

Many reviewers commented on Zayele in The Fire Wish. They dislike her for what she did to Najwa. She’s a fault-filled character, and many readers don’t want to see the world through her lens. But she is real, because people are this way. And it has taken me nearly a lifetime to acknowledge that I am this way—sometimes—but it doesn’t describe all that I am. A person can be self-centered and impulsive, but it does not mean they are only self-centered. When that person’s survival is threatened, she will turn inward. She is the one who survives a desert island at the expense of others—and often realizes her mistake too late.

They say writing your second novel is much more difficult than writing the first. It was true for me for many reasons. I was no longer as naïve about writing careers, I had far less time to write it than the first book, and my own life was teetering on the edge of a cliff.

But I did it. And like Zayele in both of these books, I crawled out of my own self-made destruction. I crawled out by my own two hands (and a bit of help from my friends).

If you do read these books, think about your darker impulses. Think about how you have changed others’ lives with the choices—good, bad, and gray—that you have made. I think about these things every day when I see The Blind Wish’s cover on my phone screen. It’s a reminder of what I did, and how I survived.

And though my regrets are heavy, they make everything that is good shine brighter. They make me who I am, and at the moment, I can accept this. I may not like myself all the time, but I will use that bit of Zayele that I have in me to keep me alive when the days are dark. That part of me is selfish, but it will survive when the softer, kinder part of me—the Najwa part—wants to flee all that is hard and cold.


Amber Lough is the author of The Fire Wish. She is a lover of foreign words and cultures, nearly forgotten folktales, and groups of three. She spent much of her childhood in Japan and Bahrain. Later, she returned to the Middle East as an air force intelligence officer, deployed for eight months in Bagdhad. She lives in Germany with her scientist husband and two impish children. For a pronunciation guide, a cast of characters, and more, please visit www.amberlough.com. Follow Amber on Twitter at @amberlough.

The Blind Wish is available for purchase.

Revolutionary Diversity

Rebels by Accident is about an Egyptian-American teen in Cairo during the revolutionary protests of the Arab Spring.

By Patricia Dunn


The Egyptian youth led their people into revolution so that I could write Rebels by Accident. Ok, maybe it’s not really all about me, but it was during the Arab Spring when the youth of Egypt took to the streets in protest of the thirty years of repression and censorship under the Mubarak regime that inspired me to finish Rebels by Accident. However, the inspiration for starting the book was my son Ali, who like the central character, Mariam, is an American-Egyptian-Muslim who had been bullied by other kids.

When called “son of Bin Laden,” hit on the head, and ordered to go back to where he came from — even though he was in the same New York suburbs where he was born — Ali had no problem speaking up for himself. Ali is clear about who he is and proud of his cultural identity. This incident helped me to discover that there are many kids who struggle with their cultural identities and often try to hide from the world. I wanted to write a story about how an Egyptian-American teen living in our post 9/11 world, disconnected from her culture, figures out what it means to be Egyptian and American.

I think all books of fiction, even fantasies, draw from reality and life and try to capture, in some way, the essence of our humanity. Some stories take place in the future or the past, and others depict events that are happening in the times in which we live. Rebels by Accident is a book written about a time when the teens in Egypt were using social media like Facebook to organize and speak up against the injustices they saw in their society. Yes, they were talking about music and clothing and other things that teens talk to each other about, but they were also talking about protesting in support of workers’ rights, and against government corruption and the horror of people starving while waiting in line for bread, and against censorship — some of the same struggles we experience here in our own country.

At its core this book is about revolution — the kind that happen out in the streets as well as the ones that happen inside us.

I think diversity is important in all literature but especially in YA. As a kid I grew up in a small town called the Bronx. Everyone in my immediate neighborhood was originally from Italy. My family was the “Americans” on the block. So I grew up knowing that I was different, but it was because of the stories that I read, the books I would lose myself in, books recommended to me by my school and neighborhood librarians, that I learned there was a whole world full of people who were “different,” and different was not bad, it was good, very good.

These differences made the world a place I wanted to explore and ironically, the more I did, the more I traveled, the more I learned that as diverse as we are, we also have so much in common. It’s our need to love and be loved that makes us all one people. I think so much of the hate that exists in the world, exists out of fear, fear of the unknown. I believe the more we learn about other cultures the more we grow as people, and that the more understanding we are of what we once feared, the more we find ourselves welcoming into our homes. The optimistic teen in me will forever believe that to change the world you start with one person, one voice, one story, and then you go from there. As my friend Hassan in Morocco says, “step by step.”

