Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan
Genre: YA Contemporary | Diversity: Persian lesbian MC | My Rating:
High school junior Leila knows that she’s a lesbian, but she’s keeping it a secret for several reasons: she doesn’t know how her friends will react, and she’s terrified of how her Persian family will deal with the news. She already feels so different from her classmates that she doesn’t want any more attention.
When new girl shows up, Leila can’t help the feelings she has for the beautiful, charming Saskia. When it appears that Saskia might return Leila’s feelings, she’s over the moon, but not for long.
Leila struggles to confront her feelings and deal with Saskia’s erratic, confusing signals, and ends up confiding in a few people she never thought she could trust. In a world where everyone is more complicated than they appear, will Leila have the courage to be her full self?
*This review will contain mild spoilers in the the interest of saving potential readers from harm.*
I appreciated that this is an #OwnVoices book about a Persian lesbian, something that I don’t think exists anywhere else in YA. The main story follows Leila’s anxiety surrounding her sexuality, and it felt very organic. Part of her fear stems from her cultural background; in Iran, being gay is a punishable offense, and she worries that her parents will disown her if she tells them she likes girls. I also really enjoyed learning more about Persian culture, from the constant competition between kids of different families to the way different Persians practice different religions.
That being said, this book was a huge disappointment for several reasons.
biphobia & bisexual erasure
There are more characters in this book who are coded bisexual than there are gay characters. Yet for each character interested in more than one gender, their potential identity is erased.
First, there’s Leila’s ex, Anastasia, who left her for “some guy.” Anastasia is coded bisexual, but it’s never stated; instead, the reader is left to form their own judgments of this character based on biphobic stereotypes—namely, the one that says “all bisexuals will cheat on you with a person of another gender.”
We also have two other characters who refuse labels: an adult confidant of Leila’s who reveals she had a “lesbian phase” in college, yet now only dates men (read: “bisexuality is just a phase”), and a young female character who resists the bi word because she doesn’t like labels (encouraging questioning readers to also resist the bisexual label as dirty).
And finally, we have Saskia, who’s a complete caricature of all the worst stereotypes of bisexuality: she’s hyper-sexualized (and referred to as “exotic”—a hugely problematic description for a POC) and uses sex to manipulate people of multiple genders. She’s completely unfaithful (because again, “all bisexuals are cheaters”) and downright abusive at various points, sexually assaulting Leila twice. While Saskia never states that she’s bisexual, it’s implied in her stereotypical behavior.
Any of these characters could have identified as bisexual and opened up a conversation about the fluidity of sexuality, especially when you’re a teenager. Any one of them could have defied some of the stereotypes of bisexuality. Instead, they’re erased, stereotyped, and left up to reader interpretation.
Additionally, we have the only out gay character, Tomas. When he discovers that Leila’s gay, he claims to be “grossed out” presumably by the idea of having sex with a girl. He then claims that lesbians have it easier because guys think they’re hot—which is basically like saying that everyone wants to be fetishized. Throughout the book, Tomas is set up as what I personally term the Queer Mentor character: the already out character who helps the MC come to terms with their own queerness. But Tomas is constantly condescending and catty toward Leila; he’s more of a gay stereotype than a character. His problematic comments are never addressed, but somehow he’s supposed to be one of Leila’s best friends. Do Not Understand.
ableist coding of the antagonist
As the story progresses and Saskia’s behavior becomes more and more problematic, she’s repeatedly referred to as “crazy” and “psycho.” This kind of language is extremely problematic, especially since it’s not addressed. Even worse, we never find out what Saskia’s motivations were; nobody is that manipulative just to spite people, not without something that caused her to become this person. Again, there could’ve been character development and a nuanced discussion, and instead, we got problematic language thrown around.
All of this boils and simmers until we get to the climax of the story: Leila’s outing. While I appreciated the cute scene where she tells her mom and receives comfort for who she is, the adorableness is undercut by the climax: when Saskia assults and forcibly outs Leila to the entire school. I get that many queer teens are outed before they’re ready; but portraying it this way is extremely problematic. Everyone deserves to come out when they’re ready—and sometimes people don’t come out for years! Some of us are not even real out at all and we’re just fine, thank you! Sometimes it’s legitimately not safe for us to come out—which is how Leila’s story was set up, but then everything turns out okay in the end and it rings false to me.
While this might be great rep for lesbians, particularly lesbians of color, this book could be incredibly harmful for bisexuals, pansexuals, and those on the mental health spectrum. Additionally, I feel it should come with a warning due to how Leila is ultimately outed against her will. I’m giving the book 2 stars because I did appreciate getting to see a lesbian who isn’t white, but I can’t in good conscience recommend this book to queer readers.
In light of this disappointment, let’s talk about some awesome lesbian protagonists! Drop me a line in the comments and let’s share some better recs!