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Black Women Directors is the perfect Tumblr for your summer movie needs

by Joneka Percentie

SPARK’s ongoing Black Women Create  project highlights Black women working to create complex characters and fighting limited representation in the film and television industries through writing, directing, and producing. That’s why I was so excited to come across this tumblr called Black Women Directors, which has the same mission.

Black Women Directors acts as a directory for feature and short films and webseries created by Black women. There are over thirty posts on the blog so far with no hint at stopping. Black Women Directors was created by Danielle A. Scruggs, a photographer and cultural producer, as an online resource dedicated to highlighting and celebrating the work of self identifies women filmmakers of African descent across the diaspora. Here are some great projects BWD highlighted from this past year alone:

Cecile EmekeStrolling

Synopsis: “‘Strolling’ is a short documentary film series created by Cecile Emeke where we take a stroll with people in various cities and countries around the world. The web series works to connect stories of Black experiences scattered across the African diaspora.”

In addition to Strolling, Emeke has been making waves with Flâner, the French version of the webseries (pictured above), and Ackee and Saltfish, a short film turned webseries. Emeke emphasizes the importance of highlighting the Black British experience through directing and writing.

Christine SwansonFor the Love of Ruth

Synopsis: “Ruth Summerling has spent the majority of her life struggling to find her way and comes to some understanding of where exactly it is she belongs. A film adaptation of the Book of Ruth.”

For the Love of Ruth aired on TV One in May and featured performances by Denise Boutte and Loretta Divine. Christine Swanson directed the film and is also the owner of independent motion picture production company Faith Filmworks. Some of Swanson’s other projects include Woman Thou Art Loosed, All About Us, and To Hell and Back.

Akousa Adoma OwusuBlack Sunshine

Synopsis: “Black Sunshine tells the story of hairdresser, ROSEMARY KONADU, and her 12-year-old albino daughter, COCO. Rosemary longs to escape her frustrating African reality. Black Sunshine examines albino Africans as tropes for cross-cultural identity while creatively engaging in representations of beauty and unbalanced power relations in the intricacies of everyday life.”

Akosua Adoma Owusu was one of four selected for the World Cinema Fund, a project by the German Federal Cultural Foundation, the Berlin International Film Festival, and the Goethe-Institut. Owusu received 40,000 euros, over 44,000 US Dollars for production funding. Owusu’s other projects include Split Ends, I Feel Wonderful, Revealing Roots, and Me Broni Ba (My White Baby).

Lyric R Cabral(T)ERROR

Synopsis: “Shot over the course of two years and with unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to a counterterrorism sting, (T)ERROR feels like a political spy novel set in your own hometown. A faceless character throughout, the FBI is an omnipresent force, pushing hard for results as ***** slowly closes in on his target. As secrets emerge from his past, ***** is caught between the consequences of his double life and mounting pressure from his handlers.”

Lyric Cabral is a photojournalist, cinematographer, and filmmaker whose debut project with David Fellow Sutcliff earned the US Documentary Special Jury Award: Break Out First Feature  at Sundance. “I came to realize that a photo essay has narrative limitations,” she told Filmmaker Magazine, “and cannot reveal the nuances and complexities of the stories that I am drawn to tell. I thus embraced observational filmmaking as a means of becoming a better journalist, in order to more truthfully bear witness to the realities of my subjects and to tell a more complete story.”

Tiona McCloddenKILO | Iba se 99.

Synopsis: “Iba se 99. takes inspiration from an excerpt of a report produced by the Women’s Bureau division of the United States Department of Labor titled Negro Women War Workers, published in 1945. The film is also an exploration of the relationship between the US Navy Flag signal Kilo which has the assigned message of “I wish to communicate with you”, the first 12 Black women allowed to work on the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1942, and the Orisha Ochosi.”

“I’m interested in Blackness and nostalgia; and how the past, present, and future can intersect visually and thematically within time based work. I’m invested in exploring intersubjectivities within Black communities as a tool for creating insider perspectives within film, time based works, and objects,” McClodden said on her website. Some of McClodden’s other projects include THE CHILLS and roots.|&| rigor.

Dee ReesBessie

Synopsis: Bessie details the life of the iconic 1920’s blues singer Bessie Smith.