My hope is that Rebels by Accident will help readers to see that it’s our differences that make the world full of wonder.

patriciadunn175Patricia Dunn has appeared in Salon.com, The Christian Science Monitor, the Village Voice, the Nation, LA Weekly, and others. With an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College, where she also teaches and is the Director of the Writing Institute, this Bronx-raised rebel and former resident of Cairo settled in Connecticut, with her husband, teenage son, and toddler dog. Visit Patricia at http://ift.tt/1wpBfAg.

Rebels by Accident is now available.

Jump In, or Die

By Amber Lough

lough-thefirewishWhy is this white, straight, cisgendered girl writing for Diversity in YA? Well, besides the obvious being that I bribed Cindy Pon with copious amounts of azuki-bean dumplings, it’s probably because I wrote The Fire Wish, a distinctly Middle East-focused Fantasy.

I’d say it all goes back to when I was the first foreigner in my school in Japan, English-speaking and wide-eyed with awe and fear. I chose to go to the school because I was obsessed with Indiana Jones, and he always took the route that taught him a new language. He wanted to understand—and be a part of—each place he visited. Now, he stuck out like a sore thumb most of the time, but he did learn to respect the people he visited without romanticizing them.

That’s what I try to do, always.

My sister and me, on the right, in the geekiest Indiana Jones moment of my life.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Going to Japanese 4th grade sucked. At least, it did the first 6 months. I didn’t know the language, I was either a celebrity or a pariah, and I went from feeling pretty smart to feeling really, really stupid.

Also they made us wear these gym uniforms that exposed both my thighs and my self-consciousness. Need I say more?

Fast-forward a few years, and I was part of the school. I could speak with the kids about most things, I was passing my tests (sort of), and on good days I could pretend I was just one of the Japanese kids. I say pretend because they never let me forget who I was. They never stopped pointing it out. But we were 12. Things were mostly good.

Right then, we moved to Bahrain. I was thrust into an American-style middle school in the middle of 7th grade, in the Middle East, about one month after Aladdin came out. (Yeah that’s a lot of Middles.)

I was shocked. Shocked, I tell you! Kids were dating. And all they talked about were bands. And they passed notes in class. Also, I wasn’t able to take Arabic, which smashed my Indiana Jones dream into little bits. It took me a week to realize I had to act just like them or be excluded in all things. (Exclusion in middle school = death, just so you know.)

And that’s pretty much the root of why I wrote The Fire Wish: sometimes, we show up in a strange place, and we have to jump in with both feet or die. (With a strong undertone of “beneath the trappings of society, skin, and superstition, we all have the same fears and feelings.”)

In The Fire Wish, my two main characters trade places and must pretend to be the other one. It’s not an easy thing to do when you’ve been given no choice in the matter and failing will bring you much pain or death.

I feel very comfortable in the Middle East, and recently I’ve heard so many people naively talk about Arabs as though they are a “thing,” lumping them into one huge collective society, like they’re some sort of regional Borg. I wanted to show people that, despite what the news or their neighbor says, the Middle East is not merely a bunch of religious zealots, harems, and camels. First off, the topography is as diverse in Iraq (just to pick one country) as much of Europe. There are deserts, rivers, marshes, mountains, and fields. Second, the people are not all Muslim (and FYI, not all Muslims are Arab). Third, the people are people.

I also wrote The Fire Wish because I believe in magic and fun and am not afraid to say so.

Amber Lough lives with her husband, their two kids, and their cat, Popcorn, in Syracuse, NY. She spent much of her childhood in Japan and Bahrain. Later, she returned to the Middle East as an Air Force intelligence officer to spend eight months in Baghdad, where the ancient sands still echo the voices lost to wind and time. For a pronunciation guide, a cast of characters, and more, please  visit www.amberlough.com. Follow Amber on Twitter at @amberlough.

Notable Novels for Teens About the Arab World

By Elsa Marston

Abdel-Fattah, Randa. Where the Streets Had a Name (Scholastic 2010). Palestine, MG/YA. On a secret mission of mercy, a girl makes her way—strictly forbidden without permission from Israeli authorities—from her village into Jerusalem. [Also see this author’s books about Arab immigrants in Australia: Does My Head Look Big in This? and Ten things I Hate About Me. Both have appealing teen voice.]

