Sara Jafari takes on sexuality, addiction, and Muslim guilt in “The Mismatch”

Sara Jafari and the cover of her debut novel ‘The Mismatch’ (2021) published by Penguin Random House UK.

Coming of age stories broadly follow the same exhausted arc: protagonists discovering themselves through sex and narcotics, neatly slotted into the Lynx or Impulse wearing teenage years, before arriving at something resembling adulthood.

But where are the stories for those of us who have never been drunk? Those of us whose parents did not let us go to sleepovers, let alone ragers? Those of us who did not attract attention from boys because we hadn’t yet discovered the transformative power of bleaching the generous hair above our lip?

Sara Jafari’s ‘The Mismatch’ is finally carving a space for us.

“I wrote the book for my younger self,” Jafari tells me over Zoom. “The starting point of the book was a lot of my own experience but as the story developed, it just became something completely different.”

“The Mismatch” is a belated coming of age story that many people of colour, particularly women who didn’t feel desirable until their twenties, will find comfort in: “It’s assumed that we all have the same experiences as white teens in books, where they have their first boyfriend or first kiss aged 14 or 15, which is not the reality for everyone,” says Jafari.

The novel follows a 21-year-old British-Iranian woman named Soraya Nazari as she balances sexual curiosity and a desire to shake her never-been-kissed label, with the “Muslim guilt” she feels from her religious upbringing – where sex before marriage is forbidden.

“I think it can be very isolating essentially if you think you’re going to Hell for doing things that everyone else is doing around you, that’s quite a natural thing,” Jafari explains, touching on her personal experience with religious guilt and isolation.

Alongside Soraya’s developing relationship with a typical rugby lad, Magnus Evans, the story is rooted in the intergenerational consequences of her mother Neda’s decision to migrate to the UK in the wake of Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1978.

While this is Jafari’s debut novel, she is no stranger to writing about love. She has powerful short stories in Gal-dem’s anthology “‘I Will Not Be Erased’: Our stories about growing up as people of colour” and “Who’s Loving You,” a collected edited by Sareeta Domingo.

Jafari attributes her fascination with the romance genre partly to her work in the publishing industry. “When I wrote the book, I was working at Mills & Boon, which is a romance publisher. So I think I was influenced by the books I was reading,” she tells me.

Perhaps this explains the chalk and cheese pairing that is Soraya and Magnus. The seemingly unlikely pairing is a driving force in the novel because, in Jafari’s words, it adds “tension,” but it also encourages readers to unpack how we decide what makes people compatible.

“Soraya and Magnus seem very, very different, but they have similar family dynamics and I thought it was just quite nice to show that,” Jafari explains.

“I thought it was quite interesting that he doesn’t understand her background,” she says. “I think a lot of people have been in a situation where you don’t want to be totally honest about your background but it will come up sooner or later.”

***

For Jafari, it was also important to show the myriad experiences that Muslim women can have, and home in on the fact that there is no monolithic blueprint. For this reason, Sorya’s and Neda’s outlooks and choices do not look alike, even if society views them as the same.

“I didn’t want Soraya’s story to be the only story of a British Muslim woman or any Muslim woman that I’m putting out,” she says. 

“I wanted to show a woman who chooses to be religious and chooses Islam and finds it to be a very powerful thing,” Jafari says of Neda, who makes the personal decision to wear a hijab so she can be “closer to Allah” and to “protect herself.”

“There are different ways you can be a Muslim. You can be practicing, you can be not practicing. Freedom is doing what you want, it’s not showing your body if you don’t want to show your body,” adds Jafari.  

Meanwhile, through Soraya’s sister Laleh, who is banished by the family after becoming pregnant, Jafari highlights a difficult reality for Muslim women in strict households. Laleh shows readers that there are real consequences for stepping out of line.

The strength of the novel it lies in a willingness to take on topics that remain taboo in our communities. Namely, misogyny and the role women play in perpetuating it and addiction – an issue seldom approached in religious discourse.

Neda has experienced the damaging consequences of patriarchy, in particular the male gaze, and yet, paradoxically, she upholds it within her own home. Exceptions are made for Aamir, Sorya’s brother, that are not extended to the daughters of the household.

“It is definitely a thing in the community that Muslim boys can have girlfriends, [especially] white girlfriends and it’s fine because they can’t get pregnant, but they can get that girl pregnant so it doesn’t make much sense,” explains Jafari.

“By the end, you hopefully see Neda [acknowledges] the way her teachings have been favoring men and it should be more equal,” she adds.

***

With Soraya’s father’s drug addiction, Jafari says she hoped to do more than just address a difficult truth, she also wanted to show how being the child of an addict manifests itself through intergenerational trauma.

“Soraya has a lot of anxiety in the book and I felt it was quite important to go back to why that is. I did some research and when you have a family member who is on drugs, that can make you a bit more on edge,” Jafari explains.

Jafari recalled feeling “surprised” when her research revealed that opium additions were very common in Iran. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) notes that Iran has the highest rate of opium abusers in the world, at three times the global average.

Choosing to address difficult truths in her novel was a measured decision from Jafari, who says she was aware that there aren’t many British-Iranian stories out there: “There’s this pressure that you shouldn’t negatively portray your community and that’s something I’ve been very conscious of.”

“Because there aren’t that many of us when you write something, everyone is like, “Oh, this is what British-Iranians must act like,” she tells me. Despite these fears, Jafari put the novel out into the world with all its nuances and that is precisely what makes it worth bumping to the top of your Goodreads list.

The Mismatch is published by Arrow, Penguin, and is available to purchase now for £7.99.

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