“I wanted to show Bessie almost as a liberator who sang around the countryside, singing for her folks. She’s coming to represent freedom, she’s coming to represent sexual freedom for all these people.” said Dee Rees in an interview with Indiewire. Bessie earned a Critics Choice Award for Best Movie Made for Television with performances from Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique.

Marquette JonesForgiving Chris Brown

Synopsis: “Forgiving Chris Brown is a dark comedy short that follows the follies of ‘Rihanna,’ ‘Halle’ and ‘Tina.’ These stylish girlfriends hope to heal their battered hearts through the old-fashioned way – Revenge. The emotional baggage they carry ties them together and makes for some unorthodox fun.”

Marquette Jones is an award-winning director, writer, and producer who studied at New York University. Some of Jones’ other projects include Round on Both Sides, Streets to Suites, and Jackie.

Black Women Directors is directly in line with what Black Women Create aims to accomplish: highlighting the projects and voices of Black women in order to introduce new and diverse talent in an industry that has so often silenced them. It is so important to support Black women filmmakers and their work, so make sure to check out their projects and the rest of the films included on Black Women Directors! You can keep up with Black Women Directors on tumblr and Twitter.

Research Blog: There’s no crying in basketball! (But I did anyway.)

by Stephanie M. Anderson

Growing up, I loved being active: climbing trees, riding bikes, building obstacle courses, you name it. If it involved dirt, even better. I loved testing my body’s limits, not to mention my parents’ nerves (but that’s another story). Once I was old enough to play an organized sport – basketball in particular – I discovered my passion for being a part of a team. On the court, I loved the challenge: Could I run faster? Jump higher? Make a three-point shot? Dish out the perfect assist? Although the passing genius Steph Curry wasn’t around yet, I like to believe that our shared namesake destined me to become a point guard. That, and I’m pretty short…

Although I played on the basketball team in middle school, high school was where it was at, where the real competition happened. Unlike many areas in the US, where girls’ sports aren’t considered as good or important as boys’ sports, where I grew up – in southeastern Michigan – girls’ basketball was BIG. So big that a section of the local newspaper was dedicated to covering the latest action of our games. Hundreds of people – students, community members, parents – would come to watch our games. It was the best.

And then during a game early in my freshman year I heard it: “Hey, piggy! Piggy!!” A group of boys from a rival school taunted me: “Have some more Cheetos piggy!” They harassed me not only at this one game, but also in several games to come.

I’m not going to pretend that before this hackling I had never been self-conscious about my body. Puberty already feels like a time of bodily betrayal, and like so many other girls, nothing ever seemed quite right. My calves were too big; my thighs rubbed; my lady six-pack was nowhere to be found.

But “piggy” hit deeper.

See, I was the “fat” kid growing up (read: I was kinda cubby), cursed with what other kids decided were “chipmunk cheeks.” So being called “piggy” in high school wasn’t necessarily anything new. But, at age 14, I had hoped to escape my chipmunk days. I was devastated, not to mention humiliated, to learn that my body still invited critique. I wondered to myself, If these boys think this, surely others do too? I loved playing, but the thought of continual public shaming paralyzed me.

Thinking back on this experience makes me wonder how it is today. How do girls feel about their bodies while playing sports? Are they teased, and if so, by whom? How does teasing affect them?

Researchers, Slater and Tiggemann[1] had similar questions. They wanted to know if being teased about how we do physical activities relates to the types of sports we choose and how we feel about ourselves. They also wanted to know if experiences of teasing carry different consequences for boys than for girls.

To find out, they asked 332 girls and 382 boys (ages 12-16) to answer questions about the types of sports and physical activities they do and if they’ve been teased while doing them. They also asked questions about how they feel about their bodies and if they’ve ever had body image concerns.

What did they find?

First, they found that although a large percentage of both girls (66%) and boys (78%) participated in an organized sport, girls were more likely to be teased while playing. For example, girls were more likely to be laughed at because of how they looked or made fun of for not being coordinated (think: “you throw like a girl!”). Girls were also more likely to be stared at or called names related to their weight or size than boys were (much like those boys called me “piggy”).

What effects does being teased have, you might ask? Well, perhaps not surprisingly, for both girls and boys, the more they were teased, the more likely they were to feel ashamed of their bodies or to think about their bodies as objects (self-objectify). This rings true to my experience big time. For me, being called “piggy” made me self-conscious about how I looked –so much so, that I used to stare at myself in the mirror in uniform thinking about how I probably looked playing basketball.

