Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Sara Saedi—On Growing up Undocumented and Becoming a YA Novelist

By Kian Moaledj, Spring Semester Intern, Bates College 

For Sara Saedi, telling her story about growing up undocumented has been a cathartic experience. “It’s so liberating to take something I was so ashamed of as a teenager and turn it into a project that has opened so many doors for me,” she says. Saedi is a TV writer and Young Adult (YA) novelist, but she is perhaps best known for her memoir Americanized: Rebel Without a Green Card. For now, she’s working from home in Los Angeles, where she’s lived for the past 15 years.

Saedi was born in Tehran right at the outset of the Iran-Iraq War. When she was two, her mother took her and her five-year-old sister to the United States while her father remained in Iran for three months until they all settled in the Bay Area.

Hearing about how difficult it was for her parents to leave Iran puts things into perspective for Saedi. She recalls the time she was on the phone with her mother, expressing how nervous and overwhelmed she felt as she was about to move from New York to Los Angeles. Without trying to make her daughter feel bad or guilty, she consoled Sara by saying that when she was her age, she left Iran alone with her two young kids, barely speaking English.

“That story really taught me what an undertaking it was for her to come to America. I have a four-year-old and a two-year-old and the thought of being on an airplane with them for an hour gives me anxiety! She’s a hero for getting through all that,” she says.

Saedi and her family came to the US with tourist visas that eventually expired. While her parents were able to quickly secure green cards, Sara and her older sister, Samira, remained undocumented for another 18 years. “I was two when I came here. I was twenty when I got my green card.” Saedi recalls learning about her illegal status when Samira was first applying for jobs that all required a social security number. “At that age, you don’t know anything about immigration…I thought anybody could live wherever they wanted. After she told me, I was really shocked and freaked out,” she says. She shares these and other stories from her adolescent years in her acclaimed 2018 memoir, Americanized.

Speaking about her upbringing, Saedi says that she and her sister, and later, her younger brother were fortunate to be raised in a more open household. “Immigrants, especially Iranian immigrants, who have similar backstories are often lumped together. And there’s definitely a lot of things we have in common, but I think one of the ways that my parents were unique compared with some of my relatives in our extended family and even compared to my American friends’ parents, is that they tended to be more open-minded and less conservative.” The one exception was when it came to dating, and not due to lack of trust, but because of what other members of the family might think. “I don’t know if that’s unique to my family or if it’s something universal in Iranian culture,” she says.

After high school, Saedi attended the University of California, Santa Cruz and later transferred to UC Berkeley where she completed her undergraduate degrees in film and mass communications. Saedi then moved to New York, where she worked as an assistant at ABC daytime television, working on soap operas, and primarily contributing to “General Hospital.” In 2005, she moved to Los Angeles, where she continued as a TV executive. “I was always working on the side writing scripts, [and] trying to make it as a writer,” she says, and in 2009 she left ABC to work as a full-time TV writer and author.

Saedi has always had a passion for writing, and fortunately, her parents “didn’t panic when I told them I wanted to be a writer, which isn’t the most stable career.” However, she did feel compelled to work a more traditional day job in order to supplement her income. “Looking back, I’m glad I did that. I had a steady paycheck to support myself when I pursued writing and had moments of unemployment.”

Saedi is one of several Iranian-American young adult writers to publish in recent years. “There’s definitely been a proliferation of YA Iranian-American writers,” she says. “I feel like everyone has a pretty specific and unique point of view when it comes to what it’s like growing up Iranian in this country.” She credits the publishing industry for being willing to take on diverse voices. “When we approach them with ideas, it doesn’t feel like they’re saying, ‘Oh we already have an Iranian-American writer, we don’t need another one.’”

Her first YA novel, Never Ever, published in 2016, is a modern retelling of Peter Pan packed with themes meant for older audiences. For instance, Saedi re-examines the dynamic between Peter Pan and Tinker Bell. “She’s sort of enamored by him; he doesn’t pay a lot of attention to her. I decided to take that relationship and say, well, this feels like a narcissist-codependent pairing. What are the parts of that dynamic that are unhealthy — especially for Tinker Bell?” she says. A sequel, The Lost Kids, was published in 2018, shortly before Americanized hit the shelves. 

Saedi considers Americanized the book of which she is most proud. “The fact that we didn’t have green cards was such a source of shame for us — something that caused a lot of stress for our family.” The memoir is now in development at Reese Witherspoon’s production company. She thinks that having a TV show that features an undocumented Iranian family could be eye-opening for audiences. “Not a lot of Americans understand how challenging it is to become a naturalized US citizen. I also hope people see how loving and close an immigrant family can be. I don’t think we get a lot of that kind of representation on TV.”

In addition to adapting Americanized for TV, Saedi is currently writing for HBO Max’s new “Green Lantern” series. She’s also working on a new young adult book that takes place during the pandemic, I Miss You, I Hate This. The novel involves a correspondence between two best friends who’ve been banned from seeing each other by their parents after a night of drinking goes wrong. Despite being set during the period of quarantine, Saedi stresses that at its heart, it is a novel about friendship and estrangement. “I like to think of it not as a pandemic book, but as a love story between two friends with the pandemic as the backdrop.”

Saedi says she empathizes with high school seniors who’ve had their proms, graduations, and other teenage rites of passage cancelled, and that this compelled her to write the novel. “I feel like those are milestones that you really look back on as an adult, and to have them be abruptly taken away when you’re a teenager — I imagine it would feel pretty devastating,” she says. Saedi started writing the manuscript for the book two weeks after the first lockdown in spring. Since then, as the pandemic has dragged on, she too is reeling from the effects of Covid fatigue in her work. “Now that we’re nearing one year of lockdown, the last thing I want to think about while being creative is the pandemic. Hopefully, by the time the book comes out, this will all be behind us and some of us will be ready to revisit the experience. ”

We thank Sara for joining us for this interview. You can check out her website here or follow her Twitter here.

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