Set in California in 1996, Shideh Etaat’s debut YA novel, Rana Joon and the One and Only Now, follows Iranian-American teen, Rana, who, to honour the legacy of her deceased best friend, enters the rap contest he had dreamed of competing in, despite her fear of public speaking. To celebrate the release of this moving coming-of-age novel, we had the pleasure of chatting to Shideh all about how Rana’s story came to be.
Hi Shideh, it’s so lovely to get to chat to you today to celebrate the release of your debut YA novel, Rana Joon and the One and Only Now. For readers just hearing about it and are wanting to know more, do you have an elevator pitch of sorts you could share with us?
So happy to chat with you! The book is about Rana, a lesbian Iranian-American teen growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the 90’s. Her best friend died suddenly the year before so she’s still processing her grief, all while navigating her own sexuality and her well-intentioned yet dysfunctional immigrant family. She decides to enter a rap battle to honor her late best friend even though she’s terrified of public speaking. The story is really about that moment when you decide to take a leap in life — when you realize you no longer want to stay small.
Can you tell us a little about your inspirations behind Rana Joon and the One and Only Now?
The story unfolded in a very organic way. I’d just finished writing a very research heavy novel that mostly took place in Iran — my family is from there but for various complicated reasons I’ve never been. I knew I wanted my next project to be about a time and place that felt very familiar to me, but I didn’t want it to necessarily be only about my experience. It was important to me that the main character to be the child of Iranian immigrants, like me, but I wanted to add an additional layer of complexity by making her a lesbian who isn’t quite out yet. I was and am still very curious about how shame operates within Iranian culture, and the freedom that comes when someone decides to be truly themselves. And in this story, it’s not just Rana but also her mother who has a secret of her own. I’m also obviously obsessed with the 90’s — the simplicity of life before smart phones and social media, and the magical quality of life right before high school ends, the limbo between what you’ve always known and the greater expanse that lives on the other side. It started out being mainly about this, but my own life took some major twists and turns and I experienced an incredible loss — my husband was hit by a car while on his bicycle and sustained a severe traumatic brain injury all while I was three months pregnant. I didn’t write or think about writing for a year, it was the absolute last thing I wanted to do, but when Rana came knocking after I had my son I finally answered, and it became clear that the story also had to be about her processing some sort of grief. Whatever I was learning through my own grief journey became an important part of the story too.
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Rana Joon and the One and Only Now is a deeply moving read. What was your experience writing it like? Were there any unexpected challenges or joys within the writing journey?
My experience writing the book was so eye-opening. Rana’s voice came through so strongly and it was just incredibly fun to play around with that — to feel like she was leading the way and I was just acting as a vessel. I felt very much in my element and that I was creating something new out of nothing, but there was space to insert my own truths as well. But as I mentioned before my life circumstances shifted and as I sat in my own grief it was incredibly hard to think about writing or this story that suddenly felt so pointless to me. That was very hard and sad because writing had brought me so much joy for so long. But after about a year I desperately needed something for myself, something to help me feel alive again and that’s when Rana came back to me — it felt like an invitation, like it could be light and fun and didn’t have to be a heavy process. I think the connection I forged with her deepened and that was a really beautiful thing — in many ways she helped me find my way back to myself.
Since we’re officially halfway through the year, are there any 2023 release you’ve read so far this year and want to put on everyone’s tbr’s (along with Rana Joon and the One and Only Now, of course!)
Oh man, I’m a little behind on my 2023 reading! But I just finished Sabaa Tahir’s All My Rage and it’s so emotional and deeply beautiful and honest in all the ways I want every book to be. I also just finished Rick Rubin’s The Creative Act: A Way of Being, which is a non-fiction guide to living a creative life. It was so unbelievably inspiring and anyone who considers themselves an artist or just a human being in general will really connect with what he has to say.
As well as an author, you’re also a well-being coach. What’s one message you’d like to share with readers who may be facing similar challenges to those Rana faces in the book?
I’ve personally experienced anxiety since I was a child, and Rana as a character has a more anxious tendency which has held her back and kept her quiet in so many ways. I think my message would be that once we really sit with our pain, our grief, our anxiety, like Rana does in this book, and look at it through the lens of love that’s when we have access to true freedom. Love is always the answer.
Finally, are you currently working on anything new and if so, is there anything you can tell us about it?
Yes! The novel I mentioned earlier, that mostly takes place in Iran, is something that I took a break from for a while and with the women lead revolution that is currently going on in Iran something also ignited within me and I felt deeply pulled to return to it. I’m working on a rewrite of that novel which is essentially two parallel stories — one is more historical and explores an epic love triangle layered with many secrets and the other is about an Iranian-American girl traveling to Iran for the very first time to uncover those same family secrets. I’m also working on a screenplay that explores what it means to live again after your whole world implodes. But it’s funny too.
Get your copy of Rana Joon and the One and Only Now by Shideh Etaat here.