But unlike my experience, girls in this study reported that both boys and girls teased them. So they weren’t just being made fun of by people watching them, they were also made fun of by girls who were playing alongside them – their teammates.

Once girls reach puberty they are less likely to remain physically active.[2] Although we don’t yet understand all of the reasons why, being made fun of for how they exercise, criticized about their weight or bodies, or other types of taunting may help explain why girls withdraw or quit. It seems that even though playing sports is good for us in lots of ways,[3] it is not always a “safe space.”

Despite being bullied – or perhaps to spite those who bullied me – I remain active, and I still play basketball. Being taunted didn’t make me quit, but it certainly made it harder to concentrate and to love my body. We all know what they say about sticks and stones, but I know words can hurt, especially when they come from our peers. So instead of tearing each other down, let’s help one another to feel the power of our bodies when we put them in motion.



[1] Slater, A., & Tiggemann, M. (2011). Gender differences in adolescent sport participation, teasing, self-objectification and body image concerns. Journal of Adolescence34(3), 455-463.

[2] Caspersen, C. J., Pereira, M. A., & Curran, K. M. (2000). Changes in physical activity patterns in the United States, by sex and cross-sectional age. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, (32), 1601-9.

[3] Fox, K. R. (2000). The effects of exercise on self-perceptions and self-esteem. In S. J. H. Biddle, K. R. Fox, & S. H. Boutcher (Eds.), Physical activity and psychological well-being (pp. 88-117). London: Routledge.

Annalise Keating and Claire Underwood aren’t “Strong Female Characters”–and that’s why I love them

by Annemarie McDaniel

I watch quite a bit of TV, from the classic one-episode-a-week shows on primetime television to newer habits of binge-watching an entire season on Netflix. The shows I watch are all wonderful in their own unique ways, but there are two shows in particular I can’t stop obsessing over: How To Get Away With Murder and House of Cards. It took me a while to realize why I am still so head-over-heels in love with these two shows. Yes, they’re written very well. Of course, the acting is phenomenal. Sure, maybe part of it is the pop-culture hype around them. But there was something more to How To Get Away With Murder and House of Cards.

It was the cunning, emotional, independent women protagonists that felt so fresh and exciting to me. The shows themselves were great, but it was actually Annalise Keating of How To Get Away With Murder and Claire Underwood of House of Cards that I couldn’t stop thinking about.

At first glance, what makes Claire and Annalise unique is how they act as villainous as other male characters on television. Both women have threatened, manipulated, seduced, lied, cheated, and practically killed their way to the top of the pecking order: Claire snagging the prize of being America’s First Lady, and Annalise winning the reputation of being a top lawyer and law school professor. Furthermore, although both women acknowledge they may have made some missteps along the way, neither show is about the characters are on the show to show their remorse for their often immoral actions. Just like the male characters, they did what they had to do to get to the top.

But it’s not that they’re Strong Female Characters, a phrase meant to describe women in any form of media who appear to be tough, boss ladies but are actually annoyingly one-dimensional. They have awesome skills like killing off five bad guys at once while wearing a tight leather bodysuit; but that’s it, that’s all they bring to the table. Typically the Strong Female Character ends up being totally irrelevant to the plot; she’s a tool for the male character’s storyline and serves more as eye-candy than world-saver.

Annalise Keating and Claire Underwood are definitely not generic Strong Female Characters.

Part of it is that HTGAWM and House of Cards show Annalise and Claire in real, dynamic romantic relationships. They both deal with marriage and infidelity; some mistakes are their own and some are their spouses’. The viewer witnesses intimate moments when the characters or their spouses experience personal breakdowns, and the honest love and intimacy within their relationships. So often Strong Female Characters tend to be physically or intellectually intimidating, able to out-fight or out-smart in a second, but rarely show any real romantic depth. While other male characters in the show start relationships, fall in love, or even just joke about their casual hook-ups, typically, women’s relationships remain a mystery. The viewer gets one or two lines about her relationship, whether it’s that she’s too career-driven to have successful relationships, that she’s a player hooking up with men left and right, that she’s in an unhappy relationship now, or that she went through a past painful breakup that scarred her. But that’s all the depth we get. It’s supposed to be a part of what makes them “strong;” they don’t need men or intimacy because Strong Female Characters aren’t overly emotional. And when a Strong Female Character does get more romantic depth, it’s often the male character teaching her how to be more intimate, trusting, passionate or generally more “soft.” It’s important to have women characters like that on TV since there are women like that in the world, but it gets irritating when every single lady on the show falls into the same “independent woman” trope.