Al-Maria, Sophia. The Girl Who Fell to Earth (Harper Perennial 2012). Arabian Peninsula and Egypt, YA. The daughter of a mixed marriage spends time with her father’s family in a Gulf State, tries to reconcile her two radically different heritages.

Barakat, Ibtisam. Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood (Kroupa/Farrar Straus Giroux 2007). Palestine, MG/YA. Memoir of a young girl set in a time of war and displacement, but revealing solid family experience.

Carmi, Daniella. Samir and Yonatan (Levine/Scholastic 2000). Israel/Palestinians, MG/YA. A Palestinian boy being treated in an Israeli hospital relates to the children and medical staff.

Carter, Anne Laurel. The Shepherd’s Granddaughter (Groundwood 2008). Palestine, MG/YA. In a rural village under attack from a nearby Israeli settlement, a young teenaged girl starts to broaden her horizons.

Clinton, Cathryn. A Stone in My Hand (Candlewick 2002). Palestine, MG/YA. During an outbreak of violence, a young girl in Gaza copes with loss: her father’s death and her brother’s participation in the insurrection.

Laird, Elizabeth. A Little Piece of Ground (Haymarket 2006; originally Macmillan UK 2003). Palestine, MG/YA. A boy defies Israeli-imposed curfew in his efforts to claim a place to play soccer.

Nye, Naomi Shihab. Habibi (Simon & Schuster 1997). Palestine, MG/YA. An Arab-American girl visits her father’s natal village in Palestine, under occupation, and absorbs experiences both exhilarating and distressing.

Marsden, Carolyn. The White Zone (CarolRhoda 2012). Iraq, MG. Two boy cousins cope with the sectarian strife that separates them during the fighting in Baghdad.

Marston, Elsa. Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories About Teens in the Arab World (Indiana University Press 2008). Several countries, MG/YA. Young teens in eight contrasting Arab societies face universal challenges of adolescence; the most adult story in subject matter is “Honor” (Jordan).

Perera, Anna. The Glass Collector (Whitman 2011). Egypt, YA. Valuable chiefly because of its setting in the “trash-collectors community” in Cairo.

elsamarstonWith an M.A. in international affairs from Harvard University in hand, Elsa Marston attended the American University of Beirut on a Rotary Foundation Fellowship. Sojourns in different countries, especially Lebanon, Egypt, and Tunisia, have helped inspire Elsa’a work as a children’s/YA author and specialist in literature about the region. Her most recent books are a YA biography of a remarkable Arab hero, The Compassionate Warrior: Abd el-Kader of Algeria (Wisdom Tales 2013), and Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories About Teens in the Arab World (Indiana University Press, 2008), a collection of stories set in different Arab societies, focusing on growing-up experiences that young Americans can relate to. A picture book about post-civil war Lebanon, The Olive Tree, is forthcoming in 2014.  Her website is www.elsamarston.com.


More YA and YA-friendly Books About LGBT Characters of Color

By Malinda Lo

Last October, I posted a list of YA books about LGBT characters of color. It’s been tough to find more books, so these additions expand the goal slightly and are about (1) a queer person of color protagonist; (2) a queer protagonist in a romantic relationship with a POC; or (3) a main character dealing with queer POC parents as the central story line.

Please note: Not all of these were published as “young adult” novels; some are technically “adult” novels but are about young queer people of color coming of age. Links go to Barnes & Noble; descriptions are from Worldcat.

lgbtpoc-clare-banechroniclesalllgbtpoc1 lgbtpoc2 lgbtpoc3 lgbtpoc4

The Bane Chronicles by Cassandra Clare, Maureen Johnson and Sarah Rees Brennan (Margaret K. McElderry Books)

Ten short stories about bisexual, half-Asian warlock Magnus Bane from Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments and The Infernal Devices trilogies.

Angry Management by Chris Crutcher (Greenwillow Books)

A collection of short stories featuring characters from earlier books by Chris Crutcher.

Happy Families by Tanita S. Davis (Random House Children’s Books)

In alternating chapters, sixteen-year-old twins Ysabel and Justin share their conflicted feelings as they struggle to come to terms with their father’s decision to dress as a woman.

Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole (Bella Books; originally published by HarperTeen)

Laura, a seventeen-year-old Cuban American girl, is thrown out of her house when her mother discovers she is a lesbian, but after trying to change her heart and hide from the truth, Laura finally comes to terms with who she is and learns to love and respect herself.

The Culling by Steven dos Santos (Flux)

In a futuristic world ruled by a totalitarian government called the Establishment, Lucian “Lucky” Spark and four other teenagers are recruited for the Trials. They must compete not only for survival but to save the lives of their Incentives, family members whose lives depend on how well they play the game.

For Today I Am a Boy by Kim Fu (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Peter, the only boy among four siblings born to Chinese immigrants, is convinced he is a girl and must fight the confines of a small town as well as the expectations of his parents to forge his own path into adulthood.

Mariposa Club by Rigoberto Gonzalez (Lethe Press)

Four gay high school boys start a club, and when one of them is targeted in a homophobic incident, the entire school turns to them as a symbol of grief, fear and hope.

Sister Mischief by Laura Goode (Candlewick)

Esme Rockett, also known as MC Ferocious, rocks her suburban Minnesota Christian high school with more than the hip-hop music she makes with best friends Marcy (DJ SheStorm) and Tess (The ConTessa) when she develops feelings for her co-MC, Rowie (MC Rohini).

A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar (Penguin)

Nidali, the rebellious daughter of an Egyptian-Greek mother and a Palestinian father, narrates her story from her childhood in Kuwait, her early teenage years in Egypt (to where she and her family fled the 1990 Iraqi invasion), to her family’s last flight to Texas. 

Chulito by Charles Rice-Gonzales (Magnus Books)

Set against a vibrant South Bronx neighborhood and the youth culture of Manhattan, Chulito is a coming-of-age, coming out love story of a sexy Latino man and the colorful characters that populate his block.

Blue Boy by Rakesh Satyal (Kensington Books)

Satyal’s lovely coming-of-age debut charts an Indian-American boy’s transformation from mere mortal to Krishnaji, the blue-skinned Hindu deity. Twelve-year-old Kiran Sharma’s a bit of an outcast: he likes ballet and playing with his mother’s makeup. He also reveres his Indian heritage and convinces himself that the reason he’s having trouble fitting in is because he’s actually the 10th reincarnation of Krishnaji. He plans to come out to the world at the 1992 Martin Van Buren Elementary School talent show, and much of the book revels in his comical preparations as he creates his costume, plays the flute and practices his dance moves to a Whitney Houston song. But as the performance approaches, something strange happens: Kiran’s skin begins to turn blue. Satyal writes with a graceful ease, finding new humor in common awkward pre-teen moments and giving readers a delightful and lively young protagonist.

Street Dreams by Tama Wise (Bold Strokes Books)

Tyson Rua has more than his fair share of problems growing up in South Auckland. Working a night job to support his mother and helping bring up his two younger brothers is just the half of it. His best friend Rawiri is falling afoul of a broken home, and now Tyson’s fallen in love at first sight. Only thing is, it’s another guy. Living life on the sidelines of the local hip-hop scene, Tyson finds that to succeed in becoming a local graffiti artist or in getting the man of his dreams, he’s going to have to get a whole lot more involved. And that means more problems, the least of which is the leader of the local rap crew he’s found himself running with. Love, life, and hip-hop never do things by half.

Love & Lies: Marisol’s Story by Ellen Wittlinger (Simon & Schuster) (America Latina lesbian MC)

When Marisol, a self-confident eighteen-year-old lesbian, moves to Cambridge, Massachusetts to work and try to write a novel, she falls under the spell of her beautiful but deceitful writing teacher, while also befriending a shy, vulnerable girl from Indiana.

From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun by Jacqueline Woodson (Penguin)

Almost-fourteen-year-old Melanin Sun’s comfortable, quiet life is shattered when his mother reveals she has fallen in love with a woman.

Thanks to Daisy Porter of Queer YA for many suggestions.

5 Things Jessica Martinez Learned While Writing THE VOW

By Jessica Martinez

Book cover for The Vow by Jessica Martinez (left); the author Jessica Martinez (right)

1. No Lying

Let’s start out with a little honesty: I’m not diverse. I won’t pretend to be. I’m a thirty-something, heterosexual, Christian, white woman, which is the exact opposite of diverse in this country. Thanks to my husband, I have a Hispanic last name and kids that are 1/8th Cuban. That’s it.

