Sara Jafari: Writing between two cultures

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The British Iranian author of The Mismatch talks about using the lived experience of being caught between two cultures in her debut

When I first began writing The Mismatch the plot wasn’t fully formed at all in my head. You could definitely say I’m a pantser rather than a plotter. One of the things I knew I wanted to explore in my novel, though, was being between two cultures. I come from a Muslim Iranian background, though I was born in England, and grew up in a predominantly white city, and school, in East Yorkshire, so it’s something I have been balancing all my life now – and something I very much longed to read about growing up and into adulthood.

The Mismatch sees twenty-one year old Soraya Nazari newly graduated and navigating the different sides of her – namely her one side back home in Brighton with her Muslim Iranian family and her other side with her art school friends in London. Though, even within these two sides, she still presents different versions of herself – as I think we all do. The book is told in dual perspectives, though within Soraya’s sections of the story I knew there was a lot to juggle in terms of showing the different sides of her life, and what she shows of herself to certain people, and what she hides. I mainly drew on my own experiences, or feelings I’ve had in the past. Though, I also read articles about people between two cultures, too. There is a gal-dem article that I read about a woman who had to secretly mourn a break-up away from her family because they didn’t know she had a boyfriend that particularly resonated with me – and the story in The Mismatch. I’ve had various conversations with friends in similar positions too, so all of this really helped inform the book, and I hope make Soraya’s experience ring true. The actual process of writing being caught between two cultures, therefore, came very naturally – it was a cathartic experience, especially as I personally hadn’t read many novels that explore it before.

One thing that I thought would be important to the story was to show Soraya’s mother Neda’s story in the novel. So, The Mismatch is told in both dual perspectives and timelines. We see Neda in her early twenties in 1970s Tehran, and we travel with her as she moves to England. This was not initially my intention for the book, but in exploring a character like Soraya being caught between two cultures, I felt it important to delve deeper into her background and family history, so we can see why her parents are the way they are. Her parents are fairly strict with her, and I think we see that a lot in books – the strict Muslim parent. I wanted to examine this further, to show Neda’s hard past and why she tries to shelter Soraya from certain things. We see that Neda as a young adult is also rebellious against her parents – in her decision to be a practising Muslim and in choosing her husband. I really wanted to show two very different Muslim Iranian women – one who choses Islam and another who is finding her feet with it. Writing Neda’s point of view, which is essentially historical, was a bit more challenging that Soraya’s perspective. For one, it required more research – both in asking my parents about their experiences in Tehran during the 1970s, as well as reading historical books surrounding the time of the Iranian Revolution and collating pictures from the time period for inspiration.

If you are wanting to write a story about being between two cultures my top tips include:

1.    Distance yourself from the writing and characters

(Unless it is a work of non-fiction, of course!). I think most writers tend to put at least a little bit of themselves in their novels, but I think you can be a lot more creative with the writing when you allow some distance. I would also encourage you to dig deeper into the different cultures your character is between. I think there is the tendency to focus more on the Western side of the two cultures – painting that as the one the character wants to lean towards, and their other culture as the conflict – and I think to some degree that’s what Soraya is like. But with Neda’s point of view, for example, we give the reader a more balanced look at Soraya’s different cultures, which I think is important in creating a more three-dimensional story.


2.    Research is crucial.

Even if you’re describing some of your own experiences, doing research can be so inspiring to your writing, and can help move the story away from being semi-autobiographical when you’re trying to write fiction. Research is especially important if writing about being between two cultures is not related to your own background (though, if it’s not, I think it’s also worth examining why you want to write this kind of story in that case, and if you’re the right person to do so).

3.    Be aware that you cannot please everyone with your story.

What I didn’t really consider when writing The Mismatch (because being published felt like a faraway dream) was that there is a lot of expectation placed on writers of colour to represent their community, more so if they are especially under-represented in literature. This pressure can come from your own community, who finally want to see themselves in books, but may be disappointed if what they read doesn’t match their own experience. Additionally, I think, this pressure also comes from publishers and the kind of stories they want you to write. You can’t please everyone though, it’s impossible, so write the story that feels true and right to you – and try to block out the noise.

4.    Be aware that your family will eventually read what you’re writing!

If you’re writing about being between two cultures, it’s likely it’s something you’re dealing with, so ensure what you’re writing is something you’d feel comfortable with your family reading. That, or, write in a pseudonym of course!

The Mismatch by Sara Jafari is published by Arrow, £7.99

 

Read bestselling author Fanny Blake's advice on how to write different voices across generations.