Although Annalise and Claire know when to support, to forgive and to love their husbands, they also when it’s time to call them out, to snap them back into acceptable behavior, and if all else fails, when to leave them without apology. That’s part of what makes Annalise Keating of HTGAWM different from Olivia Pope of Scandal, another Shondaland show I watch religiously. Olivia Pope, like Annalise Keating, is a multi-faceted and interesting character: sharp but arrogant, driven but vicious, motivating but terrifying, realistic but cynical. However, where Scandal departs from HTGAWM is in their love lives. Unlike Scandal, HTGAWM (and similarly House of Cards) isn’t about falling devastatingly in love or out of love with men who are controlling, manipulative, and all-consuming. It’s become painful to watch four seasons of Olivia continuously stay on the emotional roller coaster her lovers create, with her lovers constantly obsessing over her every word and move (often using national intelligence resources to literally bug or track her). Annalise and Claire are married to controlling, sometimes abusive men as well, like Olivia, but their relationships aren’t their whole identity. Annalise and Claire define their personal value as more than just their ability to love and be loved, especially when the relationship becomes toxic. Annalise and Claire know when it’s time to try again to fix a marriage, and when it’s time to leave.

Lastly, HTGAWM and House of Cards are refreshing because Annalise and Claire aren’t the only complex female characters. Annalise’s law team includes Laurel, Michaela, and Bonnie, who are just as dynamic and imperfect as Annalise, not to mention their main client, Rebecca. Similarly, Claire and her husband Frank, who are handling his re-election campaign, face not one but two women opponents running for the presidency. Both Heather Dunbar and Jackie Sharp struggle with what it means to run for the Oval Office as a woman and how ruthless is too ruthless on the campaign trail, all while also juggling families and relationships.

If you haven’t caught up on HTGAWM or House of Cards yet, I’d suggest you block out the next day or two of your life to binge-watch these new classics. Just like their female characters, these shows are not perfect, but that’s half the fun of watching.

 

Research blog: sexual objectification as everyday trauma

by Jennifer Chmielewski

Like many women, I have put up with my share of sexual harassment, subway groping, and just dealing with plain old creepy dudes. This issue is so commonplace (women have been speaking up about it for ages) that the NYC MTA actually announces now that “a crowded subway is no excuse for unlawful sexual conduct.” I’ve had a range of responses to these attacks, from a hushed and demure ‘please stop,’ to snide laughs that say ‘you have no power over me’ to verbal and physical altercations that leave me feeling grateful I got out okay. One thing that is always constant though is that afterwards, I have nights where I toss and turn, thinking about the encounter. Why did I ask him to ‘please stop’ like it was a polite request? Why couldn’t I just stand up for myself like the strong woman that I am? I wish I had been a little tougher, a little snarkier, or made a scene to put the guys in their place. Or in recalling the times I do stand up and fight back, I wonder, what if that guy had gotten angrier… what could have happened?

In the end, I usually end up feeling helpless because I know there is no good response and yet I end up wanting to know what I can do to protect myself, to feel safe and stop feeling vulnerable. There has been a lot of talk in the media lately about the ways in which young college women are demanding that the psychological impacts of rape and institutional neglect be recognized as trauma. In our past SPARK research blogs we have talked about the ways in which experiences of sexual objectification can make our brains freeze up or discourage us from making a difference through activism.

But I have been wondering lately about how experiencing sexual objectification and ogling (and fearing that it may happen) day after day may actually be a kind of trauma itself. Research has found that experiencing racism over the lifetime is a form of trauma that is harmful to mental and physical health – is sexism too? We live in a world where our bodies as women are constantly examined, scrutinized, and sometimes touched or commented on against our will. These may not always be the most violent experiences, but what do these mean for our psyches and bodies over time?

To find out, I started digging through new research and it turns out researchers Haley Miles-McLean, Miriam Liss, Mindy J. Erchull, Caitlin M. Robertson, Charlotte Hagerman, Michelle A. Gnoleba, and Leanna J. Papp[1] from the University of Mary Washington had been interested in this idea too (you know what they say about great minds…).

