It’s 2002, a year after 9/11. It’s an extremely turbulent time politically, but especially so for someone like Shirin, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl who’s tired of being stereotyped.
Shirin is never surprised by how horrible people can be. She’s tired of the rude stares, the degrading comments—even the physical violence—she endures as a result of her race, her religion, and the hijab she wears every day. So she’s built up protective walls and refuses to let anyone close enough to hurt her. Instead, she drowns her frustrations in music and spends her afternoons break-dancing with her brother.
But then she meets Ocean James. He’s the first person in forever who really seems to want to get to know Shirin. It terrifies her—they seem to come from two irreconcilable worlds—and Shirin has had her guard up for so long that she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to let it down.
Y’all mind if I cry because if you’d told 16 year-old me that one day I’ll read a NYT best-selling book where a Muslim Hijabi teen gets her own coming of age story and her own big romance instead of being the token (stereotyped) minority character or some cultural prop used only to further the writer’s favorite white girl…it would have made a world of difference.
So, what’s this book about?
Shirin could scarcely remember what her life had been like, back before the events of 9/11 had made of it the zoo of terrors it was now: her life becoming scraps that had been talked over so many times that they’d worn and frayed, every conversation with her peers and teachers like walking through thorny brambles of islamophobia and xenophobia, and a horrifying incident on her way home back from school that was tucked deep inside layers and layers of remembering and that left the old cold fear—the constant companion of a Hijabi Muslim in a post-9/11 America—alive within her.
It didn’t help that her immigrant parents moved around each year for better job opportunities and better school district—every new place only a pause in the long stretch of Shirin’s solitude. Shirin copes by withdrawing too far into herself to be permeable to the world’s cruelty, still and quiet and determined to suffer alone. Until one day, her brother introduces her to his breakdancing crew, and it was the feeling of being lost and alone and then suddenly neither. Then, she meets Ocean, the school’s golden boy, who starts wearing at her shell with every fleeting conversation and smile and act of kindness.
Shirin’s aloofness used to be like armor, but she’d lost it, and without it, she’d found herself defenseless against the hope trying to well up in her.
“If the decision you’ve made has brought you closer to humanity, then you’ve done the right thing.”
I’ve always believed that works of fiction are reflections of the people who had woven and spun them, and are flecked with little truths, little intrusions of reality into fiction. Mafi, A Muslim Iranian-American author, said that this was the most autobiographical novel she has written. No wonder, then, that A Large Expanse of Sea shone bright with sincerity and the same vitality her characters radiated, in spite of the shadow that their circumstances had grown over them.
Everything about this book fitted right into the hollows of my heart. When I first heard that this is the story of a fellow teen Muslim, my hope came so sharp that I didn’t dare speak it. My joy, now, is inarticulate—I could never quite explain the blaze of connection, the feeling of being seen and set apart that planted seeds of gratitude that would come to flower.
This book had me laughing and crying at 10% of the e-book. I read it in one sitting. A Large Expanse of Sea is heartbreaking in its realness, but I felt its sorrow absorb some of my own. Mafi digs deep into the story’s timeless themes and pulls up something nourishing from the roots. Not only does she relay all of the Muslim teen’s many worries and concerns, she also renders them universal in their specificity—by capturing the richness of relationships among family and friends, Shirin’s familiar romp through teenagedom, and even her love for fashion, music and dancing.
That’s the thing I relished most about this book. Yes, it is starring a Muslim Hijabi teen and it does a successful job of highlighting her religious beliefs and her cultural history and struggles, but it also shows Shirin as an average teen whose religion is just a part of what makes up the smart, funny and kind person she is. It’s what makes it one of the realest and most relatable books that I’ve ever read—so many aspects of Shirin’s journey, as a Muslim and as a teen, could be so easily woven among my own.
Speaking of which, I LOVE Shirin.
The feel of her isolation, cold and sharp, spills onto paper. My gut was knotting with sympathetic misery at seeing her being ostracized, isolated, wearier than she’d been the day before, but always hiding it, deciding things were fine just so she’d feel like she’d gotten her bearing again. Shirin is constantly throwing out so many verbal smoke bombs, obfuscating some very important things that are happening behind them. Like how much it stung that her classmates saw only what they wanted to see. Not a girl or a woman or someone in between. They didn’t see Shirin’s loneliness or fear or courage, let alone her humanity. They saw only difference, danger, obscenity. Like how it didn’t matter that she was just as American as they were, that her only crime was trying to peacefully live her religious beliefs.
When you’re a minority, those are the worries you grow up with, and they are dulled by familiarity. But there are always new worries, because there is new ignorance, new hate. . . and new hope, and those are neither familiar nor dull. This book might be set in the early 2000s, but it feels too timely and too relevant under the current political climate.
A Large Expanse of Sea also gently touches first love, spiriting you back to those wild and poignant roller coaster days of young love. Mafi takes well-worn tropes and filters them through the lens of a culture that is seldom represented and humanized to turn them into something all kinds of new.
Shirin falls for Ocean, and the warmth in her that Ocean reciprocates her feelings and would risk everyone’s disapproval, is weighted with the understanding that they would hurt him for it. And because it would have been easier to convince herself that there were some motive, some sort of revenge in the works, or some other manner of scheming, Shirin layers cynicism atop her longing and does everything to drive him away.
Although Ocean doesn’t initially understand why Shirin would let the gap in their cultures and interests become a chasm, he soon realizes just how blithely unaware he was of the full power of his white privilege, and the bubble he’s been cocooned in quickly evaporates. However much Ocean wanted to be like a prince charging up to the maiden’s tower to save her, the reality was: he was so mad with longing that he forgot his sword and was slain by the dragon before he even got near her. The dragon in this case was a battalion of hate-ravaged classmates, family and teachers, and the good nature and kindness Ocean wielded was not enough a weapon. A Large Expanse of Sea certainly doesn’t shy away from the challenges and complexities intercultural relationships face. It asks hard questions at every turn, offering only the uncertainty of its answers.
But I think the greatest takeaway from this book and the lesson that is so central to Shirin’s arc is to not let the tangle of fury and grief and despair define your life and your interactions with the world. It’s easy sometimes to let the repeated exposure to cruelty parch away the belief that there is goodness in the world still, and this book was a nice reminder of that.
My one real complaint about A Large Expanse of Sea is that all its climaxes peak at once, in a whirlwind of tension and revelation. I think a little more build-up might have led to a smoother conclusion. Another small quibble is the second love interest, Yusef, who doesn’t quite step whole into the page. Yusuf is Lebanese-American, and he shares a lot of values and interests with Shirin. His character had so much brimming potential, yet he was not given enough page time. It’s strange to admit this because I usually hate the barest whispers of a love triangle, but I could have really gotten behind this one.
Anyway, with all that being said, so successful is this book in every other aspect that the aforementioned quibbles only struck me as minor bumps in the road. And overall, A Large Expanse of Sea is a beautiful read that alternates between soul-wrenching, haunting and entrancing.