Sara Jafari on The Mismatch
We meet Sara Jafari to discuss The Mismatch, her new novel exploring second-generation Iranian identity and its relationship to romantic and sexual desire
A sexual revolution has been staged in our literary and cultural landscape. Its roots, like those of all good revolutions, are shifting and gradual, but its beloved leaders are known to all: Sally Rooney, Candice Carty-Williams, Raven Leilani. By the time Phoebe Waller-Bridge was staring into a camera barely two minutes into her TV series Fleabag to describe last night’s anal sex in anatomical detail, the movement had well and truly arrived.
Sara Jafari’s debut novel The Mismatch is very much a product of this sexually curious zeitgeist, with only the smallest of twists: its protagonist – 21-year-old British-Iranian Soraya – has never kissed anyone, let alone had sex. The child of Muslim Iranian immigrants, Soraya has been brought up in a household where virginity is prized and sex before marriage is unthinkable, and now – confronted with the end of university and the looming dread of adulthood – is forced to navigate the tension between her didactic upbringing and her desires. Half romance, half tender coming-of-age alternating between Soraya’s story and her mother Neda’s marriage in the aftermath of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Jafari’s novel probes into the nature of repressed desire, and the ways in which cultural context moulds sexuality in unspoken ways.
"It is culture more than religion," Jafari says thoughtfully. "The way her parents tell her she shouldn't do certain things, that's definitely culture. And I think being brought up in that way makes you see sex as something that's quite dirty. I was intrigued by that – I wanted to show the struggle internally when you’re brought up British Iranian and you've got friends who do whatever they want, and you've still got these teachings in your head. I wanted to explore the push and pull of it."
For Jafari, the specificity of the second-generation immigrant experience is crucial to thinking through ideas of desirability, and the ways in which Soraya understands, or fails to understand, herself as a sexually viable person. It is an experience that extends beyond her protagonist, Jafari stresses, a dislocation between wanting and being wanted that informs the coming-of-age-experience of many visibly othered second-generation immigrants.
"Growing up she wouldn’t have been seen as someone desirable," Jafari says. "That was my own experience anyway; I grew up in an all-white school and I wasn't seen as attractive because I wasn't like the people around me. I think that, as well as her upbringing, is why she doesn't see herself as particularly sexual. It’s something quite relatable for people of colour in general, how in high school you're less likely to get attention from boys or girls. It’s something my friends at university and I all related to: not feeling very attractive when we were younger and having to learn to see yourself in a sexual way."
It is the act of writing that became, for Jafari, a way of counteracting this isolation, of offering plurality in a culture still obsessed with the rigid binaries of promiscuous or pure, of sexually liberated or oppressed. "I had written an article for gal-dem a while back about the complexities of virginity coming from a British Muslim background," Jafari says. "It was quite a personal piece but so many people messaged to say they related to it. I still get messages from people who say they just don't see these ideas explored in writing ever. It made me feel less alone, which was the starting point for writing The Mismatch. Especially growing up, there weren't many Iranian stories out there. I wrote the book because I really wanted to help other people feel reflected in the stories they read. In a way, I wrote it for myself."
The importance of representation becomes even more crucial within the romance genre, Jafari argues, a genre predicated on a collapse in boundaries between the narrative and the reader, on a capacity for self-insertion and unfettered fantasy. Its overwhelmingly white history is a concrete demonstration of who is socially and culturally given access to these spaces, of whose sexuality is imagined generously and complexly. What The Mismatch does, then, feels radical. Spotlighting not only Soraya’s relationship with her love interest Magnus but also the private evolution of her desires as an Iranian Muslim immigrant, the novel sketches a fizzy portrait of young love whose specific cultural complications only serve to make it all the more accessible.
"Sareeta Domingo, the editor of Who's Loving You [a romance anthology to which Jafari has contributed], talks about how it can be really damaging, growing up reading romances and never seeing yourself in them, because you think you're not worthy of love," Jafari says. "I think love is joy, and if we don't see ourselves in it, it makes it seem like we're not worthy of joy." Thanks to Jafari and her contemporaries, the revolution has definitely arrived – and it’s a joyous one.
The Mismatch is out now via Penguin