They wanted to see whether experiences of sexual objectification were actually related to trauma symptoms. They asked 337 adult women how often they feel their bodies being evaluated by others and how often they experience unwanted sexual advances (i.e. being grabbed or pinched in a private area against their will). They also measured body shame (i.e. feeling bad if they gain weight) and trauma symptoms (like spacing out, having nightmares, or sexual problems).

Unfortunately, they found what I expected: women who experience more evaluation of their bodies by others and women who experience more unwanted sexual advances also had more body shame and more trauma symptoms. Ultimately, although experiences of sexual harassment and objectification may not be what we normally think of as a traumatic experience (like rape or war), when they are added up over time they really have the same kinds of effects for women. 

Sadly, all of this makes sense, especially in a world where our experiences of sexual violation are not taken seriously. When 35 women come forward about Bill Cosby raping them and the public still doesn’t believe them, who cares about one woman’s experiences of harassment? One guy I know (certainly not a friend) said he was sick of hearing women complain about street harassment so much – they should just take the compliment. And he is not the only one who mansplains and minimizes this issue. But having someone harass you on the street definitely sucks, and when it happens to you every day, when you protest (or don’t) and neither strategy works, when you stew in your bedroom later about all of the things you should have done differently – this is when you’re experiencing real and deep pain. This is when you don’t feel so resilient and powerful anymore. Slowly and insidiously, trauma has crept in.

Frankly, it all leaves me feeling confused as hell. When some dude harasses me on the street, what am I supposed to do? If I don’t say anything, I’ll kick myself later for it, wishing I had done something, feeling vulnerable, like I let him win. If I do speak up, I may be seen as overly sensitive, unable to ‘take a compliment’ or a ‘joke,’ or I may become more vulnerable to violence from perpetrators. But the worst part is, no matter what I do, I wind up feeling like my body is not my own and that I am never completely safe. And that, dear reader, is what trauma feels like.

Trauma is not just when a huge awful thing happens to you. It happens when you add up weeks, months or a lifetime of smaller traumas like sexual harassment in a culture where women’s bodies are so often viewed as objects to be ogled. Despite the mansplaining that goes on to justify these kinds of violations (like from my not-friend), we need to recognize that sexual harassment can have serious consequences for our health. So let’s not blame ourselves for what happens or how we feel when we experience these violations. I may not always respond how I want to when I am harassed, but that’s not my problem and it is not my fault. It is all of our responsibilities to create the space for me (and you) to move freely and passionately in our bodies without worrying about that creepy dude.



[1] Miles-McLean, H., Liss, M., Erchull, M. J., Robertson, C. M., Hagerman, C., Gnoleba, M. A., & Papp, L. J. (2014). “Stop looking at me!” Interpersonal sexual objectification as a source of insidious trauma. Psychology of Women Quarterly.

 

I’m too young to vote, but I’m still stoked for Britain’s General Election

by Georgia Luckhurst

It’s funny, but until about two months ago, I really couldn’t have cared less about British politics. In the UK, where a historically two-party system forms our political culture, the political scene appeared tired to me: overwhelmingly dominated by middle-aged white men who didn’t really seem particularly interested in the lives of anyone who hadn’t received the same educational or financial privileges as they had. (Also, a reminder: the UK still has an unelected legislative chamber, the House of Lords, which includes people who inherited their power because of family legacy and titles. We also still have a monarch. So you’ll understand why so-called British “democracy” maybe didn’t excite me and many other teenagers as much as it could do.)

Today though, the British electorate will be voting in what could be the most exciting election in British history. I say that because nobody knows what is going to happen. What was once a two-horse race between Labour and the Conservatives has turned into an opportunity for parties like the Greens, Plaid Cymru (the Welsh Nationalist Party), the Scottish Nationalist Party, and the UK Independence Party to grab a significant portion of the vote. For once, the ruling political mores are being challenged – and the mood in Britain is fiery, to say the least.

With everything to play for, parties are making more of a conscious effort to reach out to those they had maybe traditionally ignored. In the last election here in 2010, only 33% of women eligible to vote cast a ballot. Another recent study shows that huge percentages of the ethnic minority population in Britain aren’t registered to vote. Disenchantment and disappointment have characterized the public’s feelings about politicians, particularly when the majority of us aren’t middle-aged white men who went to Eton. Major parties – realizing they can’t just count on traditional partisan allegiance – are being forced to pay attention, issuing separate manifestos for women and paying careful attention to social issues like LGBTQ+ rights in the UK.