Now as a writer, I have two choices. I can fill my books with people who check off all the same little boxes that I do, or I can tell the stories that move me. It’s not a tough decision. Writing my own story over and over and over—that’s called writing a memoir, and I’d rather not.

The Vow has two main characters. One of them is Mo, a seventeen-year old guy from Jordan who has been living in Kentucky since he was eight. Now, I get it if Arab American teens look at the author bio at the back of the book and think, “Who does this white Canadian woman with a Hispanic last name think she is???” I totally get it. The answer to that question is I think I’m a writer. I wonder about things. I spend a lot of time imagining about what it would be like to be somebody else, be born somewhere else, be faced with different choices, and I write stories out of all that wondering.

But if I want my stories to be any good, honesty is key—both with myself and with my characters. When I sat down to write The Vow I felt like the combination of my research and my life experiences could take me pretty far into Mo’s world. But I had to be real about what I couldn’t do, which is why this book is not about religion. Part of that is because I wanted immigration and national/cultural identity to take center stage, but it’s also because I know all the research in the world wouldn’t put me in a place where I could accurately portray what it’s like to be raised in a deeply religious Muslim family. I think even if I tried my hardest, I’d get it just a little bit wrong, and I have enough respect for the religion and my readers not to get it wrong. So Mo is Muslim, but he isn’t devout. That’s a choice I made to keep this book honest. Writing good characters means being truthful to what the character was purporting to be, and while I don’t preach “write what you know,” there’s something to be said for “don’t write what you know you’ll never know.”

2. Lie Your Pants Off

So I just said not to lie, except of course you have to lie. Writing fiction is lying. When I write, I morph into my characters, and despite all the borders I had to cross to go from being me to being Mo, I have more in common with him than most of the other characters I’ve written. Mo isn’t so fundamentally different that I couldn’t imagine what it was like to be him. Fiction is what happens when you’re lying so completely that you’ve forgotten you’re lying, which is why Mo made me forget that I wasn’t actually a seventeen-year-old Arab American boy. It was kind of a cool place to be.

3. No Fear

The thing about writing diverse characters when you’re not actually diverse is that you occasionally have to stare at yourself in the mirror and completely freak out. Picture me doing this screaming, “Who do you think you are Martinez?!” I’d generally let the spaz session run its course, and then I’d go back, sit down in front of the computer, and continue writing.

My fear—that everyone was going to think I was full of crap—was legitimate, but even the legitimate fears can kill a book. I learned to ignore it. Now that the book is about to release, the fear rears its ugly head occasionally (cue mirror-screaming fits!) but luckily it’s already out of my hands. I could hold down the delete key on my computer for a week, and The Vow would still be coming out into the world. EEEEEEEEEEK!

4. Be Very Afraid

All that courage notwithstanding, there are healthy things to fear. Like stereotypes. The fear of making Mo a caricature made me determined that the interesting thing about him would not be his ethnicity. In making him a unique person, though, I didn’t want to create a character that Arab American teenagers would look at and feel misrepresented by. I really wrestled with this. In the end, I decided that Mo isn’t an Arab American ambassador to the world. He certainly doesn’t represent all the Muslim teenagers in this country. Mo is just Mo. That’s all. He’s brilliant and hilarious and neurotic and loyal. He’s one person, one story, and those things about him—his ethnicity, his religion—those are crucial elements to his story. They affect who he is, and they can’t be separated from the plot or his character, but Mo doesn’t define those categories. Mo is just Mo.

5. Own It

Somewhere during the writing process, I decided to shove my imposter complex in the closet, and own the research that I’d done. Because I did a lot of research. I have a stack of books marked with stickies and marginal notes, fiction and non-fiction written by and/or about Arabs in America, the Middle East, Europe, etc. And while relatively few of those details made their way into The Vow, the reading gave me a sense of ownership and ease while writing. For example, none of this book actually takes place in the Middle East, but I read several books that do, one written by young American man living in Jordan there for a year. It was fascinating, and his reality gave me some frame of reference for what Mo might face if he was sent back to Jordan.

