Sara Haghdoosti’s young adult novel Sunburnt Veils is the story of Tara, an Iranian Australian who is completing the first year of her medical science degree. Her ambition to be a model student is perpetually interrupted by grief, family, friendship and romance. With its glimpses of “tasbeeh”, “cake yazdi” and a yellow Datsun 510, the book shifts effortlessly between high-energy images of Sydney University, where students spill out onto the footpath “like cereal on a counter”, to intimate moments in an Iranian home nestled two blocks away from Bondi, where herbs are finely chopped and sprinkled into slow-bubbling stews.
Crisis hits on Tara’s first day of university, when her attempt to mind a seat by leaving her backpack behind is reported as a national security risk. As she is torn between committing to her education or confronting those on campus who struggle to see past her galaxy-themed hijab, Tara offers us a realisation that “wearing the Hijab [feels] like a super power, giving [her] X-ray goggles to see into people’s souls”.
The story features complex and self-determined characters who actively challenge the xenophobia and racism they are forced to navigate as student union candidates and as young Iranian Australians. Through these characters, Haghdoosti helps to broaden the narrow representations of the Iranian community in Australian literature.
Haghdoosti creates beautiful imagery. One particular example stands out to me in the delicate way it captures grief. When she’s given a golden box that smells like her Maman Noosheen’s “jasmine perfume”, Tara holds it in the light, searching for her grandmother’s fingertips so she can cover them with her own. The fragile and personal nature of fingerprints creates an intimate image of love and loss.
The writing cleverly incorporates pop culture references from The Lord of the Rings to Gossip Girl. They lighten the writing, without diminishing Haghdoosti’s contribution to contemporary political discourse. In a scene where an acknowledgement of country is interrupted by the phrase “God save the Queen”, Haghdoosti buffers the incident with descriptions of a crowd peppered with red “Make USYD Great Again” hats and Hagrid look-alikes.
Sunburnt Veils captures with care and clarity a sample of the politics that weaves itself into the lives of young Australians. With well-constructed characters, wit and engaging imagery, it confirms that, despite the xenophobia and racism that may colour culturally and linguistically diverse Australians as villains, we can be heroic.
Wakefield Press, 272pp, $24.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 3, 2021 as "Sara Haghdoosti, Sunburnt Veils".
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