The wage-gap in Britain is the sixth worst in the European Union. For so long, this has been considered a done-and-dusted issue: people, by which I mean men, seem to think that was all sorted a long time ago (“They fixed that stuff! Have you seen ‘Made In Dagenham’?”) Moreover, only 23% of MPs in the UK are women. It’s been inspiring to see three major female political leaders fighting in this election – Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP, Natalie Bennett of the Green Party, and Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru - but it’s high-time parties recognized gender imbalance in the UK.

Furthermore, two women a week are killed by a current or former partner in the UK. In order to tackle violence against women and girls, Labour has promised to establish a commission to enforce national standards to prevent domestic and sexual violence taking place, while the Conservatives have announced plans to tackle what has been a very publicized issue in Britain in recent years, female genital mutilaation. My favourite policies come courtesy of the Liberal Democrats and the Greens: the Lib Dems wanting to create a national sex education curriculum that actually teaches young people what consent is and why it matters (shout-out TYFA’s Campaign 4 Consent!), and the Greens pledging to make it illegal for members of the public to attempt to prevent breastfeeding in public.

Social issues which young people have been talking about for a while now are also finally getting a look in, with parties like Labour promising the introduction of LGBTQ+ inclusive sex-and-personal education, and the Liberal Democrats pledging to fight for universal same-sex marriage rights across the world. The Greens swear to include diversity and equality classes in school to tackle bullying and encourage acceptance. UKIP meanwhile, who stylize themselves as the people’s party, truly live up to their definition: they really do care about people–it’s just that they only care when the people are white, Anglo-Saxon, straight, male people, as evidenced by their thoughts on gay conversion therapy in the UK, saying they wouldn’t ban it outright because people may “request” to be converted and UKIP ”believe in individual conscience and the right of people to make their own choices”.

Personally, I’m most excited by the Liberal Democrats decision to put the topic of mental health at the top of their manifesto priorities. I’m very fortunate to live in a country with universal, free-on-delivery healthcare, but for so long British society has neglected the necessity to define mental health as what it really is: an aspect of one’s self that is as vital to our experience of life as our physical wellbeing. As Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said, “It is wrong that relatives and friends needing a hip operation can expect treatment within a clear timeframe but someone with a debilitating mental health condition has no clarity about when they will get help. I want this to be a country where a young dad chatting at school gates will feel as comfortable discussing anxiety, stress, depression, as the mum who is explaining she sprained her ankle.” Pledging £120m to go towards mental health care improvement, Clegg concluded: “Anxiety panic attacks, depression, anorexia, bulimia, self-harm, bipolar disorder… mental health conditions are one of the last remaining taboos in our society, and yet they will affect one in four people.”

Overall, I’m pretty pumped about the result – no matter what the outcome, I’m just excited about what 2015 has done to shake up British political culture. (I mean, bar the nightmare result of a UKIP majority, obviously – I’m not entirely sure Nigel Farage is a real man, and not just a figment of my imagination that collated of all the most-loathed bigots I’ve encountered in my life into one, racist, super-misogynist.) I may be too young to vote myself, but finally parties are amplifying issues that matter to me and so many others. Bring on the 7th May!

“I was writing books I wish I had when I was in high school”: an interview with author Sara Farizan

by Montgomery Jones

Every month, the  SPARK Action Squad reads and discusses a book together as part of our monthly #SPARKreads book club. Last month, we read If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan, a page turner of a novel about an Iranian high school girl, Sahar, who is in love with her best friend, Nasrin.  The two girls must deal with the complications of young love while having to keep it completely under wraps: religiously and culturally, being gay is seen as “immoral,” so both girls must think of their futures. Thank you so much to Ms. Farizan for answering my questions and giving us an added perspective about her complex characters.

I absolutely loved If You Could Be Mine!  I could not put it down. Was it a tedious process to write IYCBM?  Did the characters come to life, so to speak?

Writing can be a pretty lonely pursuit so it’s nice when the characters you create remind you of people you’ve met, or are people you’d want to meet and get to know. I started the story really with just that first scene between Sahar and Nasrin and I thought about the kind of points I wanted to make throughout the story and what characters would make those points come across.

Did you always know what you wanted to write about?

If You Could Be Mine really started from a writing exercise in my graduate school. A lot of my writing had been about intersecting identities and for a long time I was really focused on what it meant to be both Persian and a lesbian. I always write to make myself feel better and this story was really a way to channel issues of identity that I had been struggling with in my adolescence. I was writing books I wish I had when I was in high school.