The research also allowed me to be comfortable straying from stereotypes while still staying within what would be normal or expected of a non-devout Muslim immigrant family in America. Brace for the music analogy: I find research to be like practicing scales. You never actually perform scales, but you can just tell by listening to someone if they haven’t practiced them enough. (Seriously? Must I always make a music analogy? Apparently I must.)

More owning it: I may not be diverse, but I’ve had experiences that make this story mine to tell. I taught a year of school in an east London neighborhood that was almost entirely Bangladeshi immigrants. I saw my students there form identities somewhere between two worlds, and I wondered what would happen if they ever left their unintegrated neighborhood and tried to belong in either the Western world or the Middle East. I’d spent the previous year teaching high school in a small town in Indiana. It was 2001, the year the twin towers fell and the year we went to war with Iraq. I don’t think there was a single Arab student at that school, but the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim comments I heard from my students were staggering. Looking at my sweet, unsuspecting Bangladeshi British students the following year, I had to wonder what would happen if one of them was transplanted into the environment I had just come from.

I didn’t write this book to spice up my work with a little diversity. And I didn’t write it to cater to the cry for more diverse characters, although that would’ve been a valid reason. I wrote it because I felt compelled by that seed that had been germinating in my brain for a decade. The precise idea for the plot came as I was waking up one Sunday morning, and I was so instantly thrilled by it that I practically jumped out of bed. Some writers get a killer idea every other day. I’m more like once a year, so I can’t afford to throw them away because I’m too scared to put the research work in, or because I might not be the right ethnicity/religion/race/sex for the job, or because it pushes me to do something I’ve never done before. No way. I knew this idea was all mine to write.

The Vow is now available. Visit Jessica Martinez at her website or follow her on Twitter.

5 Things Sara Farizan Learned by Writing IF YOU COULD BE MINE

By Sara Farizan

1. Write the Story You Want to Tell


If you had told me around four years ago that a young adult novel about Iranian lesbians who explore the idea of gender reassignment surgery to stay together would have been published, I would have laughed in your face and said “I have a manuscript just like that!” The goal for most writers is to be published, but I wrote If You Could Be Mine as my graduate school thesis and as a project of passion. I didn’t really think about who would want to read it or if it was marketable or if it was worthy of representation, but I wrote it because as a teenager I wanted books that spoke to both my cultural identity and my identity as a lesbian. Is that a niche market? Sure! But I know there were a lot of kids like me who perhaps weren’t gay or Iranian but are very different from the characters they continue to read about over and over again.

I know how lucky I am because I have many friends who are trying to get published and I know I have won the lottery. While I am very, very lucky that this book was picked (thank you Algonquin Young Readers and Elise Howard), I have always written because it makes me feel better. Reading and writing have always made me feel less alone and less afraid. So I encourage all of you writers out there to tell the story you have been itching to tell, not just because you never know who may want to publish it, but because everyone has a story inside of them that will make you feel better once you let it out.

2. I Worry All the Time

I worry about the fact that I have set a story in a country that I don’t live in but have strong ties to and question whether I have the right to set a story there. I worry that I am cisgendered and have written trans characters and don’t know if it is my place to do so. I worry that I am expected to have all the answers to everyone’s questions about Iran, which I don’t because it is a country of 70 million people and the story I have written is a novel and not a research paper. I worry someone won’t like what I have to say at an author visit and may come with pitchforks or throw rotten fruit at my head. I worry that my parents may get an unfriendly call or I will learn that I can’t visit Iran again. I worry that my writing isn’t very good. I worry about the next project and will it live up to this one. I worry about bringing attention to myself and other Iranian-Americans because I have always tried to be a good representative but what if this book just brings negative attention to people like me.

I quell those worries with a good swim, a therapy session, NBA basketball games on TV and try to just focus on the task at hand and not give in to the swirling and constant anxieties in my head. I wrote this work coming from a place of help and not hurt and hopefully if it gets to the right readers, that’s all I can hope for.

3. I Learned A Lot About Myself

While the story and characters are fictional, I needed my setting and the rules of that setting to be authentic. So I went to Iran for a summer and had reservations about doing so as I hadn’t been there in quite some time.

