The book is often marketed as a Muslim coming of age story in a post 9/11 world. The contemporary work is semi-autobiographical, but really I think the positioning is a bit misleading. It’s a love story, and the main character is Muslim, and her environment is awful and she is angry. Its an engaging read, I read all 310 pages in one sitting, but I don’t know that the take-away will enlighten anyone about Islam, or really what it was like to be Muslim in the years after 9/11, I think people will remember how sweet the couple is and wonder how much of it mirrors the author and her husband, author Ransom Riggs (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children), but not suddenly become knowledgable about more than what the main character experiences and endures. I appreciate that the book challenges the stereotypes of Muslim women, there is authenticity as it comes from a writer who lives it, and I do think it shows evolution of attitudes that teens can benefit from. The book is not yet in the AR database as it just came out, but I would imagine high school and up.
Shirin’s Persian-American family moves a lot. Her and her older brother are incredibly close as their parents are rather aloof to the day-to-day experiences the kids endure. That isn’t too say her parents aren’t around, they eat two meals a day together and the parent’s are warm, but Shirin’s brother Navid is a much more present. The story starts with 16-year-old Shirin starting her 12th new school. Conditioned to not make eye contact, remember faces, or get affected by the trivialities around her, the reader sees how angry she is as she curses at a teacher that assumes she needs ESL not Honors. Knowing how fleeting her time in any location can be, as her parents are constantly trying to find better jobs, Shirin doesn’t feel compelled to make friends or get attached to anyone or anything. This intimidating vibe similarly keeps offers at bay, for the most part. When she gets paired up with Ocean to dissect a cat, he tries to talk to her, and this throws her off her game. Most every interaction she experiences at school are people making racist comments and being very one dimensional and bigoted. Ocean tries to be nice, an attitude so foreign to Shirin that it begins to force her to change. Simultaneously, Navid, who is charismatic and has no problem finding friends wherever they go, decides to put his and his sister’s dream into action and they start a break dancing club at school. Three other kids join, and start becoming, not just Navid’s friends, but Shirin’s as well.
Shirin and Ocean fall in love, despite Shirin fearing what the backlash will be for ocean. She doesn’t really know anything about him, but feels strongly that all the racial slurs thrown at her on a daily bases will effect him and ultimately make them wish they didn’t pursue a relationship. She draws line after line in the sand, and crosses them all. Only then does she learn how blind she has been, he is in two of her classes, not just one, he is a year older than her, and he is the golden star of the high school basketball team. Being that the story is told from Shirin’s perspective, this is surprising to the reader as well. The town turns on the pair and things get really ugly for Ocean who is willing to risk it all for Shirin. Threats by the basketball coach, pictures of Shirin without her hijab being taken, accusations of terrorist ties and sympathies all challenge the couple and shape Shirin.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I really like the twist of having the relationship be difficult for the non Muslim, rather than going with the assumed Muslim girl having to sneak around. Not saying that I support it, but interestingly she never mentions that what she is doing is going against anything religious. She mentions twice that her parents wouldn’t like her with any guy, and that they view her as a child still, but she doesn’t explore Islamically any boundaries regarding their relationship. She hides talking on the phone to Ocean, because her parents are adamant she gets enough sleep at night. That is about it. Shirin discusses that she wears hijab like an armor that she gets to pick who she shows her hair too. I love the strength in that, but wish there was a bit of doctrine to back it up too. At one point a Muslim, non hijabi, at school calls her out for wearing hijab and having a boyfriend, but she essential tells her it is none of her business, which it isn’t and who is to say that one sin is worse than another, but still it befuddles what exactly Shirin believes and why. The book just paints her as a Persian Muslim, but never explores what that means other than the superficial outward appearance. They do fast in Ramadan, no explanation about why is given, just that they not eat or drink during daylight hours, and right near the end, Shirin remarks how her mom asks her and her brother every morning if they have prayed and they lie and say yes, their mother sighs and tells them to make sure they pray the afternoon one, to which they lie and agree, only to have their mother sigh again. AstagfirAllah, that is awful lying, and lying about Salat, but it is so real, I audibly chuckled.
I like that the parents aren’t harsh, they just seem disinterested. I didn’t want to read another book about the parent’s being the gatekeepers and bad guys, so that was really refreshing. They mention they don’t celebrate Christmas, but they have an open door policy on Thanksgiving for any friends wanting to come. I did hope for a bit more about them, why they don’t talk to the kids about moving, what makes them tick, because really they seem to have a solid relationship with the kids, they are just clueless to their social experiences and school environment stresses.
I love the growth and self reflection of Shirin, she holds a mirror to herself and she and readers are better for it. She has to realize that she is doing so much of what she is accusing others of doing. I love the support and genuine concern of the breakdancers and her brother. It resonated to me as a girl with an older brother and the relationship feels very genuine. I just wanted to know more about Navid.
There is a lot of cursing. kissing, hand holding, romance, lying, and ditching school. There is a brief mention of graffiti being sprayed. There is racial slurs, threats of violence, violent physical outbursts by people of authority. When a student throws a cinnamon roll at Shirin, Navid and his friends beat the kid up severely, it isn’t detailed, but it is mentioned. Ocean also gets suspended for a few games for a fight he engages in, and there is some detail of Shirin getting jumped in a previous city for wearing hijab.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I don’t think I could in good conscience present this to a group of Muslim students. I wouldn’t want them to think I was endorsing the violence and language and romance. Like so many books of the genre though, if someone found it and read it on their own, I’d love to chat with them about it, as it is well written.
Youtube video about the book by the author: https://www.hypable.com/tahereh-mafi-a-very-large-expanse-of-sea-tour/