I read on your author bio that your parents are from Iran, have you lived there as well?  Did your parents give you a lot of visuals so you could write about it so descriptively?

When I started writing the story it was going to be my thesis in graduate school. I knew I was lacking in a lot of description, so I decided to visit Tehran. I hadn’t been since I was a teenager so it was very helpful to go back and observe day- to-day life.

Does Nasrin love Sahar as much as Sahar loves her?  It certainly felt one sided much of the time but perhaps that was just Nasrin’s personality?

Nasrin is Sahar’s entire world, which is a little unfair because Sahar’s world has been pretty small. Sahar cares deeply for Nasrin, but Nasrin has a lot on her plate and is more realistic in comparison to Sahar. They’re both very young and naïve about their respective situations, but Nasrin is sort of under the impression that Sahar will always be there, that they can continue their romance. Nasrin doesn’t quite realize what her life is going to be like without Sahar in it. Nasrin is a character most readers don’t like very much, but she’s actually the character I have the most sympathy for.

Ali is quite the sneaky one, if you were to write about him in Turkey (with Daughter I believe?) what would he be up to?

In his letters back to Sahar he seems well enough, but when people seek asylum/are refugees in another country, they face a lot of adversity. I’d like to think he and Nastaran are finding work and doing the best they can while they wait for asylum status. If you’re interested in how to help out those seeking asylum because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, you can check out: http://www.oraminternational.org/en/

SPARK is all about intersectionality, and If You Could Be Mine is just about the most intersectional YA book I have ever read!  Was it difficult to find a publisher seeing as though it’s not about a straight, white, American girl?

I really never thought that this book would get published. It was my mentor in graduate school who put me in touch with my editor. She was gracious enough to read my work. She read it and I thought she would give me a pat on the back and tell me good luck, but she was in the process of launching a new imprint, Algonquin Young Readers, and wanted to acquire If You Could Be Mine. So it was a lot of hard work in writing the story, but it was also a lot of right place/ right time/luck that played into it being published.

With the We Need Diverse Books movement and not only readers but authors calling for more diverse content, do you think the market of young adult and children’s books will change?  Be more accepting?

I think people have taken notice and I think the movement will continue to grow. What needs to be done in order to make sure more diverse books come out is that readers have to buy and ask their libraries/book stores for books by diverse authors and books about diverse characters. Ultimately publishing is a business, and the public has to unfortunately vote with their dollars. When this happens, and there is a demand for books about diverse people, then there are opportunities for other emerging writers, stories we haven’t seen before, and more voices that represent more people.

What has the feedback been like for you? 

I have said from the beginning that if my books could help one person/one family then that is all I wanted. I was most struck by woman who was maybe in her fifties and came to an event I was doing in Western Massachusetts. She was a Persian mom and we greeted each other in Farsi. She said she came to the event to get her daughter’s book signed because her daughter couldn’t make it but really wanted to come. I was almost moved to tears because for the longest time, when I was younger, I didn’t think I could be open with my parents because of their culture and here was a mother, close to my own mother’s age, there on behalf of her daughter.

Many of our readers not used to reading about people like them, whether they are LBTQIA, a person of color, physically disabled, anything besides Christian, have a different body type, etc.  Do you have any advice by ways of creating the story you wish to read?  Do you follow the “write what you know” advice?

I think you can write emotions that you know. You have to write a story that you’re really passionate about, that you have to let out of you. I think when you are trying to write a character that is not like you, in terms of identity, there can be a lot of anxiety that comes with that. But then you have to get to know people, listen, do your research, branch out of your comfort zone and not make assumptions about any group of people just from one experience or one interaction. The problematic things and the stereotypes come from staying in your comfort zone and not getting to know the world around you.

Do you have anymore stories in the works?

My second book, Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel, is out in stores and is a lot lighter in tone than If You Could Be Mine but deals with similar subject matter. I am writing something now that’s pretty different from what I’ve written about so far, but it is coming along very slowly.

 

Thank you so so much to Sara for this great #SPARKreads interview! In May we’ll be reading Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. You can join the Action Squad to participate, or just read the book on your own time and share your thoughts and insights with #SPARKreads on Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram. And don’t forget to follow us on http://sparksquad.tumblr.com!