Tehran at dusk (Photo courtesy of the author)

I got to see more of where my parents grew up and met people who knew them before they were my parents. I was speaking a language that I rarely get to practice in my day to day life in the States and even in my slip-ups and forgetting a word here and there I was amazed at how much I could converse with people and how much I understood. I felt at home and very foreign at the same exact time. My trip also re-affirmed the fact that no matter where you are in the world, if you respect that culture and the people living there, people will show you respect in return. I thought about how fortunate I am to come from such a rich culture, but am happy to live in a Western society. I learned that I will probably never set another book in Iran because of all the complications that come with doing that.

4. Visibility Is So Important

(Photo: The author and her book!)

When I learned If You Could Be Mine was going to be published, I considered having a pen name and being anonymous. The issues tackled in the book are not easy, especially given the community I am coming from. My greatest concern was my family because I didn’t want any harm to come to anyone. My parents and I discussed it at great length and we decided that if I can be out and proud and be able to speak to people about these issues then that gives people the opportunity for readers to ask questions, to learn more, and I have a better chance at changing people’s hearts and minds.

My first event was on the book’s birthday of August 20th and my parents invited all of their Persian friends to the store, which was very daunting to say the least because it ended up being a coming out party as well. While I was very nervous about their reaction, I was so blown away by how gracious and kind the people in attendance were.

My grandmother has a friend who I have known since I was a baby and in recent years she would always ask me if I have a boyfriend or plan on getting married anytime soon. Well after the bookstore event she called my mother, this very conservative, traditional Iranian woman and said ‘Sara has made me change the way I think about gay people.’ And if nothing else, I think putting myself out there will hopefully make it a little easier for teenagers, no matter what their background, to be their authentic selves.

5. People Are Wonderful

I am always very humbled and blown away by the kindness of readers and people I meet on the road. I think it’s very easy to be mean and much more difficult to be kind and I am always very moved by people I have met on this journey. If people come out to see me or hear me read, I want to spend time with them, I want to thank them for coming, I want to learn about them. And maybe I will be a one-hit wonder or the Vanilla Ice of LGBT YA literature, but this experience and meeting the people I have has been amazing.

If You Could Be Mine is now available. Follow Sara Farizan on Twitter.

5 Things Leslie Stella Learned While Writing PERMANENT RECORD

By Leslie Stella


1. Why The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier continues to be an important book


I read this in high school, and it was a grim read to be sure, but one that stuck with me. In Permanent Record, Badi connects with The Chocolate War for several reasons, beginning with his own refusal to sell his school’s fund-raising candy. But it gets deeper and more complex for Badi, who is already suffering at the hands of his classmates because of his background (he is a first-generation Iranian-American). He is drawn to The Chocolate War, instinctively recognizing its accurate portrayal of human cruelty and conformity as something heading straight for him. Bullies grow up. If we don’t do anything to stop them, they’ll go on to become CEOs, senators, or worse.

2. Do not quote song lyrics

In the original draft, there was a divergent plotline centering on quoting about 6 lines of lyrics from a song by The Cure. At the time, I thought, “Oh, we’ll secure the permissions for those later. How hard can it be?” Getting permission from the rights holder of any song is a giant clusterfuck! Do not do it! For one thing, it’s the author’s responsibility to secure permissions, not the publisher’s. So it took forever for me to find out who actually held the rights (it wasn’t the group), petitioning them, spending months waiting for no response, deleting all references to the lyrics, and finally making up my own lyrics to replace them (which worked out better anyway). When I finally did hear from the rights holder after 5 months, they wanted at least a thousand dollars to use the lyrics. I can’t remember the exact amount because my head exploded.

3. The intricacies of minor explosives


When you write a character whose primary interests are botany, competitive croquet, and the chemical properties of compounds that explode when combined, you spend a lot of time in research. However, I now know how to rig up a toilet to explode remotely.

4. Persian cuisine

I based Badi’s relatives on a family that my family was friends with when I was in high school. A lot of the dishes that appear in Permanent Record I remember eating with this family (the mom was an incredible cook). I looked up these recipes while I was writing and tried my hand at some of them, and I have to say that I make great falafel and orange chicken koresh.

5. Even nerds can be mean

When writing a book about bullying, it’s easy to fall into stereotypes such as jocks = bad, band and theatre geeks and Mathletes = good. But there are nasty folks in every social strata, and decent ones too. There are streaks of kindness and cruelty in all of us; only constant vigilance keeps you on the side you want to be on.

Visit Leslie Stella at her website.